Greek Mythology


ARACHNE, pronounced uh RAK nee, was a skilled weaver in Greek mythology. She boasted that she could weave fabrics more beautiful than those woven by Athena, the goddess of arts and crafts. Athena, disguised as an old woman, warned Arachne not to be so boastful. When Arachne scorned her advice, Athena revealed herself as a goddess and accepted Arachne's challenge to a weaving contest.

Athena wove a tapestry that pictured mortals being punished by the gods for their pride. Arachne's work showed the shocking misbehavior of gods and goddesses. When Athena saw that Arachne's work was as beautiful as her own, the goddess angrily ripped the fabric. As Arachne attempted to hang herself in terror, Athena took pity on her and transformed her into a spider. Arachne's skill survived in the spinning of webs by spiders.


THE TRANSFORMATION OF ARACHNE
INTO A SPIDER

Low was her birth, and small her native town, She from her art alone obtain’d renown.
Idmon, her father, made it his employ, To give the spungy fleece a purple dye:
Of vulgar strain her mother, lately dead, With her own rank had been content to wed; Yet she their daughter, tho’ her time was spent In a small hamlet, and of mean descent,
Thro’ the great towns of Lydia gain’d a name, And fill’d the neighb’ring countries with her fame.
Oft, to admire the niceness of her skill, The Nymphs would quit their fountain, shade, or hill:
Thither, from green Tymolus, they repair, And leave the vineyards, their peculiar care; Thither, from fam’d Pactolus’ golden stream, Drawn by her art, the curious Naiads came.
Nor would the work, when finish’d, please so much, As, while she wrought, to view each graceful touch; Whether the shapeless wool in balls she wound, Or with quick motion turn’d the spindle round, Or with her pencil drew the neat design, Pallas her mistress shone in every line.
This the proud maid with scornful air denies, And ev’n the Goddess at her work defies; Disowns her heav’nly mistress ev’ry hour, Nor asks her aid, nor deprecates her pow’r.
Let us, she cries, but to a tryal come, And, if she conquers, let her fix my doom.
The Goddess then a beldame’s form put on,
With silver hairs her hoary temples shone; Prop’d by a staff, she hobbles in her walk, And tott’ring thus begins her old wives’ talk.
Young maid attend, nor stubbornly despise The admonitions of the old, and wise; For age, tho’ scorn’d, a ripe experience bears, That golden fruit, unknown to blooming years:
Still may remotest fame your labours crown, And mortals your superior genius own; But to the Goddess yield, and humbly meek A pardon for your bold presumption seek; The Goddess will forgive. At this the maid, With passion fir’d, her gliding shuttle stay’d; And, darting vengeance with an angry look, To Pallas in disguise thus fiercely spoke.
Thou doating thing, whose idle babling tongue But too well shews the plague of living long; Hence, and reprove, with this your sage advice, Your giddy daughter, or your aukward neice; Know, I despise your counsel, and am still A woman, ever wedded to my will; And, if your skilful Goddess better knows,
Let her accept the tryal I propose.
She does, impatient Pallas strait replies, And, cloath’d with heavenly light, sprung from her odd disguise.
The Nymphs, and virgins of the plain adore The awful Goddess, and confess her pow’r; The maid alone stood unappall’d; yet show’d A transient blush, that for a moment glow’d, Then disappear’d; as purple streaks adorn The opening beauties of the rosy morn; Till Phoebus rising prevalently bright, Allays the tincture with his silver light.
Yet she persists, and obstinately great, In hopes of conquest hurries on her fate.
The Goddess now the challenge waves no more, Nor, kindly good, advises as before.
Strait to their posts appointed both repair, And fix their threaded looms with equal care:
Around the solid beam the web is ty’d, While hollow canes the parting warp divide; Thro’ which with nimble flight the shuttles play, And for the woof prepare a ready way;
The woof and warp unite, press’d by the toothy slay.
Thus both, their mantles button’d to their breast, Their skilful fingers ply with willing haste, And work with pleasure; while they chear the eye With glowing purple of the Tyrian dye:
Or, justly intermixing shades with light, Their colourings insensibly unite.
As when a show’r transpierc’d with sunny rays, Its mighty arch along the heav’n displays; From whence a thousand diff’rent colours rise, Whose fine transition cheats the clearest eyes; So like the intermingled shading seems, And only differs in the last extreams.
Then threads of gold both artfully dispose, And, as each part in just proportion rose, Some antique fable in their work disclose.
Pallas in figures wrought the heav’nly Pow’rs, And Mars’s hill among th’ Athenian tow’rs.
