Source: A Book Of Myths
The hay that so short a time ago was long, lush grass, with fragrant meadow-sweet and gold-eyed marguerites growing amongst it in the green meadow-land by the river, is now dry hay—fragrant still, though dead, and hidden from the sun’s warm rays underneath the dark wooden rafters of the barn. Occasionally a cat on a hunting foray comes into the barn to look for mice, or to nestle cosily down into purring slumber. Now and then a hen comes furtively tip-toeing through the open door and makes for itself a secret nest in which to lay the eggs which it subsequently heralds with such loud clucks of proud rejoicing as to completely undo all its previous precautions. Sometimes children come in, pursuing cat or hen, or merely to tumble each other over amongst the soft hay which they leave in chaotic confusion, and when they have gone away, a little more of the sky can be seen through the little window in the roof, and through the wooden bars of the window lower down. Yet, whatever other living creatures may come or go, by those windows of the barn, and high up on its dark rafters, there is always a living creature working, ceaselessly working. When, through the skylight, the sun-god drives a golden sunbeam, and a long shaft of dancing dust-atoms passes from the window to what was once a part of the early summer’s glory, the work of the unresting toiler is also to be seen, for the window is hung with shimmering grey tapestries made by Arachne, the spider, and from rafter to rafter her threads are suspended with inimitable skill.
She was a nymph once, they say—the daughter of Idmon the dyer, of Colophon, a city of Lydia. In all Lydia there was none who could weave as wove the beautiful Arachne. To watch her card the wool of the white-fleeced sheep until in her fingers it grew like the soft clouds that hang round the hill tops, was pleasure enough to draw nymphs from the golden river Pactolus and from the vineyards of Tymolus. And when she drove her swift shuttle hither and thither, still it was joy to watch her wondrous skill. Magical was the growth of the web, fine of woof, that her darting fingers span, and yet more magical the exquisite devices that she then wrought upon it. For birds and flowers and butterflies and pictures of all the beautiful things on earth were limned by Arachne, and old tales grew alive again under her creative needle.
To Pallas Athené, goddess of craftsmen, came tidings that at Colophon in Lydia lived a nymph whose skill rivalled that of the goddess herself, and she, ever jealous for her own honour, took on herself the form of a woman bent with age, and, leaning on her staff, joined the little crowd that hung round Arachne as she plied her busy needle. With white arms twined round each other the eager nymphs watched the flowers spring up under her fingers, even as flowers spring from the ground on the coming of Demeter, and Athené was fain to admire, while she marvelled at the magic skill of the fair Arachne.
Gently she spoke to Arachne, and, with the persuasive words of a wise old woman, warned her that she must not let her ambition soar too high. Greater than all skilled craftswomen was the great goddess Athené, and were Arachne, in impious vanity, to dream that one day she might equal her, that were indeed a crime for any god to punish.
Glancing up for a moment from the picture whose perfect colours grew fast under her slim fingers, Arachne fixed scornful eyes on the old woman and gave a merry laugh.
“Didst say equal Athené? old mother,” she said. “In good sooth thy dwelling must be with the goat-herds in the far-off hills and thou art not a dweller in our city. Else hadst thou not spoken to Arachne of equalling the work of Athené; excelling were the better word.”
In anger Pallas Athené made answer.
“Impious one!” she said, “to those who would make themselves higher than the gods must ever come woe unutterable. Take heed what thou sayest, for punishment will assuredly be thine.”
Laughing still, Arachne made reply:
“I fear not, Athené, nor does my heart shake at the gloomy warning of a foolish old crone.” And turning to the nymphs who, half afraid, listened to her daring words, she said: “Fair nymphs who watch me day by day, well do ye know that I make no idle boast. My skill is as great as that of Athené, and greater still it shall be. Let Athené try a contest with me if she dare! Well do I know who will be the victor.”
Then Athené cast off her disguise, and before the frightened nymphs and the bold Arachne stood the radiant goddess with eyes that blazed with anger and insulted pride.
“Lo, Athené is come!” she said, and nymphs and women fell on their knees before her, humbly adoring. Arachne alone was unabashed. Her cheeks showed how fast her heart was beating. From rosy red to white went the colour in them, yet, in firm, low voice she spoke.
“I have spoken truth,” she said. “Not woman, nor goddess, can do work such as mine. Ready am I to abide by what I have said, and if I did boast, by my boast I stand. If thou wilt deign, great goddess, to try thy skill against the skill of the dyer’s daughter and dost prove the victor, behold me gladly willing to pay the penalty.”
The eyes of Athené, the grey-eyed goddess, grew dark as the sea when a thunder-cloud hangs over it and a mighty storm is coming. Not for one moment did she delay, but took her place by the side of Arachne. On the loom they stretched out two webs with a fine warp, and made them fast on the beam.
