Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-59b7f5684b-j4fss Total loading time: 0.812 Render date: 2022-10-02T23:49:10.782Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "displayNetworkTab": true, "displayNetworkMapGraph": false, "useSa": true } hasContentIssue true

The spinner and the poet: Arachne in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2013

Byron Harries


Two artistic competitions in the Metamorphoses, those between the Muses and the daughters of Pierus (5.250–678) and between Arachne and Minerva (6.1–145), are now widely recognised as exploiting familiar generic differentiations. Ovid's treatment of these differentiations is further seen to have a bearing on establishing the elusive poetic identity of the whole poem, and to locate that identity firmly within the Roman response to Alexandrian poetics. The significance of these sections for the literary programme of the Metamorphoses has been persuasively argued by H. Hofmann and E. W. Leach for the Arachne competition, and more recently by Hofmann and S. Hinds for the Pierides. It is now clear how wide the range of literary forms represented at this pivotal point in Metamorphoses actually is, at the close of the first pentad and at the start of the second. Each of the episodes spanning this juncture has its winning and losing side, and there is an obvious way in which the positive and negative judgements in an artistic competition refine the reader's literary discrimination: the outcome of the contests encourages us to see in the competition itself at least an implicit comment on the relative qualities of the participants.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s). Published online by Cambridge University Press 1990

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



1. All references are to Metamorphoses, in the Teubner edition by W. S. Anderson (1977), unless the context obviously suggests otherwise. I usually cite by author's name only the commentary of F. Bömer on Books 6 and 7 (1976) and that of Haupt-Ehwald-von Albrecht on Books 1–7, ed. 10 (1966). The following books and articles are referred to by author's name and date of publication only:

von Albrecht, M., ‘L'épisode d'Arachné dans les Métamorphoses d'Ovide’, REL 57 (1979) 266–77Google Scholar.

Hinds, S., The metamorphosis of Persephone: Ovid and the self-conscious muse (1987)Google Scholar.

Hofmann, H., ‘Ovid's Metamorphoses: carmen perpetuum, carmen deductum’, Papers of the Liverpool Latin seminar 5 (1986) 223–41Google Scholar.

Hutchinson, G. O., Hellenistic poetry (1988)Google Scholar.

Lateiner, D., ‘Mythic and non-mythic artists in Ovid's Metamorphoses’, Ramus 12 (1984) 130CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

Leach, E. W., ‘Ekphrasis and the theme of artistic failure in Ovid's Metamorphoses’, Ramus 3 (1974) 102–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2. For Ovid's creative use of genre in giving an individual identity to both Fasti and Metamorphoses see Hinds (1987) 115–34. Ovidian originality in manipulating Alexandrian generic differentiations had been earlier acknowledged by Herter, H., ‘Ovids Kunstprinzip in den Metamorphosen’, in von Albrecht, M. and Zinn, E. (eds.), Ovid, Wege der Forschung 92 (1982) esp. 359–60Google Scholar.

3. Hofmann (1986) 230–4; cf. also Ausgesprochene und unausgesprochene motivische Verwebung im sechsten Metamorphosenbuch Ovids’, Acta classica 14 (1971) 91107Google Scholar.

4. E. W. Leach (1974) esp. 102–6, ‘The tapestries of Arachne and Minerva … are not, as it were, windows looking towards a world outside of the poem but mirrors of the poem itself’ (106). Leach here develops the view taken by W. S. Anderson in his review of Otis, B., Ovid as an epic poet (AJP 89 (1968) 93104)Google Scholar and in his subsequent edition of Books 6–10 (1972) 151–71. Lateiner (1984) 12 puts it succinctly ‘Art is examined within art’.

5. Hofmann (1986) 227–30.

6. Hinds (1987) 18–20, 122–4.

7. That there is a turning-point here is stressed by von Albrecht (1979) 267. Similarly, the second and third pentads are bridged by the song and death of Orpheus, an episode with equally interesting implications for the poem's literary structure. See Leach (1974) 119–22, Hofmann (1986) 226–7.

