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WARNING: Contains Disturbing Imagery. Discretion is advised.

Long ago, back when things were different. When the world seemed to only extend to the shores around the Mediterranean Sea, there was a girl. 


She was a kind, sweet girl with immense talent. Each day she would listen to her mother talk as the seamstress sat at her loom. All day her mother would tell her stories, stories of heroes and monsters, and especially of the Gods. And the girl would get entranced by the stories and thought she could almost see the scenes being created in the woven threads of the rugs and tapestries her mother made. 


“...and then glorious Athena stuck her spear into the hard granite of the city center and a mighty olive tree burst from the rock. With branches high and bountiful leaves and fruit, the goddess blessed her city and won the contest,” her mother said to her daughter. “And that, my sweet Arachne, is why the city is named Athens, and why we give offerings of olive oil and bread on our altar.” Arachne looked over to their household altar placed on the mantle of the fireplace. On it was a goblet, plate, and amphora placed on a white cloth. The altar was laden with small votives the family had given over the past few months in honor of the Gods. Standing tall above it all was a figure of a woman with an owl at one shoulder and a large shield and spear in her hands. She gazed over the house and though her face was carved to be stern and regal, her eyes held the kindness of a loving matriarch. The statue was the wedding dowry Arachne’s father had given her mother when they were betrothed. 


“Although he gave my father gold and silver,” Archne’s mother told her one night after her father had passed, “he wanted to make sure the goddess was always looking over us and guiding my hands in my work.” Sitting with her now, Arachne smiled and looked back at her mother. 


“And did Athena teach you how to weave?” She knew the answer but wanted to hear it again. Her mother smiled and paused in her weaving. She turned and bent down, kissing her daughter’s forehead.


“In a way, yes. She taught mankind to weave, back when Pandora was married to Epimetheus. She showed Pandora to weave beautiful tapestries and blankets so her and her family could be safe and warm during the winters. She taught her daughters, and they taught their daughters, and for generations they passed down the secrets of Athena’s craft. Each stitch and each knot I make is in honor of the goddess and our ancestors.” Arachne smiled widely as her mother turned back to finish the tapestry on her loom. When it was completed, she took it off and draped it on a wooden frame. “There. That is it for today. Go sit at the table and I will make us some supper.” 


Years passed, and Arachne got older and her mother taught her the ways of the loom and craft. Each lesson made her quicker and her fingers more agile as they danced over the threads. As her mother’s hands grew arthritic and her knuckles creaked with age, Arachne took up the work and created beautiful blankets and scarves and chitons to sell. And sell they did. After not too long, everyone in the city wanted a piece made by Arachne. Her and her mother earned a great amount of money and soon their reputation grew so much that even the Gods themselves heard of Arachne’s success and talents. 


“Wow,” Apollo said, as he and the other Gods sat in the council chamber of Olympus. He held up one of the tapestries woven by Arachne, acquired from his latest trip to Athens. The cloth depicted a golden and red sunrise over a blue and purple Mediterranean Sea. The scene was so beautiful, one could almost hear the sea birds squawking as they flew in the morning air. “I mean, look at this. Such craftsmanship. Why, Athena, I don’t think you have created anything quite this beautiful in a century!” Athena’s grey eyes flashed as she glared at Apollo. She got up, stomped over to him, and ripped the tapestry out of his hands. As he and several of the other gods laughed at her expense, she lifted the cloth up and inspected it. She scoured every single inch of it, looking for any imperfections, any single stitch that was out of place or any knot that was even slightly loose. 


Haven't made anything this beautiful, Athena growled in her head as she resigned to not seeing a single flaw, save one loose thread at the bottom left corner. She had half a mind to point it out, to call it out and try to belittle it as best she could. But she knew that was futile and would have resulted in more scorn by her family. Instead, she draped it over her arm and stomped out of the chamber. She would see to this seamstress and break her for her arrogance. 




Down in Athens, the goddess Athena was in disguise. Using her magic, she made herself look like an old woman in a shawl and kekryphalos. She was impressed by what the city had become. In the affluence and power she blessed it with it had grown to be the envy of Greece and the Mediterranean world. She felt energized being within the city center. After some walking, she found the great olive tree she had sprouted all those centuries ago. It was as beautiful and fruitful as the day it had been grown. Athena placed a hand out and touched the rough bark of the trunk. A surge of electric energy filled her. Now, she thought, it was time to find that girl. 


