My sister told me the story of my namesake when I was very young. Told me the varied stories, in fact, the different versions as transformed by the Greeks and the Romans and their various cults. No version makes a particularly good bedtime tale. Myths are full of horrors and pain, and Arachne never spared any detail. I knew what rape was—could describe the act at length—by the time I was seven.
The first time she told me the story was after Mother's death, when I thought that I'd never be able to sleep. Shaula had already faded into dreams, having exhausted herself with hours of screaming and crying. I hadn't been crying. I could feel that there was sadness, but it was an arm's length away, and my face and chest felt numb. I was frozen. The ability to sleep, to do anything but sit and stare, had left me.
Arachne came in and sat on my bed, as Mother used to. I knew instinctively, when she reached for my hair, that she was trying to be just like Mother, and I didn't like it. I pulled away, and she didn't like that. But she knew that she didn't have the right to scold yet, not as my sister. She took my hand instead.
"Can't you sleep, little one?"
We were all "little ones" to Mother, the three of us. I couldn't answer, and I wasn't sure that I liked her hand around mine, but it was trapped there like a fly in a web. With her free hand, she pushed me back against the pillows.
"My darling little one," she said, in a voice that was soothing and too sweet all at once, "are you afraid?"
The image of the ones who'd come for Mother forced its way into my mind, faces lost in their beards and their brows drawn down low. The knives and scythes they carried were transformed into long, raking claws in my memory. They were more like monsters than men. I didn't want to remember.
Arachne smoothed my brow—my arms were too heavy to push her away—and she told me a story of the first Medusa.
Once upon a time, she said, when men could be gods, there was a beautiful young woman named Medusa. She was so lovely that no man could resist her, and to keep from being attacked or violated, she dedicated herself to the great goddess Athena and served in Athena's temple.
But one day, the god Poseidon—Athena's beloved uncle—came to visit Medusa in the temple. He, too, had fallen for her overwhelming beauty, and he was too powerful for her to refuse. He raped her upon Athena's altar, and when the goddess of wisdom found out, she burned with anger. She cursed the loyal, defiled maiden with a hideous face and turned her hair into slithering, poisonous snakes. Any man who looked upon her would be turned to stone. Heartbroken, she fled to a deserted island with her sisters so that none could see the monster she had become.
It wasn't a comforting story, but it stole my attention and distracted me from my sadness. By the time she finished, the cool touch of her hand had made my eyelids too heavy to hold up any longer. I sank into sleep under her gaze, and dreamt of men like bears come to devour me and an endless anger that burned me alive.
I don't study literature. So much of the field, especially when used as a historical tool, is concerned with what it reflects about the attitudes of the time in which it was written, and I don't need to read fiction to understand that. I have lived through enough of it. Nevertheless, I do confess some interest in how tales are shaped by the teller. No one in this world is without motive. A skilled storyteller can prune her listener's mind by the words that she uses, the details that she emphasizes.
But I hardly need an academic with an overpriced degree to tell me that.
In the following weeks, Arachne became our mother. My nightmares continued, and I went to her for comfort—what other choice did I have? She had already carried us far away from the Elder Witch and the rest of our friends. We needed time alone to mourn, she said. Time to become a family.
So I had no one to turn to but her. When I described my dreams, her face twisted into a tragic concern and she gathered me into her arms. Her touch was like silk.
"My poor Medusa," she said, but I couldn't quite find resentment through a sudden wave of helplessness that made my knees weak. "You've been thinking of the story I told, haven't you?"
I nodded, shaking.
"Well, there's another version. Would you like to hear it?"
It starts in the same place, she explained, with the beautiful Medusa and the god Poseidon who believed he had a right to her. But when he left the maiden, she cried out to her goddess. In this version, Athena's anger burned not against her priestess, but against her uncle. She wanted to protect her Medusa, her loyal servant, from the evil acts of god and man. So she took away Medusa's beauty, that none might be tempted, and she gave Medusa the gift of magic, that any who dared to come near her might be turned to stone. And finally, she took the girl and her sisters to a far-off island, that they might have peace without the intrusions of others.
Arachne's fingers were in my hair, untangling it, tracing against my scalp and the back of my neck. Her story seemed to sink into my mind through her touch. I liked this Medusa better, liked that she had magic to defend herself. I was grateful for Athena, in that story, for caring for her servant.
Over the years, Arachne told both of us more stories. She told of the hero Perseus, who came to slay Medusa, armed with a shield to avert her horrific, cursed gaze. She told of the Great Scorpion, sent by one god but killed and cursed by another, doomed to run across the heavens forever to pursue and escape the hunter Orion. She told of Arachne, her own namesake, an innocent and skilled girl reduced to a spider by the vengeful Athena through no fault of her own. With eyes as cold as the night, she told of Medea, of Heracles, of Cronus: those who murdered their own children. Above all else, she told of the monsters outside our door, human-shaped but merciless and cruel. This is why the gods gave us mothers, she said, and told us the story of Demeter and Persephone. Without a protector to watch over and love us, we would not survive.
When I freed myself—when I was on my own—eventually my curiosity overcame me and I sought out the story myself to see if Arachne had lied. She hadn't, exactly. But she had twisted the story in her hands, like the proud weaver who was her own namesake, so that Medusa was foul and powerless. Her Medusa was always a victim.
I am not her Medusa any longer.
This is how I tell the story of my namesake.
Once upon a time, there was a woman named Medusa. Her hair was a writhing nest of snakes, and she could turn men to stone with a single glance. Some say that it was a god's punishment that made her this way; others claim that the gods set her apart for her protection. Still others say she was born a monster. Whatever her origin, all agreed that she was the most powerful of her sisters, overwhelming to encounter and terrifying to behold. None could face her wrath and hope to live.