Readings for reflection: Arachne

Acts of the Apostles 9.3-8
Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you?’ And the reply came, ‘I am the Lord Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.

Acts of the Apostles 28.1-6
After we were brought safely through we learned that the island was called Malta. The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all as it had begun to rain and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of vinewood sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand they said to one another, ‘No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.’ He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.

Aelian, On Animals 10.49
Particularly in Klaros do the inhabitants and all Greeks pay honour to the son of Zeus and Leto. And so the land there is untrodden by poisonous creatures and is also highly obnoxious to them. The god wills it so, and the creatures in any case dread him, since the god can not only save life but is also the begetter of Asklepios, man’s saviour and champion against diseases. Moreover Nakandros also bears witness to what I say, and his words are : ‘No viper, nor harmful spiders, nor deep-wounding scorpion dwell in the groves of Klaros, for Apollon veiled its deep grotto with ash-trees and purged its grassy floor of noxious creatures.’

Aelian, Historical Miscellany 12.57
When Alexander the son of Philip led his forces against Thebes the gods sent them signs and portents presaging their imminent fate. At the temple of Demeter a spider began to cover the face of the cult statue with its handiwork and weave its usual product.

Aischylos, The Suppliant Maidens 885-88
Chorus of Danaïdes: Oh father … he carries me to the sea,
like a spider, step by step, a nightmare,
a black nightmare.

Athenaios, Deipnosphistai 631a-b
But the Pyrrhic dance is not preserved now among any other people of Greece; and at the same time that it has fallen into disuse, their wars also have been brought to a conclusion; but it continues in use among the Lacedaemonians alone, being a sort of prelude preparatory to war: and all who are more than five years old in Sparta learn to dance the Pyrrhic dance. But the Pyrrhic dance as it exists in our time, appears to be a sort of Dionysiac dance, and a little more pacific than the old one; for the dancers carry thyrsoi instead of spears, and they point and dart canes at one another, and carry torches. And in their dances, they portray Dionysos and the Indians, and the story of Pentheus: and they require for the Pyrrhic dance the most beautiful melodies, and what are called the “stirring” tunes.

Giorgio Baglivi, Dissertatio de anatome, morsu et effectibus tarantulae pg. 313
Those who have been bitten by the tarantula shortly thereafter fall to the ground half-dead, with a loss of strength and senses, with difficult breathing or moaning, often immobile and lifeless. With the beginning of the music, little by little these symptoms are attenuated, and the patient begins to move his fingers, his hands and then his feet, followed by other limbs; as the melodic rhythm becomes more pressing, the movement of his limbs gradually increases. If the patient is lying on the floor, he springs up to start the dance, sighs, and begins to contort himself in very strange ways. These first dances often last two or three hours: and after having rested briefly on the bed to wipe away his perspiration and to restore his strength, the patient resumes dancing with the same vigor. This can take place as many as a dozen times per day. The dances begin around dawn and continue without pause until around one in the afternoon. Sometimes they are compelled to stop, not because of their tiredness, but because they have perceived some dissonance in the musical instruments, a dissonance which, when it is perceived, provokes deep sighs and stabs of pain in the patient’s heart. They sigh and grieve at length until they resume dancing, the harmony having been reestablished. Around midday they rest from the music and dance. They put themselves to bed until their perspiration is over and then they refresh themselves with broth or over light food, given that the very serious lack of appetite which afflicts them would not permit them to take more substantial food. Around one o’clock in the afternoon, or at the latest around 2, they resume their dances with the same vigor. These dances last until evening, whereupon they have another light meal and then finally fall asleep. These dances usually continue for four days; rarely do they go beyond the sixth day. It is uncertain when the end will occur, since many continue to dance until they feel free of the symptoms, which usually takes place after the third or fourth day.

Anna Caggiano, Folklore Italiano 6.72
All the wives offer – understood as a loan – handkerchiefs, shawls, scarves, petticoats and linens of every color, pots of basil, lemon verbona, mint and rue, mirrors and baubles, and last but not least a great tub full of water. The surroundings are decorated in this way, and when everything is ready the victim of the bite, dressed in gaudy colors, chooses as she pleases ribbons, handkerchiefs and shoes that remind her of the colors of the tarantula and she adorns herself with them while waiting for the musicians.

