The Owl and the Spider's Son - Sandra Ulbrich Almazan

I feel no remorse for Arachne's fall...


I feel no remorse for Arachne’s fall. She woke me and my nestlings with her proud boasts. As soon as I heard the name of my beloved mistress, Athena, I knew I had to learn what the mortals were saying about her, sun or no sun.

My mate was sleeping close by in another tree, so I knew he would protect our children if there was any trouble. Keeping to the shadows as much as possible, I glided to a nearby stream. A dozen naiads poked their heads out of the water and admired a tapestry held aloft by a young woman. Her cloak shimmered like water, and a gold wreath crowned her dark hair. Was she beautiful? I don’t know how humans judge such things. She held herself as proudly as if she were a goddess, or a predator searching for prey among her own kind.

“Surely Athena herself must have blessed you, Arachne,” the naiad closest to the human woman said. She reached for the tapestry, but the human moved before water could drop onto it.

“I need no blessing from Athena, or any other god,” the woman declared. “I’m a better weaver than her.”

As the naiads gasped and dove into their stream, I was able to see the tapestry Arachne had woven. It depicted a stag being torn apart by hounds. Blood ran from the hounds’ teeth as if they devoured real flesh, not dyed cloth. I stared, fascinated, at the prey many times larger than me. It took me several moments to realize the stag’s face seemed to shift into an agonized human’s every time Arachne waved the cloth. In the background, naked, hungry-looking women caressed each other while staring at the slaughter. The one in the center held a silver bow that could only belong to Artemis.

This woman, this Arachne, might be almost as skilled as my mistress, but she had no respect for any of the goddesses. Athena would want to know of this right away. Despite the harsh sunlight and the taunts of crows, I flew up to Mount Olympus and shared what I had learned with the great, the immortal Athena, weaving her own tribute to her glorious father. She frowned, and a thread snarled in her hand.

“Show me this mortal,” Athena said. “If she doesn’t learn some humility, she’ll learn a lesson no human will ever forget.”
* * *

Humans who understand the art of weaving--and can appreciate color--have written about the contest between my mistress and the arrogant mortal. They’ve described how Athena disguised herself as an old woman and visited Arachne--though no one mentioned the owl perched on the roof, listening to her mistress chiding the woman for her impiety. Such was the mercy of my goddess; she would have forgiven Arachne if she’d repented and shown gratitude for her gifts. Instead, the woman made it worse for herself. I almost tumbled over when I heard Arachne say, “I don’t believe in the gods, crone; they’re stories meant to scare us into behaving a certain way. And if they do exist, they can’t possibly be as powerful or skillful as they claim. I’ve never met anyone who could weave expression into faces the way I do. Why, if Athena were here right now, I’d show her who the best weaver in the world is.”

The silence was so complete even my sensitive hearing couldn’t pick up a breath from a mouse. I hunkered down, wishing I was safe in my hollow tree. Athena’s wrath is terrible, but when she serves her anger death-cold, there’s no flying from her.

“You should be careful what you wish for, child,” Athena said. Light flashed from below, and I felt myself summoned. I flew through an open window to perch on her shoulder. She’d abandoned her disguise and showed herself tall and graceful, clad in purest white. Arachne stared at her with wide eyes in a pale face, but she didn’t cower. She was nothing more than a mouse foolish enough to think itself as fierce as an owl.

“If it’s a contest you want, a contest we shall have.” Athena gestured, and her loom appeared, securing itself next to Arachne’s. Weights and baskets overflowing with prepared wool threatened to topple onto a cradle. I hooted softly, and the goddess cleared a space around the infant. “We shall weave for three days and three nights. Then we will see who the best weaver in the world is!”

Blood returned to Arachne’s face. “We shall indeed,” she said, with a faint smirk suggesting she already thought herself the winner.

Woman and goddess stood in front of their looms, selected colors and went to work.

Time passed oddly for me during their contest, as if my mistress had me wrapped in her spell. I neither hungered nor felt thirst; my talons remained locked in place on Athena’s cloak. I remember periods of light and dark, of other people crowding into the tiny house but never coming within arm’s length of us. Every now and then in the background, I heard a child’s thin wail, quickly hushed. It made me uneasy, as if there was something else I was supposed to be doing, but I was woven into this contest as if the wool threads strapped my wings down. Athena’s fingers danced between the warp strings. As she completed each row, the cloth folded itself up. Yet despite the inherent disadvantage of her humanity, Arachne kept pace with my mistress.

Athena and Arachne stepped away from their looms at the same instant. Athena ordered the tapestries cut down and brought into the closest temple so they could be unrolled and displayed. Even an eagle would have been hard-pressed to find a flaw in either tapestry. Athena’s offering was suitable for such a holy place; each of the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus looked regal on their thrones. Athena illustrated herself giving an olive tree to the city of Athens.

