The Muses’ story makes Minerva realize that she also needs to demand praise from those who dare to deny her power. She thinks of Arachne, a girl who has become famous because of her artistry. However, Arachne claims to have become great at weaving all on her own without the help of Minerva—goddess of weaving. Arachne suggests a contest between herself and Minerva, confident that she will win.
Arachne angers Minerva by claiming to be independently skillful at weaving. The gods believe that they are each—as pillars of certain activities and virtues—responsible for the expressions of those activities and virtues in the human world. Arachne’s pride in her own skill is therefore a sin in the gods’ eyes.
Minerva disguises herself as an old woman and tells Arachne to pay tribute to Minerva. Arachne may be the best human weaver, but she isn’t better than Minerva. Arachne ignores the woman, telling her that she’s too old to give advice. Minerva then reveals her identity. Arachne blushes, but refuses to cancel the contest. Minerva and Arachne set up their looms and begin expertly weaving beautiful multi-colored wool.
When Arachne believes that she’s in the presence of an old woman, she is confident in her superiority to Minerva. When Minerva reveals her identity, however, Arachne falters. Although her pride leads her to remain confident in herself, it is clearly much easier to claim to be better than the gods when one can’t see them.
Minerva weaves a tapestry that depicts the gods wielding their particular powers. In the center, she depicts herself producing olive trees while the gods watch, impressed. In two corners of the tapestry, she depicts two mountains that represent two mortals who once aspired to be Jupiter and Juno. In the other two corners, she depicts two women who competed with Juno and were turned into birds.
Minerva’s tapestry portrays the gods as all-powerful beings who justly punish those who try to usurp them. Her tapestry serves as a warning to humans not to aspire to the heights of the gods and reminds them that they will be punished—transformed—as the result of any arrogance.
Arachne weaves a tapestry that depicts Jupiter kidnapping Europa in the disguise of a bull. She depicts many other women whom Jupiter kidnapped and raped by disguising himself to trick them. She depicts Neptune’s deceptions and affairs, and shows Apollo and Bacchus disguising themselves to overpower women. Not even the goddess of envy could have criticized Arachne’s skillful tapestry.
Like Minerva’s, Arachne’s tapestry also portrays the gods’ ability to transform and be transformed. However, Arachne’s tapestry suggests that this power does not make the gods great. Instead, since the gods abuse their power in unjust ways towards humans, it’s actually questionable whether the gods deserve universal praise.
Furious at her rival’s success, Minerva rips up Arachne’s tapestry. She then fastens a halter around Arachne’s neck and suspends her in the air. She decides to spare Arachne’s life, but she turns her into a spider, forced to weave webs for the rest of her life.
Although Arachne’s tapestry is clearly superior to Minerva’s, Minerva shows Arachne that she is better than her by transforming her. From the standpoint of sheer power, the gods are always superior to humans, even if they are less virtuous.