There was a crowd gathered at Arachne’s house. It was a beautiful day, with a clear blue sky, so the loom was placed outside and Arachne weaved as a gentle breeze blew through Greece. The large audience watched her weave. She was fast and her fingers nimble as she worked and created the scene of a cliff side overlooking the sea with maenads lounging on the rocks on the water. Many of the crowd gasped with oo’s and ah’s as the details became clear. Arachne smiled as she worked, quietly enjoying the attention. And through the crowd, an old woman with a shawl made her way to the front. When she saw the piece the seamstress was creating, her mouth twisted in slight contempt and irritation. The piece was beautiful and the girl was skilled. 


“She has talent and skill,” the old woman who was Athena said to a middle-aged woman by her side. The woman turned and smiled with nut brown eyes. 


“Yes,” the woman said. She beamed at Arachne with pride. “I am her mother and I taught her as best I could. What skill she has that surpasses mine is completely her own.” The old woman in the shawl nodded. 


“Yes, and it seems she has brought in much luck and fortune to your family through her work.” The woman nodded to their beautiful house. “I hope she gives thanks to the Gods for their favor as well.”


“Oh yes,” Arachne’s mother nodded. “She has never forgotten the gifts and skill the Gods have given us - especially great Athena.” She smiled and the old woman nodded. 


“That is good,” said the woman who was Athena in disguise. She made her voice frailer and creak. “Now, ma’am, I must ask. May I come inside to sit a while? My body aches and it has been a long journey to come and see your daughter.” Instantly, Arachne’s mother nodded and took the old woman’s arm. 


“Certainly. Come with me. My daughter is almost done with her work for the day. When she comes in, you can talk to her yourself.”


“That would be nice,” They went inside. In the house it was beautiful. There was an assortment of breads and fruits on the table and several fine cloths were draped on the chairs. The smell of fresh flowers from the bouquets in the windowsills filled the space as the two women came inside and sat down at the table. The old woman looked around her host’s house and spied the mantle with the small altar. An old clay figure of a goddess with a stern face and a spear and shield stood in the middle of the altar. “That is a beautiful statue,” she said, pointing to it among the candles and votive offerings on the altar. “But it looks so old. Wouldn’t you wish to get rid of it and get a better one?” The Arachne’s mother paused as she was pouring wine into a small cup and looked up with a slightly saddened face. 


“Oh no, never. I could never part with it. It was a wedding present from my late husband. He gave it to ensure Athena would always be with us.” The old woman nodded and thanked her for the wine and piece of bread she was given. They sat and talked for an hour until the door opened and Arachne came in with a tall, black haired woman. 


“Thank you, Arachne. You are so talented it is an honor to buy this from you,” the woman said. Arachne smiled as she carried the newly made tapestry in and laid it on a short table. 


“Thank you for the patronage,” Arachne said as she folded up the tapestry. “I’m just grateful for the business and that my skills are appreciated.” 


“It truly is a work of art,” the old woman in the shawl said as she sipped at her wine. “Why I don’t think even Athena herself could make such a masterpiece.” Arachne stood, holding the bundled up tapestry in her hands and furrowed her brow slightly. 


“Oh, well, I’d never say that. Even the most talented of weavers could never compare to —.” 


“Oh sweetheart, you sell yourself too short!” The black haired woman laughed as she took the bundle. “You have the skills that can outdo anything a goddess can. Why even —.” The woman’s voice broke and though she tried to talk, no words came out. Her eyes grew wide and the other women in the house looked worried. All except the old woman in the shawl, who stood slowly. Her crooked back straightened and she stood tall as her face and hands grew young and smooth. Light glinted around her and at her brow as shining armor and a red plumed helmet appeared. A large shield was slung at her back and her eyes become the grey of her father’s thunderclouds. The three women shrank away as Athena glared. 


“How dare you,” she said in a low tone, “your arrogance and presumption has poisoned your words. Never again shall you speak in penance for the wastefulness of your words.” The black haired woman’s mouth opened in a mute scream and her eyes filled with tears as she dropped the tapestry and fled. The goddess looked at Arachne and her mother as the two clutched at each other. “And you. How dare you show such displays of pride and —.”


“Lady Athena,” interrupted Arachne’s mother, a desperate squeak in her voice. She fell to her knees. “Please, have mercy. We cannot control what others say, and we have tried to quell any boastful words. Please —.” 


