Arachne and Athena

2022 June 15

(fiction)

Once, in ancient Greece, there lived a weaver named Arachne who was blessed with excessive talent. She could weave the finest and most complex patterns. People marveled at her ability to manipulate threads that were so thin they were barely visible, and to create with them incredibly beautiful patterns, made up of thousands of crossings, all seemingly carefully planned out in advance. And one would think that creating such work would take ages, but Arachne could turn out a square meter of the stuff per day.
Arachne was not shy in promoting her work.
Arachne: Come get your fine woven tapestries here. Top quality, for a fabulous price.
Customer 1 (passing by): Hmm, very nice!
Arachne: That's right, you couldn't get any better from Olympus!
Customer 1: Wow!
Customer 2: Hang on, that sounds kind of sacreligious, no?
Arachne: You heard me right. The very gods themselves could never do weaving this good.
Customer 2: Yep, that's definitely blasphemy.
Arachne: Ah, what're you worried about? The gods aren't actually real. They're just stories.
Customer 2: Okay I'm out. I don't want to be here when you're struck down by Zeus's lightning. (exits)
Arachne (shouting after): Coward!
Customer 1: So how much for one of those small tapestries again?
Despite the loss of some of her more religious customers, Arachne was always successful in her business. One day, however, she came home to find a strange blue-green light shining out the windows of her home. It really was very odd, and likely dangerous, but Arachne was curious. So she snuck low to the ground to a window and snuck a quick peek over it. Inside of her house was an extremely tall and muscular woman, wearing a white toga, and a golden helmet with wings coming off the sides. She held a massive bronze spear whose top was glowing with the bright green-blue light that Arachne had seen from outside. The woman was facing away from the Arachne and towards the door of the house, tapping her foot impatiently.
Arachne ducked back below the window, heart pounding. This was incredibly spooky, supernatural-seeming foolishness. Arachne didn't believe in supernatural foolishness, so it was therefore alarming for her to find it happening in her very own home. She snuck a good distance from the house, being careful to be quiet and stay out of sight of the windows. Once she had reached a good distance, she began to speed walk, and after travelling a bit farther, she began to run. Her feet pounded on the beaten dirt track, with no idea of a destination other than away.
Suddenly with a flash of blue-green light, the mysterious woman appeared directly in front of her. Supernatural foolishness.
Mysterious Woman: Are you lost, little mortal? Home is the other way.
Arachne: Ah, thank you kind stranger, I suppose I must have gotten turned around somehow. (performs an about-face) I'll just be going on my way now, I've gotten very tired from all this walking about. The sooner I return home, the better.
Mysterious Woman: Let me help you, then.
With a flash of light Arachne found herself back in her home. With the mysterious woman still by her side.
Arachne: Wow! That's, um, teleportation, isn't it? Very nifty. Very nifty indeed.
Mysterious Woman: Thank you. It's a nice place you've got here. (turns to face Arachne directly) Aren't you going to ask me who I am?
Arachne (dejectedly): You're Athena, aren't you?
Athena: Got it in one.
Arachne: 'Tis a great honour to have thee in my humble home, O wiseful and pokey one! What dost thou desire of this most humble mortal?
Athena: I believe the exact epithet is "Athena, whose wisdom is as sharp as a blade". And which humble mortal are you referring to, exactly? I see no humble mortals here.
Arachne: ... Well yes, I suppose I can be rather full of myself at times. But then again, if I were full of something else instead, like rocks for example, then I'd be a statue, which I imagine wouldn't be very good for my health. So allow me to rephrase my question: What dost thou desire of this mortal, who is not humble, though any objective evaluation of both her capabilities and her weaknesses would suggest that she probably should be?
Athena: Well it has come to my attention that you have been doing a fair bit of false advertising. With a side order of blasphemy. We gods take blasphemy very seriously, you know. Well, some of us do at least; I don't think Hermes really cares, but Zeus gets quite trigger happy with that thunderbolt of his whenever people start going around suggesting that we gods aren't as good at something as a mortal. When someone makes a habit of referring to the gods as "just stories", well that makes him start foaming at the mouth. You're lucky that I'm much more reasonable. I'm at least going to give you a chance to explain yourself.
Arachne: Thank you, kind Athena, whose blades are as smart as wisdom. Truly your intelligence and good judgement are even greater than I have been told.
Athena: Now you're just doing it on purpose. So what's your deal? Why do you have such a bad attitude about us gods? Spit it out, I don't have all night.
Arachne: Okay, I know this looks bad, but hear me out. How was I supposed to know that all you gods and goddesses actually existed? I mean it's not like any of you have every shown yourselves to me before. Or even to anyone that I knew. And I don't remember any of you producing obvious signs of your existence that were unambiguously the result of supernatural foolishness, er, supernatural phenomena, that is.
