Athena and Arachne

Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was the daughter of Zeus. She was said to have leaped forth from his brain, mature, and in complete armor. She presided over the useful and ornamental arts, both those of men - such as agriculture and navigation - and those of women, - spinning, weaving, and needlework. She was also a warlike god; but she only supported defensive war, and she had no sympathy with Ares’ savage love of violence and bloodshed. Athens was her chosen seat, her own city, awarded to her as the prize of a contest with Posiedon, who also desired it, The tale ran that in the reign of Cecrops, the first king of Athens the two deities contended for the possession of the city. The gods decreed that it should be awarded to that one who produced the gift most useful to mortals. Poseidon gave the horse; Athena produced the olive. The gods gave judgment that the olive was the more useful of the two, and awarded the city to the goddess; and it was named after her, Athens.


There was another 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 raw 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, since she could not bear to be thought a pupil of anyone—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 took 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 advice. 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 face. "Keep your advice to yourself," said she, "for your daughters or handmaids. I know what I say, and I stand by it. I am not afraid of the goddess; let her try her skill, if she dare venture."

"Well, here she is, standing before you," said Athena; and she dropped her disguise. The nymphs bowed with respect, and all the bystanders paid reverence. Arachne alone was unterrified. She blushed, indeed; a sudden color dyed her cheek, and then she grew pale. But stood firm and held her resolve, with a foolish arrogance in her own skill rushed. Athena held back no longer and gave no more 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 weft 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.

In her web, Athena wove a picture of her contest with Poseidon. Twelve of the heavenly powers are represented, Zeus, with august gravity, sitting in the middle. Poseidon, the ruler of the sea, holds his trident, and appears to have just hurled a thunderbolt at the earth. Athena depicted herself with a helmet on her head and armor on her body. 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. Athena meant the picture to be a warning to her rival Arachne 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 Zeus disguised as a Bull and chasing after the mortal princess Europa. Encouraged by the tameness of the animal Europa ventured to climb on his back, at which point 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 impiety and lack of respect for the gods. Athena could not help but admire the beauty of Arachne’s weaving, yet she felt indignant at the insult to the gods. She struck the web with her shuttle and broke 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. But when Athena saw her suspended by a rope, she felt pity. "Live," she said, "guilty woman! But so you may preserve the memory of this lesson, continue to hang, both you and your descendants, to all future times." 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 attached to her side and became 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.

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