8. See Hinds (1987) ch. 4 passim and 127–9.

9. For literary garrulitas and its poetic significance see Hofmann (1986) 229 and Hinds (1987) 130. A similarly un-Callimachean quality may be referred to by Horace's use of garrulus (Sat. 1.4.12) in connection with Lucilius, and Horatian and Ovidian usage may determine the sense of the adjective in later prose (see Krebs-Schmalz, Antibarbarus s.v.).

10. See the introductory note to lines 70–102 in Bömer (26–7) for further examples.

11. Cf. Brink on Horace Epist. 2.1.225 and Hofmann (1986) 231.

12. My final list would be more restricted than Lateiner's (1984) 12, who includes such examples of over-ambitious human creativity as Midas and Niobe among instances of foiled artistic activity. Lateiner's argument leads too quickly to seeing a crude anti-Augustanism in the poem, as Leach (1974) 117 had thought before him.

13. Lateiner (1984) 15–19 compares the ‘flawed’ artistic success of artists like Arachne with the unqualified success of Pygmalion, who is properly deferential towards Venus. I shall suggest that Calliope offers a more relevant contrast.

14. The notion of artistic self-destruction is, of course, also well-known from Tristia (cf. 2.2–14, 3.14.6, 5.1.67–8, 5.12.48).

15. The comparison between Ovid and Arachne has been made by von Albrecht (1979) 275–6 (Il existe done une affinité mystérieuse unissant Ovide et ses personnages). Already hinted at in Leach (1974) 107, the idea formed the basis for Lateiner's view (1984) that Ovid's suffering artists ‘are surrogates for stubborn Ovid himself’ (7).

16. The description of her social standing (6.7–13) has an authentic Roman ring to it, with its emphasis on winning laudes (6) and a nomen memorabile (12), and the obvious respect it confers by implication on the origo gentis (cf. 7).

17. For the superiority of Tyrian murex see Rem. am. 707–8 and Bömer on Fasti 2.107.

18. Cf. Sat. 1.6 and Tr. 2.109–16 (not Tr. 4.10 where the emphasis is different). The comparison is already in Lateiner (1984) 15, but it is worth recalling that the humble origins of the artist may have constituted a topos derived from Bion of Borysthenes (cf. Diog. Laert. 4.46–7), to whose Diatribes Horace's Satires may have been particularly indebted (pace Brink on Epist. 2.2.60).

19. Hecale is a particularly severe instance of this, no doubt because her grinding poverty is to contrast with her former luxury (cf. Hutchinson (1988) 57), but Ovid's Philemon and Baucis (8.632–4) and Hyrieus, the angusti cultor agelli who has an exiguam casam (Fast. 5.499–500), are closer than the Callimachean examples to what Ovid has in mind for Arachne and her father. The Ovidian examples are closer to the Homeric prototypes, combining the modest poverty of Eumaeus in the Odyssey with the simile of the poor spinning woman at Il. 12.433–5, the latter being developed in Apollonius 3.291–5 and 4.1062–5. See Zanker, G., Realism in Alexandrian poetry: a literature and its audience (1987) 77Google Scholar.

20. Cf. Hinds (1987) 112 for parallel examples.

21. Cf. TLL 5.1.1592.5 and the diues ingenium whose special literary character is attested at Tr. 2.23–8.

22. Cf. Prop. 4.1.59–60 and Tr. 3.14.34 with Luck's note.

23. ‘Arachne offers the paradigm of human artistic skill’ Lateiner (1984) 15.

24. Cf. Haupt-Ehwald i. 302 and Bömer on 6.19–23 for the parallels.

25. For rudis as a literary term see Luck on the rude carmen of Tr. 1.7.39–40 and OLD s.v.1 2b.

26. For mollis as a literary term see Hutchinson (1988) 282–3. Propertius associated mollis not only with elegy (meus … mollis … liber 2.1.2) but with love-elegy (cf. amores 2.1.1). An attentive reader of Metamorphoses 6 might already surmise that the erotic content of Arachne's tapestry is foreshadowed in lines 19–23.

27. Their common doctrina is exhibited in the fact that they both weave a (programmatically significant) uetus argumentum (69). Cf. Hofmann (1986) 231–2.

