Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Imperfection by design and Arachne's Legacy

In my last post Why I like Folk Art - part 1 there was some discussion in the comments on the use of imperfection in craft by design and not by fault. Jude introduced us to the Christian folk custom of using imperfection in work as a form of devotion; that perfection belongs only to God - "Only God can make a tree." I also mentioned Chinese art theory introducing the notion of the circulation of qi (I'll be doing a whole post on this soon). But today, as I was ferrying miniature Lilli&Tom to Mt Ommaney library for their December sojourn, I remembered the Ancient Greek myth of Arachne.

Arachne was a young girl from the town of Lydia, her weaving skills were of such quality that her work was renowned throughout the country and beyond. Soon words praising her skill reached the ears of Athena herself, the Goddess who invented the spindle. The Goddess, affronted by this praise for a mere mortal, came down from Olympus and challenged Arachne to a contest in weaving skill.

Arachne wove a tapestry of incredible depth of colour, with details showing the troubled and scandalous lives of the Gods. The people marvelled at the work, the like of which had never been seen before. However, Athena was not to be out done, and standing her giant spindle on a mountain top she took the golden clouds of morning onto her staff, then she wove into the cloth the silver of starlight and brought forth scenes of the world's creation. The people fell down and worshiped her. Arachne in despair killed herself but Athena took pity on her and instead transformed her into a spider - a weaver of considerable skill but of humble disposition.

It can be noticed from the myth that high praise has attracted the "evil eye" in this case from the powerful Goddess Athena whose reputation Arachne's perfection had threatened. Shelia Paine, in her book "Amulets: A Secret World of Powers, Charms and Magic", records that in many cultures both ancient and extant, the evil eye is alerted by perfection and words of praise, placing the subject in danger of misfortune (due most likely to the machinations of envy and jealousy). To avert this danger, charms are used during the process of weaving and elements are made imperfect. The picture above illustrates a triangle charm use for this very purpose. The devise of imperfection in the crafts as magical protection is quite wide spread.

Image 1: Detail from the two fold screen "Weavers and Dyers". From the first half of the 17th century, Edo period. Pigment on gold leaf over paper. height 151.3 cm x width 170.9 cm. From the collection of MOA Museum of Art, Japan.

Image 2: Triangle amulet protecting a loom in Northern Turkmenistan. From the book, "Amulets: A world of Secret Powers, Charms and Magic", Shelia Paine, Thames and Hudson, London, 2004. ISBN 0-500-28510-1

Arachne myth adapted from "Gods, Demigods and Demons: An Encyclopedia of Greek Mythology", Bernard Evslin, Scholastic Book Services, 1975.


jude said...

i love how you collect all these great images and facts and weave them into such fabulous stories. you are so organized!

Shell said...

Wow, this is like a mini lesson in the history of craft making. Herstory. Love it.

Thank you for the kind words on our swap in the post 2 below. I just posted in my blog (after all that time!) and techgnome is a feature.

It was wonderful to come here today and read the story of Arachne (poor thing!). I will embrace my imperfections!

Merlyn Gabriel said...

Our house is full of spiders , I try to leave them alone as much as possible, their webs catch the flies and the other wee bugs that I don't need in the house. I remember marveling atthe exquisite beauty of spiderwebs in the morning when the dew still sparkles on them.

On the topic of imperfections, middle easter carpet makers also add an imperfection as only Allah is perfect and can create something that is perfect ...it has a name but I forget it right now. ( Persian flaw or something like that)

Mistakes make us human. Perfection is something to strive for but not be, can you imagine how dull we'd be if we were all perfect?
ack! I don't want to live in that world.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Wonderful post, Florence; very educational

Florence said...

Jude, thank-you for saying so:) This is the kind of writing I enjoy; it is simultaneously creative and educational. Images are powerful communicators and art offers us the very best of them, it seems so strange to me when I hear people ask, "What is art good for?" We are surrounded by its inferior shadow all the time, if one but digs a little deeper one finds rich seams of gold. Perhaps I should call myself a gold miner.

Shell, thanks for the lovely words and on your blog post too. I'm glad you've enjoyed my mini lesson. I love sharing my findings with others.

Merly, I have a spider mother who has lived under my lamp for quite a few seasons. She's had many sets of hatchlings and enjoys a steady supply of moths that have expired from the Fire Quest. She looks a bit like a redback but without the red so she stays as a kind of pet, without the petting though ;)

Yes, I was aware of the imperfection by design in the Middle Eastern carpets, I can't help wondering if this reference to God (in both the Christian and Muslim tradition) is just a "recent" veneer on the much older traditions concerning the evil eye...just a thought :)

Captain, I'm glad you enjoyed the post.


