Arachne was my sister, but we were as different as night and day. I was tall and lanky, tanned from hours spent on the seashore hunting for the shellfish that Father used in his dye. She was small and pale from hours in front of the loom, doing the weaving that had brought her fame.
Ever since she was small, Arachne had been able to take an ordinary piece of cloth and turn it into a blaze of color and beauty that would take your breath away. On her work, figures breathed and flowers blossomed. Her amazing weaving had spread through Greece, and now people came from Crete, Sparta, Macedonia, places we had never heard of, to see the miracle weaver for themselves.
On the morning that it happened, the spectators were already thick around our hut. Father was behind it, dying a new batch of yarn. I was looking for my best friend, Cora. We liked to stand behind the crowd and hear their praise and Arachne’s biting remarks. Besides extraordinary weaving skills, my sister also possessed a sharp tongue. Finally, I was about to resort to looking in the pig sty when I heard Cora calling me. “Alethea!” She was standing by the crowd. I joined her with a dirty look. She shrugged and mouthed, I was at the beach, and I mentally kicked myself for not thinking of that.
We turned our attention back to the crowd just in time to hear a man joke to his companion, “Now if only my wife could weave like that! I’d be richer than the emperor! How does she do it?”
Arachne’s response was quick and sharp. “I certainly did not learn by standing still and gawping like a goat! I used my own two hands, to a much better result than you!”
Another woman murmured, “What skill! Surely, dear, you must have been taught by Athena herself !”
She made two of the worst mistakes you could make with Arachne. Father once absentmindedly called Arachne dear and she threw a fit and tore one of the tapestries she had woven that day into shreds. Arachne also hated to be compared to anyone.
I held my breath and hoped Arachne wouldn’t kill the woman or tear the cloth, because we needed the money.
Thankfully, her attack was fully verbal. “How dare you compare me to that goddess! My weaving is far better than hers, but she won’t admit it! I would challenge her to a contest, but of course she wouldn’t come!”
In the shocked quiet that followed this outburst, a hunched, ragged old woman near the front suddenly spoke in a quavering yet surprisingly firm voice. “You foolish girl. Nothing good has ever happened to mortals who challenged the gods. Take back what you said at once, and later make an offering to Athena, lest she truly come and unleash her fury on you.”
For an inexplicable reason, my blood ran cold when she uttered the final threat, and I glanced at Cora. She was pale under her tan. Gripped by fear, I started to squeeze my way through the crowd, trying desperately to reach Arachne before something happened to her. I also kept an eye on the strange old woman as well as I could.
But she was too angry and too proud to notice anything but this old woman that dared to rebuke her. “I will not take back my challenge!” Arachne raged. “What do you, a ragged old beggar, know of me? I am the greatest weaver among both the gods and the mortals, and Athena is welcome to compete against me!”
Barely had her words died off when the old woman began to glow. She threw off her ragged cloak and was suddenly dressed in a shining white chiton. She grew taller, and her face was radiant and beautiful, tender yet at the same time stern. I had seen that face before, on statues in temples.
Arachne had challenged Athena, and Athena had come.
My sister stood silently before her loom, and her face was a thunderstorm of emotion. Anger, astonishment, and was that fear? The crowd was silent with shock, waiting for something more to unfold. Finally, Arachne’s mouth tightened into a thin, determined line, and she motioned Athena towards another loom that was standing in the corner. She removed the cloth she had been working on and, without any further ado, began a new weaving. Athena did too. Someone must have told Father because he came running with two baskets filled with skeins of his yarn, in colors bright as the rainbow and as varied. He silently placed one basket by Arachne and one by Athena, with a bow to her. Then he looked around and came to stand beside me. We watched without a word.
Athena wove faster than Arachne. A pattern began to take shape on her loom. I strained to see, and suddenly understood. It was a warning to Arachne. In the center of the pattern, Athena competed with Poseidon for possession of Athens. She stood by her newly created olive tree, and the sea god stood tall by his creation, the horse. The other gods were also there, Zeus in the middle, blazing with glory. It was clear, somehow, that they were all favoring Athena. On the four corners of the cloth, the goddess had woven the terrible fates of mortals who had dared to compete with the gods. It was clear what Arachne’s fate would be if she continued to defy Athena.
I turned to see my sister’s weaving, and gasped. Her face was hard and angry, and her pattern was a direct insult to the gods. There was Leda, with Zeus disguised as the swan, and Danae, locked in her tower, visited by Zeus as a golden ray of light. I also recognized Europa and the bull. All the unworthy acts of the gods were displayed on Arachne’s cloth.
Athena suddenly rose from her weaving, her expression furious. She had seen the pattern too. In one swift motion, she tore the cloth across and slapped Arachne across the face. The sound rang in the silent room.
Arachne stood perfectly still for a moment, then she lunged desperately for the coil of rope we kept hanging on the wall. Her nimble fingers expertly fashioned a noose, and she hung it around her neck and looked wildly around at our shocked faces.
“I won’t live with this insult!” she screamed. “I can’t!”
I finally overcame my numbness. “Arachne!” I cried. “No!”
But she was already reaching for one of the hooks that we used to hang plants. Athena, however, was quicker. She grabbed Arachne and grabbed the rope.
“You will not die today, foolish girl,” she said. “Live on, and spin.”
As soon as these words died off, Arachne began to shrink. Her entire body became small and brown. Spindly legs grew from her body, until she had eight. When she stopped shrinking, she was a small, dusty brown spider on a slender thread, and Athena had disappeared. So had both weavings, and the only evidence of my sister that was left was her half-finished tapestry. It seemed like she had started it a century ago.
I stepped forward and tried to catch the spider that was my sister. I wanted to hold her, console her. But she swung away from me and reeled in her thread until she was on the ceiling. She scuttled across it, heading towards a small chink in the roof.
“Wait!” I called. “Please don’t go! It’s all right, we won’t hurt you!” I was running, trying to keep up with the tiny creature. But she didn’t hear or wouldn’t listen and disappeared through the chink. I dropped to my knees.
That was the last I saw of my sister, until this morning. I was sweeping our hut when I saw a small movement on the floor. I bent down to see. It was a small, dusty brown spider. It had scuttled right in front of me and was standing motionless. I crouched down, barely breathing.
“Arachne?” I whispered. “Is it you?” The spider did nothing. We stayed like that for some time, until the spider abruptly continued its journey across the floor. It stopped at the loom, and climbed it. And while I watched it, holding my breath, it began to weave an intricate web.