On lofty thrones twice six celestials sate, Jove in the midst, and held their warm debate;
The subject weighty, and well-known to fame, From whom the city shou’d receive its name.
Each God by proper features was exprest, Jove with majestick mein excell’d the rest.
His three-fork’d mace the dewy sea-God shook, And, looking sternly, smote the ragged rock; When from the stone leapt forth a spritely steed, And Neptune claims the city for the deed.
Herself she blazons, with a glitt’ring spear, And crested helm that veil’d her braided hair, With shield, and scaly breast-plate, implements of war.
Struck with her pointed launce, the teeming Earth Seem’d to produce a new surprizing birth; When, from the glebe, the pledge of conquest sprung, A tree pale-green with fairest olives hung.
And then, to let her giddy rival learn What just rewards such boldness was to earn, Four tryals at each corner had their part, Design’d in miniature, and touch’d with art.
Haemus in one, and Rodope of Thrace
Transform’d to mountains, fill’d the foremost place; Who claim’d the titles of the Gods above, And vainly us’d the epithets of Jove.
Another shew’d, where the Pigmaean dame, Profaning Juno’s venerable name, Turn’d to an airy crane, descends from far, And with her Pigmy subjects wages war.
In a third part, the rage of Heav’n’s great queen, Display’d on proud Antigone, was seen:
Who with presumptuous boldness dar’d to vye, For beauty with the empress of the sky.
Ah! what avails her ancient princely race, Her sire a king, and Troy her native place:
Now, to a noisy stork transform’d, she flies, And with her whiten’d pinions cleaves the skies.
And in the last remaining part was drawn Poor Cinyras that seem’d to weep in stone; Clasping the temple steps, he sadly mourn’d His lovely daughters, now to marble turn’d.
With her own tree the finish’d piece is crown’d, And wreaths of peaceful olive all the work
surround.
Arachne drew the fam’d intrigues of Jove, Chang’d to a bull to gratify his love; How thro’ the briny tide all foaming hoar, Lovely Europa on his back he bore.
The sea seem’d waving, and the trembling maid Shrunk up her tender feet, as if afraid; And, looking back on the forsaken strand, To her companions wafts her distant hand.
Next she design’d Asteria’s fabled rape, When Jove assum’d a soaring eagle’s shape:
And shew’d how Leda lay supinely press’d, Whilst the soft snowy swan sate hov’ring o’er her breast, How in a satyr’s form the God beguil’d, When fair Antiope with twins he fill’d.
Then, like Amphytrion, but a real Jove, In fair Alcmena’s arms he cool’d his love.
In fluid gold to Danae’s heart he came, Aegina felt him in a lambent flame.
He took Mnemosyne in shepherd’s make, And for Deois was a speckled snake.
She made thee, Neptune, like a wanton steer, Pacing the meads for love of Arne dear; Next like a stream, thy burning flame to slake, And like a ram, for fair Bisaltis’ sake.
Then Ceres in a steed your vigour try’d, Nor cou’d the mare the yellow Goddess hide.
Next, to a fowl transform’d, you won by force The snake-hair’d mother of the winged horse; And, in a dolphin’s fishy form, subdu’d Melantho sweet beneath the oozy flood.
All these the maid with lively features drew, And open’d proper landskips to the view.
There Phoebus, roving like a country swain, Attunes his jolly pipe along the plain; For lovely Isse’s sake in shepherd’s weeds, O’er pastures green his bleating flock he feeds, There Bacchus, imag’d like the clust’ring grape, Melting bedrops Erigone’s fair lap; And there old Saturn, stung with youthful heat, Form’d like a stallion, rushes to the feat.
Fresh flow’rs, which twists of ivy intertwine, Mingling a running foliage, close the neat design.
This the bright Goddess passionately mov’d, With envy saw, yet inwardly approv’d.
The scene of heav’nly guilt with haste she tore, Nor longer the affront with patience bore; A boxen shuttle in her hand she took, And more than once Arachne’s forehead struck.
Th’ unhappy maid, impatient of the wrong, Down from a beam her injur’d person hung; When Pallas, pitying her wretched state, At once prevented, and pronounc’d her fate:
Live; but depend, vile wretch, the Goddess cry’d, Doom’d in suspence for ever to be ty’d; That all your race, to utmost date of time, May feel the vengeance, and detest the crime.
Then, going off, she sprinkled her with juice, Which leaves of baneful aconite produce.
Touch’d with the pois’nous drug, her flowing hair Fell to the ground, and left her temples bare; Her usual features vanish’d from their place, Her body lessen’d all, but most her face.
Her slender fingers, hanging on each side With many joynts, the use of legs supply’d:
A spider’s bag the rest, from which she gives A thread, and still by constant weaving lives.