Paige said...

Hi found you by way of Jean-Luc's Christmas party.
I find this very interesting. I'm book marking ya, so I'll be back when I have more time to read more.

Florence said...

Thanks Paige :D please feel welcome here.


jude said...

i do remember reading somewhere that the slave here in america considered it bad luck to make a perfect quilt and believed that an imperfect quilt would distract the devil in the dark of night. i will try to find the reference. i think it is from stitched from the soul by gladys-marie fry.

lotusgreen said...

yes, my house, and my garden, are filled with many different kinds of spiders, and i love them all. something about having a garden made me so interested in them that i forgot about being scared.

i love your lesson/myth/story-tale florence. i can almost hear your voice. you really are a natural born story teller.

while i certainly understand that impulse, of offending the gods (i even wrote a story about this once), i also just wonder about human psychology.

i'm a big believer i--oh i can't think of what it's called, like genetic psychology.

perfecting oneself can threaten a lot of people. much as we hate to admit it, it often threatens parents (which is also one reason why we so frequently don't beat our parents' level of success). but i can think of other community members who could also easily be threatened.

Florence said...

Jude, interesting reference, I'd be interested in knowing more when you find out.

Lotusgreen, I think that is what the story of Arachne is about and why the persistance and primacy of the evil eye exist; jealousy, envy and fear can make people behave in strange ways. In this tale even a Goddess felt threatened; Greek myths tend to highlight human frailties through the guise of the gods, I guess as a way of telling the story of the ways of the world.


However, speaking poetically, craft and perfection are married together, shall we not bravely walk its path together?


shango said...

I just made a comment about this subject in the DEC 03 blog.
Is it really just about fear, a superstition?i tend to speculate that it i s about displacing a gaze , if it isnt it, then it feels an entrapment a moribundness, if youre in Guantanamo, a key technique applied to you is sense deprivation, to suffocate the need for the mind to sensualize, to sublimate its drives. I wonder if this is lacking in our society, and whether this has to do some how with the increased violence in the last 20 years?
i`ll quit at this point!

Florence said...

Shango, I hear your back in brisvaga, glad to have you home. I hope you can appreciate that each post I do is but a frangment of a much larger topic. I thought that in time I would graceful trace across this wide and verdant field. You will have to bear with me, however, as I stop to smell the flowers growing by the wayside.


shane said...

Thankyou kindly for the welcome home.

The `sensuality` of the suburbs here has really hit me this time. please excuse my polemical tone.

i have all the time in the world to bear such a journey.

Deepest regards.

A Army Of (Cl)One said...

I think the imperfection angle is interesting. I work in a state capitol that was restored in the early 80's. There are little "imperfections" in the tile work, placed for some of the same reasons you have mentioned here.

I have always enjoyed telling school groups about them and have then play "find the messed up tile" game.

Merlyn Gabriel said...

I wonder now to look at medieval manuscript illumination if there are the same ideals of perfection / imperfection. Mistakes were common in copyists of the time but fixed either by scraping the text out or by adding the correct text aboveor below. I don'think, to the best of my knowledge there was a culture of actually adding a mistake in the text or illumination deliberately at least none that I have come across in my studies.

I love the imperfections I find in manuscripts, especially in the text aspects. Somehow these make my work as an artist trying to recreate these works of art less daunting. We see things done in the past but in a context of today and tend to hold them up in a golden light. Hard to imagine that these exquisite works of art were once just "work" to someone.

shula said...

Gorgeous post, Florence, I love this sort of thing.

I've been told that spiders are my totem. Little buggers follow me everywhere. I've got spider encounter stories to make your hair curl.

I only learnt about deliberate imperfection in adulthood, but understood it intuitively even as a child. It seems to cross all cultural and religious borders in craft, and I suspect predates most current religions. There is something about the relationship between the craftsperson and the striving for beauty in their work that leads them to understand this without recourse to intellect.

Florence said...

Shane, thankyou it is good to have fellows to travel with :)

AOC, very interesting to hear of it in tile work too. I bet the kids do have fun with that game. I would too :D

Merly, your last thought was particularly salient. One of the reasons I love the crafts is that the very best of it becomes the great treasures of a culture, invaluable visions of civilizations past.

Shula, Thankyou for you lovely comment :) Indeed, craft contains subtle knowlegde and it speaks to the quite mind. Its pursuit contains as much knowlegde as one would find in the ashram if one finds the silken thread. May your spiders reveal their stories to you.