Her body hung from a beautiful cord of cerulean blue cloth, swinging gently in the late afternoon sun, under an ash tree. The Goddess tenderly touched the pale, rapidly cooling cheek with a trembling hand. The knot had been inexpertly tied, but it had been enough.
“Oh, Arachne!” she murmured softly. “I didn’t mean for you to end up like this!”
Her bright grey eyes dropped heavy tears as she sighed sadly. Why has my wisdom failed me? Athena pondered. Passion? Pride? The Goddess squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head with resolve.
There was still a tiny, rapidly fading spark of life in the girl’s body. Athena knew she had to do something quickly, before her soul was lost to Hades forever. She noticed Hermes approaching, and waved him away. She then reached out and gently lifted Arachne’s body in her arms. Almost immediately, the girl’s body shrunk, twisted, and changed, until cradled in Athena’s hands was a beautiful Orb Weaver spider.
“There, there, my little weaver. Now you will be able to spin and weave to your heart’s content, for the rest of your life.”
The newborn spider stepped from Athena’s hand into the tree and immediately began spinning its web.
“Mercy? From you?” Hermes commented.
Athena silenced him with a look.
Hermes swallowed nervously. “Sister, Hades was expecting—”
“Then convey my apologies to him, Psychopomp,” came the terse reply.
“In fact, never mind; I’ll go see him myself.”
The day had begun much like any other for the Goddess; taking note of prayers and supplications being made to her, attending her most important shrines, visiting her priestesses in dreams and sending them portents, and then a mid-day idyll at her favorite stream with her favorite companions. But as she made her rounds, she began hearing rumors from the Nymphs of Lydia about a local spinner and weaver.
Athena pretended not to hear their chatter as she bathed, but in fact, she listened intently.
“They say she weaves flowers of such vividness that the bees of the field try to land on her tapestries!”
“Yes, and the figures she weaves of men and women look as though they are reaching out to touch you!”
“I once saw a Spartan hunting hound try to chase a picture of a rabbit she had woven!”
Athena smiled. This girl of whom they speak is indeed gifted. She must be one of mine. She began going over in her head the women of great skill and craft she knew. She nearly missed the last furtive whisper—
“Why, they say her skill surpasses even that of Athena!”
The Goddess immediately stopped smiling. She turned toward the Nymphs, her eyes aglow with jealous fury.
“I beg your pardon,” she said, her voice cold enough to shatter bone. “Who dares compare the skill at craft of a mortal to mine?”
The Nymphs cowered beneath the Goddess’ gaze.
“Her name is Arachne, Mistress,” one of the Nymphs whimpered fearfully. “She was the daughter of a common shepherd, but her skill at spinning, and weaving, and dyeing is acclaimed by all. She works in the palace of Lydia at the king’s pleasure, and the people of Lydia call her… call her… They call her….”
“They call her what?” Athena demanded in tones of caustic frigidity.
“They say she is another Athena, come down to them in mortal guise,” the Nymph replied, her voice warbling with fear. “Please forgive me for saying so, Lady.”
Athena stood and angrily threw her garment about herself.
“Oh, no,” she growled icily. “This will not do. I shall have to visit Lydia myself, and see if what you report to me is true.”
Athena flew to Lydia in an instant and took upon herself the form of a small, wizened old woman. In that guise, the Goddess began to wander about the city, enquiring about this famed weaver. Everywhere she went, people could do nothing but talk of the wonderful dyes and colors Arachne had invented, and of her spinning that could make the most delicate gossamer of the coarsest wools and linens and cottons. They talked of the girl’s tapestries, so vivid and so purely woven, that children claimed they could enter into the fields depicted upon them as if they were real places, and they claimed that bees would try to drink nectar from the flowers pictured in her work, and that her woven portraits were even clearer and truer to their subjects than mirrors of silver.
As the day drew on, Athena’s temper grew fouler and fouler. She finally decided to seek out Arachne in person. She eventually found her in a pavilion hard by Lydia’s royal palace, working on a new himation for the queen. The Goddess watched her all night as she worked tirelessly into the small hours. Early the next morning, Athena, still mantled in her disguise, approached the young woman, already hard at work.
“So. They say you are a great spinner and weaver.”
Arachne looked up from her work, startled, not having seen the stranger approach at all. Still, she never dropped a thread. Her hands worked almost independently of her eyes, moving as quickly as a flowing brook, making the shuttle hum.
“Yes. I suppose it’s true. I am very good at what I do.”