28. CA fr. 7 Powell.

29. Cf. fr. 7.1, 57, 85. This technique is familiar from the Ibis, where Ovid introduces exempla with qualis (261, 263) and ut qui (365, 369 etc.).

30. Ἀραί or Ποτηριοκλέπτης (frs. 8–9 Powell) and Χιλιάδες (frs. 46–9 Powell; SH 418–27) of which Ἀραί may have been a part; cf. also Θρᾶιξ (frs. 23–9 Powell; SH 413–15), with the note by Lloyd-Jones and Parsons appended to fr. 415 (199).

31. Cf. Bömer on 104 explaining how the chiasmus refers to an effect originally attributed to Daedalus, an archetypal designer. See also Leach (1974) 103 and the Hellenistic theoretical background to pictorial realism outlined by Zanker (n.19) 39–54.

32. See Hutchinson (1988) 142.

33. Pasiphae is apostrophised in Ars 1.303–6 (cf. Ecl. 6.55–60) and Neptune in Met. 6 (115–17Google Scholar).

34. Both Eden on Aen. 8.643 and Fordyce on Catullus 4.13 (following Norden, Aeneis VI ed. 4, 126Google Scholar) comment on the metrical convenience of the technique, which they see as a Roman ‘mannerism’. But we should not underestimate its rhetorical force (still powerful in Keats's Ode on a Grecian urn) or its capacity to suggest poetic associations.

35. Norden (n.34) 18–19.

36. See Fordyce's introduction to the poem (96–7) for parallels.

37. Cf. also ἔτεξε (483, 609, 610, 611, 613); ἐτίθει (541, 550, 561, 607); ποίησε (490, 573, 587); ποίκιλλε (590). The passive τετεύχατο (574) is a conspicuous exception to this pattern.

38. Cf. also addiderat (637) and addit (666). The central figure of Augustus stands out in the narrative and is not made the grammatical object of any manufacturing process.

39. Line 219 is a unique parenthesis, whose form runs counter to the overall narrative structure of the episodes.

40. The text of the pentameter is that preferred by Goold and Hollis (see Hollis ad loc). For the sense of ludere in 647 cf. Met. 6.113 and 124.

41. Cf. TLL 7.1.410.74 s.v. for examples of imago relying on a deceptive pose.

42. Cf. TLL 6.49.61 s.v.

43. Cf. Apollod. Bibl. 3.14 with J. G. Frazer's note (1.78 n.1). The point is already anticipated in Minerva's initial appeal to Arachne tibi fama petatur / inter morlales faciendae maxima lanae: / cede deae … (30–2).

44. So also Hesiod, , Theog. 278–9Google Scholar (without the metamorphosis); cf. Haupt-Ehwald on Met. 4.785 and 798.

45. Juno's spitefulness is apparent in the detailed effects of the transformation (92 and 97). That Juno's adverse reaction is partly vindictive does not mean that Minerva does not portray it as to a large extent justified as well (cf. 83–4).

46. The different possibilities are outlined by Bömer on 98; cf. also Kleine Pauly s.v. Kinyras (III.216–17).

47. Ovid's experience would in this respect reproduce Arachne's. Cf. Tr. 2.83–6, 121–2 corruit haec igitur Musis accepta sub uno / sed non exiguo crimine lapsa domus, and Ex P. 1.9.13–14.

48. Cf. esp. 100 amplectens saxoque iacens lacrimare uidetur. The story of Niobe begins at 146.

49. For the poetic sense of deducere see Kenney, E. J., ‘Ouidius prooemians’, PCPS 22 (1976) 51–2Google Scholar, Hofmann (1986) 231–2 and Hinds (1987) 18–19. For its association with weaving see Bömer on 6.69. A further sense of argumentum (‘the function [of the stories] as expressions of opposing points of view’) is rightly seen at work here by Leach (1974) 116.

50. Cf. Hofmann (1986) 230–1. Bömer (26–7) on 70–102 has a broader discussion with a variety of examples.

51. The playfulness of Arachne's narrative of impersonations may be detected in the underlying sense of luserit in 113 and 124.

52. Cf. Tr. 1.8.31–2 with Luck's note ad loc. Some examples of this contrast are analysed by Galinsky, G. K., Ovid's Metamorphoses: an introduction to the basic aspects (1975) 171–3 and 183–5Google Scholar.