Arachne’s work, on the other hand, insulted the deities. Zeus, Athena’s beloved father, fared the worst, as Arachne depicted every instance he’d transformed himself into a beast--sadly, not an owl--to seduce a human woman.

“You insolent harlot!” Athena rent the blasphemous work in two. For the first time, Arachne cowered, but it was too late to appease my mistress.

“Go, my messenger.” She launched me off of her shoulder. “Fly to Hecate and bring me the potion in the bottle with eight rubies.”

I traveled to the nearest crossroads. Hecate rose from the ground and handed me the bottle Athena had requested. I meant to fly back with it straightaway, but I heard another owl hooting mournfully nearby. With a shock, I realized it was my mate. I hurried to him, the bottle weighing me down with every stroke of my wings.

I didn’t even make it to the nest before my mate screeched at me. “Where have you been? I had to hunt for the brood all by myself, with no one to guard the nestlings. They were all taken!”

Stunned, I checked out the cavity myself. It was true; only down feathers remained. Our nestlings were too young to have fledged successfully. This was the third brood my mate and I had raised together. We’ve had eggs that never hatched and tiny nestlings that didn’t thrive, but we’ve never had a failure like this before. I reached out to groom my mate, but he pecked at me. Heavy-hearted, I continued my mission. Surely by next winter my mate would forgive me, and we would do better with our next brood. In the meantime, my mistress still needed me.

The temple was empty, so I sought Athena at Arachne’s house. It looked like the site of a crazed hunt. Arachne’s tapestry hung in shreds, and skeins of yarn had uncoiled among what was left of the broken furniture. It didn’t surprise me that my warrior mistress had demolished the place, but even I was taken aback to find Arachne hanging from the highest beam in her house, suspended by blood-red wool.

“She hanged herself out of damaged pride when I refused to admit her blasphemous work was flawless,” Athena said. “But there’s still breath in her. Quick, give me the potion.” Athena smiled grimly as she poured it over Arachne. “I’ll make sure she continues to spin and weave till the end of her days, she and her—”

Instinct told me she planned to curse this woman’s unfortunate descendants. The nurse poked her head inside the house, as if she was here to give the child to its doom. Hadn’t enough younglings suffered already?

I positioned myself between Athena and the baby. Spreading my wings to their full span, I cried, “Great Athena, for my sake, grant mercy to one child today. My brood are gone, but why should this nestling suffer?”

Some of the anger faded from Athena’s gray eyes. “Your brood, faithful owl?”

I told her briefly how my children had perished during the contest.

A goddess as great as Athena never apologizes, especially not to a mere animal. But though she remains eternally virgin, she is wise enough to understand a mother’s pain. She stroked my head lightly with a finger. “Have hope, my servant. You may be a mother again before the season turns. For your sake, I will spare the son.” She gestured toward the nurse, who bowed as low as she could. “He will contribute to weaving in his own way. But the daughters of Arachne will share her fate, lest they share her hubris.”

Now I saw for myself the effect of Hecate’s potion. Arachne had shrunk until she was small enough to snatch in my beak. Her body had become hard and round, with eight limbs sticking out of it. As she scrambled up the wall, a thread of silk followed her.
* * *
The rest turned out as Athena predicted. She never again summoned me during nesting season. As I raised brood after brood, I watched Arachne’s son, Closter, grow to manhood and invent the spindle. Arachne’s daughters multiplied, spinning their webs. Every time I spy one, I inspect it for any hints of outrage against the gods.

Rather than trouble Athena again, I will eat the offender myself.
Sandra Ulbrich Almazan is the author of the science fiction Catalyst Chronicles series, the completed fantasy Season Avatars series, SF Women A-Z: A Reader’s Guide, and several short stories. She’s also a founding member of Broad Universe (which promotes female writers of speculative fiction), a QA Representative at an enzyme company, a wife, a mother, a Beatles fan, and a member of the 501st Legion., which performs Star Wars costuming for charity.
She can be contacted via her website: www.sandraulbrichalmazan.com

Cover Layout: Amanda Bergloff
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Comments

  1. That's excellent. I remember retelling the story of Arachne to my class in Grade 7 - I think it was because it was the shortest story in the Greek mythology book I was reading at the time. I don't remember the bit about Arachne's son, though - always good to learn something new!

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  2. I knew Arachne was turned into a spider but did not know why. This fable seems to indicate that all spiders are female, but I think not. That her son was spared and invented the spindle is an interesting touch. Is the owl Athena's familiar?
    I give this story 5 stars!

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  3. I don’t recall reading the story behind Arachne and her legacy before, but now I have something to occur to me each time I see a spider. Wonderful story, Sandra!

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