Category: Classics & Creative Writing
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‘Did you ever wonder why the spider’s web sparkles with dew before morning?’  Some of the younger girls at the front of the circle shook their heads, but most of us nodded.  Penthesilea shouted out ‘They are Arachne’s tears’.  I looked across at the beautiful girl of about my age, and as our eyes met I could feel myself blush.  I hoped that this would appear to be the glow of the firelight. 

The attention of the company turned to my mother, who began the story of Arachne and Athena.

‘There once was a girl called Arachne, who lived far away in a village in Lydia.  Arachne wasn’t rich; her father was a dyer of wool, and he loved his daughter very much, even more since her mother had gone to the underworld, but he didn’t have much money for a dowry.  Neither was Arachne very  beautiful.  She had pretty dark brown eyes, but her hair was too black and straight, and she was a little too short and a little too plump, compared with the prettiest girls in the village.  Her step was too heavy for dancing and her voice was too shrill for singing.  Her father was afraid she might never get a husband. 

But Arachne was remarkable in one respect; she was an expert at working with wool.  Perhaps it was because her earliest memory was of playing with the wool in her father’s workshop.  Or perhaps it was because of her exhaustive imagination, as she saw fantastic pictures in her mind and had the skill to recreate them in her weaving.  People came from miles around to watch her work, and to admire the finished tapestries.  It must be a gift from the gods, they said, a gift from Athena.  No said Arachne, it is my skill, and my skill alone.  I doubt that Athena could match me, in the beauty of her work.  Should she deign to come down from Mount Olympus for a contest, and then we will see who is the most skilled.

It was not long before the news came to Mount Olympus of this proud girl who was an expert at working with wool.  As you all know, Athena was not a goddess to be slighted, and so she disguised herself as an old woman and came down to Lydia to meet Arachne.  Athena warned Arachne that she should humbly beg forgiveness from the goddess, as all handicrafts are Athena’s gifts to mortals, and are bestowed by Athena alone.  Arachne did not recognise the goddess, and told the old woman it is my skill, and my skill alone.  Why doesn’t Athena come here herself to take part in a contest, she asked, and then we will see who is the most skilled.  An angry Athena revealed herself in her shining armour and her aegis, and accepted the challenge.

Arachne was not afraid of the goddess, and they agreed that the contest would begin at once.  Each had a loom, and the best wools, from Arachne’s father’s workshop.  Each worked expertly and quickly.  Athena wove a picture of the twelve Olympian gods, and the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the patronage of Athens.  The olive tree alone was a marvel to behold, and before it stood a perfect copy of Athena in her shining armour and her aegis.  In the corners of the tapestry were the stories of gods and mortals, each one a work of art.  Her picture was finally completed with a border of olive branches, which brought together the composition, a symbol of peace, and a gift bestowed by the gods.

Arachne also chose the gods as her subject, but while Athena showed the gods to be stately and wise, Arachne wove a different story.  In her picture, just as expertly woven as Athena’s, she depicted Europa seduced by Zeus the bull, and Leda seduced by Zeus the swan, and many more of the gods’ seductions of many other mortal girls.  Poseidon was there, and Apollo, and Dionysos.  All were lifelike, and wondrous to behold.  But the girls all looked back to their friends, and the fear could be seen on their faces.  For her border Arachne weaved flowers and ivy, the flowers representing the maidens plucked by the gods in the first bloom of their youth.

Athena looked at the tapestry, and was jealous of Arachne’s craft.  More than jealous, she was angered that Arachne could so insult her father Zeus and all the gods, by making such a picture.  She had hidden under her aegis a bottle which contained the juice of a magical herb.  She threw a few drops at Arachne, and Arachne’s long black hair started to cover her whole body.  Her body became plumper and her legs became thinner.  And in little more than an instant Arachne was turned into a spider.  Arachne and her children are still skilled at weaving but instead of making tapestries they can only make the spider’s web.  And if you ever see the dewdrops that form on the web of a spider you will know that these are the tears of Arachne’.

All of the women around the campfire clapped, and asked for another story.  But that night when we had returned to our tent I asked my mother why we still prayed to Athena, if she did not care for the suffering of mortal girls.