Cora Beth Fraser
In Ovid’s story of Narcissus and Echo, Narcissus’ mother goes to the prophet Tiresias and asks him whether Narcissus will live a long life. The answer comes back, “Yes, if he never knows himself.” But Narcissus looks into a pool, becomes obsessed with his own reflection and wastes away, and so Tiresias’ prophecy comes true: knowing himself too well is what brings about Narcissus’ downfall.
Recently I’ve been thinking about this; it hits close to home. I’ve been wondering whether, as Classicists, we’re often implicitly given a very similar warning: those of us from non-traditional backgrounds may have a long career, as long as we never know ourselves.
For me this started early – as early as my application process to university. I’m a Geordie from a proudly working-class family in a small northern ex-mining town. We have a distinctive accent where I come from, and certain words are a particular struggle to pronounce. I can’t say I ever gave the matter much thought before I started mingling with non-Geordies at university open days; but it soon became obvious, from the open-mouthed stares and suppressed laughter, that I wasn’t giving a great first impression when people asked me what I wanted to study and I replied, “La’un”.
Being sensitive to mockery, I quickly adjusted. I learned a few extra consonants, fixed my vowels so that they were less harsh, and slowed down my speech so that southerners could keep up. People didn’t stare any more, or laugh, and that was good. I adjusted my accent still further when, as a PhD student teaching a Beginner’s Greek group, I realised that my entire class had picked up enough of a Geordie Greek twang to raise eyebrows. These days my accent has faded away almost entirely into a kind of indeterminate Englishness, and (Echo-like) I only manage to recover it when I’m around other Geordies and can pick up my old speech patterns again.
It’s only recently that I’ve started to realise how much else I repressed along the way, and how earnestly I’ve tried not to know myself. Being a working-class Geordie is about more than just an accent. It’s a heritage of mixed friendliness and aggression which stems from our centuries of border warfare and a powerful sense of local pride, and which still persists in our outlook and attitude. It’s a very particular way of seeing the world.
I buried a lot of that heritage in order to pursue the right topics, to teach in the expected way and to have conversations which didn’t leave other Classicists looking startled. But like Narcissus, in looking at myself more closely I’ve become more and more intrigued, because I’m starting to see classical texts differently through the filter of my own reflection.
Spiders in the Pond
I’ve always been drawn to Ovid’s story of Arachne, in Book 6 of the Metamorphoses: the girl who challenges the goddess Minerva (a.k.a. Athena) to a weaving competition, and caps Minerva’s tapestry of the gods’ greatness with her own brilliant tapestry of Gods Behaving Badly – and is turned into a spider because of it. It’s a great story.
Arachne is often read as being an Ovid-like figure. Like Ovid, she is talented at weaving myths together into a complex picture; like Ovid, she presents the gods in all their deceptive, disruptive horror; and like poor Ovid, who was banished to the Back of Beyond by Augustus, she attracts through her art the hostility of someone too powerful to oppose. Arachne represents the danger of speaking truth to power – or of winding the wrong person up. So when we read the Arachne episode, it feels like an insight into the mind and experiences of Ovid – and that makes it an even better story.
Arachne also seems to offer us a lesson about actions and consequences. Challenging the gods leads to disaster. Pride goes before a fall. It’s dangerous to get too big for your boots. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Or something like that. The word ‘hubris’ flies around a lot, in summaries or discussions of her story.
But there’s something that bothers me about that lesson – and it took me a long time to put my finger on what it was. It wasn’t until I went back and re-read the text not as a Classicist, but as myself, with my Geordie working-class hat (a flat cap, obviously) firmly on my head, that I began to understand why I feel such a powerful need to hold Arachne’s coat.
Ovid starts off by telling us all about Arachne’s background. He tells us the name of her father and where he came from and that he dyes wool. Her mother is dead, but she was from a lower-class background too, just like her husband. They’re from a little house in a little town (Ovid puts the two adjectives, parva and parvis (6.13), right next to each other so that we can’t possibly miss this point), as well as being working class (that’s not a great translation of Ovid’s anachronistic de plebe (6.10), but I’m opting for it over the more usual “humble”, which seems startlingly inappropriate to this story). From this starting point, Arachne has built a reputation entirely through hard work and skill. Seen through that lens – which is offered by Ovid at the outset of his story, so that we always see Arachne as a product of her environment – Arachne comes across as strikingly real and quite rational in her actions.
Her initial confrontation with Minerva, for instance, is a model of proper small-town working-class behaviour which makes my Geordie soul proud. Minerva, hearing that Arachne has been claiming that she is a self-taught artist and that she has offered to compete with Minerva herself, comes to her disguised as an old woman whom she doesn’t know, and warns her that she ought not to challenge the goddess. Furthermore, she insists that Arachne should pray for forgiveness.
