There was a contest, in which a mortal dared to come in competition with Athena. That mortal was Arachne, a maiden who had attained such skill in the arts of weaving and embroidery that the nymphs themselves would leave their groves and fountains to come and gaze upon her work. It was not only beautiful when it was done, but beautiful also in the doing.
To watch her, as she took the wool in its rude state and formed it into rolls, or separated it with her fingers and carded it till it looked as light and soft as a cloud, or twirled the spindle with skilful touch, or wove the web, or, after it was woven, adorned it with her needle, one would have said that Athena herself had taught her. But this she denied, and could not bear to be thought a pupil even of a Goddess. "Let Athena try her skill with mine," said she; "if beaten I will pay the penalty." Athena heard this and was displeased. She assumed the form of an old woman and went and gave Arachne some friendly advice. "I have had much experience, said she, and I hope you will not despise my counsel. Challenge your fellow-mortals as you will, but do not compete with a Goddess. On the contrary, I advise you to ask her forgiveness for what you have said, and as she is merciful perhaps she will pardon you." Arachne stopped her spinning and looked at the old dame with anger in her countenance. "Keep your counsel, said she, "for your daughters or handmaids; for my part I know what I say, and I stand to it. I am not afraid of the Goddess; let her try her skill, if she dare venture." "She comes," said Athena; and dropping her disguise stood confessed. The nymphs bent low in homage, and all the bystanders paid reverence. [Image: Athena's Epiphany]
Arachne alone was unterrified. She blushed, indeed; a sudden color dyed her cheek, and then she grew pale. But she stood to her resolve, and with a foolish conceit of her own skill rushed on her fate. Athena forbore no longer nor interposed any further advice. They proceed to the contest. Each takes her station and attaches the web to the beam. Then the slender shuttle is passed in and out among the threads. The reed with its fine teeth strikes the woof into its place and compacts the web. Both work with speed; their skilful hands move rapidly, and the excitement of the contest makes the labor light. Wool of Tyrian dye is contrasted with that of other colors, shaded off into one another so adroitly that the joining deceives the eye. Like the bow, whose long arch tinges the heavens, formed by sunbeams reflected from the shower, in which, where the colors meet they seem as one, but a little distance from the point of contact are wholly different.
Athena wrought on her web the scene of her contest with Poseidon. Twelve of the heavenly powers are represented, Zeus, with august gravity, sitting in the midst. Poseidon, the ruler of the sea, holds his trident, and appears to have just smitten the earth, from which a horse has leaped forth. Athena depicted herself with helmed head, her Aegis covering her breast. Such was the central circle; and in the four corners were represented incidents illustrating the displeasure of the Gods at such presumptuous mortals as had dared to contend with them. These were meant as warnings to her rival to give up the contest before it was too late.
Arachne filled her web with subjects designedly chosen to exhibit the failings and errors of the Gods. One scene represented Leda caressing the swan, under which form Zeus had disguised himself; and another, Danae, in the brazen tower in which her father had imprisoned her, but where the God effected his entrance in the form of a golden shower. Still another depicted Europa deceived by Zeus under the disguise of a bull. Encouraged by the tameness of the animal Europa ventured to mount his back, whereupon Zeus advanced into the sea and swam with her to Crete, You would have thought it was a real bull, so naturally was it wrought, and so natural the water in which it swam. She seemed to look with longing eyes back upon the shore she was leaving, and to call to her companions for help. She appeared to shudder with terror at the sight of the heaving waves, and to draw back her feel, from the water.
Arachne filled her canvas with similar
subjects, wonderfully well done, but strongly marking her presumption and
impiety. Athena could not forbear to admire, yet felt indignant at the
insult. She struck the web with her shuttle and rent it in pieces; she
then touched the forehead of Arachne and made her feel her guilt and shame.
She could not endure it and went and hanged herself. Athena pitied her
as she saw her suspended by a rope. "Live," she said, "guilty
woman! and that you may preserve the memory of this lesson, continue to
hang, both you and your descendants, to all future times." [Image:
strikes Arachne] She sprinkled her with the juices of aconite, and
immediately her hair came off, and her nose and ears likewise. Her form
shrank up, and her head grew smaller yet; her fingers cleaved to her side
and served for legs. All the rest of her is body, out of which she spins
her thread, often hanging suspended by it, in the same attitude as when
Athena touched her and transformed her into a spider.
Adapted from Bulfinch's Mythology,
Copyright ©1998-2001 Roy George