Metamorphoses VI:5-145 – Arachne


Artist Johann Whilhelm Baur (1600-1640), Nuremberg edition, 1703.

Pallas turned her attention to the matter of Arachne, a woman of Maeonia, who claimed to be Pallas’ equal in weaving. Art, not birth, had made Arachne famous. Her father, a Colophonian named Idmon, dyed wool with pigment from the clams of Phocaea; her mother had died, but like her husband she’d been of the lower classes. 

Arachne was known throughout the Lydian cities for her skill though she’d been born in a little hut and lived in village of Hypaepa. Often nymphs left the vineyards of Tmolus to see whatever wonderful piece Arachne was weaving, and often water sprites rose from the ripples of the Pactolus to watch.

It wasn’t just the beauty of the finished articles that drew them: such was Arachne’s skill that when she first balled the raw fleece, or she tightened the thread with her fingers, or she carded the wool, or touches of her thumb spun the thread onto spindles, or even when she hooked up the nap–all these things displayed what she’d learned from Pallas. Yet she herself refused to own Pallas her mistress, saying, “Let her compete with me! If she wins, there is no forfeit I will refuse!”

Pallas disguised herself as a gray-haired old woman, hobbling along with the aid of a staff. To Arachne she said, “Old age brings some things of value: experience is only gained by years, so don’t ignore what I tell you. Limit your ambition to being the best weaver among mortals, but give place to the goddess. Entreat her pardon for your rash boasting, for I know she’ll absolve you if you apologize.”

Arachne glared fiercely. She threw down the spindle she’d just taken up and scarcely restrained herself from a slap. Furiously she cried to the disguised goddess, “You senile, crazy old fool! Save your platitudes for the daughter you suckled, if you have one! I have full confidence in myself, nor have your words caused me to change my mind. Why doesn’t the goddess herself come to me? Does she fear the contest?”

“She comes,” said Pallas, doffing the trappings of age to reveal her glory.

The nymphs and Mygdonian women immediately bowed to her godhead. Arachne alone stood fearless, though she flushed–and a moment later the flush that marked her cheeks paled. Thus the sky becomes violet at the first touch of dawn but then blazes white with the risen sun.

Arachne held to her course, steadfast in her desire for triumph as she rushed to her ruin. Nor did the daughter of Jupiter relent; she too prepared for the contest with no further warnings.

Without delay they set up their looms facing one another, stretching their cords on the beams. They fixed the beams to the yoke and combed the warp, inserting the woof and speeding the pointed shuttles with their fingers, then banging down their combs with quick blows.

Both work quickly with their skirts gathered up, moving with practiced skill that belied the difficulty of their tasks. Here one places threads dyed Tyrian purple to form shadows of subtle hue. Thus when the sun strikes a rainbow from the clouds, filling heaven with its great curve and scattering a thousand gleaming colors, the transitions are beyond the grasp of the human eye. Each thread seems to be the same color as the ones beside it, yet the differences at either end are pronounced. Here and there a thread of dense gold gleams as they weave ancient themes on their looms.

Pallas depicts the Areopagus of Athens and the contest to name the city. With Jupiter in their midst the twelve gods sit in awful majesty on their heavenly thrones middle, each one recognizable as an individual. She portrays Jupiter as regal, and she depicts the sea god standing as he strikes the rock with his long trident so that the sea leaps in through the triple wound: his gift to Athens.

On her own image Pallas places the shield, the sharp-pointed spear, and the helmet; the head of Medusa is her breastplate. She is thrusting her spear into the ground to bring forth the gray-leafed olive and its fruit. The gods marvel at her, and Victory crowns her work.

So that boastful Arachne should understand the cost of mad arrogance, Pallas adds four punishments in the corners of her fabric, each in a cartouche of its own color. One shows Rhodope and Haemus, now frozen mountains in Thrace but once living beings who claimed to be gods. Another corner displays the wretched fate of the Queen of the Pigmies: Juno defeated her in a contest and turned her into a crane, forcing her to wage war on her own people. Pallas also limned Antigone, who once strove against the consort of great Jupiter. For this royal Juno turned her into a stork, nor were Ilion nor her father Laomedon able to help her. Nay, she donned white wings and clatters her beak. In the final corner is Cinryas bereft, weeping as he lies on the temple steps and tries to embrace them, for those stones had been his daughters.

The theme of Pallas’ border is the peaceful olive, thus bounding the tapestry with her own tree.

Maenoian Arachne wove Europa carried away by the false bull; you might think both the bull and the sea were real. The girl seems to look back at the land she’s leaving forever, calling to her friends and drawing up her legs to keep her feet from the leaping waves.

She showed Latona, gripped by the thrusting eagle; she wove Leda with her legs spread beneath the wings of the swan; and she added jupiter in the guise of a satyr filling the womb of Nycteus’ beautiful daughter Antiope with the seed of twins. Jupiter was Amphitryon when he took you, Tiryinthian Alcmene; gold when he raped Danae; fire when he sported with Asopus’ daughter Aegina; a shepherd when he diddled Mnemosyne, and a sparkling serpent to Proserpina.

Arachne wove you also, Neptune, as a snorting bull astride Aeolus’ daughter Canace. You were in the guise of Enipeus when you impregnated Iphimedia, a ram when you seduced Theophane, and the blonde-haired Mother of the Grain felt you in the form of a stallion. Viper-haired Medusa bore the winged horse after you trod her in the form of a bird, and Melantho knew you as a dolphin. In all these woven scenes, the places and individuals were recognizable.

Phoebus was shown wearing now the wings of a falcon, now the hide of a lion, and finally as a shepherd when he dallied with Macareus’ daughter Isse. Liber was shown impregnating Erigone in the form of a grape, while Saturn as a stallion begat two-formed Cheiron.

Arachne left the ends of her warp as a delicate fringe, while her border showed ivy interwoven with flowers.

Hers was a work whose merit neither Athena nor Envy could deny. The masterwork goaded the goddess into blond fury: she shredded the fabric and its catalogue of the gods’ sins. Then, snatching a branch from an olive growing on Mt. Cytorus, she lashed Arachne’s face thrice and a fourth time.

The miserable girl couldn’t bear the shame; she went and hanged herself. With a hint of pity Pallas said to the dangling corpse, “Live–but for your sins, continue to hang. Your whole line will pay the same punishment.”

Having spoken, Pallas sprinkled Arachne with magic herbs. At the touch of this dire elixir, Arachne’s hair fell off and with it her nose and ears. Her head shrank, and then her whole body became small. Instead of legs, her wizened fingers projected from her sides, and the rest of her became all belly–from which nevertheless she spins thread and as a spider continues the work of her loom to this day.

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