Untangling the threads of the Hanged Maiden’s story
I find the story of Arachne as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses a lot more profound than many people do. What I get out of the story, that a lot of others don’t, isn’t necessarily the moral about avoiding hubris, but the hints about the relationship between Arachne and Dionysos that Ovid slipped in there.
First off, Ovid sets the story in Lydia, specifically around Mount Tmolos. Lydia is a very early center of Dionysian worship – some even claim that it was the original center of his cult, though equal claims have been made for countless other places. In Euripides’ Bakchai Dionysos is disguised as a Lydian stranger who has come from Mount Tmolos itself.
Arachne’s father is a wool-dyer who specializes in purple. Purple, aside from its connotations of royalty – a point that will be more important later on – has a strong connection to Dionysos. Ovid mentions that the nymphs love to watch Arachne weave – but not just any nymphs, mind you, he specifically says that they are the nymphs of the vineyard. That is a significant point since vineyard-nymphs are not common in legendary poetry. Next he goes on to say that Arachne is so talented that she draws the attention of Athene. When Arachne will not credit the goddess for her skill Athene is angered and contrives to compete with the girl to show her up.
How does she do so? By disguising herself as an old woman. When Athene goes among mortals, she often dons a disguise – for instance appearing as an old friend or mentor to Odysseus. But in this instance she disguises herself as an aged woman, a nurse. Why, you might ask, is that important? Well, also in his great epic, Ovid has Hera disguise herself as Semele’s nurse, which leads to the destruction of Dionysos’ mother. Ovid never does anything haphazardly; he loves repeating themes and playing them off of each other. And the Greek goddesses are always depicted as youthful and vigorous – to deviate from that is important, especially when you have the scenario ‘goddess disguised as crone causes death of upstart or bragging young woman.’ In both instances, Dionysos is in the background.
The next overt reference comes in the theme that Arachne uses for her tapestry during the competition. She creates love scenes: Europa being turned into a bull; Zeus begetting the demigods Dioskouroi and Herakles; the serpent and Persephone. While none of these explicitly mention Dionysos, except for the last, all conjure an atmosphere suggesting the god’s presence. And then, finally, she comes to the most important part of her tapestry: Dionysos seducing Erigone with the grape.
Now, why would she include that? It’s a marginal story, certainly not the most famous of Dionysos’ love escapades, or considered as canonical as the others she depicts. Most accounts of Erigone pass over her seduction by Dionysos, giving her only an accidental role in the story; but Ovid explicitly mentions a love affair between them. Why? Because it foreshadows the fate of Arachne herself.
Athene is threatened by the talent of Arachne, so before it’s even done she beats the girl, destroys her tapestry, and mocks her. Arachne, crestfallen, commits suicide by hanging herself. Athene relents, raises her soul from Haides, and transforms her into a spider.
Many of these themes are found in the tale of Erigone. In that myth Dionysos gives his wine to Ikarios (either in return for the man’s hospitality, or as a bride-gift for seducing his daughter). Ikarios shares the wine with his neighbors, who never having tasted wine drink it undiluted and pass out. Their families mistakenly think that they have been poisoned and murder Ikarios, dumping his body in a well. Erigone searches for her father, discovers his body in the well, and hangs herself in despair. Dionysos is enraged by the treatment of his people and curses the Athenians with a plague and madness. All of their wives and daughters start hanging themselves like Erigone. They go to Apollon, who tells them to institute a festival of swings where young maidens will swing in trees to commemorate Erigone, who is transported into the heavens along with her dog.