BULFINCH’S MYTHOLOGY:
THE AGE OF FABLE OR STORIES OF GODS AND HEROES

Thomas Bulfinch

There was another contest, in which a mortal dared to come in competition with Minerva. 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 rude 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 Minerva herself had taught her. But this she denied, and could not bear to be thought a pupil even of a goddess. "Let Minerva try her skill with mine," said she; "if beaten I will pay the penalty." Minerva heard this and was displeased. She assumed 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 counsel. 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 countenance. "Keep your counsel," said she, "for your daughters or handmaids; for my part I know what I say, and I stand to it. I am not afraid of the goddess; let her try her skill, if she dare venture." "She comes," said Minerva; and dropping her disguise stood confessed. The nymphs bent low in homage, and all the bystanders paid reverence. Arachne alone was unterrified. She blushed, indeed; a sudden colour dyed her cheek, and then she grew pale. But she stood to her resolve, and with a foolish conceit of her own skill rushed on her fate. Minerva forbore no longer nor interposed any further 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 woof into its place and compacts the web. Both work with speed; their skilful hands move rapidly, and the excitement of the contest makes the labour light.


Wool of Tyrian dye is contrasted with that of other colours, 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, 12 in which, where the colours meet they seem as one, but a little distance from the point of contact are wholly different.

Minerva wrought on her web the scene of her contest with Neptune. Twelve of the heavenly powers are represented, Jupiter, with august gravity, sitting in the midst. Neptune, the ruler of the sea, holds his trident, and appears to have just smitten the earth, from which a horse has leaped forth. Minerva depicted herself with helmed head, her AEgis covering her breast. 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. These were meant as warnings to her rival 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 represented Leda caressing the swan, under which form Jupiter had disguised himself; and another, Danae, in the brazen tower in which her father had imprisoned her, but where the god effected his entrance in the form of a golden shower. Still another depicted Europa deceived by Jupiter under the disguise of a bull. Encouraged by the tameness of the animal Europa ventured to mount his back, whereupon Jupiter 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 presumption and impiety. Minerva could not forbear to admire, yet felt indignant at the insult. She struck the web with her shuttle and rent 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. Minerva pitied her as she saw her suspended by a rope. "Live," she said, "guilty woman! and that 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 cleaved to her side and served for 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 Minerva touched her and transformed her into a spider.


Spenser tells the story of Arachne in his "Muiopotmos," adhering very closely to his master Ovid, but improving upon him in the conclusion of the story. The two stanzas which follow tell what was done after the goddess had depicted her creation of the olive tree:


"Amongst these leaves she made a Butterfly, With excellent device and wondrous slight, Fluttering among the olives wantonly, That seemed to live, so like it was in sight; The velvet nap which on his wings doth lie, The silken down with which his back is dight, His broad outstretched horns, his hairy thighs, His glorious colours, and his glistening eyes."
"Which when Arachne saw, as overlaid And mastered with workmanship so rare, She stood astonied long, ne aught gainsaid;
And with fast-fixed eyes on her did stare, And by her silence, sign of one dismayed, The victory did yield her as her share:
Yet did she inly fret and felly burn, And all her blood to poisonous rancour turn."
And so the metamorphosis is caused by Arachne’s own mortification and vexation, and not by any direct act of the goddess.
The following specimen of old-fashioned gallantry is by Garrick:
"UPON A LADY’S EMBROIDERY
"Arachne once, as poets tell, A goddess at her art defied, And soon the daring mortal fell The hapless victim of her pride.
"O, then beware Arachne’s fate; Be prudent, Chloe, and submit, For you’ll most surely meet her hate, Who rival both her art and wit."


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Last Updated: February 18, 2007