Arachne’s response is to confront the stranger, with fury in her face (the technical Geordie term for someone in this state is a radgie, in case you should ever want to write a proper translation of this passage), and she “scarcely held back her hand”. I love this: it’s such a familiar picture. Arachne’s first instinct, tough lass that she is, is to swing for the interfering old bat, but she doesn’t actually do it. She attacks the old woman verbally instead, to take her down a peg or two, and she does it brilliantly. In answer to the old woman’s claim that age brings experience, she responds that the woman’s brain has been addled by advanced age: a classic come-back to anybody claiming that age makes them wiser. The fun bit is the way she phrases it in Latin, which is one of the neatest insults I’ve ever seen in any language: she claims that the old woman is confecta senectā – ‘finished off by old age’. You don’t have to know Latin to see what a catchy insult confecta senectā is – and as a bonus, it sounds even better in a Geordie accent!
Arachne also makes the entirely reasonable point (at least in my town it would be reasonable) that the old woman is not a relative, and is therefore not entitled to give Arachne advice. She says, “Let your daughter-in-law, or your daughter – if you have them – listen to your words. I can think for myself.” Round here this would translate to the traditional expression Keep yer neb oot, hinny!; or, as Elizabeth Bennet says to Mr Darcy, “Keep your breath to cool your porridge.” Is this pride? Certainly. But (from both Lizzy and Arachne) it’s a defensive pride, prompted by the intrusion of a hostile stranger into a small community.
Then Arachne takes things a step too far: she calls Minerva chicken, without realising that the goddess is standing right in front of her. When she does realise, she’s rattled – but of course she can’t back down. Ovid calls it her stolida cupidine palmae, “a stupid desire for victory,” and that desire certainly is stupid – but the fact that Arachne “persists in what she had begun” is not necessarily either stupid or proud. In a tough world, backing down from a fight can lose you everything.
The weaving contest is fascinating on all kinds of levels, but one thing in particular that bothers me about the way people ‘read’ Arachne’s tapestry is the lack of acknowledgement of one very important fact: it could be worse. Think about it. If you were planning a work of art which would specifically antagonise the goddess Minerva, what would you include? There’s quite a list of possibilities – like the story that Minerva blinded Tiresias for seeing her bathing, or the cursing of Harmonia for the sins of her mother, or even the rather silly story that, after inventing the flute, she didn’t like the way her cheeks puffed up when she was playing it and threw it away, saying (according to Ovid in the Fasti), “Art is not worth this to me.”
Arachne doesn’t use any of this: not even the flute story, which would definitely be top of my list if I wanted to humiliate Minerva. In fact, despite Minerva including herself as a central figure in her own tapestry, Arachne keeps Minerva entirely out of her ‘celestial crimes’ tapestry. She goes to some lengths to do so, too. In her tapestry she features the attack on Medusa by Neptune (“the snaky-haired mother of the winged horse felt you [Neptune] as a winged bird”) – but she omits the well-known involvement of Minerva in this episode, sliding past it to focus on the wings of Neptune, the wings of Pegasus and the snakes of Medusa. Amongst all the animal references here, Minerva is clearly the elephant in the room.
So if Arachne doesn’t swing for Minerva, either physically or artistically, what does she include in her tapestry? Well, that’s where things get interesting. Arachne chooses to use her tapestry to attack the gods, not the goddesses, challenging their treatment of women, both human and semi-divine – and in doing so she opens up a chance for the lowly human woman and the goddess to find a common cause.
It’s not much of a common cause, admittedly. Her tapestry, however you look at it, is a disrespectful thing to present to one of the Olympian gods, and it contrasts sharply with the vision of order created by Minerva. But in its way it’s also a subtle compromise, a slim chance for both contestants to back off without losing face. It shifts the focus from a situation of female rivalry to a message about shared female vulnerability in the face of male violence and trickery. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
It could have worked. In the wider world of myth, Minerva was no stranger to sexual assault, famously going to great lengths to punish the rapist of Cassandra, and having herself been attacked by the god Vulcan. But of course it doesn’t work, because in the world of the Metamorphoses Minerva isn’t receptive to this particular appeal. Earlier in the Metamorphoses (4.793ff.) Ovid tells us in a bit more detail the story of the rape of Medusa by Neptune in the temple of Minerva. Minerva doesn’t come out of this story well:
aversa est et castos aegide vultus
nata Iovis texit, neve hoc impune fuisset,
Gorgoneum crinem turpes mutavit in hydros.