Athena: That's you excuse!? Anyone on the street could tell you that we exist. Practically all children in your society are taught the names and domains of the major gods. We have temples and statues in your cities, and clergy and worshippers. You can't seriously be claiming that you missed all of that. You guessed who I was before I told you my name, that alone proves that you knew about us gods and goddesses before meeting me.
Arachne: Well of course I heard many stories of the Gods. But I thought that's all they were, stories.
Athena: Yet most of the people around you were quite serious in their worship. Are you trying to claim that you thought they were all joking, that you somehow managed not to notice that they were true believers?
Arachne: No, no, I could tell that people were serious about their religion, most people at least. But I thought they were all mistaken.
Athena: ... Truly you are full of yourself, mortal. Your honourific must be "Arachne, whose arrogance encircles the Earth". No, more like "Arachne, the planetroundingly bragful".
Arachne: And here I thought it was gravity that made planets round!
Athena: I can imagine no justifiable reason why you would think that all around you were mistaken about the gods, and you were correct.
Arachne: Well their arguments were kind of bad. For instance, one man said to me, "if you don't believe in the Gods, then how do you explain why the universe exists? The Gods created the world!" What kind of logic is that? He explains the existence of the world, but now he's got to explain the existence of the gods. It's the same kind of problem! Another guy made an even stranger argument: "Arrange all possible forms from least resemblance to the gods of legend to greatest resemblance to the gods of legend. Now in the legends, the gods are real. That is, the gods of legend have the property of existence. Thus, if we look at the form that most resembles the gods of legend, it must be exactly like the gods of legend in all ways, including existence. Therefore this last form must exist, and must be exactly like the gods of legend. In other words, the gods of legend do exist."
Athena: I'm not sure I follow that last argument, but I will agree that the man who made it cannot possibly have been sane. And as for the first argument, I admit that the question of why there is something rather than nothing is one that even I cannot determine the answer to. All of us living gods are descended in one way or another from the titans, who all lie dead. Whether they are the original elements of existence, or were created by a still prior entity seems to now be lost to history. But surely some of the people about you must have produced good arguments for our existence, even if most were spouters of nonsense.
Arachne: Well, I met one travelling priest, who was passing through town. He argued as follows: "Our civilization is the most ancient one still surviving. It has thousands of years of history behind it. And passed down to us through those thousands of years is precious information about the deep past. Knowledge of the gods and their names, ancient temples of stone, statues carved in their likeness. If the gods were not real, wouldn't that precise set of names and domains and rituals be an oddly specific set of beliefs for a civilization to have settled on?" I thought long and hard about that argument, because something felt off about it, but I couldn't tell what. I eventually concluded that while their historic pedigree made those gods seem more likely than some other hypothetical set of gods no one had ever heard of before, it was not sufficient to make them seem more likely than no gods at all. Of course, even if I did end up being convinced by his argument, it wouldn't have helped me.
Athena: Wouldn't have helped you? How can you say that? If you'd just believed in the gods, then you wouldn't have gotten yourself into this mess in the first place.
Arachne: That travelling priest was from Egypt.
Athena: I see. We're working to bring the truth to all places on Earth, but progress is slow. It may take another thousand years for the task to be fully complete. I am willing to grant that the religious instruction given by those around you may have been sorely lacking, at least for one such as yourself with sharp wits and a skeptical disposition. But with such sharp wits, how were you unable to deduce our existence by observing the world around you? Have you not eaten olives from an olive tree?
Arachne: Olives are delicious! I've got several trees growing by my house. But I'm not sure I see the path from olives to gods.
Athena: Well you should know that I created the original olive trees, from which all other olive trees are descended.
Arachne: If you really did make them, then I owe you many thanks. Many thanks, Athena.
Athena: In fact, we gods created all of the living things in the world. My precise question is: How did you look at all the beauty and complexity of living things, the many species of animals and plants, and not conclude that this complexity must have been the result of intelligent creators?
Arachne: Well I had a thought about that. See, the legends say that the gods created life by whispering to clay in a secret language that all living things understand but none can speak. The clay awoke and began to live and grow. But over time the living things wore out one by one, and the gods were continaully busied by the need to create new ones. According to the legends, Eros thought up a clever trick. In the secret language, he told each living being to create copies of itself, and to whisper to each copy the same words that had been whispered to it. And so all the living beings created children, and repeated to those children all the things they had been told, including Eros's clever instruction to reproduce. And so those children also followed his instruction and made children of their own, and this chain has continued until the present day. In one fell swoop, the creation of living things was automated and the gods recouped a considerable amount of leisure time.
Athena: Okay, but how does any of that weaken my basic point? Living things exist, only gods could have made them, therefore gods exist.