“And they say you are even more skilled than Athena herself. Is that true also?”
Arachne paused in her weaving and thought. “Well, I had just thought of it as hyperbole. On the other hand, if Athena has given me a share of her skill, wouldn’t that leave her that much less skill with which to weave herself? And all I do from dawn till dusk is spin and weave; it is my life! But if the Goddess does not as diligently practice, how could her skill rival mine?”
The old woman’s eyes narrowed. “Girl, you admit that the Goddess bestowed upon you a portion of her own skill; when one candle lights another, is its own flame at all diminished?”
“Of course not,” Arachne answered. “But if I take that gift, and hone and polish and perfect it, how can the original gift-giver rival me?”
“Bold sentiments, dear. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to reconsider your ideas?”
Arachne laughed and shook her head. “Of course not. I dislike false modesty. I prefer the Truth, whether good or evil.”
“And what would you say to the Goddess were she here now? Face to face?”
Arachne laughed again. “I hold fast my opinion, and I stand by my words. But I also love Truth; if Athena were here, I’d gladly compete with her. If she can surpass me, I’ll lay down my distaff and spindle, and never weave again.”
“Say you so?”
“Well then,” the old woman replied, “Let us to it!”
And before her eyes, the old woman stood, unfolding and changing, until the Goddess Athena herself stood before her and all assembled.
“Foolish mortal. Your pride is your undoing. If it is a contest you wish, a contest you shall have. If you can best me, I shall acknowledge your skill, and gift you a golden apple of the Hesperides. But if you should lose….” Athena’s threat remained unspoken. In truth, Athena hadn’t yet decided what she’d do upon winning.
Arachne quaked with fear, but she would not back down. “And who shall judge between us?” she asked.
“The Nymphs and Dryads of Lydia who brought me word of you,” Athena answered. “And the people of Lydia themselves, too.”
Athena raised an eyebrow in annoyance. “You consider this unfair?”
“No, Lady,” Arachne replied. “But supposing the judgement does not please you? I could understand your anger at me, but….”
“Ah,” the Goddess said, nodding. “Then, I do here and now swear upon Styx that no matter what the judgement of the people of Lydia, I shall not take vengeance upon them, nor will I move against any in anger or resentment.”
Athena tilted her head, regarding Arachne.
“Will that suffice?”
An audible choral sigh of “Yes!” filled the room, and the Goddess smiled. “Let looms and thread be brought forth,” she cried. “And let us begin without delay!”
Athena wove a magnificent tapestry depicting mortals, overcome with hubris, attempting to rival the Gods themselves, and being struck down for their impious presumption, sometimes by their own foolishness, sometimes by the Gods themselves.
There was Icarus, who dared fly too close to the Sun God’s chariot. Onlookers could feel the heat from the sun as it was being drawn along. They could smell the melting wax and burning feathers of his wings in the threads of Athena’s work. And similarly, there was Phaethon, who lost control of Apollo’s chariot as he attempted to drive the sun across the heavens; the crowds falling back from the heat of the careening solar orb.
There was Salmoneus, struck down by Zeus for his impious impersonation of the Divine. Those gathered could swear hearing the rattling of the kettles and cauldrons dragged behind the king’s chariot. The woven torches sparkled almost like the real thing, as Salmoneus hurled them into the air, mimicking Zeus’ lightning bolts.
There was Niobe of Thebes, punished for her mockery of Leto. The people could practically feel the salt spray of her tears as Zeus transformed her into a waterfall.
Arachne, however, wove scenes of the erotic misadventures of Zeus, the King of the Gods. She portrayed his rapes, seductions, and violations; and the sorrows visited upon his victims because of Hera’s cruel and misdirected vengeance.
There was Leda, held down and penetrated by a huge swan. They could almost here the fluttering and battering of the great bird’s wings as it subdued the poor girl.
There was the rape of his own sister, Demeter; and in addition to that, there was Zeus, in guise of a snake taking his own daughter by Demeter, Persephone.
There were Zeus’ seductions of Metis, Leto, Themis, and Mnemosyne.
There were Zeus’ deceptions of poor Semele, Io, and Alkmene; and Hera’s horrible punishments visited upon Zeus’ playthings.
And for good measure, there were depictions of the rapes and seductions of Hades and Poseidon as well, and the tragic ends that came to their victims because of their own uncontrolled lusts.
