“Arachne was a shepherd’s daughter who began weaving at an early age. She became a great weaver, boasted that her skill was greater than that of Athena. Athena took offence and set up a contest between them. Presenting herself as an old lady, she approached the boasting girl and warned: “You can never compare to any of the gods. Plead for forgiveness and Athena might spare your soul.”
“Ha! I only speak the truth and if Athena thinks otherwise then let her come down and challenge me herself,” Arachne replied. Athena removed her disguise and appeared in shimmering glory, clad in a sparkling white robe. The two began weaving straight away. Athena’s weaving represented four separate contests between mortals and the gods in which the gods punished mortals for setting themselves as equals of the gods. Arachne’s weaving depicted ways that the gods had misled and abused mortals, particularly Zeus, tricking and seducing many women. When Athena saw that Arachne had not only insulted the gods, but done so with a work far more beautiful than Athena’s own, she was enraged. She ripped Arachne’s work into shreds, and hit her on the head three times. Terrified and ashamed, Arachne hanged herself. Then Athena said “Live on then, and yet hang, condemned one!” After saying this she sprinkled her with the juice of Hecate’s herb, and immediately at the touch of this dark poison, Arachne’s hair fell out. With it went her nose and ears, her head shrank to the smallest size, and her whole body became tiny. Her slender fingers stuck to her sides as legs, the rest is belly, from which she still spins a thread, and, as a spider, weaves her ancient web. This showed how goddesses punished mortals who dared to insult them.”
I love this terrifying story of a young mortal girl who parades her talents before the Gods and suffers the most abominable of fates for her arrogance. She has made the lethal mistake! She assumes she is the sole architect of her accomplishments, rather than an instrument of the Gods. Beware! As we work, work for the divine and let the waves roll over us!
And so for ever
She hangs from the thread that she spins
Out of her belly.
Or ceaselessly weaves
It into patterned webs
On a loom of leaves and grasses –
Deft and swift and light as when they were human
Ted Hughes, excerpt from Arachne from Tales of Ovid