Intro: I have to admit…I used to think the Greek & Roman myths colossally boring. The originals must have been so much better than the watered-down versions I was reading. I decided to retell a very old translation of Ovid’s “Arachne” in contemporary (thought still formal) language. It’s not my usual style, but give it a try anyway. It’s a humdinger of a story.
Once there was a man named Idmon, from the land of Lydia, east of the Aegean Sea. Though of humble birth, he became renowned for the purple dyes that he used to color fine wool and linen. He married, but his wife died not long after the birth of their daughter.
As it turned out, the abilities of the father, though great, were trifling compared to those of his daughter. She became a weaver. And so extraordinary was her talent, and so devoted was she to her craft, that she was famous not only throughout Lydia, but in all the neighboring countries as well. And not to mortals only. Even the nymphs and naiads came from hillsides and streams to admire both the finished tapestries and the skill with which she practiced her craft: the way she drew the design, wound yarn into balls, turned the spindle, threw the shuttle between the threads of the warp.
Surely her talent was a gift from Athena, the goddess of weaving although the young woman bristled at the suggestion:
“Athena? Nonsense! I have worked hard and long to master my craft. Never once have I asked her for help. Never once has she stopped by to offer any. How strange that she now expects recognition from me! Truly no one, not even Athena, weaves as well as I.”
The girl continued: “Understandable. She’s no doubt busy with other chores, being goddess of wisdom, pottery, shipbuilding and heaven knows what else. As for me, I have one talent, one craft. And I devote my life to it.”
Whenever she spoke words like these, a shudder rattled the bones of everyone who heard her. Such disrespect for the goddess. Such arrogance. And heaven help the person who dared suggest she should be indebted to the goddess for her talents. For the girl would cast a withering eye in the offender’s direction and spew out a torrent of more angry words, ending with a taunt:
“Let the goddess come—if she cares and if she dares—and we will have a contest. I’ll accept my fate if I lose. For I cannot.”
As you all well know, it’s a dangerous mistake to challenge a goddess, especially a goddess as powerful and proud as Athena. The goddess herself appeared before the weaver, disguised as an old, frail woman with silver-gray hair, bent over, hobbling with a cane. Her voice cracked with age:
“My dear girl. Please, listen to the advice of an old woman. Your extraordinary skills are not due to diligence alone. The aptitude of your fingers, eyes, and mind for weaving are gifts you received from the goddess Athena. Ask forgiveness of her for your arrogant words. She will surely respond with kindness.”
The proud young woman only stopped her spindle long enough to wheel to face the old woman and say:
“You babbling old fool! It’s easy to see from your words that you’ve lived too long. If you’d like to give worthless advice to someone, perhaps you have a wayward daughter who will listen to you, or a lame-brained niece. As for me, I have work to do. Tell your goddess, don’t bother to send senile old women to chat. Tell her to come herself to challenge me any time. I’m ready.”
And the girl turned back to her work. In the next moment, the bent old woman had disappeared and the goddess showed herself in her true form. She towered high above the girl and glowed with a heavenly light. Only the briefest blush showed on the girl’s face at the transformation. The time for kindly advice and forgiveness was over. The challenge was accepted.
This would be a contest worthy of the gods. Straightaway, both Athena and the girl prepared their looms. Each tied the delicate but strong threads of the warp, using hollow canes to space the threads perfectly. They threw the shuttle across to form the woof so rapidly the eye could scarcely follow. And quickly, expertly, each drew the comb-like sly down upon each row. Horizontally, vertically each stitch was perfectly spaced, one row after another.
And, oh, the consummate artistry of the designs. Those magnificent designs! And the colors! The many shades of rose, green, purple, and gold. Close up, the people watching could not distinguish differences, so close was one shade to the next, but from a little distance, the designs appeared, one color blending imperceptibly into the next. The stories in the weaving took shape.
Athena depicted the contest between her and Poseidon for the naming of the city of Athens. There, in the middle, was Zeus in all his glory, surrounded by the other gods. And above was the olive tree, the gift that won the contest for her, so that Athens was named for her. Round it all were olive leaves. And as a warning to this impetuous girl, she wove a story in each of the four corners of the tapestry. Mortal women who challenged the gods could expect to be punished by losing their human form. In one corner, a woman was changed to a crane, in another to a stork. In a third to mountains, in the last, girls changed to marble steps.
But the girl boldly wove a design no less intricate and brilliant in her own tapestry. And the stories woven in the threads? Here were Zeus and Poseidon and other gods, all changed in form, to bull or stallion or ram, to eagle, or swan, or fowl, to flame or stream or liquid gold, to satyr or shepherd, dolphin or snake. All raping innocent mortal women, all abusing the power of the gods. (Around the border, she wove flowers and ivy.)
How scandalous the scenes, how insulting to the gods. Athena cried out:
“Arachne! How dare you!”
The goddess took her spindle and struck the girl across her forehead more than once. And whether Athena was angry at the insult woven in the threads or whether she was angry that a mortal’s skill was equal to her own, I don’t know.
In the next moment, Arachne ran for a coil of rope nearby and hanged herself. And whether she was furious at the injustice she supposed was done to her or whether she felt shame at the immensity of her grievous offense, I don’t know.
But Athena did not let her die. Instead she sprinkled her with the magical juices of the aconite plant and Arachne was restored to life. Her long, golden hair fell off her head. Her fingers stretched into many scrawny legs. Her head shrank towards her body, and her body shriveled and darkened until nothing was left but a shell for a bag of thread that she and her descendants, the spiders, those master weavers, must spin forevermore.
And whether Athena let her live out of pity—or an impulse of dark revenge to punish her and her descendants forever, that, also, I do not know.
Copyright by Margaret French