The crowds marveled, as they could smell the stink of sex and sweat and fear on the subjects portrayed in her work. The flesh tones were utterly real and natural. People even swore they could hear the panting and grunting of the subjects portrayed. And they shuddered at Hera’s anger, radiating from the tapestry.
After many hours, they completed their work and stood back. The people of Lydia, and the Nymphs and Dryads stared in awe at the magnificent tapestries. The works of Arachne and the Goddess seemed almost alive, vibrant in color, tangible even to the ears and nose, somehow even more “real” than reality. There were rapturous sighs and susurrations of admiration. And while the throngs were taken with both tapestries, more seemed devoted to the admiration of Arachne’s work. There was a horrified fascination; in addition to the quality of Arachne’s work matching the Goddess’, the sheer audacity she displayed in daring to criticize the Gods was simply breathtaking.
Athena was furious. There was no flaw in Arachne’s work. It easily equaled her own. But she was incensed at Arachne’s chosen subject matter. She began angrily tearing up Arachne’s work while it was still upon the loom. The shuttle went flying and struck Arachne in the face. The Lydian weaver was wide-eyed with horrified chagrin. How could she have dared to lecture the Gods themselves on morality?
As Athena tore at the cloth, her eyes lit upon a particular sequence of events, and she froze, tears of fury in her eyes. It was a depiction of Poseidon’s rape of one of her own priestesses, and Athena herself striking down that selfsame priestess for having been raped.
The Goddess went as still as stone, unable to tear her eyes away from the scrap of tapestry in her hands. Her tears of anger became tears of sorrow, and her face softened. Athena closed her eyes as if in pain.
Arachne, misinterpreting the Goddess’ display of emotion, ran out. She grabbed at a long strip of blue cloth as she made her escape. Her dash out of the house was a primal flight response. She realized after some minutes that the Gods could not be escaped. Nor would they allow themselves to be held accountable by mere mortals. She was just outside the village limits when she spied an ash tree, with some low branches of just the right height….
Hades sat and listened patiently to Athena’s complaints about the day’s events. She never actually apologized, he noticed. She paced up and down as she spoke, looking down at her own feet. The Goddess finally dropped heavily into a chair opposite Hades’ throne, and sat before her uncle, fidgeting uneasily.
Hades waited until she had finished, and then sighed, smiling. “How could Arachne not have surpassed you, proud Niece?” He said gently in a voice laden with the ponderous weight of Time itself. “For she had a beginning and an ending. She had the motivation to excel and improve. And you had given her a spark of divine fire to kindle her soul.”
“But I am a Goddess,” Athena objected. “No mortal should be able to—”
“To live as an immortal is to live without change,” Hades interrupted in a velvet whisper. “There is no ‘end’ in site, and so there is no impetus to achieve. There is no motivation to reach a destination, for there is none.” He shrugged, shifting in his throne to a lounging position. “Oh, we perhaps might pursue novelties here and there to stave off the boredom; but what motivation do we have to learn and grow?”
“And why then did my Wisdom desert me in this matter? Am I robbed of both my skill at craft, and my understanding?”
Hades shook his head, smiling wryly. “Wisdom only comes with growth and change; without change, there can be no learning. How can there be growth and change for Immortals such as we?”
Athena huffed in annoyance. “So how can there be a Goddess of Wisdom?” she said petulantly. “My office is an empty one.”
Hades laughed softly.
“There cannot,” he agreed.
Athena looked up sharply at her uncle, wide-eyed. “Then, how is it you possess wisdom about all this that I do not?” she demanded.
Hades stroked his beard. “I receive the souls of all men. I see all lives, and I see each detail. I do not account myself wise; but I have come to recognize wisdom where I find it. True wisdom such as we Gods cannot possess.”
Athena stood, and began once more to pace in annoyance. Her eyes were cast down as she tried to absorb what Hades was telling her. He continued.
“And I often have long conversations with Mnemosyne, and Krios, and Phoibe; they were once lords of creation. But with our rise, they fell. For them, a great change. They gained wisdom and are kind enough to share some of it with me from time to time.”
Athena turned to Hades, her lips poised to ask yet another semi-rhetorical question. He raised his hand, forestalling another outburst. “Knowledge is not the same thing as Wisdom, my Niece. Neither is craftiness, despite your affection for Odysseus.”
Athena resumed her seat.
“I’m sorry, Uncle,” the Goddess murmured.
“Not at all, my dear,” Hades replied. “But now, let us discuss how you will repay me for what you have taken from me….”