On the Arachne Myth: The Writing of Spiders

…her hair, touched by the poison, fell off, and with it both nose and ears; and the head shrank up; her whole body also was small; the slender fingers clung to her side as legs; the rest was belly. Still from this she ever spins a thread; and now, as a spider, she exercises her old-time weaver-art.
Ovid (1971: 299)

The spider produces the symbolic act of writing by turning back on itself in a monstrous coupling.
Catherine Clément (1975: 25)

Minerva[1] descends to confront the famed weaver Arachne, a girl who would contend with the gods. Disguised as an old woman, Minerva implores the mortal to humble herself, to ask for forgiveness and, Arachne, in hubris, refuses. “Let her but strive with me” (Ovid, 1971: 291). In response, throwing aside her disguise, the goddess presents herself to the young weaver, and offended, accepts her challenge. Minerva weaves a tapestry with the twelve heavenly gods adorning its center, royal and full, bordered by a wreath of olive branches—and in the four corners, scenes of mortal failures to challenge the rule of the gods. Arachne’s tapestry depicts, within borders of flowers and ivy, without any one dominant figure, scenes of celestial dishonesty: gods masquerading as mortals and animals, changing their forms, impregnating women, giving false gifts. The goddess’s tapestry is beautiful, but not even Envy himself can find fault with Arachne’s work (Ovid, 1971: 297). Minerva, however, while forced to acknowledge her opponent’s supremacy in weaving, becomes indignant, destroys Arachne’s tapestry, and strikes her. Unable to live in the shadow of such a scattered and empty victory, which comes at the price of losing her work, Arachne hangs herself; but Minerva takes “pity” on her and, rather than let her die, transforms her, with a poison,[2] into a spider. “Live on, indeed, wicked girl, but hang thou still; and let this same doom of punishment (that thou mayst fear for future times as well) be declared upon thy race, even to remote posterity” (Ovid, 1971: 297). Accursed, henceforth Arachne weaves in the dark corners of the world, unable to finish her work, unable to take pride in it, unable to practice her craft save in the service of her basest drives, out of the sight of others. In short, Arachne’s curse is to become unreadable. However, in thus damning her, does not Minerva confirm the prescience of Arachne’s tapestry, bringing its horrible beauty to life?

Continue reading