This festival, the Aiora, takes place during Anthesteria, which is quite appropriate considering that Anthesteria deals with death, pollution, sensuality, the dangerous properties of wine, and the fertility of the underworld. During Anthesteria the wife of the Archon Basileos is given to Dionysos and they consummate a holy marriage. The Basilinna represents both Erigone and Ariadne – as well as the land of Attica which is mystically fertilized through the union. Like Arachne, both of these women suffered terrible heartache – Ariadne was abandoned by Theseus after destroying her family; Erigone saw her family destroyed and then killed herself in anguish – but like them, both were transformed through the love of Dionysos and made immortal. The date of all of this is significant. Anthesteria took place on the 11th through the 13th of the month Anthesterion. The sacred marriage is thought to have been on the 12th – so was the Aiora according to Kallimachos and certain scholia. And, interestingly, Hesiod (Works and Days ll. 770-779) says “but the twelfth is much better than the eleventh, for on it the airy-swinging spider spins its web in full day.”
There are further connections. First, of course, there’s the hanging and weaving: Erigone, Ariadne and Arachne all hang themselves; Ariadne gives a ball of thread to Theseus to wind his way through the labyrinth; countless instances in poetry and myth mention the mainades refusing to weave, or temporarily leaving behind their loom and shuttle to run wild with the god, and Dionysos punishes the Minyades for refusing either to do this or to permit their slaves to. Secondly, Ariadne can be seen as a spider-like figure. She is Mistress of the Labyrinth, and the Labyrinth is a complex web of winding passages in which the victim gets lost and stuck and waits to be devoured by a ferocious creature. Dionysos himself possesses spider-like qualities. He is a hunter, but also patient. In Euripides’ Bakchai he teases and coaxes Pentheus, setting a trap for him and waiting for the foolish king to spring it upon himself. He taunts him, he gives him the rope to hang himself with – but he does not directly act against Pentheus, waiting for the king’s own base desires and self-destructive madness to surface. According to Aelian, when deer or other creatures are bitten by certain spiders, the only antidote that can cure the poison is wine. Why? Because like the spider’s venom, wine is a dangerous poison, a pharmakon with the power to heal or to kill.
Another interesting fact is that Dionysos’ cult was popular in Magna Graecia. Livy describes how it was introduced into Italy by a Greek prophet and how it involved ecstatic group dances and collective orgiastic rites. We have a good deal of information on the cult of Dionysos-Bacchus there (see Kerenyi’s Dionysos for a powerful evocation of this cult and its understanding of the god), including some lovely Apulian vases which depict young women who are either being initiated into his cult or are passing into the world of the dead. They have expressions of joy and sensuality; they are dressed up as if for a wedding, taken by hand by winged Erotes and guided to Dionysos in his role as lord of the dead. They are experiencing a marriage to death, at once sensual and ecstatic, full of life and full of death. They must leave behind this world and all of the limitations associated with it to experience a fullness of being that transcends our dualistic conceptions. This phrase ‘married to death’ is found countless times in poetry in connection to Dionysos – it is also, if I may be so bold, a large part of the theme of Anthesteria and of his mysteries generally. And it is also part of the folklore of the spider, especially the black widow who consumes her mate after having sex with him. He passes from the little death of orgasm into the bigger death of finality – and by so doing ensures the continuance of their species.
The same holds true for Dionysos – his mainades play a vital role in his existence. They are his nurses, his hunting companions, his brides – and in time, also his murderers, falling upon him and tearing him to pieces. But that is not the end, for they are also the ones who call him up from death back into life as the young god, that the cycle (and with it the vegetative fertility of the earth) may begin anew.
But that is not all. During the Middle Ages there was an outbreak of collective frenzy and uncontrollable ecstatic dancing. The cause of this was said to be the bite of the tarantula. People afflicted with this disease would become morose and depressed. They might even hang themselves, if they did not dance. And once they began dancing nothing could stop them until they heard one song, the song of the spider that had bit them. This mirrors something that Plato said: he mentions that the mainades are in a state of frenzy until they hear a particular tone, and that tone is the song of Dionysos. No other song will set them free. Interestingly, outbreaks of tarantism occurred in exactly the same localities that Dionysos had previously been worshiped in Southern Italy, specifically Apulian Taranto. I don’t believe that is simply an accident.