Wednesday, 12 June 2013


It is often falsely believed that our ancestors of the ancient world lived in slavish devotion to their gods, that they prayed daily, sacrificed often and repented frequently, and that the fate of nations lay in the words of Heaven. But like any other culture, there were rebels. Here is the story of one such rebel.

Arachne's admired craft
Fresco by Francesco del Cossa,
Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara
There once was a young maiden, skilled in craft. Sacred was her gift, profane her piety. "Low was her birth, and small her native town, she from her art alone obtain'd renown". Dead was her mother, a dyer of Tyrian purple, her father. Content in their small hamlet until Arachne's adolescent years, when the daughter first turned her hand to her immortal craft. Immensely skilled at the loom, the most dazzling displays of weaving were the maiden's forte, and it was not long before her fame began to spread far from her home. Across the plain word spread, over the hills and far through Lydia and beyond her legend grew. From the mortal to the immortal plain her name spread, and oft would the nymphs of the fountains, trees or hills take leave of their hiding places. From the golden rivers the Naiads came, all of them drawn by her legendary art. For the spirits of nature there was little finer that to observe the shapeless wool she wound with fluid motion on the spindle, as the masterpiece took slow but mighty shape. The goddess Minerva, weaver of the gods on high, was woven into every thread, yet scorned was the mistress by the maiden. Never once did Arachne honour the goddess nor reveal the source of her knowledge, neither praising nor cursing, pure and plain silence.

The Spinning Contest
Painting by Diege Velázquez
Upon Arachne Minerva bent her "vengeful mind", angered by the indifference of the maiden toward the gods gion high. "Let us, she cries, but to a trial come, and if she conquers, let her fix my doom". The goddess took the form of a woman bent with age, and came to the house of Arachne. Coming before the prodigal girl, the old woman declared "Young maid attend, nor stubbonly despise the admonitions of the old, and wise; for age, tho' scorn'd, a ripe experience bears". Her experience could lend the girl skill greater still, but only if she petition the gods on high, and pardon her bold presumption that she be greater than the gods. With temper fired Arachne rose, and to the veiled goddess she spoke. She despised the elderly counsel and her blasphemy grew. "If your skilful goddess better knows, let her accept the trial I propose!". "She does", wrathful Minerva replies, "and cloth'd with heavenly light, sprung from her disguise". The nymphs of the plains leapt back in fright, the ladies of hamlet trembled before the awe of divinity. Only the maiden stood unafraid, confident of her earthly, human talents. A brief blush in the cheek she allowed, but swiftly her composure regain'd. Across from each other the board was set, and the looms deployed, both ready to test their skills before the other, and all looked on in apprehension.

At once skilled fingers darted hither and thither across the mantle, human and inhuman, plying their trades as never before. Shining colours lit up the room, finest golds shimmering from the Minervan loom, royal purple from the maiden's mantle, gift of her father. Shades and light were wed on the wool, "as when a show'r transpierc'd with sunny rays, its mighty arch along the heav'n displays". Minerva the glories of the gods on high wove, high on Olympus on lofty thrones. Jupiter the subject, seated proud, and the centre of heaven and the centre of her loom. With awing majesty he all the rest excell'd, but there tood were woven his kin and those of heaven. There too was the hoary lord of the seas, Neptune the son of Saturn, wielding his three pronged trident high, ready to smite the jagged rocks, his steed the hippocampus ready for its master. There herself even, Minerva wove the very image of her own. Blazoning with glory, with glittering arms. With lavishly crested helm and braided hair, shining cuirass and shield resplendent, the image of the goddess stood poised, lance ready at the tilled earth. There the blade struck, and a towering olive blossomed into glorious life. Then, to warn the maiden Arachne,a  rival now, the goddess wove, and wove well. In all the corners four she wove a tale of mortals past, mortals who dared provoke the wrath of gods. In one there was spun Rhodope, King of the warlike Thracians who dared assume the titles of Jupiter, transfigured to a mountain for his pride. In the second corner there lay the image of the venomous Pigmaean dame, who dared profane Juno's holy name, now no more than a feathered crane. To the third Minerva's hands flew, whence the pride of young Antigone grew. Another to scorn the wife of Jove, with her self admired beauty she vyed with the Empress of the Skies. At last to the final corner Minerva flew, and there the image of weeping Cinyras drew. To crown it all at the centre stood, the mighty olive tree woven finer than any mortal could.

Arachne meanwhile chose triumphs of the divine, yet of a somewhat different kind. To the vices of on high she turned, and of the dalliances of Jove she wove. Through the rising surf and roaring tide, Zeus the Thunderer bore Europa upon his stride. Fearful of the ocean deep, up drew the feet of the maid, as though of Poseidon's domain she was afraid. Their too lay Leda a resplendent swan, for whom Jove could be the only one. Appear'd in a shower gold, came the god to Danaë's hold. To Neptune next the maiden turned her hand, casting the hypocrisy of heav'n across the land. Then upon a bursting scene, Arachne wove a valley pristine. Apollo next, roving through the plain, rousing song to banish all pain. Bacchus too could not escape his fate, as ever a slave to the accursed grape.

Minerva's Wrath
Painting by Rubens
All this the bright eyed goddess saw, and grew worried at the outcome of this war. Minerva was moved, great was her anger yet inwardly she approv'd. Magnificent was the maiden's taste, yet greater still Minerva's haste. The scenes she saw of heavenly vices made her wonder, but not before her wrath tore the loom asunder. Upon the terror struck maiden the goddess lunged from great height, retribution for her insubordinate spite. In fear and grief Arachne resolved, to be be of this life absolved. So Minerva watched as Arachne from the beam hung, pity rising as she swung. Calming now, the goddess her regret did announce, though swift was her judgement to pronounce:

     " Live, but depend, vile wretch, the goddess cried, doomed
       suspense forever to be tied; that all your race,
       to utmost date of time, may feel the vengeance, and detest the crime "
              - MINERVA'S CURSE

Turning to leave, Minerva upon the girl a potion poured, and before her eye's was Arachne's new body formed. Not two but eight legs now, the array wondered but knew not how. Her body a spider's now "from which she a thread gives, and still by constant weaving lives".

So came the spider into name, and how their family name 'Arachnid' became...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

United States

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

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