Oh, Arachne . . .


from The Illustrated Bulfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch, Giovanni Caselli (Illustrator)

. . . You should’ve known better. You shouldn’t’ve messed with the gods, Arachne.

Have you ever noticed how many of the myths and legends and fairy tales on which we were nurtured are cluttered with references to makers and making?

When I think back, so many of my favorite stories contain textiles and fibers and women making things of beauty and purpose. We have a princess tasked with spinning gold from straw, a mother-to-be pricking her finger while sewing and imagining her “snow white” baby, a girl making shirts from nettles, to transform her brothers from swans back to men.

Weaving, in particular, pervades old stories. Penelope weaves, and unweaves, her tapestry as she waits for Odysseus’s return. The three norns weave the fate of humans and Philomela, having been raped and her tongue cut out, uses her loom as her voice.

And then there’s foolish Arachne, a mere mortal but exemplary weaver.

Arachne, who lacks humility to a dangerous degree.

Arachne, who boasts of her skill and challenges Athena, the goddess of weaving, to a contest. Arachne, who uses her skill to weave a tapestry that mocks and belittles the gods.

Arachne, who is brought to humility by Athena, and who hangs herself.

Arachne, returned to life by Athena. Returned to life but such a different life, a life that stands as a lesson in humility to other weavers and humans:

Live,” [Athena] said, “guilty woman! And that you may preserve the memory of this lesson, continue to hang, both you and your descendants, to all future times.”

She sprinkled her with the juices of aconite, and immediately her hair came off, and her nose and ears likewise. Her form shrank up, and her head grew smaller yet; her fingers cleaved to her side and served for legs. All the rest of her is body, out of which she spins her thread, often hanging suspended by it, in the same attitude as when Athena touched her . . .

and transformed her into a spider.

Arachne, in my garden

Arachne, in my garden

It Pleases Me

working handsA folklorist, traveling in rural America, meets an elderly farmer. The old man is tired, from hard work with his herd and his land, yet works in the evening to make chairs he needs for his home.

The chairs he has crafted could be considered finished—they are strong and sound—but the old man continues, with weary hands, to carve flourishes and curlicues into the wood, to decorate his utilitarian creations.

The folklorist, a specialist in material culture, asks the man, “Why? Why do you take the time to decorate the chairs when they are perfectly serviceable?” The old man is silent, thinking, perhaps for the first time, about his motivation, his desire. And then he answers:

“Because it pleases me.”

I heard this story, told by folklorist Henry Glassie, many years ago as an undergraduate when Glassie came to visit my college. Since then, I have thought often of the story, the old farmer, and his desire to create beauty and to please himself.

The fact that this story, and none of the others Glassie undoubtedly told, has stuck with me suggests to me that it touched a nerve with me, even as a young person just starting to make things with my hands.

It seemed, and still seems, so profound to me.

In my painting classes, I was taught to follow rules of perspective and color theory. In my jewelry making classes, I was taught design principles and told that my designs were too predictable. In my communication courses, I was taught that good speeches are audience-centered. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I was taught to please others.

No one ever suggested that it was okay, a legitimate undertaking, to make something a certain way just because it pleased me.

And the idea that an old farmer, a man of practical considerations and hard work, with his feet firmly planted on the ground, would find pleasure in making beauty was also a revelation. I knew old farmers; I was genetically bound to old farmers! Did old farmers feel things like that? Might I?

Since I heard this story, it has informed my understanding of other makers and my understanding of myself. True craftsmen are pleased with what they create, with the skill it takes, with overcoming the difficulties of the task, with the mastery and the creating, not just of a thing but of some thing, beautiful to their eyes.

So, I’ve thought hard about what pleases me and sought to make things accordingly.

I’ve made a lot of different sorts of things in my life, from embroidering on my jeans as a teenager to majoring in metalsmithing in college to calligraphy to spinning to weaving. I’ve worked in polymer clay, beads, yarn, paint, silver, linen, and chocolate.

Along the way, there have been many other creative outlets that moved me not at all. I’ve tried some and moved on. Others . . . just never spoke to me.

These are the things I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been tempering chocolate and packaging candy these last few weeks. I’ll write more about my thoughts in the next couple of weeks, I’m sure, as my schedule calms down and my thoughts become clearer.

I’m hoping, right now, that you are thinking about what you make and how it pleases you. I imagine that what pleases you is different, in some ways, than what pleases me. And yet we share the deep satisfaction of feeling fulfilled, in important ways, by the making.

What aspect of your work, your craft, do you do simply because of the pleasure it brings to you?