Tapestries, Technology, and Mythology

The About section explains the title of my blog, but I didn’t have an easy time arriving at it, and The Accidental Cyborg wasn’t my first choice. Rather, what popped into my mind first was the story of Athena and Arachne.

The Myth – Athena and Arachne

As with any mythological story, many versions have been told through the centuries, but perhaps the most well-known was related by Ovid in Metamorphoses, Book VI. (Ovid uses Minerva rather than Athena here, but the story is derived from the ancient Greek, so I will use Athena as I summarize.) As the story goes, Arachne was an amazingly talented weaver and capable of creating the most beautiful clothes and tapestries. She boasted that she was so good that her work was superior to the goddess Pallas Athena, patroness (among other things) of weaving.

Athena learned of Arachne’s boast and came to her disguised as an old woman. She warned the young woman to curb her hubris, but Arachne became scornful and insisted that she was the best. Athena then threw off her disguise and challenged Arachne to a contest. In Ovid’s version, Athena recognizes that Arachne’s tapestry is more beautiful and her weaving more skillful. In anger, Athena turns Arachne into a spider.

I like the myth for a number of reasons related to technology.

Technology and Technê

When I tell people I study and write about technology, they jump immediately to computers, electronics, and cell phones. Technology is broader than that, I try to tell them; it includes every item (artifact) and process that people have ever created. Heidegger, in his famous essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” describes the ancient idea of technê:

There was a time when it was not technology alone that bore the name technê. Once that revealing that brings forth truth into the splendor of radiant appearing was also called technê. Once there was a time when the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful was called technê. And the poiêsis of the fine arts was also called technê. (1)

Heidegger seems to make a distinction between the ancient arts and crafts and the technology that we think of as modern. I understand his point, and for that reason I wanted to highlight the idea of technê as handcraft, creation, and art – just as the tapestries of Athena and Arachne illustrate.

Yet, I am not so pessimistic as Heidegger, and I don’t see a clear distinction between ancient and modern technologies. We human beings have always created and crafted nature for our purposes. There have always been both positive and negative effects. We have always been capable of destroying our world (as we understand it at the time) and of making great things that save us. I want to write about it all.

And that leads me to the second reason.

Weaving Stories

Both Athena and Arachne weave tapestries that create images of the gods. As Ovid describes, Athena shows the gods in glorious deeds, but Arachne depicts the gods in acts of deception and rape. The contrast is open to numerous interpretations, especially in terms of theology. Has Arachne been blasphemous? Or is Athena in denial? Is the truth a matter of interpretation? Good questions all.

In weaving the tapestries, the two women express starkly different perspectives of the world they see around them. I propose that the creation of technology is an expression of humankind, of how we see the world and how we want to see the world.

The tapestry has long been a metaphor for not only for the telling of stories but also for the creation, direction, or sustenance of lives. In Greek and Roman mythology, the Three Fates were often depicted as spinning and weaving the destinies of the lives of mortals. And there are others throughout the world closely associated with cloth-making, such as  HoldaNeith, and the Valkyries. Then here’s Penelope from the Odyssey, who controlled her own destiny, by weaving. In more modern stories, we might add Madame Defarge of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, whose knitting abets the revolution.

Is it coincidence that so many stories and myths put women at the loom? This brings me to my third reason.

Women and Technology

As the mythology highlights, women have always been involved in the creation and use of technology, even if in disguise, behind the scenes, or otherwise marginalized. So, yes, there’s a little bit of feminism involved in my attraction to the story of Athena and Arachne. I haven’t done any formal study of feminism, but in this blog I naturally bring a female perspective to the study of technology, society, and culture.

The Hilanderas (The Spinners)

The image above shows a painting called The Hilanderas by the Spanish painter, Diego Velázquez (about 1657). It depicts the contest between Athena and Arachne. It’s displayed at the Museo del Prado in Madrid. I have never been there, but thanks to the technologies of photography and the internet, I can view it and learn about it.

Another mention: Carole King, Tapestry.

References

(1). Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other, trans. by William Lovitt, New York: Harper Perennial, 1977,  p. 34.