Stitches in Time: Penelope and Ovid

Homer’s Penelope is an intriguing character where more is left unsaid than said. This leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and has led to lots of different ideas as to what Penelope is really thinking. Many authors have assumed her voice, and this post is about a text written by Ovid in 1st century AD Rome. Despite Ovid’s attempt to convincingly portray her character, his representation of Penelope can be stripped away to reveal simply clever rhetoric. Brilliant as Ovid is, he cannot truly represent the female voice.

Ovid’s Heroides is an interesting work, unique to the classics in the form of a series of imagined letters written from the heroines of epic and tragedy to their absent loves. The first of these is from Penelope to Odysseus. As in the other Heroides, Penelope begs for her husband’s return, complaining that she is bereft without him:

1-5

Penelope to the tardy Odysseus:
do not answer these lines, but come, for
Troy is dead and the daughters of Greece rejoice.
But all of Troy and Priam himself
are not worth the price I’ve paid for victory.

In Ovid Penelope does not subscribe to the epic values of Homer. For her martial glory has no value, and she hates the war in Troy for taking her husband away from her:

6-12

How often I have wished that Paris
had drowned before he reached our welcoming shores.
If he had died I would not have been
compelled now to sleep in my cold bed
complaining always of the tiresome
prospect of endless nights and days spent working
like a poor woman at my tedious loom.

Line 12 here refers to the funeral shroud that she weaves for Laertes in the Odyssey. The motif of weaving is extremely important to the many characterisations of Penelope. In Homer the shroud is an example of Penelope’s characteristic cunning, promising the suitors that she will marry one of them when it is finished, but every night unpicking her stitches so that it is never completed. Yet here the shroud does not reveal the cunning or resourcefulness of Penelope. Instead of tricking the suitors she uses it to deceive herself, seeking through her work to lose track of the long nights suffered by lonely wives. This is key to understanding Ovid’s Penelope: she is not the cunning match for her husband, rather she is the abandoned lover of elegiac love poetry.

Penelope and the Suitors, by John William Waterhouse (1912)

Penelope and the Suitors, by John William Waterhouse (1912)

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Theognis 237-54: Remember my name

Theognis of Megara is a Greek elegist, probably writing in the 6th century BC. Much of his poetry is political, addressed to his agathoi – fellow Greek aristocrats. However, his main addressee is Cyrnus, a young man with whom he is in an erotic relationship. Theognis’ relationship with Cyrnus was a stormy one, as the poem below shows. It is a beautiful but bitter piece, notable for its use of Homeric tropes to exact a poetic revenge on his deceitful lover.

237-54

For my part, I have made you wings on which to fly
across the endless sea and all the earth
with ease, you’ll soon be at every dinner, every feast,
and many a man will have you on his lips,
and lovely lads accompanied by alto pipes
will sing of you in voices sweet and clear
and orderly. And when, down in the earth’s dark nooks,
you go to Hades’ house of wailing grief,
not even in death will your fame fade, but men 
will always cherish your immortal name,
Cyrnus, as you roam over all the land of Greece,
and all the islands of the teeming sea,
not riding then on horseback; no, the violet wreathed
Muses will speed you by their noble grace.
Future men likewise, all who have an interest,
will sing of you, while earth and sun exist.
And yet from you I cannot get some slight respect;
you lie to me as if I were a child.

Poetic immortality was a very important concern for the Ancient Greeks. The use of the trope in this poem particularly recalls the following lines in the Odyssey and the Iliad:

Il. 6.357-8
(Helen addressing Hector)

“Zeus has brought an evil fate upon us, and in days to come we shall be a song for those yet unborn.”

Od. 24.93-4
(the ghost of Agamemnon describing the funeral of Achilles)

“So your name was not lost, Achilles, in death, and you will be famous indeed forever among men.”

Theognis uses Homeric imagery to imbue his promises with an epic grandeur. In Homer words are often described as “winged“, and here these wings become those that will transport Cyrnus into immortal fame. However, this grandeur is lost in the sting of the final two lines, where Theognis complains of the indignity of Cyrnus’ treatment towards him.

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Virgil’s Aeneid and the Gates of Sleep: A False Dream of Empire

There is a tradition in classical epic of two Gates of Sleep, one of horn and one of ivory. Through the ivory gate come deceptive dreams, and through the horn gate come true dreams that will be fulfilled. These gates are first mentioned in the Odyssey, where Penelope describes a dream she has had in which she saw an eagle kill 20 geese (the implication being that Odysseus is the eagle and the geese are the suitors who are occupying his home). However she then wonders if her dream can be relied upon:

(19.560-567)

“My friend, dreams are things hard to interpret, hopeless to puzzle
 out, and people find that not all of them end in anything.
 There are two gates through which the insubstantial dreams issue.
 One pair of gates is made of horn, and one of ivory.
 Those of the dreams which issue through the gates of sawn ivory,
 these are deceptive dreams, their message is never accomplished.
 But those that come into the open through the gates of the polished
 horn accomplish the truth for any mortal who sees them.”

