Ovid’s spider girl: Unravelling the female gaze

Arachne in Gustave Doré's illustration for Dante's Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy series.

Arachne in Gustave Doré’s illustration for Dante’s Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy series.

Ovid’s epic the Metamorphoses is constantly playing with different narrative voices. In the myth of Arachne, Ovid uses myth to explore the tension between the fragility of the female voice in literature, in contrast to the authoritative male narrator.

Arachne boasts that she is a better weaver than the goddess Minerva, and challenges the goddess to a contest. Minerva accepts, but when both have completed their tapestries, she can find no faults in her opponent’s work. She destroys Arachne’s tapestry in a fit of rage and, devastated, Arachne tries to commit suicide by hanging herself. At this, Minerva feels a modicum of pity and so spares Arachne by turning her into a spider. She is now sentenced to spend the rest of her days weaving webs.

In Minerva’s tapestry the gods are portrayed as divine and regal:

(6.72-79)

“There the twelve gods sit in great majesty, on their high thrones, with Jupiter in the middle. She weaves the gods with their familiar attributes. The image of Jupiter is a royal one. There she portrays the Ocean god, standing and striking the rough stone, with his long trident, and seawater flowing from the centre of the shattered rock, a token of his claim to the city. She gives herself a shield, a sharp pointed spear, and a helmet for her head, while the aegis protects her breast.”

In Arachne’s tapestry, there is no clear structure for where the gods are sitting. They are not majestic, but in an array of disguises they chase after women:

(6.110-114)

“She added Jupiter who, hidden in the form of a satyr, filled Antiope, daughter of Nycteus with twin offspring; who, as Amphitryon, was charmed by you, Alcmena, of Tiryns; by Danaë, as a golden shower; by Aegina, daughter of Asopus, as a flame; by Mnemosyne, as a shepherd; by Proserpine, Ceres’s daughter, as a spotted snake.”

Likewise the depiction of mortals is a different one. Juno shows the gods justly punishing men who have dared to challenge the gods. However, Arachne’s tapestry depicts the many rapes committed by the gods, where humans are the victims of divine lust. She starts with an emotional description of Europa, who Jupiter raped in the form of a bull. The girl is timid and vulnerable:

(6.103-107)

“The Maeonian girl depicts Europa deceived by the form of the bull: you would have thought it a real bull and real waves. She is seen looking back to the shore she has left, and calling to her companions, displaying fear at the touch of the surging water, and drawing up her shrinking feet.”

We are therefore presented with two very different worldviews. Some scholars have been tempted to see in these tapestries a commentary on Ovid’s own art. So the tapestry of Minerva is a representation of traditional epic poetry, where the gods are purveyors of divine justice. Arachne’s tapestry however, much like Ovid’s epic, does not present the gods as they are traditionally portrayed in epic. In both the gods are reprobate and deceitful, both have messy, strung-together structures, and through the theme of metamorphosis both portray a world in which nothing is stable.

Another interpretation looks at the specifically female experience that is highlighted by Arachne’s tapestry. In the example of Europa, we see the rape from the perspective of the frightened young girl. Joplin argues that in ancient literature the female voice often makes itself heard through weaving, for example Penelope weaving her famous tapestry in the Odyssey, a medium that is specifically female and so free from the controlling male. Through her art then Arachne gives a voice to the women in myth.

Shaw Hardy however makes the point that the person describing tapestry is Ovid, the male narrator. Although his description of Arachne’s art starts with a sympathetic portrayal of Europa, this perspective fades out, until by the end he is just listing the rapes:

(6.108-114)

“Also Arachne showed Asterie, held by the eagle, struggling, and Leda lying beneath the swan’s wings. She added Jupiter who, hidden in the form of a satyr, filled Antiope, daughter of Nycteus with twin offspring; who, as Amphitryon, was charmed by you, Alcmena, of Tiryns; by Danaë, as a golden shower; by Aegina, daughter of Asopus, as a flame; by Mnemosyne, as a shepherd; by Proserpine, Ceres’s daughter, as a spotted snake.”

The feminine perspective fades away, replaced by an unemotional narrative. Shaw Hardy argues this signifies the male narrator seizing back control. As readers we cannot actually see Arachne’s story as portrayed in the tapestry, and the glimpse we get is distorted by the male gaze that describes it to us.

What then do we make of the destruction of Arachne’s tapestry, her attempted suicide and subsequent metamorphosis? Ovid ends the Metamorphoses by predicting his own immortality through poetry:

(15.875-879)

“The best part of me will be borne, immortal, beyond the distant stars. Wherever Rome’s influence extends, over the lands it has civilized, I will be spoken, on people’s lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poets’ prophecies, – vivam – I shall live.”

The male voice is immortalised, passed down to us through the extensive surviving poetry that has been written by men. In contrast, we get only the whisper of a female narrative in poetry like the Metamorphoses, but even this is still conveyed through a male conduit. The story of Arachne shows the fate of a woman who speaks out, sentenced as a spider to weave webs that are tiny and delicate; almost invisible, easily destroyed.

Pallas and Arachne by Rubens (1636 or 1637)

Pallas and Arachne by Rubens (1636 or 1637)

For more on the role of weaving and the the female voice in Ovid feel free to have a look at my post: Philomela and Tereus: Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the female voice

Sources:
Joplin, P.C. “The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours” in Rape and Representation (1991)
Leach, E.W. “Ekphrasis and the theme of artistic failure in Ovid’s Metamorphoses“, Ramus 3 (1974), 102-142.
Shaw Hardy, C. “Ecphrasis and the male narrator in Ovid’s Arachne”, Helios 22.2 (1995), 140-146.

Translations by A.S. Kline (2000)

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