Swiftly, lightly, she spun, as she had always done. Arachne the weaver, changed into a spider by Minerva for her presumption, would never stop.
She had no equal in skill. That was why she had challenged the goddess, that was why she had defeated her, and that was why Minerva, unable to bear humiliation at the hand of a human, had torn her weavings to shreds. This was why Arachne was now a creature which had never existed before; why she was no longer human, why she had eight legs instead of two, why she was on her belly, abject to the gods, with only that ceaseless thread to hang on to.
The rage over Minerva's injustice had yet to cease. Arachne was no less proud a spider than she had been a human, and if she had disregarded the goddess before, now she despised her.
Should this be the end then? she wondered. The goddess triumphant and I in the dust, and not because Minerva is wiser, not because she is more skillful than I am, but simply because she is divine and I am mortal? No!
The nymphs who inhabited the trees and grass around her heard her and laughed. They told her she was ridiculous; she always had been, to think a mortal could challenge the gods and win.
"But I did win," Arachne said stubbornly, and mournfully crawled over her wonderful tapestries which Minerva had torn, both for their flawlessness and for what they depicted; the indiscretions of the gods.
"And look at you now," the nymphs said. "Though you should count yourself lucky. You could have ended up like Prometheus."
Arachne knew the story of Prometheus the Titan, as everyone did; but the tale of the creator of mankind who was now bound to a rock, with an eagle tearing out his liver day by day, did not serve to pacify her, on the contrary. The fire which Prometheus had stolen and used to animate the clay from which he had formed mankind burned in her, even now that her form was no longer human, and it fueled her rage. She decided to seek out the captive Titan; surely, if anyone would understand why she could not simply accept what Minerva had done, it would be him.
Long and hard was her journey. She soon learned not to crawl but to spin her webs between trees and buildings, to swing instead of walk, to hide from any sharp-eyed hunters whose shadows fell on her. The owls at night were her greatest fear, but Minerva's birds stayed away from her, and Arachne was left to wonder whether this was a taunt by the goddess; whether Minerva was watching and wanted her to try and fail in her quest for justice. More likely, though, the goddess had long since forgotten her.
At last, she found Prometheus, the shaper of mankind and captive of the gods. She came to him at night, when darkness hid her from the eagle, but the Titan spotted her at once. Listening to her tale, he sighed. "Minerva was my friend once," he said, "but in the end, she proved herself to be her father's child. And yet, prophecy says a child of Jupiter will end my suffering."
"But are you content to wait for this?" Arachne challenged. "For mercy from the gods who wronged you?"
"What else can I do?" Prometheus asked bitterly. "I am chained, as all the Titans are."
"Well, I am not," Arachne declared. "And I am not content to accept my fate."
Something gleamed in Prometheus' gaze. "The gods will fall one day," he said slowly. "I have seen it. But that won't be for many ages to come. Would you be ready to wait this long, Arachne? Would that satisfy you?"
Arachne thought about it, and at last, she replied: "No. For I wish not just to witness, but to bring about. Oh Lord Shaper, you who formed us from dust, you of all people should know what it is to create. I, too, am a creator. The threads I wove, the colours I put together, they did not exist before I created. I never waited to see what others would do; I acted. Minerva could not take this from me when she gave me a new form. How could I give it up and become nothing but an observer? Then Arachne would truly be gone."
The son of Gaia, who had not smiled since Jupiter chained him to the rocks of the Caucasus, now found his lips moving upwards, and it was not in derision.
"I wish you well then," he said, "and I shall do more than that. For there is one thing you need, and one thing I have left to give. Life is what I gave all of you, my children, but only mortal life, and what Minerva did to you has shortened your life span even further. Come to me, Arachne. My body is an open wound, but now I shall turn Jupiter's torment against him. Crawl where his eagle comes to pluck, day by day, and drink my blood. I am a Titan as Jupiter's father was, a son of Gaia, and every part of me is immortal and regrows as long as the earth which carries us all exists. You shall share this immortality, and then we shall see what kind of web you can create if you have time enough, my Lady Weaver."
She took his gift. The blood of Prometheus burned inside her, hot as her anger and strong like the threads she wove to cross the abyss over which he was chained. Immortality was not all Arachne took from her encounter with Prometheus, however; she had also learned that those the gods had wronged made good allies. Hers did not need to be a lonely quest.
The winds, which amused themselves sometimes by tearing her cobwebs as Minerva had torn her tapestry, told Arachne that an old admirer of hers, Niobe, the Queen of Thebes, had followed her example and defied the gods to her doom. Apollo and Diana had killed all of Niobe's children to punish her, and Niobe herself had been changed into stone and carried back to her native Phrygia where she still cried, stone or no stone, cried for her lost children.
"She, too, did not learn her lesson the first time around," the winds sang, "or she would only have lost half of her children, but no, she continued to taunt the gods. Now do you see what such foolishness gets you, little spider?"