In the scholia for this passage (that is, the ancient commentaries) it is explained that horn is a reference to the eyes, because the ‘outer membrane of the eye is hornlike in appearance’, whereas ivory refers to the mouth, because teeth are ivory coloured. Therefore the implication is that things seen are more reliable than things that are said.

However, by far the most interesting reference to the Gates of Sleep comes in Virgil’s epic about the founding of Rome: the Aeneid. In Book Six the hero Aeneas journeys down to the underworld with a prophetess called the Sibyl, where the soul of his father Anchises tells him his destiny as the founder of the Roman Empire. In many ways this book is extremely celebratory, praising the glory of Rome. This is how it has long been understood, with generations of schoolboys being taught to read Virgil as the great champion of the Roman nation.

It has since been posited that Virgil’s message is far more complex. Scholars have detected in the Aeneid a profound sensitivity to the human suffering that is the result of Aeneas’ mission. Book 6 is particularly responsive to such readings. In the underworld Aeneas is shown a pageant of the future heroes of Rome and told about their great deeds, firing him up with a patriotic ‘love for the glory that was to come’ (6.889). But the book then has an unexpected ending. In order to leave the underworld, Aeneas must pass through the Gates of Sleep:

(6.893-898)

“There are two gates of sleep: one is called the Gate of Horn and it is an easy exit for true shades; the other is made all in gleaming white ivory, but through it the powers of the underworld send false dreams up to the heavens. Here on the night did Anchises walk with his son and with the Sibyl and spoke such words to them as he sent them on their journey through the Gate of Ivory.”

Aeneas leaves through the Gate of Ivory, the gate of false dreams.

Aenead and the Sibyl, artist unknown (circa 1800)

Aeneas and the Sibyl, artist unknown (circa 1800)

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Horace 3.26: The Unassailable Chloe

In a temple of Venus, Horace dedicates his weapons of love to the goddess: he is done with his campaigns of the heart. But the ode ends unexpectedly when the poet has one last request: please punish Chloe for rejecting him.

I have lived my life, till lately popular with girls, and I have been a soldier not without renown: now these weapons and this lyre that has completed its military service this wall shall keep which guards the left side of sea-born Venus. Here, here place the gleaming torches and the crowbars and the bows that threaten barred doors:

“O goddess, you who dwell in blessed Cyprus and Memphis that is free from Thracian snow, queen touch just once with uplifted lash Chloe the arrogant”.

The tone of the poem is that of mock-solemnity. The first word, ‘I have lived’, is the same as that of Dido’s speech before she commits suicide for being abandoned by her lover Aeneas. Horace’s dedication is therefore incredibly melodramatic: as far as he is concerned his life is over.

Horace uses a common metaphor in comparing love to war. All of the weapons that he describes: torch, crowbar, and bow, are those that would be required to assault a besieged city, or in this case, a girl’s door that has been barred against him. The imagery is comic in the grand, epic resonances of the military language used to describe the poet’s many love affairs.

When the prayer begins a Roman audience would be expecting a traditional dedication to the goddess. This appears to be the case when it opens conventionally with a list of Aphrodite’s dwelling places. However, while Cyprus is her most famous home, Memphis, located in Egypt, is not such an obvious choice. Its inclusion is explained by the following reference to Thrace, Chloe’s homeland, located in comparatively chilly northern Greece. Horace is asking the goddess of sunny climes to melt Chloe’s frozen heart.

But the ode does not necessarily suggest a searing passion on Horace’s part. He wants ‘arrogant’ Chloe to be subjugated under Venus’ whip. The implication is that she has humiliated Horace, and for his revenge the poet wants her in turn to feel the painful lash of love. This suggests an amusing twist: the reason for Horace’s solemn despair is the slight he feels at Chloe’s persistent “no”. His dramatic retirement is no more than a strategic withdrawal, as he asks the goddess to warm Chloe to his advances.

Sources:

Translation from Gordon Williams (1969)

Gordon Williams, ed., The Third Book of Horace’s Odes (Oxford, 1969).
Kenneth Quinn, ed. Horace the Odes (Bristol, 1980).

A Woman’s Place: Female Transgression in the Odyssey

In my posts on Helen of Troy and the Sirens I look at how formidable women use their voices to bewitch men and shape the narrative. In the following episode in Book 22 we see the sad fate of ordinary women, maidservants, who are punished for their transgressions and silenced by the epic.

When Odysseus finally gets back to Ithaca it is to find his home overrun by unruly suitors, all vying for his wife Penelope’s hand in the belief that he is dead. Some of the female servants of Odysseus’ household are sleeping with these men. They are mentioned on two occasions. First is Melantho, Penelope’s foster-daughter, who scorns Odysseus while he is dressed as a beggar:

18.320-5

“So Odysseus spoke, and the maids broke into a laugh, and glanced at one another. And fair-cheeked Melantho rated him shamefully, Melantho, whom Dolius begot, but whom Penelope had reared and cherished as her own child, and gave her playthings to her heart’s desire. Yet even so she had at heart no sorrow for Penelope, but she loved Eurymachus and was wont to lie with him.”

