Arachne was a girl who lived in Greece a long long time ago (in the story; this is a story). She was a very good weaver and spinner. She wove all sorts of beautiful pictures into her cloth, and people came from all around to see her beautiful cloth. But Arachne was too proud; she had what the Greeks called hubris.
Athena was mad that Arachne would say that, and she challenged Arachne to a weaving contest. The two of them set up their looms in the same room and they wove from early in the morning until it got too dark to see (remember there were no electric lights then!). Then they compared what they had done.
Athena had woven a beautiful cloth showing the gods and goddesses sitting together on Mt. Olympus and doing good deeds for people. But Arachne thought she was so smart, she wove a cloth making fun of the gods and goddesses, showing them getting drunk and falling down and making a mess of things. Still it was clearly better weaving than Athena had done.
When Athena saw it she was even more angry than she had been before. Even though Arachne’s weaving was better, Athena didn’t care. She pointed her finger at Arachne and suddenly Arachne’s nose and ears shrank up, her hair all fell out, her arms and legs got long and skinny, and her whole body shrank until she was just a little tiny spider (Arachne means spider in Greek). “You want to spin,” cried Athena, “go ahead and spin!”
No matter how skilled people are, they are never any match for the gods. People need to remember their place, and not try to be stronger or wiser or smarter than the gods, or bad things will happen to them. And good women, because that is their fate, should always be spinning.
D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, by Edgar and Ingri D’Aulaire. (Look under Athena).