The myth of Arachne  – Iseult Gillespie

The myth of Arachne – Iseult Gillespie


From sailors who were turned into pigs, nymphs that sprouted into trees, and a gaze that converted
the beholder to stone, Greek mythology brims with shape-shifters. The powerful gods usually changed
their own forms at will, but for mortals, the mutations
were often unwanted. One such unnerving transformation
befell the spinner Arachne. Arachne was the daughter
of a tradesman who spent his days dying cloth
the deepest shades of purple. She had a flair for spinning
the finest threads, weaving them into flowing fabric, and creating magnificent tapestries. People flocked to watch her hands
flying across her loom, as if thread sprung directly
from her fingertips. But as praise for her work grew,
so did her pride. Arachne could often be heard
boasting about her skills, declaring that her talent surpassed
anyone else’s—mortal or divine. She refused to see weaving
as a gift from the gods. Rather, she flaunted it
as her own personal genius. Unfortunately, the goddess of wisdom
and crafts, Athena, overheard Arachne
making these claims. Planning to teach
the ungrateful girl a lesson, Athena disguised herself as an old woman
and stole amongst the mortals. She berated Arachne in public— how dare the weaver claim
herself greater than the gods? But Arachne only laughed,
barely looking up from her loom. Provoked, the old woman threw off
her cloak to reveal her true form. If Arachne insisted on defaming the gods, Athena would challenge her
to a contest directly. Masking her shock at the appearance
of the grey-eyed goddess, Arachne accepted the challenge. Athena drew up her own glittering loom
as a great crowd gathered to watch. The weavers began,
eyes fixed and shuttles blurring. Athena conjured
wisps of cloud from above and slender threads of grass
from below in a spectacle of strength. She wove tremendous scenes
that showed the power of the gods: Poseidon riding the waves, Zeus firing thunderbolts, and Apollo hurtling across the sky. In Athena’s splendid tapestry,
the glory of the gods dwarfed mortal life. But Arachne had no interest
in boosting godly egos. Her tapestry showed the gods
abusing their power: squabbling amongst themselves, drinking and bragging, and meddling in the lives of mortals. She represented Zeus as a philanderer,
transfiguring himself to ensnare women: a swan for Leda, a bull for Europa, a shower of gold for Danae. Arachne then turned
to the misdemeanors of other gods, from Pluto’s abduction of Persephone to Bacchus’s wild pursuit of Erigone. Even though she cast the gods
in the most unflattering light, Arachne’s work shone
with her dazzling skill. Her tapestry was almost alive, filled with movement
and lustrous colors that winked triumphantly. When Athena saw Arachne’s undeniably
better and flagrantly subversive work, she flew into a rage
and turned on the human weaver. Arachne’s glee dimmed as she felt her body
shrinking and contorting. Her fingers waved wildly
as her arms stuck to her sides, and black hair
sprouted all over her body. The goddess left Arachne with a single
spool of thread unfurling from her belly, a slim reminder of her human talent. For challenging the assumption
that the gods were untouchable, Athena had shrunk her adversary
into the first spider. To this day, Arachne and her children spin
out her penance— or is it undaunted persistence?— in the shadows of giants.

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