A little legend about one of our favourite creepy crawlies
There’s no doubt there’s something a bit special about spiders. In our October issue (in shops now), we are celebrating our eight-legged friends on our Magical Creatures page. But why did Mother Nature decide they needed quite so many legs? We suspect there’s a very scientific evolutionary answer, but we quite like this one...
The Greek myth of Arachne has several versions but Ovid told a slightly terrifying story about how the spider got eight legs.
Arachne was a mortal woman, the daughter of a shepherd, and a top-notch weaver, but more than a little boastful regarding her skill. Foolishly, she began to boast that her weaving was better than that of the Goddess Athena, who overheard (as Gods are wont to) and popped to earth, disguised as an old lady to urge her to retract her claims in hopes the Gods would forgive her.
Bumptious Arachne refused to say that her weaving was inferior to that of Athena’s and went one step further, in fact, saying that if Athena thought her weaving was so spectacular she should come to earth herself and join her in a weaving competition. Athena cast aside her old lady costume and they both began to weave.
Athena’s weaving depicted contests between mortals and the Gods in which mortals were harshly punished for daring to set themselves against the Gods (an unsubtle hint of what was to come, but one Arachne chose to ignore). Arachne, meanwhile, ill-advisedly wove a picture showing the ways in which the Gods had abused mortals over the years. More inadvisedly still, her weaving turned out to be far superior than Athena’s.
Furious at both Arachne’s cheek and her talent, Athena struck her about the head three times and tore her work to pieces. Shamed and fearful, Arachne hanged herself.
Athena, who shows a frightening lack of moral compassion here, we must say, even for a Goddess, told her: "Live on then, and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!" She sprinkled her with some of Hecate’s poisonous herbs, at which point Arachne’s hair fell out, her nose fell off and her head and body shrank. Her talented weaver’s fingers stuck to her sides and became legs, which would spin thread from her belly for ever.
The moral of the story? Keep your light under a bushel… unless you’re a Goddess with a bit of an anger problem.