A tale of two weavers

If Arachne was the greatest weaver, Penelope was the world’s ultimate unraveller.

The two women belong to two different tales, but they are part of the same story: art is there to create but also to challenge tyrannical power.

Arachne doesn’t just win The World Weaving Award. She challenges the goddess Athena’s relentless power and pays, a figure of tragedy, with her life. For her presumption, Athena beats her up and turns her into a spider, albeit without removing the gift for her art. We remember the hero, not the tormentor. We celebrate the victim, not the perpetrator, in myth and song.

Penelope weaves to delay the effects of her disrupted world, an unfair universe of helplessness, where men rule supreme over land, chattels and women. She pretends to weave a burial shroud for Odysseus’ father in order to avoid succumbing to the suitors who came for her hand and kingdom. She pretends to weave by weaving the garment during the day and undoing it by night. Every night for three years. Her power is subverting, power in weakness. She’s writing a manual for dealing with defeat, yet she’s undefeated, even when a slave finds her out and seems to put an end to her dilatory tactic.

The peasant Arachne and the disenfranchised Penelope are weaving in mythological time, but they are also weaving a narrative for us today. And the fil rouge running through their web is that there is power in weakness, something strangely powerful stirring in a ball of humble thread. A kind of weakness that has the power to challenge the most powerful, bringing them to their knees.

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