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Hands of A Goddess
Athena’s birth was unusual even for the gods of Olympus. Her father Zeus had taken his first wife, Metis, into himself for fear that any son of theirs would usurp him. But his actions did not prevent the coming of a very powerful deity. Through the consumption of Metis, Zeus averted the prophecy of a usurping son, but he still gained a daughter, one who would become an eternal figure.
It began with a headache like the building of pressure in a volcano. Zeus moaned and complained, his head felt as though it were about to burst. Urgently, Zeus sought out his son Hephaestus, the Smith, for help, asking him to split his head open and release whatever was inside. The Smith laid his father’s head on one of the great anvil’s of the divine forge and took one of his mighty hammers. With one strong stroke, he cracked his father’s skull. From the chasm arose a maiden. She was a beauty, rivaling even Aphrodite. Hair like burnished flames flowed in waves down her back, creamy skin was juxtaposed by lips like rose petals, her lithe form was covered by a chiton, and she had eyes like her father’s, glowing blue eyes of the sky.
Hephaestus fell to his knees upon witnessing this marvelous addition to the Olympian rank. With long fingers built for dexterity, she brought up the strong god of fire and smiled radiantly. “Brother, bow not before me, we are equals and friends,” and she embraced her mighty, crippled brother. Hephaestus was not accustomed to this kind of treatment, more often mocked for his less-than-godly appearance.
Athena then turned to her father, his head still split upon the anvil. Leaning down, she placed a kiss on his forehead, and the chasm in his crown meshed, and the king of gods arose, healed by his daughter. Though prone to many emotions, especially temper, never before had the mightiest of gods felt this new feeling. Tears welled in his eyes as he beheld his daughter, most radiant of all the gods. “Father,” was all she said, but it was enough. The ruler of the heavens took his young daughter into his arms, happiness and pride flooding him.
Athena went with her father and brother to Olympus and was presented to its residents. All were in awe of her, the muses sang of her, the satyrs cavorted, even jealous Hera marveled at this step-daughter of hers.
Radiant as she was, she took up patronage of the crafts, her skilled fingers guiding her to pottery and the loom. Radiant as she was, rivaling even the goddess of beauty, modesty was her aspect, choosing a chaste life instead of one ruled by lust.
Suitors came to her in flocks. Mortals, spirits, demigods, even Olympians sought her hand, sought her pleasure but they all faced her rejection, Athena remained true to her vows. Rather, she focused all of her energy on her work, discovering new crafts and methods, sharing them with the people. Even the people loved her, a symbol of all things good and pure, the patroness of the maiden.
Yet she felt a lacking. Despite her dedication to her work and the love she felt for both her craft and the people, she knew something was missing in her life. Beautiful, talented and potent as she was, something was incomplete. Most of the time, she didn’t notice, but sometimes, there was an absolute emptiness and not even the loom could settle her.
One such day, Athena felt a profound restlessness, a feeling of discontent that settled about her and disallowed her from focusing on anything else. Tormenting her, she abandoned the iridescent walls of Olympus knowing that what she sought could not be found in the haughty residence of the divine.
Athena sojourned from the hall in the heaven, down the mountain to the world. Condescending, she passed by Aphrodite and her vanity mirror, the muses and their companion Pegasus, the satyrs seeking nymphs, a king working on the safety of his realm, a shepherd watching over the herd, and in the dark woods she saw a doe with its newborn fawn, teaching it to walk on its awkward legs. She paused for a moment, watching the mother deer as she helped and encouraged, always attentive to her child. As Athena watched, a sound suddenly caught her ear. Her divine ear heard what the doe’s could not, and she set off toward the sound, pulled to it. She stumbled through branch and briar, compelled by the noise, urging her forward, farther, more. Breaking through a thick layer of branch and shrub that ripped at her skin, she found the source of the noise at last. There, in the crook of a tree, wrapped in a blanket, lay a baby, eyes shut as it cried, little fists balled. Softly, she walked to the infant and picked it up. As she had seen Demeter do with her daughter, she nuzzled the babe to her breast, crooning softly. The cries subsided but Athena kept crooning and as she noticed the warmth of the baby’s small body and how perfectly it fit into her arm, her heart filled, an emptiness suddenly gone.
Holding the child in her arms, Athena returned to Olympus, planning to keep the child and raise it as her own. However, almost as soon as she set foot on the marble floors of Olympus, gods came at her. How dare she bring a mortal to Olympus? This was a sacred place for the gods, not some nursery for any forgotten child. Gods she had known and befriended ridiculed and attacked her.
But Athena had gained a new will of steel.
She turned her back on Olympus, even as her father beseeched her to stay. She was a mother now, and had to think of her child first. In the Greek countryside, nestled between two rocky mountains, settled beside a gentle brook, Athena found a small cottage, perfect for her and her child. From a tree, she created a cradle for her child, gently laying the babe down. Athena went to work to create a home and when she heard the child’s cries as it awoke from hunger, Athena discovered she could feed the infant. As Athena led the child to what it sought, its lips clasping hard, Athena gave her first gift, made her first mistake.
