Arachne’s Punishment – Gustave Doré

Leviticus and Deuteronomy, they are funny old books aren’t they, full of things that will get you a one way ticket to eternal punishment. Some things are so inconsequential in today’s views too….like don’t eat shellfish, or don’t wear mixed textiles. Which is surprising for a book where the theme is to love thy neighbour, do unto others as you would have them do to you, and not wanting to see people go poor or hungry. I can’t help thinking that these guys had nothing better to do with their time that pass judgement on those around them. This leads me on to thinking about where they would come in the punishment stakes, you know, if I’m wrong and my time comes, am I going to end up next to a mass murderer while I’m punished for eating a prawn and wearing a bit of polyester?

Dante Alighieri seemed to have struck on something to combat this in his epic poem ‘The Divine Comedy’, written in the 1300’s this is deemed one of the worlds greatest literary pieces. The poem took around 12 years to write and is an imaginative journey through the afterlife, split in to 3 sections, Hell (Or inferno) purgatory, and paradise (or heaven if you’re so inclined).

In this arena the afterlife is split in to layers….or circles, each with varying levels of sin and punishment. There is no way I will be able to do this poem justice in one Saturday morning blog, so I’ll just give a general round up before I talk about Doré and why Arachne ended up in one of this visions of purgatory.


Dante is accompanied by the poet Virgil on his journey through the realms, and each sin within the inferno section is punishable by some form of poetic justice, for example, in Canto XX fortune tellers and soothsayer, who spent their lives looking to the future and what is ahead, are punished by having to walk around with their heads on backwards, never being able to see what is right in front of them.

The allegory of the inferno is about seeing what the sins really are. Three types of sin appear in this section, the violent, the self indulgent and the malicious. These are covering things like, lust, anger, gluttony, avarice, fraud and treachery. I like the part in this where bringers of bloodshed are made to spend their eternity in a boiling river of blood. The depth that they stand in the river depicted by how much bloodshed they brought in their life. If they try to escape, centaurs are on hand to push them back to the river.

Limbo is also one of the areas of hell… not so much as punishment place, but it is for those who are without sin, but did not believe. Philosophers, ‘ignorant’ pagans and unbaptised children reside here.


Once Dante and Virgil make it through Hell, they are faced with the mount of purgatory. The mount is on an island and is made from a rock which was displaced during Satan’s fall from paradise. This part has particular historical importance, as star positioning and changes of them are talked of, which indicates the understanding of a spherical globe and how the environment was changing due to the rotation of the earth. There is also displayed knowledge of time zones as it’s discussed about sunset in Jerusalem, midnight at the river Ganges and sunrise in purgatory.

Purgatory differs from Hell as the sins are more psychological than physical, rooted in the motive rather than the action and revolve around the seven deadly sins. Love is a heavy theme in the Divine comedy and frames the sins on the mount, displaying that while the love from god is pure, it can become sinful in the hands of humans. This is seen through wrath, envy and pride along with lust, gluttony and greed. All sins which demonstrate too much love for something, whether it be wealth, a person, food or oneself. Sloth is the only one which displays not enough love for something.


The final phase, Dante is guided through the structure of paradise, based around the four cardinal virtues and three theological virtues. The first seven spheres of heaven deal with prudence, fortitude, justice and temperance. The eight circle, faith, hope and love. Finally reaching the peak, Dante sees god and in a flash receives true understanding that he cannot express. Christ’s divinity and humanities mysteries are unraveled and Dante’s soul becomes aligned with gods love.

Ultimately this is a story of a man who lost faith, and how it is regained, in a fascinating and imaginative style.

So how did Arachne end up in purgatory?

Arachne was a shepherd’s daughter who from an early age was a talented weaver. As she got older she boasted that her skill was greater than Athena’s, and refused to acknowledge that her skill came in part from the goddess herself. This, quite obviously, got under Athena’s skin, so she set up a contest between them. Appearing as an old women, she approached Arachne as she was boasting and suggested that she cease her claims and beg forgiveness so that Athena would spare her soul. Arachne scoffed at this, not realising that she was speaking to Athena, and says that if Athena thought otherwise, she should come down and challenge her. At this Athena reveals herself and the pair begin to weave. Athena weaves a scene which depicts a contest between mortals and gods and the gods punish the mortals for setting themselves as equals, Arachne weaves a scene which shows the ways in which the gods mislead and abuse mortals, in particular how Zeus tricks and seduces many women.

Athena, seeing that Arachne had not only insulted the gods, but had some so in a work far more beautiful than her own, rips the finished item to shreds and then hit Arachne on the head three times in rage.

So ashamed by this ordeal, Arachne hung herself, but Athena took a little pity on her, reviving the body, but sprinkling it with Hecate’s herb, Athena casts her punishment on Arachne, live on but hang….as the spell on Arachne takes affect, her hair fallen out and her nose and ears drop off as her head shrinks, and her long slender fingers become legs on the side of a bulbous body, from which she can spin from. Arachne’s fate for her and her descendants was to be a spider.

This display of pride is one of the seven deadly sins and plants Arachne in the depths of purgatories terrace of pride.

Doré’s representation of the terrace of pride, in this one plate of 136 engravings made for the Divine comedy, shows Arachne in her partial spider form, a result of her pride and its downfall. Virgil and Dante look over her, while in the background a solider has fallen on his own sword. Around them other suffers of pride, dip their heads or look to the heavens depending of the level of pride at death.

Doré created beautifully haunting engravings to accompany this epic poem, but incorporated many images which were drawn from Greek and Roman influence. Bringing well known sinners to the forefront of his work, and transporting the viewer to Dante’s world.


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