Minerva (Athena) is the goddess of wisdom and war. She is also the household deity of spinning and weaving. As we know from the TED video about Domitia, weaving is a prized skill in the ancient world. It is a skill which every Roman maiden and wife once learned and practiced in the domus. We know that because it is commemorated on the tombstones of many Roman women.
Ovid tells a tale of Minerva’s anger when a mortal, Arachne, boasts that her skill is greater than that of Minerva. This is an example of an aetiological myth, one that explains the cause (aitia) of a natural phenomenon, the skill of the spider.
Epistle of Othea, manuscript, 1364
Indeed, Arachne was a fine weaver. Ovid wrote that Arachne had attained such skill in the arts of weaving, that the nymphs themselves would leave their groves and fountains just to gaze upon her work. Spectators said that Minerva herself must have taught Arachne. But this, Arachne denied. “Let Minerva try her skill with mine” she said; “If beaten, I will pay the penalty.”
Francesco del Cossa, oil painting, 1460
Minerva assumed the character of an old woman, and in a friendly tone, she tried to warn the foolish girl against such a display of false pride (hubris). The old woman said, “I have had much experience and I hope you will not despise my counsel. Challenge your fellow mortals as you will, but do not compete with a goddess.”
Regardless, Arachne would not acknowledge Minerva as a source of her powers and she challenged the goddess to a weaving contest. Then, Minerva threw off her disguise and ordered the looms to be set up. The competition began. Minerva wove into her tapestries the stories about proud mortals who were punished because of their hubris. Impudent Arachne wove tales about the scandalous behavior of the male gods.
Antonio Tempesta, Etching, 1606
In anger at Arachne’s weaving, Minerva beat Arachne with a shuttle (weaving tool) to make her feel guilt and shame. Arachne could not endure it and went to hang herself on her thread. Arachne became smaller and smaller and turned into a spider, eternally weaving.
Hence the term: arachnid (spider).
Jean Lepautre, Etching and Engraving on Paper 1676
The Myth of Minerva and Arachne (youtube clip)
Bonus: Translate the Latin below the fourth image. To whom does Pallade refer?
aranea, araneae: spider web
a/ab (+ ablative): by
convertitur: is changed (passive voice: compare with she changes)
in (+ acc): into