Arachne the champion weaver dares to challenge Minerva to a weaving contest. That turns out to be a mistake, as does her choice of subject: she fills her work with disgraceful instances of what might euphemistically be called amatory conquests by Gods in disguise. It is quite a list. Minerva chooses a cautionary theme: the dreadful punishments of mortals who dared to contend with Gods. We know what the outcome will be, and it will be small consolation to Arachne that she gets her come-uppance, not for losing the competition, but for winning it.
By specifying that the wood for Minerva’s shuttle came from Mount Cytorus, Ovid may be giving a nod to a predecessor, Catullus, who calls the mountain “box-covered” in this poem that we believe was well-known in antiquity as an ancient parody survives.
See the illustrated blog post here.
For a more sombre, modern take on the sexual shenanigans of the Gods, see Yeats’s sonnet on Leda and the swan here.
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Maeonis elusam designat imagine tauri
Europam: verum taurum, freta vera putares;
ipsa videbatur terras spectare relictas
et comites clamare suas tactumque vereri
adsilientis aquae timidasque reducere plantas.
fecit et Asterien aquila luctante teneri,
fecit olorinis Ledam recubare sub alis;
addidit, ut satyri celatus imagine pulchram
Iuppiter inplerit gemino Nycteida fetu,
Amphitryon fuerit, cum te, Tirynthia, cepit,
aureus ut Danaen, Asopida luserit ignis,
Mnemosynen pastor, varius Deoida serpens.
te quoque mutatum torvo, Neptune, iuvenco
virgine in Aeolia posuit; tu visus Enipeus
gignis Aloidas, aries Bisaltida fallis,
et te flava comas frugum mitissima mater
sensit equum, sensit volucrem crinita colubris
mater equi volucris, sensit delphina Melantho:
omnibus his faciemque suam faciemque locorum
reddidit. est illic agrestis imagine Phoebus,
utque modo accipitris pennas, modo terga leonis
gesserit, ut pastor Macareida luserit Issen,
Liber ut Erigonen falsa deceperit uva,
ut Saturnus equo geminum Chirona crearit.
ultima pars telae, tenui circumdata limbo,
nexilibus flores hederis habet intertextos.
Non illud Pallas, non illud carpere Livor
possit opus: doluit successu flava virago
et rupit pictas, caelestia crimina, vestes,
utque Cytoriaco radium de monte tenebat,
ter quater Idmoniae frontem percussit Arachnes.
non tulit infelix laqueoque animosa ligavit
guttura: pendentem Pallas miserata levavit
atque ita ‘vive quidem, pende tamen, inproba’ dixit,
‘lexque eadem poenae, ne sis secura futuri,
dicta tuo generi serisque nepotibus esto!’
post ea discedens sucis Hecateidos herbae
sparsit: et extemplo tristi medicamine tactae
defluxere comae, cum quis et naris et aures,
fitque caput minimum; toto quoque corpore parva est:
in latere exiles digiti pro cruribus haerent,
cetera venter habet, de quo tamen illa remittit
stamen et antiquas exercet aranea telas.
Arachne depicts Europa, deceived by the disguise of
a bull: you’d think it was a real bull, that the sea
was real; Europa in person seemed to look at the land
left behind, call her companions, fear the touch of the
lapping water and draw back her timid feet. Arachne
made Asterie, gripped by the striving eagle,
made Leda lying under the swan’s wings, put in
how Jupiter, camouflaged in the shape of a satyr,
impregnated Antiope with her twins, was
Amphitryon when he took you, Alcmena, golden
when he took Danae, a flame when he tricked
Aegina, a shepherd when Mnemosyne, a mottled
snake when Proserpina. You too, Neptune, changed into
a bull, she laid on Arne, the Aeolian maid; looking
like Enipeus, you were fathering the Aloides, deceiving
Bisaltis as a goat; the gold-haired corn-mother, gentlest
of all, had you as a horse; the snake-haired mother
of Pegasus as a bird, Melantho as a dolphin: of all these, and their settings, she reproduced the appearance. There is Phoebus in rustic shape, as he was wearing now
the feathers of a hawk, now the pelt of a lion, as he deceived Isse, daughter of Macareus as a shepherd; as Bacchus cheated Erigone by pretending to be grapes,
while Saturn as a horse begot Chiron the centaur.
The last part of the cloth, enclosed in a narrow border,
contained flowers intertwined with tangling ivy.
Not Minerva, not the God of Envy himself, could
fault the work: the golden-haired goddess was in agony
at its success, tore it apart cloth, Gods’ misdeeds and all;
her boxwood shuttle from Mount Cytorus in her hand,
hit Arachne three times, four times on the forehead.
The poor girl couldn’t stand it, knotted her windpipe in
a noose: taking pity, Minerva lifted her as she hung:
“live indeed, but hang still, wicked girl,” she said,
“and just in case you should feel safe for the future,
let the same rule and punishment be upon you, your race
and descendants!” Then as she left she sprinkled the juice
of Hecate’s herb: suddenly, as the girl was touched by the
deadly drug, her hair fell off, her nose and ears as well,
and her head grew tiny, as did the whole of her body:
at her side her scraggy fingers hang before her legs
the rest of her is taken up by belly, but from it she spins
her warp and, as a spider, practises her old weaver’s skills.