53. For the merging of ‘epic’ and ‘elegiac’ styles in both Fasti and Metamorphoses see Hinds (1987) 117–19.

54. Cf. Ex P. 4.13.3 and 13, and Brink on colores in Horace, Ars 86 (173)Google Scholar: ‘So used-with a slight technical implication and the metaphor almost faded – the word is not on record before this passage and 236.’

55. Otis, B., Ovid as an epic poet ed. 2 (1970) 146–7Google Scholar.

56. Lateiner (1984) 16, who is surely mistaken in seeing the continuing skill of the metamorphosed Arachne as a consistent extension of, rather than an ironic contrast with, her former artistry.

57. The relevant examples can be extracted from the (ill-sorted) grouping uario usu in TLL 7.2.1549.22–52 s.v.

58. Here edax is taken up by pascitur in uiuis Liuor (39), where the verb suggests the satisfying of a gluttonous appetite and points edax in the direction of meaning ‘greedy (for food)’. But cum me supremus adederit ignis in the first line of the next couplet (41) directs us to the consuming power of a devouring fire as a likely area of meaning for both edax (cf. OLD s.v. 2) and pascitur (cf. OLD s.v. 6b and Met. 9.202 for both). In this case supremus ignis in 41 is not only the fire of the funeral pyre but also the culminating point of the devouring fires of envy, which gives a new twist to the final couplet: ‘When the fires of envy have finally finished devouring me (because I shall be dead), I shall still live (through my poetry)’. In both Am. 1.15.1 and Rem. am. 389 Liuor is a more specific threat than the general Inuidia which success provokes; it is an attack on the quality of the poet's ingenium operating in a recognisably Alexandrian manner (cf. Am. 1.15.11–14, 35–6, Rem. am. 379–82 and Tr. 4.10.117–20, with Wimmel, W., Kallimachos in Rom (1960) 183–4 and 267–8Google Scholar for the Alexandrian context).

59. Liuor is an adaptation of the βασκανίη of the Telchines (Aet. fr. 1.17Pf.) and of Φθόνος in H. Ap. 105, which F. Williams (ad loc.) takes as ‘referring to (Callimachus') literary enemies’.

60. For ingenium disparaged unsuccessfully by Liuor see Am. 1.15.2, Rem. am. 365 and Tr. 4.10.123; for Liuor challenging the poet's fama unsuccessfully see Am. 1.15.7–8, Rem. 369–70, 389–90 and Tr. 4.10.121–4. Propertius (1.8.27–9) had presented the victory over cupidus Liuor in amatory terms, which Ovid converts to literary ones.

61. As was pointed out by Lateiner (1984) 27 n.67.

62. The editors' referee ingeniously suggests to me that the poetics of Arachne and Minerva in Met. 6 may be seen as interdependent, being woven together in the text, and mutually constitutive elements in all Ovidian poems.

63. For the parallel between Arachne's tapestry and the weaving of Metamorphoses see Leach (1974) 117 (‘Has Ovid deliberately spun an image that implies the vulnerability of his own work?’) and Lateiner (1984) 15.

64. For the necessity of a ‘balanced’ reading which sets scurrilous amatory material in the wider context of official laudes see Tr. 2.77–80.

65. Cf. page 70 above and n.14.

66. In the only extensive Augustan section (1.177–228) the triumph of Gaius is celebrated as a background-scene for catching a girl.

67. Cf. Tr. 1.1.111, 3.1.65–6 etc.

68. Cf. Tr. 1.1.117–20, 1.7.23–6.

69. On this general point see Ahl, F., ‘The art of safe criticism in Greece and Rome’, AJP 105 (1984) 174–208, esp. 187–9Google Scholar.

70. I am grateful to Gareth Williams, who found much to criticise and correct in an earlier draft of this paper, and to the editors and their anonymous referee, whose stimulating comments persuaded me to take another look at several passages.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

The spinner and the poet: Arachne in Ovid's Metamorphoses
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

The spinner and the poet: Arachne in Ovid's Metamorphoses
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

The spinner and the poet: Arachne in Ovid's Metamorphoses
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *