Homer is of course no feminist. Penelope’s cunning intelligence offers her a means of resisting her suitors, but it also makes her a good match for her husband’s own mental agility. She complements rather than challenges him. The dangerous potential of her craft is neutralized by her use of it to reinforce Odysseus’s patriarchal authority. Odysseus in fact remains skeptical of his wife as he cautiously reintegrates himself into his house. His beggar’s disguise allows him to put her through a series of tests; only when he is certain no other man has been in his bed does he finally reveal himself to her. Even in faithful Penelope there is the lurking danger that she may outcraft him.
Ovid’s most famous weaver is Arachne, who surpasses all women in wool-work. She boldly challenges Minerva, herself intent on demonstrating her fearsome power, to a contest of skill. Arachne’s tapestry is the work of an artist in her prime, and it finds a parallel in Ovid’s own “fine-spun” epic song. Like Ovid’s poem, it depicts the rapes of women, especially those perpetrated by gods. Minerva’s tapestry, however, also evokes Ovid’s text; it shows us, just as Ovid has, the might of the gods and the sufferings of those who challenge them. The story puts into competition two opposing views of art: one subverts established power and the other enforces it.
Ovid makes it clear that Arachne is the superior artist: “The golden virago, incensed at Arachne’s spectacular success, ripped the fabric apart with all its embroidery of celestial crimes.” Minerva violently strikes Arachne, then transforms her into a voiceless spider whose webs no longer have the power to articulate resistance. Outmaneuvered by such craft, the powerful have recourse only to brute force, but they cannot quell speech entirely: “All of Lydia buzzed with the story, which spread through Phrygia, too, and filled the world with talk.”
Ovid does not tell us how these talkers interpret the story, whether they draw the lesson of Arachne’s tapestry or Minerva’s. But the final act of defiance is achieved whenever anyone grants the win to Arachne; artist, object, and interpreter join together in an unruly alliance of which we can still be a part.