The nature of the matter
01185: Athena and Arachne. "Then the goddess exclaimed: 'She has come!' and throwing aside her old woman's disguise, she revealed Pallas." (Ov. Met. 6.43). Guillaume T. de Villenave, Les Métamorphoses d'Ovide (Paris, Didot 1806–07). Engravings after originals by Jean-Jacques François Le Barbier (1739–1826), Nicolas André Monsiau (1754–1837), and Jean-Michel Moreau (1741–1814).
It is a great fortune to have a skill and perform wonderful things, and a great misfortune to forget that such skills are gifts of the gods. For Athena presides over all crafts, and Hephaestus is the source of all skills that use fire. And fire was given to mankind by Prometheus 1, who besides taught men many other things. But men and women, forgetful as they are, sometimes believe that the gift any skill or technology is not something given by nature and the gods, but the result of their own brilliant brains. And so they go around praising their own works, just as they sometimes are proud of the color of their hair, their skin, or their eyes, as if they themselves had painted them from the beginning or even invented the colors of the rainbow. And so they hope to get, by amazing and seducing other mortals with their fantastic skills, a huge profit for their technologies, thus obtaining Wealth, Power and Fame, and everything else that may come with them.
The gods think differently
Apparently, the gods dislike those who forget that their inventions and skills come from Heaven and are of little avail if they do not help to live a sorrowless life. That is why Athena, disguised as and old woman, warned Arachne:
"Seek all the Fame you will among mortal men, but yield place to the goddess." (Athena to Arachne. Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.30).
Even Theseus, who was mortal, thought that humans acted with futility and were out of their minds when they made new gods of their skills:
Why does your folly teach skills innumerable, and search out manifold inventions still? But there is one knowledge you do not gain and have never sought it: to implant a right mind where no wisdom dwells." (Theseus. Euripides, Hippolytus 919).
The weaving contest between Athena and Arachne
Arachne, who lived in Maeonia, a region in Lydia about Mount Tmolus in Asia Minor, had gained a high reputation in all Lydian cities for being the best in the art of spinning and weaving wool. She was so famous and good at her work that many came to see, not just her finished works, but also the deft ways by which she accomplished them, for it is very rewarding to watch professionally trained men or women acting upon their material, and it is admirable the dexterity and grace that they may display while creating their works. And since sometimes it seems more profitable to let others believe that there are neither precedents for the wonders they are witnessing, nor other origin than the amazing talent of the author's brain, Arachne felt offended when someone suggested that she was the disciple of Athena, known for having introduced all crafts. And in order to prove her self-sufficiency and independence, she declared that she could compete with the goddess herself and defeat her.
Athena in disguise
Having heard her, Athena came disguised as an old woman. The goddess begged Arachne to listen to her, for, she said, with Old Age comes experience. She invited Arachne to acknowledge the goddess superiority. But the famous girl, seeing the complete unknown old woman, thought instead that what come with Old Age are of course childish ideas, and told her to give advice to someone else, for she Arachne, was quite able to advise herself. And just to put the old woman in her place, she added:
"It is too long life that is your bane … Why does your goddess avoid a contest with me?" (Arachne to the disguised Athena. Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.37).
When Athena heard those words, she decided to appear in her own shape, causing everybody to worship her, except Arachne who remained unafraid and unimpressed. No doubt the sense of power that skills and technologies give to those who possess them make them bold beyond measure.
That is how Athena and Arachne sat down to work, each in her own place, contesting against each other to produce the winning embroidery. And Athena pictured the city of Athens and the gods sitting on thrones bearing their attributes, and among them she embroidered the olive-tree that she produced long ago, which won her the patronage of the city of Athens. Crowning her work she depicted Nike (Victory), and then she also wove in the four corners of the web, miniature designs of four scenes of contest, to let her rival learn from these images something about her own daring madness. In one corner she depicted Haemus 1 and Rhodope, audacious mortals, who, having offended the gods, were turned into the mountains which still can be seen in Thrace. In another corner she wove the Pygmaean queen whom Hera turned into a crane, and in the third corner she pictured Antigone 3, daughter of King Laomedon 1 of Troy, who also set herself against Hera and was turned by the goddess into a stork. In the last corner, she depicted King Cinyras 1 of Cyprus, whose daughters caused the wrath of Aphrodite and were turned by her into prostitutes. And around her work Athena wove a border of olive-wreath, which still today is a symbol of peace.