Nicola Caputo of Lecce, De Tarantulae anatomie et morsu pg. 201
They customarily adorn the bedroom dedicated to the dance of the tarantati with verdant branches outfitted with numerous ribbons and silken sashes in gaudy colors. They place similar drapery throughout the room; sometimes they prepare a sort of cauldron or tub full of water, decorated with vine leaves and green fronds from other trees; or they make pretty fountains of limpid water spout, capable of lifting the spirits, and it is near these that the tarantati perform the dance, seeming to draw the greatest delight from them, as well as the rest of the setting. They contemplate the drapes, the fronds, and the artificial rivulets, and they wet their hands and heads at the fountain. They also remove damp bands of vine leaves from the cauldron and strew them all over their bodies, or – when the vessel is large enough – they plunge themselves inside, and in this way they can more easily bear the fatigue of the dance. It often happens that those who go dancing through the towns and hamlets accompanied by the usual music are brought to an orchard, where, in the shade of a tree, near a pond or brook offered by nature or prepared through craft, they abandon themselves to the dance with the greatest delight, while groups of youths in search of pleasure and pranks gather near. Among the latter mingle more than a few who are approaching old age and who, contemplating with serious curiosity the melodic frolicking, seem to exhort the youths with unspoken admonishment.

Nicola Caputo of Lecce, De Tarantulae anatomie et morsu pg. 229
It is said among the citizens of Galatina – whose belief has no support other than the testimony of uninterrupted tradition – that one night the apostle St. Paul, who sailed our seas after Peter’s preaching, was passing by the promontory of Santa Maria of Leuca and came to Galatina incognito for fear of persecutors, with the aim of visiting neophytes. He was welcomed there and received information at the home of a devotee. which still exists today and for this reason is called the House of St. Paul. The citizens of this town tell various things in relation to the legend, but the most important thing they say is that to reward the piety of this religious man, St. Paul obtained the power to heal for him and his descendants, a power obtained from god through the merits of Jesus Christ; they could heal by making the sign of the cross on small wounds of those who had been bitten by poisonous animals, such as scorpions, vipers, phalangids and the like, making them drink water from a well of the House of St. Paul. It is said that when the descendants of this devotee had died out, some victims of the bite of the taranta, scorpion or viper came to the well – it, too, is still visible – while the poison was in action, and asked to be healed by St. Paul, whence they were immediately cured after drinking the water; they returned home with glad hearts and gave thanks to their benefactor. This is the tradition of the citizens of Galatina, who relate various healings of this sort. Whether or not the story is to be believed in its entirety is not for us to judge, but it is too great a contrast with the faith of these citizens to maintain it is an entirely false story and that all of these events are to be attributed to the natural virtues of the water.

Q. M. Corrado, De copia latini sermonis 171
Tarantati are attracted to water, to springs, to a green branch, to all pleasant things.

Elizabeth Freund, Companion to Shakespeare
In Book VI of The Metamorphoses Ovid tells the story of Arachne, a subtle weaver of Lydia, too skillful for her own good. She dares to rival Pallas Athene with her superior artistry at the loom. Mortal and goddess engaged in a competition in which each wove splendid scene into her tapestry. Athene represented the Immortals (including herself) as all-powerful figures of authority, while Arachne chose to weave tales of divine erotica into her web. When the work was done not even Athene’s envy could deny the superior quality of Arachne’s art. In her jealous rage the goddess struck through Arachne’s loom and tore the tapestry. The girl, ashamed and humiliated, hung herself, but the goddess restored her to life as a spider.

Arachne makes a single, abbreviated appearance in the Shakespearean canon, and even then her provenance is doubtful. Her tale of ill-fated rivalry with divine artistic power is curtailed to a rather obscure simile in V.ii of Troilus and Cressida.

