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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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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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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Nero’s Empire in Roman Literature: A Godless Land

In my post on Seneca’s Thyestes I talk about how how texts changed under the Emperor Nero. Literature written in this time was a lot darker and messier, and one of the most striking differences is the disappearance of the gods. In Augustan literature the Roman Empire is ordained by Zeus and a fulfilment of man’s manifest destiny, but under Nero chaos and uncertainty rule the world, there is no divine order or great purpose, and mankind are powerless under their psychotic rulers.

Seneca’s play Thyestes is a very pointed example of this change. In Ancient Greek tragedy, a play would often end with the appearance of a god, who would then explain to the characters how to earn forgiveness for their misdeeds. In Seneca’s tragedy Thyestes however, the gods do not appear when they are summoned. Thyestes has been tricked by his brother Atreus into eating his own sons at a feast, revenge for scheming with Atreus’ wife to overthrow him. Horrified by the knowledge of what he has done, Thyestes implores the gods to fulfil their role as divine rulers and punish their unholy crimes. He asks that they are banished to whatever places lie below Tartarus, Acheron and Phlegethon, places in hell traditionally reserved for the worst sinners. But humanity has been abandoned and his cries go unanswered. Where the gods are expected to step in there is only a terrible silence.

Saturn Devouring his Son by Rubens (1636)

Saturn Devouring his Son by Rubens (1636)

Seneca’s Thyestes (1004-1021)

ATREUS

…Now, father, spread out thine arms;
they have come. Do you recognise your sons?

[He uncovers the platter, revealing the severed heads of Thyestes’ sons.]

THYESTES

I recognise my brother. How can you bear such a crime,
Earth? Why do you not plunge into the Stygian
darkness below and, on a gaping path
to empty chaos, not rip apart this kingdom and it’s king?
Why, tearing this whole palace from the ground,
not raze Mycenas? We should already both be standing
before Tantalus. With prison bars torn apart
on every side, if there is a land below Tartarus,
below our grandfathers, send there your chasm
with a huge abyss and hide us buried
beneath all of Acheron. Let guilty souls wander
above our heads and fiery Phlegethon,
with its burning waters driving burning sands,
flows violently above our place of exile.
– Why Earth do you still lie an inactive mass?
The gods have fled.

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Theocritus Idyll XI: The Cyclops falls in love.

Galatea by Gustave Moreau c. 1880

Galatea by Gustave Moreau c. 1880

Idyll XI is the love song of the Cyclops for the sea nymph Galatea. The nymph appears to him in his dreams, but when he wakes she flees his monstrous form. To entice her the Cyclops offers cheeses, baby animals and flowers, but ultimately she is a creature of the sea and he is tied to the land; it is a doomed passion.

In this Idyll we see the Cyclops as a bumbling adolescent, clumsily attempting to woo the beautiful nymph. Most commentators have seen him as a comic figure. He clumsily compares her to cream cheese, and whereas the language of love is not concerned with reality or details, he pedantically points out his expertise in cheese-making, and labours over the point that he could not literally bring her snowdrops and poppies at the same time.

However he is not completely inept. Personally the promise of flowers and baby animals is pretty appealing, not to mention cheese! He promises her a pastoral paradise. In places his song is very similar to Sappho, the ultimate Greek love poet. But it is not too hard imagine Galatea laughing at her hairy lover, and his promise to singe off all his hair isn’t much more appealing.

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Odysseus Book 9: Man vs. Monster

Polyphemus by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1802)

Polyphemus by Johann Tischbein (1802)

The Polyphemus story is perhaps the most well-known of Odysseus’ adventures. The savage monster and our hero’s cunning escape make for an excellent story of brains triumphing over brawn. However, at the same time we are invited by the text to sympathise with the monster, and to censure Odysseus for his violence. The primitive Cyclops is helpless against man’s cunning, and Polyphemus’ whole world is left in ruins by Odysseus’ tricks.

The Cyclops is portrayed as a truly savage and cruel monster. The below passage emphasises this in its graphic description of Polyphemus devouring two of Odysseus’ men.