And then in Book 20:

20.5

“And the women came forth from the hall, those that had before been wont to lie with the wooers, making laughter and merriment among themselves.”

In both passages female laughter is associated with sexual misconduct. There is here a link between the female voice and women who need to be contained, just like the sirens who lure men to their deaths with their song.

The fate of these women as a consequence of their affairs is terrible. Once Odysseus has slain the suitors they are forced to clean up the bloody bodies of their former lovers. Then Odysseus hands them over to his son Telemachus, with the order that the punishment for their crimes must be death:

22.461-473

“Then wise Telemachus was the first to speak to the others, saying: ‘Let it be by no clean death that I take the lives of these women, who on my own head have poured reproaches and on my mother, and were wont to lie with the wooers.’ So he spoke, and tied the cable of a dark-prowed ship to a great pillar and flung it round the dome, stretching it on high that none might reach the ground with her feet. And as when long-winged thrushes or doves fall into a snare that is set in a thicket, as they seek to reach their resting-place, and hateful is the bed that gives them welcome, even so the women held their heads in a row, and round the necks of all nooses were laid, that they might die most piteously. And they writhed a little while with their feet, but not long.”

For all their crimes it is a horrible death, and Homer highlights this with the metaphor comparing them to birds caught in a net and describing their twitching feet.

 

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Laments for Lost Friends in Ancient Rome

The below are two of the most moving poems to have survived from Ancient Rome. The poets Catullus and Horace comfort close friends on the death of someone dear to them. Both odes are deeply poignant in their grief, but also use poetry to wilfully defy mortality itself by showing that those we loved are never truly lost to us.

In poem 96, Catullus comforts his friend Calvus on the death of his wife, telling him that her spirit is gladdened by the love her husband shows in his great grief:

96

If anything from our grief, can reach beyond
the silent tomb, Calvus, and be pleasing and welcome,
grief with which, in longing, we revive our lost loves,
and weep for vanished friendships once known,
surely Quintilia is not so much grieved at her early death,
as joyful for your love.

In Ode 1.24, Horace comforts the famous poet of the Aeneid, Virgil, at the death of their mutual friend and teacher Quintilius. I have only included the last 3 stanzas as they are the ones I want to discuss here. Horace tells his friend that no amount of grieving can help them to bring their friend back, comparing Virgil to Orpheus, the mythical poet who performed for the King of the underworld to try in vain to bring back his wife from the dead. The god Mercury was the guardian of the boundaries between the upper and lower worlds, and Horace reminds us that those who pass by him are never suffered to return.

1.24

Many are the good men who weep for his dying,
none of them, Virgil, weep more profusely than you.
Piously, you ask the gods for him, alas, in vain:
not so was he given to us.

Even if you played on the Thracian lyre, listened
to by the trees, more sweetly than Orpheus could,
would life then return, to that empty phantom,
once Mercury, with fearsome wand,

who won’t simply re-open the gates of Fate
at our bidding, has gathered him to the dark throng?
It is hard: but patience makes more tolerable
whatever wrong’s to be righted.

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A Voyage to the Moon: Science Fiction in Ancient Greece

Lucian is a second century AD Syrian writer. His True Histories is generally viewed as the first science fiction novel, and its bizarre, playful narrative can be viewed as a precursor to writers such as Douglas Adams. Setting out on a voyage, the narrator is caught up in a storm that propels him through the sky, and his ship ends up landing on the moon.

Lucian builds on the Greek idea that the moon is a mirror world to our own. Pythagorean philosophers had a lot of interesting theories about the moon. They thought of it as a sort of reverse parallel of the earth, populated by earth-like beings of great beauty. These creatures do not have messy bodily functions, they lay eggs and do not produce excrement. They are therefore purer and ‘cleaner’ than humans, detached from our worldly selves. One theory held that Helen of Troy, who according to myth was born from an egg, was a moon-woman. Many believed that the moon reflected the sun’s light, and Anaxagoras, a fifth century BC philosopher, called the moon a ‘star of false light’.

And so the moon was associated with lies and distorted realities. This created scope to explore the relationship between truth and fiction, and how the artificial reality of stories can appear to truthfully reflect our own world.

Lucian playfully describes his observations of the Moon-men. In a ridiculous and bawdy passage he describes the strange sexual practices of the Moon-men:

In the interval, while I was living on the moon, I observed some strange and wonderful things that I wish to speak of. In the first place there is the fact that they are not born of women but of men: they marry men and do not even know the word woman at all! Up to the age of twenty-five each is a wife, and thereafter a husband. They carry their children in the calf of the leg instead of the belly. When conception takes place the calf begins to swell. In course of time they cut it open and deliver the child dead, and then they bring it to life by putting it in the wind with its mouth open.

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