Athene and Arachne

"Athene? Why are you mad? Don't be mad," Hebe begged, clinging to her older half-sister's feathered cloak as the goddess stormed to and fro. No longer little, but still fairly young, Hebe was quite attached to Athene, and the goddess of knowledge and the arts forced herself to still her pacing.

"That...mortal," Athene whispered. "She dares...she dares!"

"What, Athene?" Hebe implored, eyes pooling with tears. "Who? What did she do?"

With a sweep of her hand, Athene called up the image of the mortal girl, a beautiful spinner and weaver. "She is called Arachne of Lydia, a princess of that land."

"She is...beautiful," Hebe offered cautiously. "But would that not anger Aphrodite?"

Athene looked at Hebe wryly. "I did not say her beauty angered me. No, it is this."

A snap of her fingers, and Hebe could hear the girl's voice as she boasted to her friends. "Athene must surely see this!" Arachne crowed. "This tapestry is the envy of all Lydia! Why, the goddess herself surely could not do better!"

Hebe gasped. "Oh! Oh!" She stared, and Athene nodded grimly. "W-what will you do with her, Athene?" Hebe whispered. "Please, don't be mean, she's just a silly girl."

"I will give her a chance to repent," Athene responded. "After that...we shall see." She disappeared in a swirl of owl feathers, leaving the picture behind, and Hebe watched, wide-eyed, as the owl alighted in an olive-tree in Arachne's courtyard. It flew to the ground, and an old woman, dressed in rags, stood in the owl's place. Hebe sat spellbound, unable to look away as the woman hobbled into the courtyard, a pack slung over her back.

"Hoy, old woman, what do you here?" Arachne's friends taunted. "Get out, this is no place for one such as you!"

"Good wares, fine wares to sell," the woman said. "For the princess' eyes only," she added a trifle sharply. Arachne left her loom, and came to greet the woman.

"Hail, good grand-dame," Arachne said. "I will see your wares."

Athene - for she it was - spread out the contents of her sack. Fine woollen threads, silks, and satins lay there, and Arachne examined each one, her face suffused with joy. "These are wonderful, good grand-dame. I shall buy them all," she said.

"You are sure these threads are within your skill, Princess?" Athene asked.

"I am sure," Arachne said imperiously, throwing back her head. She stood erect, eyes blazing. "I am the most skilled spinner and weaver in all of Greece! Athene herself could not match me!"

The woman lifted her walking-staff and shook it. "Have a care, Princess. You never know who may be watching."

Arachne snorted. "I care not! If Athene herself was listening, I would challenge her myself."

Hebe, watching and listening, cried out in dismay.

Athene cast off her cloak, displaying her owl-feather robe, and the crooked walking-staff became a sceptre. Her hair was no longer white, but dark as night, and her eyes gleamed with anger. "Stay! Here is Athene, and your challenge is accepted!"

She smiled, and the ominous sight made Arachne's knees turn to jelly. "M-my lady..." Arachne stammered, going to her knees. "My lady, forgive me..."

"Oh, but moments ago, you were ready to face me," Athene said coldly. "Are you withdrawing your challenge, to bring eternal shame upon your family?"

Arachne bowed to the ground, trembling. "I will face you, my lady."

"If you lose, it will cost your life," Athene said quietly.

"But not my honor, lady?" Arachne whispered.

Athene paused. "No, child. Not that."

The contest was set, and Arachne set up her loom at the base of Mount Olympus. Athene stood upon its crown, drawing the clouds upon her distaff and dyeing the spun wool with the colours of sunrise, nooning, evening and sunset.

Arachne, trembling, wove scenes in praise of Athene, showing her birth, her granting of the arts to Man, her contest with Poseidon over the naming of Athens...the tapestries grew on the earth's surface, while Athene made the sky her loom. She wove scenes of the World's beginning from Chaos, Zeus' war with the Titans, the granting of Fire to Man by Prometheus and his subsequent chaining, and the battles between gods and man ever after. The people of Lydia, watching, cowered from Athene's weaving as she began to spin scenes of Future yet to come.

Hebe sobbed, watching too, and curled into Artemis' embrace. The Virgin Huntress had risen from her rest when the cries of the Lydians wakened her, and gone swiftly to comfort her sister when Hebe's screams became too much to bear. Artemis held Hebe as Arachne abandoned her weaving, fleeing into the wood, and Athene pursued. By the time Athene cleared the skies of the terrible future of Man, and found her quarry, it was too late - Arachne hung by her sash from a tree branch, her heart and breath stilled.

"O child," Athene whispered, pity in her eyes. "A waste - such a waste. I would have favoured you, in the end." She caressed Arachne's cold face and kissed her brow, and the limp body began to shrink, limbs and eyes multiplying, until all that was left was a tiny creature suspended by a silken thread. Athene breathed on it, and it scrambled up onto the branch from which it had hung.

"Spin and weave, child," Athene said softly, "spin and weave, all your days, and so you and your children, and their children, will earn their meat and keep their home. Your works will ever be a thing of beauty, and your children shall bear your name, Arachne. I forgive you your pride."