A brief re-telling of the Myth of Arachne.
There are several different versions of that myth, but frankly, few of them end with anyone in particularly positive light. Most versions focus on Arachne’s undue pride and the perceived arrogance of calling the Gods on their actions. I wanted to explore the other side, where Arachne was doomed as soon as Athena showed up, no matter who wove better.
Arachne loved weaving from the first moment she touched a loom.
Part of that love, most likely, was due to her skill in the art, and the beautiful cloth and tapestries she wove. After all, what person does not take pride in a craft done well, or fail to relish in praise for their work?
Always, the young weaver offered due thanks to Athena, the patron of the textile arts, mindful of where her skill had come from. Athena was a maiden goddess, and Arachne’s skill with a loom was more valuable to her family than any benefit that she would bring through marriage. Arachne had no desire keep house, to bear child after child, though she did not mind the thought of teaching another girl to weave, one day in the distant future.
She considered herself married to her craft, and was happy to avoid becoming married to a mortal man for as long as she could. She did not mind the attention she gained from her weaving, the praise and flattery that flowed with each new tapestry.
“It must be a blessing from Athena,” some declared, “Though surely even the goddess herself must struggle to match such beauty!”
Arachne’s eyes widened at such proud words, and she hushed the speaker, though she did not correct him. “It is unwise to boast, good sir, even on behalf of another.”
Part of Arachne knew that she verged on hubris, to not tell them at once to cease such blasphemous remarks, but a larger part was too used to the adulation, preening in their admiration. Having been praised for most of her life, it seemed only a natural progression.
Perhaps if Athena heard them, She would appreciate Arachne’s work, she would accept the weaver into one of Her temples as a teacher or priestess. To spend the rest of her life weaving seemed no great punishment.
But Pride, as they say, comes before a fall, and repetition in large enough doses can cause belief. Slowly, Arachne came to believe the compliments, and rather than instruct admirers to give due credit to the goddess also, she preened and strived to be flattered further.
Arachne’s fame spread, and eventually came to the ears of the gods themselves. ‘Arachne is the greatest weaver of all’, the whispers claimed, ‘even Athena herself could not create such woven wonders.’
The Gods seldom involve themselves in mortal affairs, and Athena had previously given little notice to Arachne’s praise and thanks. The challenge to Athena’s superiority, however, she did hear, and paid attention to.
Still, she would not act in haste. Unlike certain of her family members, Athena was capable of learning from the past, and it wouldn’t be the first time a mortal had been punished by the gods for the action or boast of another.
Athena disguised herself as an ageing mortal woman, and descended from Olympus, arriving outside her own city of Athens. Arachne’s village was a few day’s travel away, but even here, Athena heard tales of Arachne’s skill on the loom.
The goddess passed a merchant on the road, who proudly displayed the blankets and tapestries that he claimed to be Arachne’s work. It was indeed fine, perhaps even equal to Athena’s work, but the Merchant’s word as he tried to sell her one quickly turned her admiration to annoyance. “The finest you’ll see in Greece, by my reckoning. Fit for Athena herself.”
Athena walked away before she could succumb to temper, making a note to see that the Merchant had something unpleasant happen in the near future. If the Morai had any kindness, the rest of those she encountered would be less profuse in their praise.
Arachne was weaving in the shade of an olive tree when Athena found her, humming quietly while she worked on a half-finished tapestry, and Athena almost smiled as she recognised Poseidon and herself, in competition over the patronage of Athens. “You have great skill, my dear. Surely Athena has blessed you.”
Arachne did not shift her eyes from her work - wise, for weaving requires focus - but she smiled. “Thank you. I flatter myself that study and practice helped me, also.”
Credit to Athena could have been implied in the thanks, but Athena had spent three days of every stranger she met praising Arachne in comparison to her own skill, and almost overwhelmingly in Arachne’s favour.
Her temper snapped, and she cast off her disguise, feeling a surge of satisfaction as Arachne dropped her shuttle and the mortal weaver’s crowd of admirers froze in shock. “So, you think yourself superior to a goddess, mortal? I see no great skill.”
The sensible thing for Arachne to do would have been to cast herself upon the earth and beg forgiveness, but her sudden anger was too great. After a lifetime of thanking Athena for the skill of weaving, why did she only notice Arachne’s skill when it threatened Athena’s own reputation? Countless tapestries and hours of prayer in praise of the gods, and when they deigned to notice, it was only to humiliate and punish.
Anger spurred her tongue to speech. “Then let us both weave a tapestry, O wise Athena, and let our audience judge whose work is superior.”
Grey eyes flashed at the challenge, “Very well, arrogant child,” she snapped her fingers at the villagers, who had been watching in silence, not wishing to draw Athena’s ire upon themselves. “You, bring me a loom. You, you shall serve as the judge.”