After the child got all it needed, it looked up at its new mother. Grey eyes gazed into Athena’s blue, grave and somber. The gaze was an uncomfortable one, the kind that looked into one’s soul. Athena had only ever felt that from the Fates, those who knew and created all that would come. But the child was only an infant, and couldn’t hold that penetrating look forever. Curious, Athena discovered she now had a daughter and decided upon the name Arachne.
Over the years, Athena poured everything she had into her daughter Arachne, providing all that she needed and teaching her crafts. Of them all, Arachne took to weaving the most, learning well from her mother’s hands. Whenever Athena would sit Arachne down for a lesson, Arachne’s would watch quietly, her grey eyes absorbing everything she saw. For a time, Athena tried to teach Arachne her other loves, pottery, music, writing, but Arachne focused only on the art of the loom, spending all her time spinning thread and then weaving it.
Though Athena had turned from Olympus, she still went out among the world, helping her people. And some gods would still visit her in her new home, though they were all disconcerted by the child, knowing she was no longer fully mortal, but would never be a deity either.
Athena paid no mind to that. She nurtured Arachne, and Arachne loved her in return. By the time Arachne turned 15, she was close to being as proficient at the loom as her mother, and Athena would at times simply watch her daughter weave, noticing how those grey eyes followed each thread as it joined to become a stunning display. Their small cottage in between two mountains and beside a river was quickly resplendent with Arachne’s weavings, and Athena considered it rival to Olympus itself.
However, Athena knew that Arachne’s works would never be as magnificent as they could be, not when done by the hands of a mortal, even one raised by a goddess. So Athena made the decision to give Arachne a gift. Not a present wrapped in frivolity, but a divine gift, a god’s sharing of power with a mortal. Athena gifted Arachne with the hands of a goddess so that every thread spun and every creation woven would be a masterpiece. She took her daughter’s hands and pressed a kiss to each, and ichor flooded into them, pulsing gently under the skin. Arachne’s grey eyes stared in amazement, awed by this gift. Happiness effused the mother and daughter, neither realizing the error that had been made, not knowing the dual-nature of a divine gift, the power and its curse.
One day soon after, Athena trekked in the world visiting her places of homage, helping the devoted. As usual, Arachne was at work on the loom, grey eyes watching the shuttle fly and the masterpiece unfold, a tapestry recounting the creation of the world. It began in darkness, emptiness, Chaos, from which came Night and Erebus and then love before Gaia, the earth, took shape. Then came the first copulation between Gaia and her son Uranus.
Just as Arachne was going to begin regaling the births of Gaia’s many children, she made an awful discovery. There was no more thread. She searched around her but remembered that she had forgotten to spin more. Disappointed, she absently scratched an itch that had begun on her hands. But as it registered, it grew more and more intense. Her head felt stuffed, and the world was in a strange focus. Then began a throbbing, a hammering first in her head, then throughout her body. Her heart pounded and she felt clammy and sick. Her muscles burned and ached, needing to move, to thread, to weave. Turning back to her loom, she desperately sought for any forgotten scraps of thread, anything to weave with. Body afire, Arachne scratched her leg through her chiton and discovered a loose thread.
For just a moment, she hesitated before pulling at it and feeding it into the loom. She set the shuttle flying again and wove, feeling better almost immediately. But she was small, and her chiton was quickly spent. She grabbed any other cloth from the house, taking clothes and bedclothes and even ripping curtains down, using it all to weave. But soon, she had nothing left.
Desperate, she searched around her, looking for something to weave with, anything. Her hands moved through the air and she swung around, searching. Her hand passed over something in the air. Moving her hand back, she used her long, sensitive fingers to explore it. Though she couldn’t see it, she recognized the feel of a thread. She pulled at it, but it resisted. Need burned through her and her hands had the power to pull the thread from the air. Fixing it into the loom, Arachne began to weave once more, her grey eyes seeing only the weaving, not how the air began to shimmer and lose shape, not noticing how the world around began to lose definition, began to come undone.
Miles away, Athena was helping a pottery maker, guiding him as he gently shaped an amphora. She felt a strange pull, like she was on a string and being threaded. She was not alone. The gods of Olympus met, wondering what sort of chaos or monster could be doing such a thing. Gaia herself spoke, even as she was being woven in a masterpiece, losing shape.
As quick as she could, Athena returned to the valley she had made her home. What she saw shocked even her. Never before had she seen such a thing, and if she didn’t know better, she would have said that it was Chaos, as though Gaia had never come to be, that the world was non-existent, and only the void took place.
She found her kin, the ranks of Olympus gathered near the home she had created for her and her daughter. Some attacked her with words, blaming her, others glared, but some like her father needed only to look at her with sad eyes, expressions telling her that she knew what she had to do, even if it ripped out her heart.
Athena, the most radiant and happy of goddesses felt suddenly different. There was a heaviness now about her. Everything had changed. No longer was the world a bright, happy place. Her once sky eyes had faded, no glow emanating like they once had.