Troilus: Within my soul there doth conduce a fight
Of this strange nature that a thing inseparate
Divides more wider than the sky and earth;
And yet the spacious breadth of this division
Admits no orifex for a point as subtle
As Ariachne’s broken woof to enter.
(V.ii 146-51)

By what devious detours of the imagination does this apocryphal “Ariachne” find her way into the texture of Troilus and Cressida? How subtle is “a point as subtle as Ariachne’s broken woof?” What are we to make of this pointed figure, sharp enough to penetrate the impenetrable, yet obscured by breakage and division? How Ariadne, who provided Theseus with the clue of a thread to guide him out of the Cretan maze, came to be enmeshed in Arachne’s web, whether by a printer’s carelessness or in an author’s slip of the pen or daring of the imagination, is probably beyond conclusive recovery. “Ariachne” may be an “original,” a felicitous neologism spun spider-fashion out of the creator’s own gut; or she may be no more than the accidental issue of a typesetter’s clumsy fingers. In either event she is a new creation who also carries incontestable traces of prior origins.

The conflation or confusion of this marginal figure of “Ariachne,” who is and is not Arachne, is and is not Ariadne, points the way into the major labyrinth of citation and the travesty of citation which is the “stuff” out of which Troilus and Cressida “makes paradoxes” (I. iii. 184). Yet this fragmentary clue proves also the very obstacle which thwarts the expectation of a safe conduct through the maze.

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 4.13
I ran across the statement very recently in the book of Theophrastus On Inspiration that many men have believed and put their belief on record, that when gouty pains in the hips are most severe, they are relieved if a flute-player plays soothing measures. That snake-bites are cured by the music of the flute, when played skilfully and melodiously, is also stated in a book of Democritus, entitled On Deadly Infections, in which he shows that the music of the flute is medicine for many ills that flesh is heir to. So very close is the connection between the bodies and the minds of men, and therefore between physical and mental ailments and their remedies.

Hesiod, Works and Days ll. 770-779
But the twelfth is much better than the eleventh, for on it the airy-swinging spider spins its web in full day.

Athanasius Kircher, Magnes sive de arte magnetica opus tripartitum pg. 759
Some tarantati let themselves hang from the trees by ropes, showing great enjoyment at such suspension – those stricken with this passion are usually the ones bitten by tarantulas in the habit of hanging the strings of their webs from trees.

Nikander of Kolophon, Theriaka 8-10
Now I would have you know, men say that noxious spiders, together with the grievous reptiles and vipers and the earth’s countless burdens, are of the Titans’ blood.

Scholiast on Nikander’s Theriaka 12.a
And Theophilos, of the school of Zenodotos, records that in Attica there were two siblings; Phalanx, a boy and the girl was named Arachne. They were tutored by Athene, Phalanx learning the arts of war from her and Arachne the art of weaving. However the goddess came to abhor them since they had intercourse with one another, transforming them into animals destined to be eaten by their own offspring.

Nonnos, Dionysiaka 18.216-217
Staphylos brought embroidered robes, which Persian Arachne beside the waters of Tigris had cleverly made with her fine thread. Then the generous king spoke to Bromios of the earlier war between Zeus and Kronos.

Nonnos, Dionysiaka 40
So Dionysos distributed the spoils of battle among his followers, after the Indian War, and sent returning home the whole host who had shared his labours. The people made haste to go, laden with shining treasures of the Eastern sea and birds of many strange forms. Their return was a triumphal march with universal acclaim to Dionysos the invincible Leaving the long stretch of Arabia with its deepshadowy forests he measured the Assyrian road on foot, and had a mind to see the Tyrian land, Cadmos’s country; for thither he turned his tracks, and with stuffs in thousands before his eyes he admired the manycoloured patterns of Assyrian art, as he stared at the woven work of the Babylonian Arachne; he examined cloth dyed with the Tyrian shell, shooting out sea-sparklings of purple: on that shore once a dog busy by the sea, gobbling the wonderful lurking fish with joyous jaws, stained his white jowl with the blood of the shell, and reddened his lips with running fire, which once alone made scarlet the sea-dyed robes of kings.

Ovid, selections from Book Six of the Metamorphoses
The girl was not known for her place of birth, or family, but for her skill. Her father, Idmon of Colophon, dyed the absorbent wool purple, with Phocaean murex. Her mother was dead. She too had been of humble birth, and the father the same. Nevertheless, though she lived in a modest home, in little Hypaepa, Arachne had gained a name for artistry throughout the cities of Lydia.