“Silence,” Athena snapped. She took a step forward and her armor clinked together. “I am speaking to your daughter and she can speak for herself.” She turned her gaze to Arachne. “Well?” Arachne swallowed, straightened herself up, and took a deep breath. 


“I stand by what my mother said. Yes, I have skill and it has made me successful and loved. I take pride in my work. But I am not boastful, and I do not raise my reputation to be anymore than what I can prove it to be. I can not control what others think of me and I can not keep them from their opinions. But I have always honored you and the other gods in my offerings and daily prayers. I thank you every day for the skills that have been passed through the generations from Pandora to today.” She paused and looked at her mother, who had tears in her eyes. “If I have been truly arrogant and boastful, I can not defend myself any more than I have. And should I deserve punishment, then I will take what I am due.”  


There was silence in the house when Arachne finished. Athena, the goddess with the storm grey eyes, felt her rage soften and the ghost of a smile returned to her lips. She took off her helm and placed it on the table besides her cup of wine. She ran a hand through her hair and thought for a moment. 


“Very well,” she said at last. “I admit I am impressed with you. Both in your weaving skills and your words. Yes, it is true you can not control the thoughts and rumors of others.” She paused. “However, I can. So I will tell you what we’ll do. At dawn tomorrow, you and I will have a competition. We both shall weave the finest tapestries we can. As the crowd gathers and watches, they will see what the goddess Athena can truly do and your reputation will no longer be out of your control.” Her armor began to shimmer like sunlight through afternoon clouds as she began to depart from the house. Looking over her shoulder, she said, “And, my dear, do try your best tomorrow. Make me proud.” And with that, she disappeared in a ball of light. 


Arachne and her mother looked at each other, amazed and almost unbelieving of their encounter with the goddess. Eventually, they gathered themselves and began to clean up their home, careful not to touch the bronze helmet with the red plume. 


Dawn came and brought with it the anxiety and anticipation of the contest set by the goddess. When Arachne woke from troubled dreams, she and her mother were silent as they readied themselves. Arachne’s fingers twitched slightly, but as she exited the house, she began to relax. A few feet away from the loom that her mother’s mother’s father had built was Athena, dressed in a robe of dazzling purple and gold. She stood next to her own loom of dark wood and bronze fastenings. Bundles of cotton and silk thread sat around them in willow baskets. The goddess was smiling a little and Arachne exhaled. 


“Good morning, Arachne,” Athena said calmly as they both sat at their respective looms. “Don’t be nervous. Just do your best.” Arachne nodded shakily and looked around. 


“I thought there was going to be people here,” she said nervously. “Not…not that I need an audience, it’s just…” the goddess laughed and threaded the first of the cotton into her loom. 


“They will come. Soon all of Athens will be here to witness.” The words brought on a weight of importance, but Arachne felt bolstered by it, and she too began to ready her loom. 


Athena was correct. In less than an hour a sizable crowd had gathered to watch the goddess and mortal seamstress work. By midday, the whole of Athens had surrounded them. For hours, Arachne and Athena wove. It was slow at first, both of them getting the morning stiffness out of their knuckles and joints. But soon they both were weaving with intense skill and fast precision. At first, Arachne did not know what she would do. Usually she chose a beautiful scene such as a sunset or a warm summer day over a field of wildflowers. But as she completed the first section of her sky blue border, she decided. And through the day, she created a beautiful timeline of events depicted in the knotted and criss-crossing threads. She drew from her memories and created scenes from her life. In one she was a little girl, barely a toddler, and playing with her father in their home - his bearded smile and kind eyes a favorite of her memories. In another she was a small girl and sitting with her mother as she told stories of the Gods and heroes. The two of them at her father’s funeral as her mother was handed his cracked shield. The tears in their eyes seemed to glisten.


Athena worked even faster than the skilled Arachne. She summoned all the power of knowledge and wisdom of life and history she had and put it into the threads of cotton and silk. Her tapestry told the story of the world and of the Gods. From the darkness of Chaos and Nyx, to the meeting of Gaia and Oranos, to the Titanomachy with the Gods triumphant, to her own birth from Zeus’ split skull and the forming of the Olympian Council. As she wove, the finished parts of the tapestry rose into the air from her loom and grew above her and the crowd. The cloth fluttered in the breeze, making the images of the heroes, gods, and monsters of old seem to move. 


