A Book of Myths
Page: 45[Pg 86] 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.
[Pg 87] 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.”
[Pg 88] 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.
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.”
[Pg 89] 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.