There was a contest, in which a mortal dared to come in competition with Athena. That mortal was Arachne, a maiden who had attained such skill in the arts of weaving and embroidery that the nymphs themselves would leave their groves and fountains to come and gaze upon her work. It was not only beautiful when it was done, but beautiful also in the doing.
Arachne was the daughter of Idmon of Colophon, who was a famous wool dyer in Tyrian purple. To watch her, as she took the wool in its rude state and formed it into rolls, or separated it with her fingers and carded it till it looked as light and soft as a cloud, or twirled the spindle with skilful touch, or wove the web, or, after it was woven, adorned it with her needle, one would have said that Athena herself had taught her. But Arachne denied this.
"Athena can compete with me, and I will be the better," she said proudly. "Let her try my skill with hers, and see for herself."
Athena heard this and was displeased. She assumed the form of an old woman and went and gave Arachne some friendly advice."I have had much experience," said she, "and I hope you will not despise my counsel. Challenge your fellow-mortals as you will, but do not compete with a Goddess. On the contrary, I advise you to ask her forgiveness for what you have said, and as she is merciful perhaps she will pardon you."
Arachne stopped her spinning and looked at the old dame with anger in her countenance. "Keep your counsel," said she, "for your daughters or handmaids; for my part I know what I say, and I stand to it. I am not afraid of the Goddess; let her try her skill, if she dare venture."
"She comes," said Athena; and dropping her disguise stood in front of her. "Come, puny mortal, let us see."
Arachne was unterrified. She blushed, indeed; a sudden color dyed her cheek, and then she grew pale. But she stood to her resolve, and with a foolish conceit of her own skill rushed on her fate. Athena forbore no longer nor interposed any further advice. They proceeded to their looms, put the wool on the beams, and sat down to weave. The nymphs watched, as the slender shuttle passed in and out of the threads. The reed with its fine teeth struck the woof into place and compacted the web. Both worked with incredible speed, their hands moving rapidly over the fabric.
Athena wove of her triumph over Poseidon; the twelve Olympians sitting in their thrones. Athena depicted herself with a helmed head, her Aegis covering her breast. Such was the central circle; and in the four corners were represented incidents illustrating the displeasure of the gods at such presumptuous mortals as had dared to contend with them. These were meant as warnings to her rival to give up the contest before it was too late.
Arachne wove the tapestry with subjects designedly chosen to exhibit the failings and errors of the Gods. One scene represented Leda caressing the swan, under which form Zeus had disguised himself; and another, Danae, in the brazen tower in which her father had imprisoned her, but where the God effected his entrance in the form of a golden shower. Still another depicted Europa deceived by Zeus under the disguise of a bull. Encouraged by the tameness of the animal Europa ventured to mount his back, whereupon Zeus advanced into the sea and swam with her to Crete.
Arachne filled her canvas with similar subjects, wonderfully well done, but strongly marking her presumption and impiety. Athena could not forbear to admire, yet felt indignant at the insult. She struck the web with her shuttle and reduced it to dust. Then she laid her shuttle on Arachne's forehead and made her feel guilt and shame. She could not endure it and went and hanged herself. Athena pitied her as she saw her suspended by a rope. "Live," she said, "Guilty woman! And that you may preserve the memory of this lesson, continue to hang, both you and your descendants, to all future times."She sprinkled her with the juices of aconite, and immediately her hair came off, and her nose and ears likewise. Her form shrank up, and her head grew smaller yet; her fingers cleaved to her side and served for legs. All the rest of her is body, out of which she spins her thread, often hanging suspended by it, in the same attitude as when Athena touched her and transformed her into a spider.