Unit 4: Hubris and Nemesis

Story: Arachne

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Arachne, by Paolo Veronese, 1520, \ccpd

Arachne

Adapted from Favorite Greek Myths by Lillian Stoughton Hyde, \ccpd

Arachne lived in a small village on the shores of the Mediterranean. Her parents were very poor. While her mother was busy cooking the simple meals for the family or working in the fields, Arachne used to spin tapestries all day long. Her wheel made a steady hum like the buzzing of some insect. She grew so skillful from constant practice, that the threads she drew out were almost as thin as the mists that rose from the sea nearby. The neighbors used to hint, sometimes, that such fine-spun threads were rather useless, and that it might be better if Arachne would help her mother more and spin less.

One day Arachne’s father, who was a fisherman, came home with his baskets full of little shellfish, which were of a bright crimson or purple color. He thought the color of the little fish was so pretty that he tried the experiment of dyeing Arachne’s wool with them. The result was the most brilliant color that had ever been seen in any kind of woven fabric. This was the color which was afterward called Tyrian purple, — or sometimes it was called royal purple, because kings liked to wear it. After this, Arachne’s tapestries always showed some touch of the new color. Everyone wanted to buy the tapestries, and, in fact, Arachne soon became famous.

Arachne’s family soon exchanged their little home for a much larger house. Her mother did not have to work in the fields anymore, nor was her father any longer required to go out in his boat to catch fish. Arachne, herself, became as famous as her tapestries. She heard admiring words on every side, and she became full of herself. When, as often happened, people praised the beautiful color that had been produced by the little shellfish, she did not tell how her father had helped her but took all the credit to herself.

While she was weaving, a group of people often stood behind her loom, watching the pictures grow. One day she overheard someone say that even the great goddess, Athena, the patron goddess of spinning and weaving, could not weave more beautiful tapestries than this ordinary fisherman’s daughter. This was a very foolish thing to say, but Arachne thought it was true. She heard another say that Arachne wove so beautifully that she must have been taught by Athena herself. Now, the truth is, that Athena had taught Arachne. It was Athena who had sent the little shellfish to those coasts; and, although she never allowed herself to be seen, she often stood behind the girl and guided her shuttle. But Arachne, never having seen the goddess, thought she owed everything to herself alone and began to boast of her skill.

One day she said: “It has been said that I can weave quite as well, if not better, than the goddess Athena. I would like to have a weaving competition with her, and then it would be seen who is the best.”

These sharp words had hardly left Arachne’s mouth before she heard the sound of a crutch on the floor. Turning to look behind her, she saw a feeble old woman wearing a dirty gray veil. The woman’s eyes were as gray as her veil and strangely bright and clear for one so old. She leaned heavily on her cane, and when she spoke, her voice was cracked and weak. “I am many years older than you,” she said. “Take my advice. Ask Athena for forgiveness for your ungrateful words. If you are truly sorry, she will forgive you.” Now Arachne had never been very respectful to old persons, particularly when they wore dirty veils, and she was very angry at being lectured by this old woman. “You can’t tell me what I should do,” she said. “Go and advise your own children. I shall say and do what I please.”

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The competition, by Diego Velázquez, circa 1655-1660, \ccpd

At this, an angry light came into the old woman’s gray eyes. Her cane suddenly changed to a shining spear. She dropped her veil and there stood the goddess herself. Arachne’s face grew very red, and then very white, but she would not ask Athena for forgiveness, even then. Instead, she said that she was ready for a weaving competition. So, two weaving frames were brought in and attached to one of the beams overhead. Then Athena and foolish Arachne stood side by side, and each began to weave a piece of tapestry. As Athena wove, her tapestry began to show pictures of mortals who had been irresponsible and boastful, like Arachne, and who had been punished by the gods. It was meant for a kindly warning to Arachne. But Arachne would not heed the warning. She wove into her tapestry pictures representing certain foolish things that the gods of Olympus had done. This was very disrespectful, and it is no wonder that when Arachne’s tapestry was finished, Athena tore it to pieces.

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Athena hits Arachne with a shuttle, by René-Antoine Houasse, 1706, \ccpd

Arachne was frightened now, but it was too late. Athena suddenly struck her on the forehead with her shuttle. Then Arachne shrank to a little creature no larger than one’s thumb. “Since you think yourself so very skillful in spinning and weaving,” said Athena, “you shall do nothing else but spin and weave all your life.” Upon this Arachne, in her new shape, ran quickly into the first dark corner she could find. She was now compelled to earn her living by spinning webs of exceeding fineness, in which she caught many flies, just as her father had caught fish in his nets. She was called the Spinner. The children of this first little spinner have become very numerous, but their old name of spinner has been changed to that of spider. Their delicate webs, which are as mist-like as any of Arachne’s weaving, often cover the grass on a dewy morning.

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Athena changing Arachne into a spider. Illustration by Walter Crane, 1892, \ccpd
Protesters at a statue of Athena during the Women’s March in Athens, GA in January 2018. Photo credits: Jason Born, University of Georgia. Permission granted for use by author only.

Comprehension Questions

Answer the following questions according to the story.

  1. What was Arachne’s hobby?
  2. What was Arachne’s father’s occupation?
  3. What discovery did her father make that helped make Arachne’s tapestries famous?
  4. What happened to Arachne’s personality after this discovery?
  5. What did Arachne boast?
  6. Who was the old woman listening to Arachne’s boasting?
  7. In the competition, what did Arachne weave and what did Athena weave?
  8. What happens to Arachne in the end?

Vocabulary and Critical Thinking Questions

Answer the following questions. Compare your answers with a partner.

  1. We get the prefix “arachn-” from this story. Use a dictionary to find the answers to the questions below.
    1. What does this prefix mean?
    2. What is arachnophobia?
    3. What is the arachnoid mater? Why do you think it’s named this?
  2. What is Arachne’s “hubris and nemesis”?
  3. Do you think Athena was in the right to punish Arachne based on what Arachne wove in her tapestry?

CEFR Level: CEF Level B2

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It’s All Greek to Me! by Charity Davenport is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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