She turned away and covered her chaste face with her aegis,
Jove’s daughter, and so that the deed might not go unpunished,
she changed the Gorgon’s locks to dreadful snakes. (4.799–801)
It’s telling that Minerva is referred to in this brief story as “Jove’s daughter”. Her loyalty is shown to be with the male gods, and her response to their behaviour towards women is to turn away. She chooses to punish the offence rather than the offender; and then she compounds this by supporting Perseus in his quest to chop off Medusa’s head. So it’s not surprising that, in the Arachne story, Minerva doesn’t notice the common ground of female solidarity that Arachne has opened up, and instead her anger is triggered by Arachne’s insistence that she witness the very scene from which she had once turned away.
This is not a weaving contest: it never was. Ovid offers us no clear winner; both tapestries are extraordinary and faultless. There’s no judging, and no prize. This is really a story about a challenge and a fight between two characters who can’t back down, written by a poet who was himself from a small town (he describes his birthplace in Amores 2.16 as parva, the same word he uses repeatedly of Arachne’s home). It’s a subtle story and a psychologically complex one, and it’s full of moments recognisable to anyone who’s ever faced a fight they couldn’t win.
People – particularly in my own small town, where no form of Classics is taught at all these days – often ask me: “Why study Latin literature?” Or, more confrontationally, “So what’s wrong with English then?” What is the point of looking into a pool which will reflect only strangeness back at you?
They’re good questions. I usually just reply that I like the stories, and leave it at that; I’m no Arachne, and confrontation is not my style. But the story of Arachne gives me a chance to offer a fuller explanation.
Take, for example, the way this same story is set up in the enduringly popular Myths of Greece and Rome, by H. A. Guerber (1893):
In Greece there lived in those olden times a maiden by the name of Arachne. Pretty, young, and winsome, she would have been loved by all had it not been for her inordinate pride, not in her personal advantages, but in her skill as a needlewoman.
I’ll just let you sit with “pretty, young, and winsome” for a while, while I go and quietly vomit somewhere…
Even the otherwise brilliant Anthony Horowitz takes aim at poor Arachne, resurrecting her mother and endowing her with servants just so that she can be mean to them:
It is often the way that people who are particularly good at something are a little short on human kindness. Arachne had none at all. She was rude to her mother, quick-tempered with her servants and generally difficult and unfriendly.
In these versions Arachne is reduced to a ‘pretty but proud’ or ‘skilled but nasty’ figure – and these are just two of many reductive treatments. In our Anglophone interpretations we seem to have a need to recast her as a simple character with a universal moral message. We take away her strength, her origins, and the defiance that twines through her working-class roots like the entwined flowers and ivy in her tapestry’s border. We make her less. When I look at these English Arachnes, I see nothing I recognise; quite frankly they deserve to be turned into spiders.
When I look at Ovid’s Arachne, on the other hand, I see the proud working women from my childhood: fierce, uncompromising, ready for a fight. That’s why I read Latin literature – and why these days I choose to do so as myself, with all my background and heritage and missing consonants. When I look into that pool, it’s not strangeness looking back at me; it’s a web of subtle connections and half-glimpsed meanings which allow me to see myself in a world in which I never lived. That’s a special kind of magic.
Cora Beth Fraser is an Associate Lecturer with The Open University, teaching Classics to distance learners. She’s currently running an email interview series, Comfort Classics, and welcomes new readers and contributors!
For an introduction to the world and wit of Ovid, there’s no better place to start than Llewelyn Morgan’s recent Ovid: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2020). And if you’re interested in finding out more about the remarkable history of North-East England, do check out The Northumbrians: North-East England and Its People – A New History by Dan Jackson (Hurst & Co., 2019).
|⇧1||“si se non noverit” (Metamorphoses 3.347). This passage can be explored further here.|
|⇧2||The tale, as told by Ovid, can be read most conveniently here.|
|⇧3||vix[que] manum retinens (6.35).|
|⇧4||“audiat istas, / si qua tibi nurus est, si qua est tibi filia, voces; / consilii satis est in me mihi.” (6.38–40).|
|⇧5||This translation of 6.50 reflects a change made by the Classicist J.P. Postgate (1853–1926), whose contributions to the world include (via his grandson Oliver) Bagpuss. The manuscripts of Ovid’s Metamorphoses here give the genitive stolidae not ablative stolida, which would mean instead that Arachne had a passion for a “stupid victory/prize”.|
|⇧6||perstat in incepto (the first half of 6.50).|
|⇧7||“ars mihi non tanti est.” (Fasti 6.701); to read more of the episode, see Ovid’s discussion of the Ides (13th) of June (verses 649–710) here in Latin and here in English.|
|⇧8||“sensit volucrem crinita colubris / mater equi volucris.” (Met. 6.119–20).|
|⇧9||Ovid was palpably proud of his birthplace, Sulmo (modern Sulmona): Pars me Sulmo tenet Paeligni tertia ruris – / parva, sed inriguis ora salubris aquis. (“I’m in Sulmo, a third of the Paelignian countryside – a small region but a healthy one because of the waters irrigating it.”; Amores 2.16.1–2).|