The miller ran to fetch a loom while the Headman clearly wished himself on the other side of the Aegean, but nodded his agreement. Arachne bowed mockingly, “Do you have your own thread, or do you need to borrow some of mine?”
For a moment, Arachne feared that the lightning in Athena’s eyes would incinerate her. The Goddess of Wisdom and Arts gritted her teeth. “To be fair, I will share yours. I wouldn’t want to claim unfair advantage.”
Arachne tried not to let her anger become visible, forcing herself to display what she hoped was an expression of smug confidence. Athena had started this, and obviously intended for it to finish with making an example. So be it.
How could the goddess cast aside her most devoted follower and call Arachne nothing? How could she mock the tapestries crafted with the very ability that Athena must have bestowed? It was plain that Athena felt herself wronged, and had little intention of allowing the mortal weaver to walk away.
Well, if Arachne was to be killed or cursed, she might as well do something to deserve it.
Picking up her shuttle and selecting the colours, she began to weave. Her work was as perfect as ever, so lifelike that an observer could be forgiven for thinking that the images would step out of the tapestry at any moment. Glancing at Athena’s work, even Arachne could see no difference in their skill.
The difference was in the subject matter. Athena wove the Gods defeating the Giants and Titans, herself and Ares guiding armies to war, Artemis turning Actaeon into a stag, Aphrodite emerging from the sea… images of the gods in their glory.
Arachne wove Daphne turning into a tree, Poseidon and Medusa, Demeter cursing the world to starve rather than let her daughter go, Hera punishing Zeus’s lovers… the gods in their less-admirable moments, and it was hardly Arachne’s fault that she was spoiled for choice.
If Arachne was to be punished for a god’s wounded pride, then she would number herself in good company. Her tapestry was a challenge and a statement of such audacity that it would go down as legend, and let Athena’s work top that!
The sun was beginning to set when the two weavers finished their work (Athena would not be surprised if her half-brother had been lingering in his chariot, waiting to see what happened) and stepped back to be judged.
In the privacy of her mind, Athena could see little difference, and admitted that Arachne’s claim of long practice might have merit. Perhaps she had spent too much time on her duties as a War Goddess, and should devote a little more to her patronage of the crafts.
What Arachne had woven, on the other hand… Athena would freely admit that sometimes the Olympians were too much like their followers, leading to errors of judgement, but for this mortal girl, already facing Athena’s wrath, to immortalise those errors in her weaving was intolerable!
With a cry of rage, Athena tore at Arachne’s tapestry, ripping it apart and reducing the frame of the loom to splintered pieces. The crowd scattered, their Headman in the lead, none of them willing to be present if Athena’s anger should spread beyond Arachne herself.
Arachne looked furious at the destruction of her work, but lifted her chin defiantly, meeting Athena’s blazing eyes squarely. When the goddess spoke again, she had cooled from fiery, impulsive rage to cold, calculated fury. “You wanted to weave like no other before you, and so you shall.”
Arachne tried to cry out as she felt herself shrinking, but all that emerged was a rustling, clicking sound. Her arms and legs splintered and shifted position on her suddenly much rounder body. Her vision changed, as though she were seeing out of several sets of eyes, and she tried to scream when she saw glimpses of her new body.
Athena picked her up, setting her in a branch of a pear tree, now only a fraction of the size of even the smallest fruit. “You have your wish. Your weaving will be beautiful, but you shall take no pride in it, for now you weave to survive. The name Arachne will become a legend of hubris, and all will look upon you and your work with revulsion.”
The goddess vanished before Arachne could reply, which was probably for the best. Slowly, with great care and precision, unused to the workings of her new body, Arachne drew forth a silken thread and began to weave.
Cursed to weave endlessly for shelter and food, creations of infinite skill and complexity, no two alike… yet marvelled at only when hung with dew or immortalised in frost. Alone, the webs were ignored, avoided or hastily swept aside. Only with the added blessing by a force much greater than humans or animals, did Arachne’s work become a thing of beauty, to be admired by all.
A pointed lesson, fitting for one who had been brought low by perceived hubris. Fitting as the revenge of a goddess whose pride had been wounded.
Yet weaving was still Arachne’s greatest joy, and she would never again have to fear loose tongues praising her to dangerous heights. Her children would continue Arachne’s work after she was gone (and Arachne had plans for impossible-to-reach webs throughout all of Athena’s temples and monuments that she could reach before she died...), and what better legacy could there be than that?
Perhaps it was not the ending Arachne had wished for, but it was better than the fate she had feared, better than most received, once the Gods became involved.
At least she still had her weaving and her life, however changed they may be.
If you enjoyed this, read more of my original work here, or leave a tip!