Athena could rail against it, but knew that it would do nothing. For just a moment, she let her emotions course through her, the bitter sadness, absolute dread, the mind-numbing, heart-tearing despair. For just a moment. Then resigned, she went to the cottage, a husk of what it once was.
The door had been stripped of what made it a door. Though dead wood before, now it was truly dead, no vigor to keep it straight and tall. It could keep nothing in and no one out, losing everything that had made it a door.
Inside she found her daughter, her beautiful, talented Arachne. A mother’s pride rose in Athena, adding to the despair. Arachne sat before her loom, weaving erratically, body spasming, even as her hands deftly worked. Athena focused on Arachne’s hands, a goddess’s hands, the ichor pulsing, glowing as they traveled through veins and arteries.
And then Athena saw Arachne’s grey eyes. They were wide in panic and terror and confusion. Never before had Athena seen such a look in her daughter’s eyes, in fact, Athena had done everything she could so that that look would never be there. But there it was. No more tranquility, no bright twinkle, only fear. It broke Athena’s heart. But She had a task to perform, spending no time on the shattered remains of a full heart.
She went to her daughter, stepping over the thread Arachne wove with. It was composed of so many colors, of everything, of the world. Athena saw the blue of the skies, the brown of the earth, the green of trees, the white of a sheep’s fleece, all the things that Arachne had ripped out of the world so that she could spin, something only the hands of a goddess could do.
Coming up behind her, Athena placed a kiss on Arachne’s head and placed her hands on Arachne’s stilling them. Only the hands of another goddess could stop another’s work.
“Mother?” Arachne’s voice was a plea.
“Shh, shh, I’m here sweetling, I’m here.”
And Athena started crooning, the same croon when she had first found this miraculous daughter of hers. Wrapping an arm around Arachne, Athena pulled her daughter to her breast, feeling Arachne’s warmth as she held her, Athena’s one arm clutching this daughter of hers as though it were the precious world rather than the thread Arachne had created. And with one hand clasping her daughter as close as she could, she whispered, “Close your eyes, my heart, Mother will fix this,” before crooning more. She reached her other hand out and grasped the shuttle, paused in its course. She gripped it tightly in her hand—so tight it cut bright silver drops of ichor from her skin, and hesitated.
And then Athena lifted it, making sure her daughter’s eyes were shut, crooning, and gently tapped it against Arachne’s forehead. Arachne’s body tensed in her grasp and Arachne’s hands, the hand of a goddess, spasmed, before slumping. Athena felt things course through her, all sorts of ineffable emotions and feelings she had never known, the remains of her heart bursting, an intense burning in her eyes. Athena laid her daughter’s body on the floor gently, lovingly.
Athena stood and looked at her daughter’s masterpiece, the telling of everything, of creation, of the universe. It was the first time Athena had seen it, not having the chance when she came in. It was magnificent, the thread rich with lustre and light. It was incredibly detailed and everything was perfect. It shone and it outstripped anything Athena had done or would ever do.
A mother always makes sure her child is better than her.
And then Athena noticed where Arachne had been stopped. It was just after Athena’s birth, the sun rising from the chasm of her father’s head. Athena was wandering in the woods, a subtle light when she came upon a star. It glowed silver, and Athena saw though the cloth had absorbed a drop of ichor. The star shone from the crook of a tree.
It was Athena finding Arachne, the moon with her star.
Athena fell to the ground, tears like crystal water cascading in rivets and falling on the floor. She couldn’t leave it like this.
Athena recovered the shuttle, drenched in silver ichor. She kneeled over her daughter’s prone body and tapped the loom shuttle to Arachne’s forehead once more.
Arachne’s body lost its definition like the world had, falling to thread. Using the shuttle, but no loom, Athena wove. But this time she wasn’t creating a tapestry, no, she was creating life. Woven tight, woven strong, Athena remade her daughter.
It was the power of a goddess to change the shape of a mortal, especially when they were no longer meant for the mortal world. Done, Athena found she had extra thread left and let it be absorbed into her creation.
Before her lay a creature with short, bristly hair the color of Arachne’s, grey-black. It stood on eight-legs and had just as many eyes to view the world around it and its end, it had its own spinner, a way to create its own thread so that it could spin as much as it like, forever.
Athena gently picked up the arachnid and she nestled in Athena’s hand, finding comfort there like she always had. On her way out of the cottage, Athena took the tapestry off the loom and carried it with her, unable to destroy it, even if it meant leaving a part of the world in Chaos. When she returned to the gods, they stared at her with expressions of awe, but awe born out of fear.
Athena did not care, she was a changed goddess.
“This valley will remain, forsaken though it may be. The rest of the world will return to how it was in time, but I leave this as a testament.”
She stared at each deity directly, until she came to her father, the only one who didn’t cower before her.
“Daughter of mine, you have changed.”
“I am a goddess, reincarnate.”
“With appearance to match.”
Confused, Athena looked into the air before her, using it as a mirror. Staring back at her were eyes that she had seen for such a long time, the most important eyes. In the mirror, grey eyes stared back at her—somber, grave, assessing—everything Athena had not been before.
And then she left the grave of her daughter, leaving behind the last unwise thing she would ever do.