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 we are shown how fleeting our stories can be. Ovid looks at the tension between the male and female voice, exploring the fragility a woman’s tale has in contrast to the authoritative male perspective.

In this myth, the young girl Arachne boasts that she is a better weaver than the goddess Minerva. She challenges the goddess to a contest, and the goddess answers. In her tapestry, Minerva depicts the gods and goddesses in all their divine majesty, and in the corners she weaves mortals who have been punished for daring to challenge the divine. Arachne on the other hand portrays the rapes of the gods. She shows them using disguises to deceive girls into sleeping with them. Unlike Minerva’s stately and structured masterpiece, Arachne’s is confused and fluid, and yet when the goddess inspects it she can find no fault with it. Enraged, Minerva destroys the tapestry. Arachne, who is devoted to her art, is devastated and hangs herself. The goddess feels a modicum of pity and rescues Arachne by turning her into a spider, sentenced to spend the rest of her days spinning webs.

In these two tapestries we see the perspective of mortals and immortals. In Minerva’s tapestry the gods are divine and regal:

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:

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 in Arachne’s vision the mortals are victims. She starts with an emotional description of Europa, who Jupiter raped in the form of a bull. The girl is timid and vulnerable:

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 therefore see two very different perspectives on the world. Some scholars have been tempted to see in these tapestries a commentary on Ovid’s own art. So the tapestry of Minerva can be a representation of traditional epic poetry, where the gods are purveyors of divine justice, mighty and terrible to mortal men. Arachne’s tapestry however, much like Ovid’s epic, does not represent 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 way of looking at this myth focusses on the female perspective that is given voice by Arachne. In the example of Europa, we see the rape from the frightened perspective of the young girl. Joplin argues that in ancient literature the female voice makes itself heard through weaving, a medium that is specifically female and so free from the controlling male. In her tapestry then Arachne can give voice to the untold story of women in myth.

Shaw Hardy however makes the very interesting point that the person describing the 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 and disguises of the gods:

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 that the male narrator is seizing control back. As readers we cannot actually see Arachne’s story, 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 suicide and metamorphosis? Ovid ends his epic by predicting his own immortality through poetry:

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.

Far from being fragile, the male voice is immortalised, passed down to us through its poetry. It is the female perspective that is suppressed across the ages. Through poets like Ovid we get a whisper of the female narrative, but only ever through a male conduit. Ultimately the woman who dares to speak out is destroyed and, by her transformation into a spider, she is sentenced to weave webs that are tiny and delicate, almost invisible, and unravelled by the wave of a hand.

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

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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