Arachne: Children resemble their parents, all across the animal kingdom. From this, I concluded that the secret language that all living things understand but none can speak must be real, and not just a piece of legend. But it doesn't necessarily follow that the rest of the legend is true. The most important part of that legend is Eros's instruction. That makes all life possible. But if his instruction doesn't take too long to say, then maybe it could have been whispered by the wind one day, just by chance as it blew across a patch of exposed clay in a dry streambed. Once Eros's instruction is loose, then the whole thing becomes like a game the children play, called "whisper chains" or "far sound". Just like children, the living things whisper to each other, and there is a small amount of garbling. The end result of a long whisper chain in a game of far sound is a sentence that is striking in its content, and is easy to pronounce, because it is just such sentences that are least likely to be corrupted when whispered to a neighbour. Similarly, the animals and plants that I observe today all appear to be well-shaped for producing many offspring, and avoiding death until they get a chance to do so. And it is precisely such traits that would allow their whispers to continue down the chain. Now of course, all of that isn't an argument against the existence of the gods. It's just the reason that I didn't look at all the animals and plants and conclude that the gods must have been the cause.
Athena: ... Sigh. So you're saying that all the complexity of life arose from a stochastic process of species gradually improving their capabilities of reproduction, like a ball bouncing randomly down a hill.
Arachne: Yes, exactly! It was such an elegant theory, it's too bad it didn't turn out to be true. I'm glad you're also a fan of the hilly landscape metaphor, it's one of my favourite ones for thinking about all kinds of different things. Take heat for example...
Athena: No, I don't think I want to discuss heat with you, Arachne. I still in my heart don't believe you could not have deduced the existence of Gods on your own, but I will grant you the benefit of doubt about that, just to spare myself any further pain of arguing with you.
Arachne: Great, so am I free to go?
Athena: Not yet. While the evidence surrounding your denial of the Gods's existence is inconclusive, there's still the matter of your false advertising. Zeus may not care about such offenses, but I personally believe that honest merchants are an important component of a healthy economy.
Arachne: Of course, but not knowing the Gods existed, how was I to make an honest comparison between my wares, and those of Olympus? My statements were clearly spoken in a metaphorical fashion, being about non-existent entites as they were.
Athena: That's all fine and good for your non-religious customers, but you knew very well that most of your customers were religious, and believed in the Gods. And indeed, it turns out they had the correct picture of reality, and you were wrong. But even if you were right, surely you had to know you were giving these customers a false impression, given their beliefs.
Arachne: Well, ah...
Athena: The logic is very clear. I see no way you can possibly weasle out of this one.
Arachne: Just give me a sec here...
Athena (stony serious expression on face): One alligator.
Arachne: All right, so we both agree that my religious customers turned out to have an accurate picture of reality, yes?
Athena: Of course they did.
Arachne: They, through some mysterious information pipe that I still can't figure out what it is despite the fact that we just had a whole conversation about it, knew all about the Gods on Olympus, and many fascinating details about them and their lives. Though I didn't not share their beliefs, I certainly knew what their beliefs were. Therefore, by saying my wares were better than those of Olympus, I must have knowingly been giving them a false impression.
Athena: Exactly!
Arachne: Which would be very bad for the economy. It would be like the economy sitting in bed all day while eating honey on bread and not getting any exercise.
Athena: Exactly!
Arachne: And there's no possible way I can weasle out of this. Unless...
Athena: Exactly! Hang on, what do you mean unless?
Arachne: Well if my weavings really are as good as those of Olympus, you can hardly accuse me of false advertising, can you? We should probably actually check that before we go around chopping off anyone's head.
Athena: You can't be serious.
Arachne: Oh, but I am. It should be quite simple to test. We'll just have a little weaving contest. We each weave a tapestry, and find some impartial judge who can compare them. If my tapestry is judged to be superior, then I'm off the hook, right?
Athena: Yes, I suppose you would be. Of course, I shall be extremely busy over the next few months. I'll hardly have time to throw together a halfway decent tapestry.
Arachne: What does keep a Goddess busy anyway? My impression from the legends was that you deities tended to not interfere in worldly affairs. Wars, natural disasters, plagues, none of it moves you to intervene. You let nature run wild. (Though dishonest merchants are apparently a bridge too far.)
Athena: We don't really go in for stopping disasters, we exert our influence in more subtle ways. But to tell the truth, even that takes up little of our time. You really want to know what occupies the days of the masters of the universe? Drama. Zeus sleeps with some mortal woman, and I have to go and smooth it over with Hera. Hermes sows endless discord with his pranks and intrigues. And whenever we involve Posidon in anything, which is tragically necessary some of the time, he's a prima donna about it and threatens to leave unless he gets his way. And don't even get me started on Hades and Ares.
Arachne: Ah, I don't know, a little drama can be entertaining at times.
Athena: Try spending an eternity up to your neck in it.
Arachne: Well if you're so busy, I suppose we don't have to do this weaving contest.
Athena: What and let you off the hook? No, I can make the time for our contest. The deadline will be in 1 month. Hermes will be our impartial judge.
Arachne: Wait, but...
Athena: I will see you then.
With those ominous parting words, there was a flash of light, and Athena was gone.