11.26.2009

Emulated Arachne


If you ever plan on becoming a crossword puzzle master (as, DUH, I do), you really have to get a good grip on your Greek mythology. The girls are especially prevalent:


Erato and Clio, two of the nine Muse sisters (the ladies responsible for inspiring creativity and the arts), make frequent crossword appearances. Erato's name, which means "desired" or "lovely", shares its root with Eros (the god of sex -
you might better recognize his Roman appellations: Cupid and Amor. [Classic crossword clues: "Greek god of love", "Roman counterpart of Eros", etc etc. So write 'em down!]).
It's fitting, then, that Erato be the Muse of erotic poetry (and just lyric poetry in general, but erotic poetry sounds so much more exciting).

I always like Clio the best, though - she's the muse of history, which she must have gotten from her titaness mom, Mnemosyne, the deity of memory.

Medea also shows up a lot -- best known, of course, as the protagonist of Euripedes' tragedy, Medea, (which he produced in 431 BC along with three other plays, winning him third prize at the City Dionysia festival that year-
-hang on a sec, there were theatre festivals in ancient Greece? Who knew?! Gonna have to look into that...


Ohhh duh, ok, obviously it was a part of that big religious festival honoring Dionysus...
(see, I always pictured that looking more like this...:

video
thank you disney! thank you youtube!
...but that must have been what they were doing on Mount Olympus or something.) In Athens, it worked more like this:
At some point Athenians rejected a statue of Dionysus and he gave the men some kind of genital disease. So, at the beginning of Spring for about 700 years, Athens would throw a week-long party to honor the god (and, more importantly, keep their genitals disease-free).
FESTIVAL SCHEDULE OF EVENTS:
Day 1: Pompe and circumstance! In a massive parade called the pompe, Athenians from far and wide head up the Acropolis to the Theatre of Dionysus, bearing, amongst other things, the wooden statue of Dionysus, wine, bronze and wooden phalluses (natch), and, then comes my favorite: a cart pulling a giant phallus (where can I get that job?). After the procession, there are singing, flute-playing, and poetry competitions, followed by sacrificing bulls and a giant feast for all of Athens (who was doing the catering?!). As if that weren't enough, the feast gives way to another huge parade dedicated to carousing drunkenly through the streets (they really don't hold back at all, those Athenians)!
Day 2: In a ceremony known as the proagon, the three playwrights announce the titles of their plays and the judges are selected.
Days 3-5: On each of the days, one of the three playwrights performs his three tragedies and one satyr play.
Day 6: Five comedies are performed.
Day 7: Another parade. Winners are announced by the judges, and receive a wreath of ivy (can you imagine how pissy actors would be nowadays if they put on four plays in a day and just got a plant on their heads?).)

There's actually so much more to look into on this front, but we've really gotta press on - I haven't even finished telling you about Medea!
SO, the super-abridged version of Medea's story is this:

Jason is the rightful king of Iolcus (modern-day Volos), but in order to take the throne, he's charged with the task of producing the Golden Fleece (literally - the fleece of a golden winged ram; see image on left), which was in Colchis (modern-day Georgia). So Jason sets off (on his ship, the Argo - also popular in crosswords), and eventually lands in Colchis.

In Colchis he meets the sorceress Medea, who falls in love with him and promises, in exchange for his hand in marriage, to help him find the Golden Fleece. This involves protecting him from a fire-breathing oxen, letting him know that the secret to defeating an army of warriors grown out of a set of dragon teeth is throwing a rock at them (they become confused and turn on each other. How did you not know that, Jason?), and finally, giving him the potion to make the Sleepless Dragon, who guards the Golden Fleece, to pass out.
Jason and Medea sail off with the fleece in tow and her father and her brother at their heels. Don't worry -- she manages to lose Dad and cut her brother into pieces, so that takes care of that. They eventually make it back to Iolcus, but the king still refuses to give Jason the throne. So Medea takes it upon herself to convince the king's two daughters she can make him young again if they chop him up (girlfriend has a passion for slicing and dicing). The girls believe her, do as instructed, and, go figure, there's no coming back for the king.

THEN Jason and Medea (or at this point, more like Bonnie and Clyde) are exiled for the murder of the king and flee to Corinth, where they settle down and have two kids.
Here, Euripedes' play begins (Apollonius' Argonautica covers most of the adventure up to this point). Creon, the king of Corinth, offers Jason his daughter Glauce's hand in marriage, which obviously Jason accepts, seeing as it gives him a chance at a throne and that's clearly what he's been after all this time. Medea fliiips though, sending Glauce a dress and crown covered in poison. As Glauce is dying, her father rushes to her side, comes into contact with the poison, and also dies. Then, to really get Jason's goat, Medea kills their two children (she really takes that thing about revenge being a dish best served cold pretty seriously). In the end, Medea flees to Athens and Jason dies alone and miserable on the Argo, crushed in his sleep by the collapse of the rotting ship.

So, as far as Greek women, Erato, Clio, and Medea all tend to appear fairly frequently in crosswords. A less common one, though, is Arachne. She doesn't show up in a lot of Greco-Roman mythology - it isn't until Ovid shares her story in the sixth book of Metamorphoses that she becomes a household name (Medea's story is told in the seventh book). 

Now I'm no Ovid, but here you go:

Arachne is a mortal from Lydia who is apparently really good at weaving. So good, in fact, that she claims to be a better weaver than Athena, who, among her many talents, is the also conveniently the goddess of weaving.
Well, Athena doesn't like this at all, so, disguised as an old woman, she suggests to Arachne that she might want to tone down all her gloating. But Arachne holds her ground, and challenges the old woman to a weaving contest. At that, Athena removes her disguise and weaves the scene of her victory over Poseidon. Arachne shoots back with an impeccably woven tapestry depicting 21 different stories in which the gods tricked mortals by disguising themselves. Then Athena really loses it: she destroys the tapestry and attacks Arachne, demanding that the impertinent human bow before her. Arachne, too proud to submit to the goddess, elects to hang herself instead. Athena doesn't want Arachne to have the last word, though, so she turns the noose into a web and Arachne into a spider.

Besides the Metamorphoses, Arachne's legacy is manifold:
- In Canto XII of Purgatorio, the second part of the Divine Comedy (post-Inferno, pre-Paradiso) Dante mentions running into Arachne on the first terrace, where the proud are forced to carry rocks on their backs.
- The image on the above left is Gustave Doré's etching of Arachne for the Commedia. (In 2003, Grammy-winning Texan rock band The Mars Volta used the famous illustration for the cover of a live extended release album.)
- And here's a paper written by a student at Collegiate in 1997 that suggests Dante identifies with Arachne because they are both artists so skilled they seem to be challenging the gods.
- But the best part is that arachne became the Greek word for spider, and then that became the root for one of my most beloved taxonomical classes, the eight-legged invertebrates: Arachnida! Clearly Zeus didn't make Athena read Be Nice to Spiders as many times as my dad made me.

Ohhh how I wish I could get into some good spider stuff with you right now, but the tryptophan's doing its thing and I've really gotta hit the hay. But at least now you know - if ever you run into Arachne in a clue, I can almost guarantee that the answer will be spun or wove! À demain chickadees! And happy Thanksgiving! 





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