Often the nymphs of Mount Tmolus deserted their vine-covered slopes, and the nymphs of the River Pactolus deserted their waves, to examine her wonderful workmanship. It was not only a joy to see the finished cloths, but also to watch them made: so much beauty added to art.

There, shades of purple, dyed in Tyrian bronze vessels, are woven into the cloth, and also lighter colours, shading off gradually. The threads that touch seem the same, but the extremes are distant, as when, often, after a rainstorm, the expanse of the sky, struck by the sunlight, is stained by a rainbow in one vast arch, in which a thousand separate colours shine, but the eye itself still cannot see the transitions. There, are inserted lasting threads of gold, and an ancient tale is spun in the web.

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. 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.

She wove you, Neptune, also, changed to a fierce bull for Canace, Aeolus’s daughter. In Enipeus’s form you begot the Aloidae, and deceived Theophane as a ram. The golden-haired, gentlest, mother of the cornfields, knew you as a horse. The snake-haired mother of the winged horse, knew you as a winged bird. Melantho knew you as a dolphin. She gave all these their own aspects, and the aspects of the place. Here is Phoebus like a countryman, and she shows him now with the wings of a hawk, and now in a lion’s skin, and how as a shepherd he tricked Isse, Macareus’s daughter. She showed how Bacchus ensnared Erigone with delusive grapes, and how Saturn as the double of a horse begot Chiron. The outer edge of the web, surrounded by a narrow border, had flowers interwoven with entangled ivy.

And there was Bacchus, when he was disguised as a large cluster of fictitious grapes; deluding by that wile the beautiful Erigone;–and Saturnus, as a steed, begetter of the dual-natured Chiron. And then Arachne, to complete her work, wove all around the web a patterned edge of interlacing flowers and ivy leaves.

Neither Pallas nor Envy itself could fault that work. The golden-haired warrior goddess was grieved by its success, and tore the tapestry, embroidered with the gods’ crimes, and as she held her shuttle made of boxwood from Mount Cytorus, she struck Idmonian Arachne, three or four times, on the forehead. The unfortunate girl could not bear it, and courageously slipped a noose around her neck: Pallas, in pity, lifted her, as she hung there, and said these words, ‘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!’ Departing after saying this, she sprinkled her with the juice of Hecate’s herb, and immediately at the touch of this dark poison, Arachne’s hair fell out. With it went her nose and ears, her head shrank to the smallest size, and her whole body became tiny. Her slender fingers stuck to her sides as legs, the rest is belly, from which she still spins a thread, and, as a spider, weaves her ancient web.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.25.10
Above Lessa is Mount Arachnaios and on it are altars to Zeus and Hera. When rain is needed they sacrifice to them here.

Plato, Ion 533e-534b
For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Corybantic revellers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysos but not when they are in their right mind. And the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say; for they tell us that they bring songs from honeyed fountains, culling them out of the gardens and dells of the Muses; they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower. And this is true. For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.

Plato, Phaedrus 244de
Next, madness can provide relief from the greatest plagues of trouble that beset certain families because of their guilt for ancient crimes: it turns up among those who need a way out; it gives prophecies and takes refuge in prayers to the gods and in worship, discovering mystic rites and purifications that bring the man it touches through to safety for this and all time to come. So it is that the right sort of madness finds relief from present hardships for a man it has possessed.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7.196
The use of the spindle in the manufacture of woolen was invented by Closter son of Arachne, linen and nets by Arachne.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 29.86
Among classes of spiders the Greeks also include a phalangion which they distinguish by the name of ‘wolf.’ There is also a third kind of phalangion, a hairy spider with an enormous head. When this is cut open, there are said to be found inside two little worms, which, tied in deer skin as an amulet on women before sunrise, act as a contraceptive, as Caecilius has told us in his Commentarii. There is another phalangion called rhox, like a black grape, with a very small mouth under the abdomen, and very short legs as though not fully grown. Its bite is as painful as a scorpion’s sting, forming in the urine as it were spider’s webs. The asterion is exactly like it, except that it is marked with white streaks. Its bite makes the knees weak. Least dangerous of all is the ash-coloured spider which spins its web all over our walls to catch flies. For the bites of all spiders remedial is a cock’s brain with a little pepper taken in vinegar and water, five ants also taken in drink, the ash of sheep’s dung applied in vinegar, or spiders themselves of any sort that have rotted in oil.