"It gets me to Phrygia," Arachne declared, and started on her way.
This time, the winds helped her because they were unruly by nature, and genuinely curious besides; they wanted to find out whether seeing what had become of Niobe with her own eyes, those eyes which now saw the world as if through hundreds of sharp shards, would not teach Arachne after all. So they carried her to Phrygia, on the top of the mountain Sipylus, where all which still existed of Niobe was left.
Niobe had been a mighty queen, clad in purple, a tall, splendid woman who filled any room with her presence. Even now, flowers had quickly grown around her, wishing to adorn her, but the only sign of life left in her grey figure were the tears which flowed. The winds, depositing
Arachne, tore at Niobe for good measure, but her stone shape did not change, nor did her tears become more or less.
"My Queen," Arachne said, "my heart goes out to you. I remember your children, all fourteen of them; I remember each dress I wove for them. Now what I wove is soaked with their blood because you told your women not to worship. What have they done to deserve this? Nothing. They were playthings to the gods, to make humans fear them and do what they want. Oh my Queen, do not allow this!"
There was no sign that Niobe had heard her. So Arachne tried again.
"My Queen," she said, "Niobe, daughter of Tantalus. Your father is tormented for the rest of eternity in the underworld for defying the gods, and yet what he did was only what they did to you, what they did to me, what they do to all of us every day. Will you not join me in turning all that pain against the murderers of your children? Or will you allow them to triumph and gloat over your tears?"
At last, she heard a voice from the rock, torn and hollow.
"Whatever I do will not bring my children back," Niobe said. "I shall never stop weeping."
"Nor should you," Arachne returned. She had thought long and hard about this. "Any more than I shall cease to weave. But have you considered what you can do with your tears? Water gets everywhere. The river deep down below you carries it to the sea. It sinks into the earth. Even if the sun itself, Apollo, the slayer of your sons, should try to dry it, he would only carry it into the air and it would fall on the earth as rain again. Water is patient, my Queen. Water is forever."
For a moment, just for a moment, it seemed to her that a shimmer of the setting sun made the stone in front of her resemble rosy, living flesh again. Then Niobe said:
"This is true."
"Gods want sacrifice," Arachne said. "Who should know this better than you, for forbidding sacrifice was what they punished you for, wasn't it? Gods want belief. Let your tears carry the salt of doubt, my Queen, the bitterness of unbelief. Maybe it will mingle with so many other things before it is drunk, but if your tears never stop, then one day, every being who walks the earth shall have at least something of you inside them."
"In centuries, they might," Niobe allowed. "Or in millennia. But I am no goddess, as I learned to my cost. My tears are just tears. I cannot change them."
Arachne remembered how wool and silk had felt under her fingers, how she had given form to the images she could see in her mind, weaving them into anything she wished to exist. How she had done this without any help of the gods, and how Minerva had not been able to bear that
such art could exist without her blessing.
"But I can," she said.
So Arachne remained with Niobe, and wove her web of disbelief and doubt, adding the thread from her body to the tears Niobe cried, and their shared work started to flow into earth and water and air. They did not remain alone. As Arachne changed Niobe's tears, so Niobe added to Arachne's desires.
Arachne bore children, and as the years went by, they became more and more, until the gods themselves could no longer have counted them. Arachne's children were not immortal like she was, but she taught them her art and sent them to every place on the earth. And in every place on the earth, they followed her instructions. They wove their webs over altars, over statues, over any depictions of the gods, covering them in dust and threads. At first, their webs were swept away. But not every web was found, and as the age of brass into which Arachne and Niobe had been born turned into the age of iron, there were more and more altars and statues which people started to neglect, or even to forget. They no longer cared to look at them, and inside them, doubt started to burn whether it was really worth it to create new ones. The colours on the statues beneath dust and cobweb started to fade.
The gods began to feel the lack of worship; their feasts grew more and more tasteless, like the dust gathering on their altars. They did not know why. Minerva had long since forgotten Arachne the weaver, one mortal girl among many; Apollo and Diana, having punished Niobe for preventing the worship of their mother and for ridiculing the goddess, had long since forgotten her as well. The winds could have enlightened them, but the winds were fickle and besides, they still carried a grudge from having been forced into service of Minerva's favourite Ulysses. Prometheus, at long last freed from his rock and torment by Jupiter's son Hercules, could have told the truth, but Prometheus looked at the bracelet he still had to wear, with a piece of rock from the Caucasus on it so Jupiter could boast that Prometheus was still his captive, smiled, and said nothing.
The gods began to starve, as Tantalus did in the underworld. Like him, they could not die. They could only watch as slowly, steadily, they were forgotten, swept away in the tears of humanity, covered with history's cobwebs and dust.
Lightly, swiftly, Arachne continued to weave.