I don’t want to think about how long it’s been since the last time I posted a myth…
The young city had not yet decided on its name or patron god when the girl named Arachne was born. As a child, she witnessed the struggle to select a holy protector, and the divine rivalry that ensued.
As the newly named Athens struggled its way towards being a city that might day hope to rival at least nearby Megara in size, if not more important places like Argos or Pylos (to say nothing of the mighty Mycenae, rich in gold, with which poor Athens could never hope to compete), Arachne and her age-mates grew from children to adults. And, like all who had seen the gods with their own eyes, they grew rich in the talents of handicraft and wit. But, like all who had witnessed such squabbles in their formative years, they grew rich also in disrespect for the gods.
The poems of the young men and women of Athens described the gods as petty and childlike. The paintings and pottery of the young men showed them as crude and comical figures. The domestic arts were the only ones that seemed to spare this disrespect.
Arachne, above all the girls of her age, was skilled at weaving. As her skill grew greater, she began to discover the ways to add figures to the weave, laying out mighty tapestries with beautiful scenes of her age-mates at play, or of the birds in flight above the wine-dark sea.
In order to prove that Athens was truly a city and not a mere collection of craftsmen on a hill, the king decided to hold a festival in honor of their patron goddess Athene. There were to be competitions in all the arts, in addition to the traditional athletic competitions.
Since this festival was in her honor, Athene was naturally watching it closely, disguised as a venerable old warrior of Megara. She was hopeful that her presence — disguised though it was — would inspire proper respect among the youth of Athens, or that the sacred nature of the competition would on its own remind them how great and good the gods were. And, as patron goddess of the art of weaving, Athene was especially looking forward to the weaving competition.
Thus she was quite disappointed to hear everyone lament that it was sure to be cancelled.
Athene made her way to the looms that had been set up. Arachne sat alone, preparing her tapestry. She had, so far, only woven one border, but what a border it was! The edge was decorated with the highest artistry, such that even a painter would have lamented the ability even to match it, let alone craft something more elegant.
In view of Arachne’s great skill, none of the other women — of her own age or those older — were willing to shame themselves by competing against her and losing.
But then one of them said what must never be said. “Your skill outshines even that of Athene herself!”
Athene was livid to hear such blasphemy. But should she strike the speaker, or the one who had inspired the remark?
“Of course it does,” Arachne replied to her blasphemous admirer. “If the gods were capable of perfection, they wouldn’t need us, would they? Only mortals can create perfect art.”
Athene’s mind became clear. She dropped her disguise, and announced her identity to all the mortals who had taken no act of reproach against Arachne and her admirer.
“I will prove to you that the gods are always better and greater than mortals!” Athene informed Arachne, taking a seat at the loom beside hers.
“Careful you don’t rip your cloth with that clunky spear,” Arachne laughed, as she continued her weaving, unafraid of her divine challenger.
The contest went on throughout the day, and every soul in Athens gathered to watch, awestruck at the ordinary girl who showed no fear as she competed with a goddess.
When the two tapestries were completed, the goddess and the girl stepped away so that the judges — made up of the king, the elders and the priests — could inspect them.
Everyone agreed that both tapestries were flawless works of inhuman mastery. Not a single stitch out of place. Not a spot where a blemish tarnished the workmanship.
Athene’s tapestry showed Mt. Olympos at the center, and surrounding it were smaller scenes showing each of the gods at a moment of triumph, whether against a mortal enemy or one of the Titans. Every one of them — even Aphrodite, with whom Athene had never gotten on in the least — was shown with due and proper dignity, in a mode appropriate for a god.
Arachne’s tapestry showed the quarrel over Athens. It showed Athene as a crone bent over with age, yet still untouched by the hand of man, and it showed Poseidon as a brawling rowdy. The other gods were depicted in the background, watching the argument with deplorable conduct, bawdy and unseemly, surrounded by defecating goats and lusty satyrs.
The judges were horrified by the content of Arachne’s tapestry, and proclaimed in one voice that Athene had won the contest. But Arachne’s age-mates jeered the decision, and insisted that Arachne’s tapestry was by far the superior.
Athene’s first thought was to slaughter each and every one of them, and let them regret in the house of her uncle their depravity. But if Athens were to be robbed of an entire generation of youth, it would never endure. Let one become an example to them all…
Arachne was thanking her age-mates for their support, and gladly accepting their accolades when Athene touched the tip of her spear to the girl’s shoulder. “If you are so proud of your weaving,” the goddess said, “then from this day forth, you shall have nothing else in your life but that!”
Arachne hadn’t even the time to shout. She began to shrivel up, becoming smaller and smaller, until she was nothing but a spider perched on the tip of Athene’s spear.
The spider quickly spun out a single silver thread to lower itself to the ground, where it could scurry away to hide in dark corners and weave its insolent webs in peace.
Oooookay, so that was totally nuts. (And I now know what myth I have to do next week, since I referred to it repeatedly in this one…)
Thing is, this myth isn’t recorded until Roman times. In fact, I’d be inclined to accuse Ovid of making it up (or at least re-structuring a different story beyond all recognition) if it weren’t for the fact that Vergil also made use of it. (And, of course, did so before Ovid did.) The important point is that we have no Greek version, and particularly no Athenian version. If this story was told in Athens in the classical period, it likely would have gone rather differently than Ovid told it, what with it making their patron goddess out to be rather heartless and cruel. (It’s entirely possible that it was more-or-less anti-Athenian propaganda rather than a regular myth, of course.)
So, anyway, I wanted to change it up a little so that Athene’s actions at least make sense beyond ‘mean and petty gods’ style behavior. Thus the bit about a whole generation that was refusing to respect the gods. While there are myths about people — even large groups of them — lacking respect for the gods (or at least one god), it’s not usually an age thing as I recall, and it’s certainly never a reaction to a different myth like this is. But I thought that made a certain amount of psychological sense.
BTW, I hope you can appreciate how hard it was not to list Sparta on the list of towns Athens wanted to ‘compete’ with. I wanted to make it more appropriate to the Mycenaean-era power distribution, rather than the one of the historical period.