Myths are among our oldest stories. People created nature myths to explain the wonders of nature. In hero myths, humans defeated monsters to make the world safer. Creation myths helped explain how such things as fire or music began.
Here are examples of these three kinds of myths.
Arachne the Spinner 432 a myth from ancient Greece
Guitar Solo 437 a myth from ancient Mali
How Music Was Fetched Out of Heaven 441 a myth from ancient Mexico
all retold by Geraldine McCaughrean Two heroes from Greek mythology, Achilles and Ajax, are shown playing a game (left).
As you read this nature myth from ancient Greece, think about why Athene was so angry. How could Arachne have changed the outcome of the contest?
Arachne the Spinner
Retold by Geraldine McCaughrean
Illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark
Once, when all cloths and clothes were woven by hand, there was a weaver called Arachne more skillful than all the rest. Her tapestries were so lovely that people paid a fortune to buy them. Tailors and weavers came from miles around just to watch Arachne at work on her loom. Her shuttle flew to and fro, and her fingers plucked the strands as if she were making music rather than cloth.
“The gods certainly gave you an amazing talent,?? said her friends.
“Gods? Bodkins! There's nothing the gods could teach me about weaving. I can weave better than any god or goddess.??
Her friends turned rather pale. “Better not let the goddess Athene hear you say that.??
“Don't care who hears it. I'm the best there is,?? said Arachne.
An old lady sitting behind her examined the yarns Arachne had spun that morning, feeling their delightful texture between finger and thumb. “So if there were a competition between you and the goddess Athene, you think you would win??? she said.
All of a sudden the old lady's gray hair began to float like smoke about her head and turn to golden light. A swish of wind blew her old coat into shreds and revealed a robe of dazzling white. She grew taller and taller until she stood head and shoulders above the crowd. There was no mistaking the beautiful gray-eyed goddess, Athene.
“Let it be so!?? declared Athene. “A contest between you and me.??
Arachne's friends fell on their faces in awe. But Arachne simply threaded another shuttle. And although her face was rather pale and her hands did tremble a little, she smiled and said, “A contest then. To see who is the best weaver in the world.??
To and fro went the shuttles, faster than birds building a nest.
Athene wove a picture of Mount Olympus. All the gods were there: heroic, handsome, generous, clever, and kind. She wove all the creatures of creation onto her loom. And when she wove a kitten, the crowd sighed, “Aaaah!?? When she wove a horse, they wanted to reach out and stroke it.
But it was a comical picture. It showed all the silly things the gods had ever done: dressing up, squabbling, lazing about, and bragging. In fact she made them look just as foolish as ordinary folk.
But oh! when she pictured a butterfly sitting on a blade of grass, it looked as if it would fly away at any moment. When she wove a lion, the crowd shrieked and ran away in fright. Her sea shimmered and her corn waved, and her finished tapestry was more beautiful than nature itself.
Athene laid down her shuttle and came to look at Arachne's weaving. The crowd held its breath.
“You are the better weaver,?? said the goddess. “Your skill is matchless. Even I don't have your magic.??
Arachne preened herself and grinned with smug satisfaction. “Didn't I tell you as much???
“But your pride is even greater than your skill,?? said Athene.
“And your irreverence is past all forgiving.?? She pointed at Arachne's tapestry. “Make fun of the gods, would you? Well, for that I'll make such an example of you that no one will ever make the same mistake again!??
She took the shuttle out of Arachne's hands and pushed it into her mouth. Then, just as Athene had changed from an old woman into her true shape, she transformed Arachne.
Arachne's arms stuck to her sides, and left only her long, clever fingers straining and scrabbling. Her body shrank down to a black blob no bigger than an ink blot: an end of thread still curled out of its mouth. Athene used the thread to hang Arachne up on a tree, and left her dangling there.
“Weave your tapestries forever!?? said the goddess. “And however wonderful they are, people will only shudder at the sight of them and pull them to shreds.??
It all came true. For Arachne had been turned into the first spider, doomed forever to spin webs in the corners of rooms, in bushes, in dark, unswept places. And though cobwebs are as lovely a piece of weaving as you'll ever see, just look how people hurry to sweep them away.
The Songhay people, who live by the upper Niger River in the African country of Mali, still tell this hero myth today. What makes this myth especially appealing?
by Geraldine McCaughrean
Illustrated by Bee Willey
In a place where six rivers join like the strings of a guitar, lived Zin the Nasty, Zin the Mean, Zin-Kibaru, the water spirit. Even above the noise of rushing water rose the sound of his magic guitar, and whenever he played it, the creatures of the river fell under his power. He summoned them to dance for him and to fetch him food and drink. In the daytime, the countryside rocked to the sound of Zin's partying.
But come nighttime, there was worse in store for Zin's neighbor, Faran. At night, Zin played his guitar in Faran's field, hidden by darkness and the tall plants. Faran was not rich.
In all the world he only had a field, a fishing rod, a canoe, and his mother. So when Zin began to play, Faran clapped his hands to his head and groaned, “Oh no! Not again!??