Devoid of pity, he was silent in response, but leaping up laid hands on my crew. Two he seized and dashed to the ground like whelps, and their brains ran out and stained the earth. He tore them limb from limb for his supper, eating the flesh and entrails, bone and marrow, like a mountain lion, leaving nothing. Helplessly we watched these cruel acts, raising our hands to heaven and weeping.
(9.287-295)

In Greece the relationship between host and guest (xenia) was sacred, so for the Cyclops to eat his guests in his own house is the ultimate sacrilege. It is also revealing that he is eating humans, and even that he is eating them raw. While Polyphemus himself is not exactly human, he comes pretty close in some respects, and this means eating Odysseus’ men is not far off cannibalism – the true mark of a savage. Likewise cooking is a sign of civilisation, requiring the use of tools and skill, and so by eating them raw the Cyclops betrays his primitiveness.

Odysseus and his crew are blinding Polyphemus. Detail of a Proto-Attic amphora, circa 650 BC. Eleusis, Archaeological Museum, Inv. 2630. via Wikimedia Commons

Odysseus and his crew are blinding Polyphemus. Detail of a Proto-Attic amphora, circa 650 BC. Eleusis, Archaeological Museum, Inv. 2630. via Wikimedia Commons

However, we do feel sympathy for the monster. Odysseus fashions a stake and blinds Polyphemus while he sleeps. The description of the wound is gruesome, and Polyphemus’ pain and anguish are great. He calls out to the neighbouring Cyclopes, but they only laugh mockingly when they hear that ‘Nobody’ has hurt him. However, we mostly feel sorry for the Polyphemus when he lets his flock out of his cave, unaware that the Greeks are tethered under the sheep’s bellies to escape with them. Last of all comes a great ram which Odysseus is clinging onto underneath. Polyphemus tearfully addresses the ram, displaying a depth of feeling and attachment that is uncomfortably human. Scholars call this effect the ‘Homeric eye’. This is the poet’s great vision; for all of his characters we see the good and the bad, that there are two sides to every story.

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Homer’s Iliad Book 22: The Tragedy of Hector

In my previous post I looked at Hector’s farewell to his wife and child in Book 6. Book 22 recounts the hero’s death. Hector has killed Patroclus, Achilles beloved comrade, and Achilles’ rage is terrifying. He is determined to have revenge, and in Book 22 he faces Hector in single combat.

When Hector misses Achilles with his javelin, he is left unarmed and completely isolated outside the gates of Troy. He understands now that he is about to die. All that is left for him is the hope that he will die in a manner worthy of remembrance:

‘But let me not die without a fight, without true glory, without some deed that men unborn may hear.’

(22.304-5)

In ancient Greek thought there was a strong link between heroism and poetry. Heroes are remembered for their great deeds and glorious deaths through epics like the Iliad, and this is the only way for a mortal man to achieve immortality.

However, it is interesting that the actual depictions of death are extremely graphic and often grotesque. Homer’s narrative emphasises the cost of war, and his portrayals of death are at odds with his characters’ visions of a glorious end in battle. In the below passage Achilles promises to humiliate Hector’s corpse by refusing him a burial.

Then Hector of the gleaming helm replied, in a feeble voice: ‘At your feet I beg, by your parents, by your own life, don’t let the dogs devour my flesh by the hollow ships. Accept the ransom my royal father and mother will offer, stores of gold and bronze, and let them carry my body home, so the Trojans and their wives may grant me in death my portion of fire.’

But fleet-footed Achilles glared at him in answer: ‘Don’t speak of my parents, dog. I wish the fury and the pain in me could drive me to carve and eat you raw for what you did, as surely as this is true: no living man will keep the dogs from gnawing at your skull, not if men weighed out twenty, thirty times your worth in ransom, and promised even more, not though Dardanian Priam bid them give your weight in gold, not even then will your royal mother lay you on a bier to grieve for you, the son she bore, rather shall dogs, and carrion birds, devour you utterly.’

(22.337-354)

Achilles’ reply is shockingly brutal and unyielding. The desire to eat Hector raw is that of a savage. In addition, burial rights were sacred to the Greeks and to deny them is tantamount to sacrilege.

Despite the intimacy of the scene, in which the final words of the dying man create a terrible bond between the slain and his slayer, both heroes are being watched by many audiences: the Greeks held back by Achilles, the Trojans watching anxiously from the city walls, the gods from above like spectators at the games, and of course the readers of the poem and the poet himself. Hector’s death is not a private matter; his death seals the fate of many men, and so the whole world watches as he falls to the ground and begs for a final act of mercy.

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