Christina Pluhar, La TarantellaAntidotum Tarantulae
The origins of this ritual dance are attributed by some theorists to the cult of Dionysus that was disseminated in southern Italy over the centuries. Mythology has left us two tales of the origin of the tarantella that are still told in Sorrento and Capri Homeric poetry preserved in oral traditions. One of these relates that the Sirens tried to enchant Ulysses with their songs, but failed to do so because he had been warned beforehand and stopped his ears with wax. Thereupon the Sirens called the Graces to their aid, asking to be taught an erotic dance. But the Graces made fun of the Sirens and invented the tarantella, knowing full well that the Sirens had no legs and would not be able to dance it… Since that time the tarantella has been performed by the young maidens of Sorrento, who learned it from the Graces.

Domenico Sangenito to Antonio Bulifon, Lettere memorabilia istorche, politiche ed erudite 141ff
The tarantati want ribbons, chains, precious garments, and when they are brought they receive them with inexplicable joy, and with great reverence they thank the person who brought them. All of the aforementioned items are placed in an orderly fashion along the pen where the dancers make use of one or another item from time to time, according to the impulses the attack gives them.

Ludovico Valletta, De Phalangio Apulo 76-77
With regard to the astonishing and complex agitation of the entire body, not long ago I personally saw a woman stricken with the poison who, although prey to the delirium of a violent fever, and her mind possessed with horrible phantasms – or rather, she was assaulted by a host of insolent demons – at the sound of the musical instruments she nonethless abandoned herself to a dance that was so excited, to such a frenetic agitation of her limbs and whirling her head, that my own head and eyes, enthralled by the same agitation, suffered from dizziness. This woman had suspended a rope from the ceiling of her humble dwelling, the end of which, just touching the floor in the middle of the room, she tenaciously squeezed between her hands; throwing herself upon it, she abandoned herself with the weight of her whole body, her feet planted on the floor, turning her head to and fro, her face glowing, with a surly look. I was deeply astonished, not being able to explain why the dizziness provoked by that rapid and violent head shaking did not make her reel and fall to the ground. Due to this agitation and the incredible exertion borne, the woman’s whole body and above all her face were covered with abundant perspiration; reddened by such strenuous agitation, she ran gasping to a great tub full of water prepared at her request, and she completely submerged her head in it, whence the cold water gave her some relief from the heat with which she blazed.

The tarantati rejoice at the sight of limpid waters, of artificial springs that flow with a soft murmur into a tub prepared for this purpose, gratifying themselves with the green fronds freshly picked from the trees and strewn here and there in the space dedicated to the dance in order to represent a forest

Ludovico Valletta, De Phalangio Apulo 92
The families of the tarantati hire the musicians, to whom many gifts are given and a great deal of drink is offered in addition to the daily compensation agreed upon, so that they may take some refreshment and thus play the musical instruments with greater vigor. It follows that a man of modest conditions, who laboriously earns a living with the diligent fatigue of his arms, in order to be cured of this illness, is often forced to pawn or sell objects of fundamental necessity, even if his household furnishings are shabby, in order to pay the aforementioned payment. It must be considered that no one would want to expose himself to this misfortune if he could combat the poison in another way, or if he did not feel compelled to dance from the bottom of his heart. I will spare the details of the many other aids and expedients the poison victims use to raise and cheer their melancholy spirits during the dance, items also needed for one reason or another. For instance there are artificial springs of limpid water constructed in such a way that the water is gathered and always returns to flow anew; these springs are covered and surrounded by green fronds, flowers and trees. Further, lasses dressed in sumptuous wedding gowns have the task of dancing with the tarantati, festively singing and playing the same melody with them during the dance; then there are the weapons and the multicolored drapery hung on the walls. All of these, and many others, cannot be procured without payment.

Virgil, Georgics 4. 246
The spider, hateful to Minerva, hangs in the doorway her loose-woven nets.