Out of the rivers came a million mesmerized fish, slithering up the bank, walking on their tails, glimmering silver. They trampled Faran's green shoots, gobbled his tall leaves, picked his ripe crop to carry home for Zin-Kibaru. Like a flock of crows they stripped his field, and no amount of shooing would drive them away. Not while Zin played his spiteful, magic guitar.
“We shall starve!?? complained Faran to his mother.
“Well, boy,?? she said, “there's a saying I seem to recall: When the fish eat your food, it's time to eat the fish.??
So Faran took his rod and his canoe and went fishing. All day he fished, but Zin's magic simply kept the fish away, and Faran caught nothing. All night he fished, too, and never a bite: the fish were too busy gathering the maize in his field.
“Nothing, nothing, nothing,?? said Faran in disgust, as he arrived home with his rod over his shoulder.
“Nothing??? said his mother seeing the bulging fishing basket.
“Well, nothing but two hippopotami,?? said Faran, “and we can't eat them, so I'd better let them go.??
The hippopotami got out of Faran's basket and trotted away. And Faran went to where the rivers meet and grabbed Zin-Kibaru by the shirt. “I'll fight you for that guitar of yours!??
Now Zin was an ugly brute and got most of his fun from tormenting Faran and the fish. But he also loved to wrestle. “I'll fight you, boy,?? he said, “and if you win, you get my guitar. But if I win, I get your canoe. Agreed???
“If I don't stop your magic, I shan't need no canoe,?? said Faran, “because I'll be starved right down to a skeleton, me and Mama both.??
So, that was one night the magic guitar did not play in Faran's field—because Faran and Zin were wrestling.
All the animals watched. At first they cheered Zin: he had told them to. But soon they fell silent, a circle of glittering eyes.
All night Faran fought, because so much depended on it. “Can't lose my canoe!?? he thought, each time he grew tired. “Must stop that music!?? he thought, each time he hit the ground. “Must win, for Mama's sake!?? he thought, each time Zin bit or kicked or scratched him.
And by morning it really seemed as if Faran might win.
“Come on, Faran!?? whispered a monkey and a duck.
“COME ON, FARAN!?? roared his mother.
Then Zin cheated.
He used a magic word.
“Zongballyhoshbuckericket!?? he said, and Faran fell to the ground like spilled water. He could not move. Zin danced around him, hands clasped above his head—“I win! I win! I win!??—then laughed and laughed till he had to sit down.
“Oh, Mama!?? sobbed Faran. “I'm sorry! I did my best, but I don't know no magic words to knock this bully down!??
“Oh yes, you do!?? called his mama. “Don't you recall? You found them in your fishing basket one day!??
Then Faran remembered. The perfect magic words. And he used them. “Hippopotami? HELP!?? Just like magic, the first hippopotamus Faran had caught came and sat down—just where Zin was sitting. I mean right on the spot where Zin was sitting. I mean right on top of Zin. And then his hippopotamus mate came and sat on his lap. And that, it was generally agreed, was when Faran won the fight. Zin was crushed.
So nowadays Faran floats half-asleep in his canoe, fishing or playing a small guitar. He has changed the strings, of course, so as to have no magic power over the creatures of the six rivers. But he does have plenty of friends to help him tend his maize and mend his roof and dance with his mother. And what more can a boy ask than that?
This is a very ancient creation myth of Quetzalcoatl (keht-zahl-COH-atl), the feathered serpent, the Lord of Spirit, in what is now Mexico. As you read, think about how Quetzalcoatl got his musicians and whether you approve or disapprove of what he did.
How Music Was Fetched Out of Heaven
by Geraldine McCaughrean
Illustrated by Bee Willey
Once the world suffered in Silence. Not that it was a quiet place, nor peaceful, for there was always the groan of the wind, the crash of the sea, the grumble of lava in the throats of volcanoes, and the grate of man's plowshare through the stony ground. Babies could be heard crying at night, and women in the daytime, because of the hardness of life and the great unfriendliness of Silence.
Tezcatlipoca, his body heavy as clay and his heart heavy as lead (for he was the Lord of Matter), spoke to Quetzalcoatl, feathery Lord of Spirit. He spoke from out of the four quarters of the Earth, from the north, south, easterly and westerly depths of the iron-hard ground. “The world needs music, Quetzalcoatl! In the thorny glades and on the bald seashore, in the square comfortless houses of the poor and in the dreams of the sleeping, there should be music, there ought to be song. Go to Heaven, Quetzalcoatl, and fetch it down!??
“How would I get there? Heaven is higher than wings will carry me.??
“String a bridge out of cables of wind, and nail it with stars: a bridge to the Sun. At the feet of the Sun, sitting on the steps of his throne, you will find four musicians. Fetch them down here. For I am so sad in this Silence, and the People are sad, hearing the sound of Nothingness ringing in their ears.??
“I will do as you say,?? said Quetzalcoatl, preening his green feathers in readiness for the journey. “But will they come, I ask myself. Will the musicians of the Sun want to come???
