Thursday, July 22, 2010

Craft in History--Origin Stories

 click here take a closer look at these woven items

The importance of craft to the ancient Greeks can be seen in the myth of Athena and Arachne.  It not only shows the importance of weaving to the ancient Athenians, but also exposes a number of lessons that I think are important to remember about crafting itself.

Arachne was an Athenian of the lower class.  She would have been unimportant and ignored by her neighbors if not for her great skill of weaving.  People came from far and wide to see her works.  Even the nymphs would come to see her works.

Given the beauty of her works and their great renowned, Arachne considered herself the best weaver of all.  She even put her skill above that of Athena, goddess of crafts, and the namesake of the city.  Arachne's refusal to acknowledge Athena's divine part in her skillfulness.

Of course, the arrogance of Arachne made Athena livid.  So, she came down from Mt. Olympus to confront the girl.  Athena disguised herself as an old woman in order to give Arachne one last chance for modesty.  Athena, in her disguise, reminded Arachne that it is important to honor the gods, and recognize their superiority.  Then, she encourages Arachne to ask the gods for forgiveness.

Instead of heeding the old woman's advice, Arachne brags that Athena is simply too fearful of her superior skill to accept her challenge.  This is too much for Athena, who sheds her disguise, showing her true self in all of its shining glory.

Everyone else is mightily impressed, according to Ovid, but Arachne shrugs it off.  The two weavers begin their contest.  Athena, weaves an image of herself defeating Poseidon, to claim Athens.  Arachne, on the other hand, shows the transgressions of the gods in her tapestry.  She weaves images of the many infidelities of the male gods.

The beauty of the tapestry, and its offending content are simply too much for Athena to bear.  In rage she strikes Arachne down, splitting open her head.  Arachne, to preempt Athena hangs herself from the roof beams.

Athena, takes pity on the girl, and decides to save her (kind of).  Athena pours a juice on Arachne's head that makes her hair fall out, her face smooths, she grows more limbs, and shrinks.  Athena curses her and her ancestors to live as spiders, weaving their whole life long.
This story immediately shows the importance of skilled craftsmen to the ancient Athenians.  Along with trade, agriculture, and urbanism, one of the defining characteristics of a civilization is division of labor.  Along with other markers, this is evident in the skills of craftsmen.  The story of Arachne shows the glory of Athenian culture, and marks it as highly civilized.

Arachne, in her arrogance, refused to acknowledge ANY of her craft's ancestry.  She seemed to forget that her skill had not originated in her alone, but instead had much more ancient origins.  In the story the origins were easily traced back to Athena, but really crafts have been developed and perfected over the years by many diligent hands.

This story just reminds me of all of the accomplished weavers, knitters, seamstresses, cooks... who came before us with creativity, despite a lack of acknowledgment.  No matter what you do, you owe your craft to those people!

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