Ovid's Metamorphoses: Arachne and Minerva

The goddess Minerva (Athena) has listened to the songs sung by the Muses, and as Book VI of Ovid's poem begins, Athena remembers a transformation story in which she herself played a role: the story of the transformation of the woman Arachne into a spider, as her name foretells You can read more about Arachne and about Arachnids at Wikipedia.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).




Arachne rejects Minerva

Tritonian Minerva had listened to every word, and approved of the Aonian Muses’s song and their justified indignation. Then she said,to herself, ‘To give praise is not enough, let me be praised as well, and not allow my divine powers to be scorned without inflicting punishment.’

Her thoughts turned to Arachne, of Maeonia, whom she had heard would not give her due credit, in the art of spinning. The girl was not known for her place of birth, or family, but for her skill. Her father, Idmon of Colophon, dyed the absorbent wool purple, with Phocaean murex. Her mother was dead. She too had been of humble birth, and the father the same. Nevertheless, though she lived in a modest home, in little Hypaepa, Arachne had gained a name for artistry, throughout the cities of Lydia.

Often the nymphs of Mount Tmolus deserted their vine-covered slopes, and the nymphs of the River Pactolus deserted their waves, to examine her wonderful workmanship. It was not only a joy to see the finished cloths, but also to watch them made: so much beauty added to art.  Whether at first she was winding the rough yarn into a new ball, or working the stuff with her fingers, teasing out the clouds of wool, repeatedly, drawing them into long equal threads, twirling the slender spindle with practised thumb, or embroidering with her needle, you could see she was taught by Pallas. Yet she denied it, and took offence at the idea of such a teacher. ‘Contend with me,’ she said; ‘I will not disagree at all if I am beaten.’

Pallas Minerva challenges Arachne

Pallas Minerva took the shape of an old woman: adding grey hair to her temples, and ageing her limbs, which she supported with a stick. Then she spoke, to the girl, as follows: ‘Not everything old age has is to be shunned: knowledge comes with advancing years. Do not reject my advice: seek great fame amongst mortals for your skill in weaving, but give way to the goddess, and ask her forgiveness, rash girl, with a humble voice: she will forgive if you will ask.’

Arachne looked fiercely at her and left the work she was on: scarcely restraining her hands, and with dark anger in her face. Pallas, disguised it is true, received this answer: ‘Weak-minded and worn out by tedious old age, you come here, and having lived too long destroys you. Let your daughter-in-law if you have one, let your daughter if you have one, listen to your voice. I have wisdom enough of my own. You think your advice is never heeded: that is my feeling too. Why does she not come herself? Why does she shirk this contest?’

The goddess said ‘She is here!’ and, relinquishing the old woman’s form, revealed Pallas Minerva. The nymphs and the Phrygian women worshipped her godhead: the girl alone remained unafraid, yet she did blush, as the sky is accustomed to redden when Aurora first stirs, and, after a while, to whiten at the sun from the east. She is stubborn in her attempt, and rushes on to her fate, eager for a worthless prize. Now, Jupiter’s daughter does not refuse, and does not give warning, or delay the contest a moment.

Immediately they both position themselves, in separate places, and stretch out the fine threads, for the warp, over twin frames. The frame is fastened to the cross-beam; the threads of the warp separated with the reed; the thread of the weft is inserted between, in the pointed shuttles that their fingers have readied; and, drawn through the warp, the threads of the weft are beaten into place, struck by the comb’s notched teeth. They each work quickly, and, with their clothes gathered in tight, under their breasts, apply skilful arms, their zeal not making it seem like work. There, shades of purple, dyed in Tyrian bronze vessels, are woven into the cloth, and also lighter colours, shading off gradually. The threads that touch seem the same, but the extremes are distant, as when, often, after a rainstorm, the expanse of the sky, struck by the sunlight, is stained by a rainbow in one vast arch, in which a thousand separate colours shine, but the eye itself still cannot see the transitions. There, are inserted lasting threads of gold, and an ancient tale is spun in the web.


(800 words)

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