Thursday, June 9, 2011

Jeudi: Great Sprirts

The story of Arachne, the girl who challenged the Goddess of Crafts to a weaving contest, is familiar to most.  The familiarities, though, might just mask the reality of the tale which – like so many – is largely not what is remembered but what is forgotten.

Arachne was a young Greek woman who grew up in Lydia.  In some stories she is a princess but in most she is the daughter of a merchant who is gifted with an unsurpassed talent for weaving.  By the time she has reached adulthood, her tapestries are in high demand all over Greece with princes and queens clamoring for one of her pieces.  Her talent makes her family wealthy but it also makes Arachne proud.  She claims that she is the finest weaver on Earth and in Heaven.

Because local nymphs and dryads enjoy watching Arachne work, the gossip of the weaver’s bold statement hurries quickly to Mount Olympus.  There Athena, the Goddess who taught humans the art of weaving, hears of Arachne and decides to set her straight.  Taking on the guise of a beggar woman, Athena descends to Lydia and approaches Arachne asking for alms.  Arachne obliges but is stunned when the beggar tells her not to tempt the Gods with her pride.

Not particularly interested in the woman’s opinion, Arachne stands by her claim and goes on to say that, were Athena with them now, she would challenge the Goddess to a weaving contest.  Athena reveals herself and once again gives the mortal a chance to back down.  Undaunted, Arachne replies with whatever the Greek version of “Bring it” would have been.

The Goddess and the mortal sit down before their looms and the contest begins.  Athena weaves the story of her contest with Poseidon for the city of Athens, outlining the salt water lake and the olive trees each God offered the people in return for their loyalty.  Arachne, ever proud and mindful of Athena’s love for her only parent, creates a dazzling pictorial of Zeus’ many infidelities with mortals.  Io, Danae, Leda, Europa and a host of others parade across the glistening tapestry as if they were real.  Athena, who finishes her work first, cannot help but stare at the beauty of Arachne’s creation.  But a moment later, she is overcome with rage at the lewd, mocking images which assault her eyes.

Athena rips Arachne’s masterwork to shreds, cursing the girl as she does.  Once the tapestry is nothing but bits of yarn, Athena turns on her rival.  She strikes Arachne’s forehead with her palm, causing the weight of terrible guilt and shame to descend on her mortal mind.  And then the Goddess, her loom and her work disappear.

Arachne, in a stupor, sits for days staring at what was once her solace and comfort, the great loom in her father’s courtyard.  Though her family and friends try to console her, she will not eat, sleep or move.  Finally one night she does stir, walking to a nearby archway where she hangs herself out of utter despair.  The last words on her lips are a plea that great Athena forgives her and returns her to her one comfort: weaving.

Athena, overwhelmed by Arachne’s sincerity, answers her prayer.  The woman is transformed into a spider and she and her descendants will forever be the finest weavers on Earth.

This story was first written down by the Roman Ovid and does not appear in the writings of Greek poets or in the art of the Greek city states.  Certain clues, however, point to the story being much older than these facts would imply.  Arachne is the Greek – not the Latin – word for spider and some folklorists think that she may be older even than the Greeks themselves.

Like other pre-Greek Goddesses assimilated by the new Gods, Arachne may have been an early rival to Athena in particular.  Athena was purely a Greek Goddess who went so far in her masculine imagery as to go without having a mother.  In mythology, she turned the older Goddesses into monsters when their actions went against the new patriarchal codes of the conquering Greeks. 

It may be that Arachne, a pre-Greek deity of women’s craft, was assimilated by Athena and thus downgraded to mortal status in myth.  Another more familiar example of this concept is Medusa, the beautiful priestess turned to monster by Athena.  Other historians see similarities between Arachne and Ariadne, the former Minoan Goddess who became no more than the daughter of a King in Grecian myth and helped Theseus find his way out of the Labyrinth with a ball of yarn.

Header: Arachne by Otto Henry Bacher c 1890


Timmy! said...

It seems like those wacky Greek Gods and Goddesses were always turning each other (and people) into some strange creature or other, Pauline...

Pauline said...

I sincerely believe that a lot of this kind of Greek myth - and there is a lot of it - stemmed from the conquering Greek's fear that the pre-Attic people they had overwhelmed would rebel against them. As so many after them have proven, what better way to keep people in their place than by manipulating their religion?