He whistled up the winds like hounds. Like hounds they came bounding over the bending treetops, over the red places where dust rose up in twisting columns, and over the sea, whipping the waters into mountainous waves. Baying and howling, they carried Quetzalcoatl higher and higher—higher than all Creation—so high that he could glimpse the Sun ahead of him. Then the four mightiest winds braided themselves into a cable, and the cable swung out across the void of Heaven: a bridge planked with cloud and nailed with stars.
“Look out, here comes Quetzalcoatl,?? said the Sun, glowering, lowering, his red-rimmed eyes livid. Circling him in a cheerful dance, four musicians played and sang. One, dressed in white and shaking bells, was singing lullabies; one, dressed in red, was singing songs of war and passion as he beat on a drum; one, in sky-blue robes fleecy with cloud, sang the ballads of Heaven, the stories of the gods; one, in yellow, played on a golden flute.
This place was too hot for tears, too bright for shadows. In fact the shadows had all fled downward and clung fast to men. And yet all this sweet music had not served to make the Sun generous. “If you don't want to have to leave here and go down where it's dark, dank, dreary and dangerous, keep silent, my dears. Keep silent, keep secret and don't answer when Quetzalcoatl calls,?? he warned his musicians.
Across the bridge rang Quetzalcoatl's voice. “O singers! O marvelous makers of music. Come to me. The Lord of the World is calling!?? The voice of Quetzalcoatl was masterful and inviting, but the Sun had made the musicians afraid. They kept silent, crouching low, pretending not to hear. Again and again Quetzalcoatl called them, but still they did not stir, and the Sun smiled smugly and thrummed his fingers on the sunny spokes of his chair back. He did not intend to give up his musicians, no matter who needed them.
So Quetzalcoatl withdrew to the rain-fringed horizon and, harnessing his four winds to the black thunder, had them drag the clouds closer, circling the Sun's citadel. When he triggered the lightning and loosed the thunderclaps, the noise was monumental. The Sun thought he was under siege.
Thunder clashed against the Sun with the noise of a great brass cymbal, and the musicians, their hands over their ears, ran this way and that looking for help.
“Come out to me, little makers of miracles,?? said Quetzalcoatl in a loud but gentle voice. BANG went the thunder, and all Heaven shook.
The crooner of lullabies fluttered down like a sheet blown from a bed. The singer of battle-songs spilled himself like blood along the floor of Heaven and covered his head with his arms. The singer of ballads, in his fright, quite forgot his histories of Heaven, and the flautist dropped his golden flute.
Quetzalcoatl caught it.
As the musicians leapt from their fiery nest, he opened his arms and welcomed them into his embrace, stroking their heads in his lap. “Save us, Lord of Creation! The Sun is under siege!??
“Come, dear friends. Come where you are needed most.??
The Sun shook and trembled with rage like a struck gong, but he knew he had been defeated, had lost his musicians to Quetzalcoatl.
At first the musicians were dismayed by the sadness and silence of the Earth. But no sooner did they begin to play than the babies in their cribs stopped squalling. Pregnant women laid a hand on their big stomachs and sighed with contentment. The man laboring in the field cupped a hand to his ear and shook himself, so that his shadow of sadness fell away in the noonday. Children started to hum. Young men and women got up to dance, and in dancing fell in love. Even the mourner at the graveside, hearing sweet flute music, stopped crying.
Quetzalcoatl himself swayed his snaky hips and lifted his hands in dance at the gate of Tezcatlipoca, and Tezcatlipoca came out of doors. Matter and Spirit whirled together in a dance so fast: had you been there, you would have thought you were seeing only one.
And suddenly every bird in the sky opened its beak and sang, and the stream moved by with a musical ripple. The sleeping child dreamed music and woke up singing. From that day onward, life was all music—rhythms and refrains, falling cadences and fluting calls. No one saw just where the Sun's musicians settled or made their homes, but their footprints were everywhere and their bright colors were found in corners that had previously been gray and cobwebbed with silence. The flowers turned up bright faces of red and yellow and white and blue, as if they could hear singing. Even the winds ceased to howl and roar and groan, and learned love songs.
Think About the
1. Compare the three myths. What common elements do they share? How are the human characters in each myth portrayed differently?
2. In “Arachne the Spinner?? and “Guitar Solo,?? humans compete against a god and a spirit. What is different about the way the competitions end?
3. Who is your favorite character in the myths? Why?
4. Do you think the way Quetzalcoatl brought the musicians down from the Sun was right? Why or why not?
5. How important is having larger-than-life characters in telling myths? Give examples from two of the myths.
Internet Send an E-Postcard
If you want to tell a friend that you've been reading myths, send an e-postcard. You'll find one at Education Place. www.eduplace.com/kids
Write Your Own Myth
Remember that a myth often contains these three elements:
larger-than-life characters, such as gods, goddesses, and heroes
long-ago, far-away settings
Myths use realism and fantasy to explain something. Think of a custom or a natural event that especially interests you. Then write one of the three kinds of myths—nature, hero, or creation—to explain it.