Arachne, who was an accomplished weaver, pictured Europa being carried away by Zeus the bull. And Asteria 1, whom Zeus approached having assumed the shape of an eagle. She also wrought Leda, who was conquered by Zeus the swan. And then she wove Antiope 3, mother of the twins Amphion 1 and Zethus, together with Zeus, who took the shape of a Satyr in order to make love to her. And continuing her amazing embroidery, Arachne added Zeus disguised as Amphitryon to delude Alcmena, the mother of Heracles 1. And in the same way she made even more fantastic pictures, including Zeus as the golden shower who seduced Danae, mother of Perseus 1, and Zeus the flame who loved Aegina, mother of Aeacus, father of Peleus, father of Achilles. And she pictured Zeus the shepherd who made love to Mnemosyne, the Titaness, without forgetting Zeus the spotted snake, who seduced Demeter. Having finished with Zeus, she proceeded to depict Poseidon assuming the form of the river god Enipeus to seduce Iphimedia, who gave birth to the GIANTS called the ALOADS. And then she depicted him as the ram who seduced Theophane, also called Bisaltis, who later gave birth to the Ram with the Golden Fleece. And she showed Poseidon the horse seducing Demeter, and also how the god, assuming the shape of a bird, made love to Medusa 1, the mother of the winged horse Pegasus. And she did not forget Melantho 2, who was seduced by Poseidon the dolphin. Having still place for Apollo, she depicted him and Amphissa, whom this god tricked assuming the form of a shepherd. Then she pictured Dionysus 2 deceiving Erigone 2 with the grapes, and Cronos the horse seducing Philyra 1, mother of the Centaur Chiron. And around all this she wove a lovely frame with flowers and ivy intertwined.
Arachne's observations about the gods
It was impossible to find a flaw in Arachne's magnificent work describing the love affairs of the gods and the tricky ways they used to fulfil their erotic passions. Apparently, Arachne thought that nothing could better represent the gods and show their true nature than these very entertaining tales and their spicy details. Others have had a similar kind of appreciation and have woven, though in words, their own piece of embroidery: More than a thousand years after Arachne's time, a man from Alexandria (not for being born there, but because he was a priest in that city), who was a very educated and wise man, having also a knowledge of the gods and of the only God and of the true nature of things, spoke of the same events that Arachne depicted, though he, who knew far more than her and many others, was able to unmask the gods on the ground of the tales that were told by men about them. And so he said:
"… Now listen to the loves of these gods … to the extraordinary tales of their incontinence … to their fits of laughter … Listen too to their … embraces … passions and dissolute pleasures. Call Poseidon and the band of maidens corrupted by him … Call Apollo too … Above all, let Zeus come too … So completely was he given over to lust, that every woman not only excited his desire, but became a victim of it … What a pitch of licentiousness did this great Zeus when he spent so many nights in pleasure with Alcmena! Nay, not even the nine nights were a long period for this debauchee … indeed a whole lifetime was short for his incontinence …" (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 2.27p-28p).
Just as Arachne showed her talent by weaving, this man, wiser than her, could prove his, just by speaking and letting his natural cleverness expose the childish tales and the dirty nature of the gods he so thoroughly described. Excepting perhaps the words of this man, what Arachne achieved could not be surpassed, neither in the way it was performed nor in the way it described the crimes of heaven, and that is why Athena destroyed it. But some may think that the goddess gave way to Envy, and the same Clement teaches:
"These amorous and passionate gods … are brought before us as subject to every sort of human emotion." (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 2.31p).
Arachne turned into a spider
And Publius Ovidius Naso says that, after having destroyed Arachne's work, the goddess turned to its author and with a shuttle stroke her head, and as this was difficult to endure, the girl put a noose about her neck wishing to hang herself. But Athena lifted her so that she would not die, and before leaving the goddess sprinkled her with the juices of Hecate's herbs, transforming her into a spider. And Publius Vergilius Maro says that ever since the spiders have been hateful to Athena.