“The sley separates the warp, the woof is inserted in the middle with sharp shuttles, which the fingers hurry along, and, being drawn within the warp, the teeth notched in the moving sley strike it. Both hasten on, and girding up their garments to their breasts, they move their skilful arms, their eagerness beguiling their fatigue. There both the purple is being woven, which is subjected to the Tyrian brazen vessel, and fine shades of minute difference; just as the rainbow, with its mighty arch, is wont to tint a long tract of sky by means of the rays reflected by the shower; in which, though a thousand different colours are shining, yet the very transition eludes the eyes that look upon it.... There, too, the pliant gold is mixed with the threads.”
Their canvases wrought, then did Athené and Arachne hasten to cover them with pictures such as no skilled worker of tapestry has ever since dreamed of accomplishing. Under the fingers of Athené grew up pictures so real and so perfect that the watchers knew not whether the goddess was indeed creating life. And each picture was one that told of the omnipotence of the gods and of the doom that came upon those mortals who had dared in their blasphemous presumption to struggle as equals with the immortal dwellers in Olympus. Arachne glanced up from her web and looked with eyes that glowed with the love of beautiful things at the creations of Athené. Yet, undaunted, her fingers still sped on, and the goddess saw, with brow that grew yet more clouded, how the daughter of Idmon the dyer had chosen for subjects the tales that showed the weaknesses of the gods. One after another the living pictures grew beneath her hand, and the nymphs held their breath in mingled fear and ecstasy at Arachne’s godlike skill and most arrogant daring. Between goddess and mortal none could have chosen, for the colour and form and exquisite fancy of the pictures of the daughter of Zeus were equalled, though not excelled, by those of the daughter of the dyer of Colophon.
Darker and yet more dark grew the eyes of Athené as they looked on the magical beauty of the pictures, each one of which was an insult to the gods. What picture had skilful hand ever drawn to compare with that of Europa who,
“riding on the back of the divine bull, with one hand clasped the beast’s great horn, and with the other caught up her garment’s purple fold, lest it might trail and be drenched in the hoar sea’s infinite spray. And her deep robe was blown out in the wind, like the sail of a ship, and lightly ever it wafted the maiden onward.”
Then at last did the storm break, and with her shuttle the enraged goddess smote the web of Arachne, and the fair pictures were rent into motley rags and ribbons. Furiously, too, with her shuttle of boxwood she smote Arachne. Before her rage, the nymphs fled back to their golden river and to the vineyards of Tymolus, and the women of Colophon in blind terror rushed away. And Arachne, shamed to the dust, knew that life for her was no longer worth possessing. She had aspired, in the pride of her splendid genius, to a contest with a god, and knew now that such a contest must ever be vain. A cord hung from the weaver’s beam, and swiftly she seized it, knotted it round her white neck, and would have hanged herself. But ere the life had passed out of her, Athené grasped the cord, loosened it, and spoke Arachne’s doom:
“Live!” she said, “O guilty and shameless one! For evermore shalt thou live and hang as now, thou and thy descendants, that men may never forget the punishment of the blasphemous one who dared to rival a god.”
Even as she spoke, Arachne’s fair form dried up and withered. Her straight limbs grew grey and crooked and wiry, and her white arms were no more. And from the beam where the beautiful weaver of Lydia had been suspended, there hung from a fine grey thread the creature from which, to this day, there are but few who do not turn with loathing. Yet still Arachne spins, and still is without a compeer.
“Not anie damzell, which her vaunteth most
In skilfull knitting of soft silken twyne,
Nor anie weaver, which his worke doth boast
In dieper, in damaske, or in lyne,
Nor anie skil’d in workmanship embost,
Nor anie skil’d in loupes of fingring fine,
Might in their divers cunning ever dare
With this so curious networke to compare.”
Thus, perhaps, does Arachne have her compensations, and in days that followed long after the twilight of the gods, did she not gain eternal honour in the heart of every Scot by the tale of how she saved a national hero? Kindly, too, are her labours for men as she slays their mortal enemies, the household flies, and when the peasant—practical, if not favoured by Æsculapius and Hygeia—runs to raid the loom of Arachne in order to staunch the quick-flowing blood from the cut hand of her little child, much more dear to her heart is Arachne the spider than the unknown Athené.
“Also in spinners be tokens of divination, and of knowing what weather shall fall—for oft by weathers that shall fall, some spin or weave higher or lower. Also multitude of spinners is token of much rain.”
The sun has not long enough shown his face to dry up the dew in the garden, and behold on the little clipped tree of boxwood, a great marvel! For in and out, and all over its twigs and leaves, Arachne has woven her web, and on the web the dew has dropped a million diamond drops. And, suddenly, all the colours in the sky are mirrored dazzlingly on the grey tapestry of her making. Arachne has come to her own again.
Next: Idas And Marpessa