Let’s take a closer look at ego and how it can undermine even genuine talent. You don’t have to be a student of the Greek classics to notice that many of the myths have a consistent theme in the supposed correct relationship of humans to the gods: obedient, humble and deferential. There are many stories of what happens when mere mortals fail to know their place, but one of the most striking is the story of Athena and Arachne.
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Arachne was a shepherd’s daughter, who from a young age showed astounding skill at weaving. However, she was a boastful woman and didn’t acknowledge that her talents stemmed from, in part, the goddess Athena, who was patroness of weaving. To teach Arachne a lesson, Athena challenged her to a contest, but allowed her to gracefully bow out to save face. Arachne refused to step down, claiming that she was the best weaver and could beat even the goddess herself. Her attitude was what the ancient Greeks called hubris—an overreaching sense of arrogance.
At the contest, Athena weaved classical scenes of the god’s rebuking and punishing mortals who believed themselves on their level. Arachne depicted the god Zeus deceiving, tricking and even seducing mortals—a very cheeky statement indeed. The goddess, seeing this and noting also that Arachne’s work was indeed better than hers, was furious. She destroyed the weaving and struck Arachne, who was so ashamed that she soon hanged herself. Athena’s stern punishment was to turn Arachne into a spider (indeed her name means spider in ancient Greek), so she could spin for all eternity.
What are we to make of this tale? Here it’s important to note that the historical and cultural nuances of this story are complex, and carry themes of provoking authority and perhaps even a satirical poke at what was autocratic rule by Emperor Augustus at the time. Nevertheless, we can adapt this tale for more modern tastes quite easily.
Though few today will claim to seriously believe in “the gods,” the truth is that we do function with a fixed idea of external authorities that rule over our lives—our “gods” could be government, the various powers that be, “the rich,” the culture at large and its norms and values, the economy, the law, even natural scientific principles that are felt to reign over us in a more or less non-negotiable way.
By seeing the allegorical gods in Greek myths more as ideas, archetypes and beliefs, we can begin to uncover more depth to the story. Arachne’s transgression is clear: she’s arrogant, and immature. Her overconfidence allows her to see herself as the sole cause of her success, rather than acknowledging that luck, fate or the support of others might have played a role, too.
Rather than being grateful for her abilities, she is cocky and boastful. She is like a student who precociously challenges their master, completely forgetting that the master has taught them so much of what they know, or a cheeky young child mocking his parents for being boring and uncool, not realizing that his parents are that way in part because they’ve worked so hard to provide for him!
A crucial detail in this story is that Arachne is actually right—she is a better weaver than the goddess and proves it. She accurately shows an unflattering portrait of Zeus himself, criticizing his behavior to mortals. But this does nothing to stop the outcome of the story. In fact the goddess, doubly enraged by the impetuosity, punishes her even more harshly where she was willing to forgive in the beginning. Does this really mean that the tale is telling us to fold and submit to higher authorities, even when they are wrong and we are right?
One of the lessons here is an uncomfortable one: being right doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get what you want in life. We can imagine a modern-day analogy: a plucky young intern joins a powerful company and starts to challenge the bosses, stepping out of line, disobeying orders and publicly disparaging the entire way the company does business.
He may well be right, but those in charge aren’t likely to respond well to his attitude, and he may quickly find himself out of a job and even blacklisted. The fact that he legitimately knew better won’t figure into the story—it’s his nerve and condescending attitude that earn him a smiting from the “gods.” The intern fails to properly understand that his role in the organization, his salary and his position, all come from those higher up.
He may not agree with everything they say, but it is certainly unwise to flagrantly challenge them. Ultimately they still have the power, just as Athena has the power to completely destroy Arachne, whether she won the contest or not.
This interpretation can seem a little discouraging to those who like to imagine that the world always rewards truth and honesty, but again here the more subtle message is the power of patience, moderation and self-control. Arachne simply doesn’t think about what she’s doing. She knows she’s right, she’s prideful and full of herself, and never stops to imagine how things may play out for her.
Let’s imagine the gods and goddesses as more abstract principles. Have you ever known anyone who railed and fought relentlessly against, for example, the government, religion, culture, the law, other people in general? Those people who always felt themselves to be in the right, those know-it-alls who seldom respect others, in particular if those others are in positions of authority? This is a rebellious, haughty person who likes to push back against business as usual, the higher-ups… or anything, really.
If we understand the gods to be symbolic principles of a natural universal order, a person who challenges this is someone who doesn’t respect forces greater than himself. Perhaps he’s a daredevil with no care for his own mortality, and essentially challenges the gods to a contest every time he performs some reckless stunt.
Maybe he’s a haughty scientist who boldly claims that there simply are no “gods,” only the rational world of science, which he will soon get the better of using nothing more than his own intellect (a version of the myth that’s perhaps a little more relevant for modern audiences?) He might be a person who can’t be bothered learning about history or the lessons of his ancestors, and so condemns himself to repeat their mistakes (i.e. he is punished).
In any case, a person who doesn’t properly respect the larger order around them, including the rank and position of their “betters,” is inviting a serious reprimand. Of course, nobody would suggest that there’s no room for challenging the old ways, for innovation, creativity and new ideas. And the myths don’t seem to say that the gods are unreasonable or have an illegitimate rule over mortals. Rather, it’s a question of attitude: Arachne has little self-control and zero humility. Her ego rages over her self-discipline. She is talented, but what does it amount to if she insists on being so haughty about the fact?
We can learn from Arachne and her mistakes. The unfortunate fact is that all of us have to live in a world of hierarchies, and there will always be people in power who we are required to defer to. Beyond that, there are universal laws that we simply cannot push back against, and shouldn’t. The myth is not about whether this is wrong or right, however (or indeed about what’s “fair”). Rather, it’s about the smart way to deal with things. History is littered with people who had genius ideas but who lacked the tact and strategy to get them implemented. Diplomacy and the right attitude can go a very long way!
If the myth of Arachne resonates with you, you might like to get in the self-discipline habit of setting aside the question of who is “right.” It’s always a good idea in any social interaction to be respectful where it matters, courteous and humble, and understand that even if you are right, it’s seldom helpful to brag about it.
The mark of maturity is knowing when and how to practice a little self-restraint—and how to hold your tongue even if you’re itching inside to prove that you know better! With wisdom, we find the discipline to act in the interests of harmony and good diplomacy, and we trump vanity or our ego’s need to feel vindicated. Do you ever carry on and on with an argument, unable to let it go unless you’ve thoroughly “won” and the other person acknowledges it? Take a page from Arachne’s book and let it go.
At the end of the myth, Arachne is no longer human, and is condemned arguably to weave creations that are nowhere near as beautiful as the ones she once made. This is the old advice to never “bite the hand that feeds you.” Arachne, for all her impressive skill, derives her talent from the gods, who can swiftly take it away again.
Arachne’s falls from her arrogant position, and her ultimate humiliation is to be stripped of the skills she was so ready to boast about. In the same way, people who are arrogant and barge ahead without a second thought often find themselves in a much-weakened position. A daredevil young person may be overconfident and reckless with their own lives, but in doing so, the gods can take that life away again, showing that it always belonged to them in the first place.