But as the sun began to set and fill the sky with gold, orange, and pink hues, the tapestry no longer told of history. Instead the scenes grew stranger and stranger as the gift of divine prophecy took over Athena, and the city of Athens finally understood how they had been saved when Pandora had sealed her jar before that final demon had escaped. In the scenes of the future, wars of endless proportions were fought, entire civilizations - from great Athens to Egypt to ones unfamiliar and foreign - rose and fell. Millions upon millions of deaths from disease, war, violence, and famine filled the sky. The crowd of people stood transfixed by the sight and erupted in wailing and crying and moaning; but still the contest continued. The people saw hoards of machines made of iron, steel and fire, and towers of metal and glass that rose as high as mountains. By the time the sky had darkened and night took over the world, the entire crowd had fled, unable to bear any more knowledge of the future. 


Athena sat back, the silence left behind by the crowd palpable, and wiped her brow. She looked up at the sky, her tapestry of the history of mankind and the Gods filling the air, and felt a twinge of regret. Perhaps, she thought, she had gone too far in proving herself. She got up and walked over to Arachne’s empty loom. The girl must have fled as well, she thought as she looked over Arachne’s tapestry. She smiled at the story that it told. The joy and sorrow and grief and wonder that the girl had woven into the threads was powerful. Athena sighed. Perhaps…


An agonizing scream ripped through the night air and broke Athena from her thoughts. Immediately, Athena rushed towards the sound, the warrior goddess’ armor returning. She ran to the backside of the house where a screaming sob was coming and as she rounded the corner, she saw why. Arachne’s mother was kneeling and sobbing uncontrollably at the base of the tree that her daughter was hanging from. She clutched the girl’s lifeless legs as her own could barely hold her up. Athena walked over carefully. The mother paid her no mind. When the goddess was next to her, Athena grabbed a knife from her belt and sawed at the rope. In a couple seconds, the body of Arachne was cut loose and Athena quickly grabbed her and laid her down at her mother’s side. 


“Pl…pl…please,” Arachne’s mother said between sobs. “Please, goddess. Bring her b…back to me.” She moved over and cradled Arachne’s head in her lap as the goddess knelt down beside her. 


“I am afraid I cannot. Thanatos has already taken her and she is on her way to the afterlife.” This renewed the woman’s sobbing and she wailed, with the goddess next to her, allowing her to grieve. 


“I…I have already buried a husband,” she said eventually. “Don’t make me bury my child too.” She caressed her daughter’s head. “She was such a devoted daughter. She’s all I had left. Please…please.” Athena thought for a moment and placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder. 


“I cannot bring her back to you. But, I can give her a new life. She won’t be as she was, but she can live again, in a way.” Arachne’s mother sobbed with deep rasping breaths, but eventually she nodded. 


Athena reached down and took Arachne’s cold hand in hers. Arachne’s body faded into a swarm of fireflies and they all gathered and condensed into Athena’s hand until the goddess seemed to be holding the sun in her palm. Athena opened her palm and the light burst into a million tiny lights again and flew into the air, scattering throughout Athens. On her palm sat a small insect. It had a round body with eight thin legs. It was covered in fur, the brown of Arachne’s curls and the moonlight glinted in its many multi-faceted eyes. It stretched and crawled up Athena’s arm, across her shoulders, and down onto the other woman’s own hand. Arachne’s mother lifted her hand up and stared at the small creature. 


“Arachne? S…sweetheart?” The creature scuttled around and a gossamer strand of silk came out of her body. She spun and twisted around and between the woman’s fingers with amazing speed. In a minute, the creature that was once Arachne finished and crawled back onto her mother’s palm. In the spaces between her fingers, Arachne’s mother could read “I love you” as the moonlight glinted off the fine silk. Her eyes filled with tears again and she smiled. Athena squeezed the woman’s shoulder. 


“She will have many, many children. Forever after, her and her kind will weave beautiful tapestries of silk. There will be many tonight who suffer from the same fate as she, due to my mistake. But she will teach them all to weave as she does and the whole world will know and be in awe of the beauty of it.” And with that, Athena rose and left. Arachne’s mother knelt there the rest of the night, with her daughter, the first of the spiders, weaving beautiful webs around her.

Text Copyright © Maximillion Almgren-Bersie 2023

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