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Weaving fantastic tales

Dinah Starkey unravels stories from Greek myths to use with this week's poster in our four-part Civilisations series

Greek myths take it for granted that spinning and weaving were part of the identity of a decent woman - goddess, queen or immortal - and these tasks permeate the stories of the period.

The Nereids - the 50 daughters of Nereus, the old man of the sea - spent their time spinning and singing in their father's gold palace beneath the waves; and when Helen was reunited with her husband, Menelaus, after the sack of Troy, Odysseus found her spinning with her ladies. It was a sign that she had settled down to the life of a virtuous wife and mother once again.

The Fates were depicted as three sisters who used the everyday skills of any Greek housewife to determine the future of humans. Klotho spun the thread of life; Lakhesis measured it out, determining the life span of each new-born child; Atropos cut it. As time passed, poets elaborated on the idea. The Fates were seen as weaving a tapestry of human life shot through with golden thread for a king and scarlet for a hero. No one, not even the gods themselves, could change the future once the thread was woven. They might plead or bargain but the destiny of mankind lay in the hands of the three old women who spun the web of destiny.

Athena and Arache

According to legend, mortals learned the art from Athene the goddess of wisdom. When she heard that a maiden called Arachne was boasting that she was a better weaver than the gods, she decided to teach the girl a lesson.

She disguised herself as an old woman and came to the village where the girl sat, weaving her wonderful patterns. She warned Arachne of the dangers of comparing herself with the gods and urged her to retract her boast.

But the girl was too proud. She treated the old woman with scorn and challenged her to a weaving contest. Then the old woman threw off her cloak and stood revealed as the goddess Athene. Still Arachne would not back down and the contest began. All day long the two women wove, sitting back to back so that neither could see the other's work. And, when dusk fell and they turned to look, the goddess found that Arachne's work was indeed finer than that of Athene herself. A mortal had excelled the gods.

Athene in her rage broke Arachne's loom and turned the girl into a spider.

And a spider she remained for the rest of her life, spinning and weaving her web of silk because she had been foolish enough to offend the gods.

Faithful Penelope

Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, is presented in The Odyssey as the perfect wife and mother. She waited for her husband for 10 long years as he made his weary journey back from Troy. Long after everyone else had given him up for dead, she continued to keep faith. Suitors gathered in the palace seeking her hand in marriage. To hold them off, she said they must wait for an answer until she had completed the work that was on her loom. At night, she secretly unpicked the work that she had done during the day, managing to avoid marriage until Odysseus finally returned and drove the suitors away.

Heracles and Omphale

Spinning and weaving may have been honourable occupations for women but they were the ultimate disgrace for a hero. When Heracles went to Delphi to consult the oracle, the priestess refused him. In his rage he broke up the shrine and carried off the tripod of Apollo. He took up arms against the gods themselves and was defeated only by a well-aimed thunderbolt from Zeus. As punishment he was sold into slavery and condemned to serve Omphale, the queen of Lydia for three years, dressed as a woman and spinning among her ladies.

Free poster on the Greeks: see centre pull-out

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