Stitches in Time: Penelope in Rome and Modern Britain

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, giving their own version of her story, although with varying degrees of success. In this post I am going to look at two different versions. One is by Ovid in 1st century AD Rome and the other is from a 20th century poem by Carol Ann Duffy. 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. For that we must turn to the recent poetry of Carol Ann Duffy.

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:


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:


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 symbolic in understanding Ovid’s Penelope: she is not the cunning match for her epic 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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A Woman’s Place: Female Transgression in the Odyssey

The Odyssey is full of fascinating female characters, and it is great fun to see how women are presented, often as powerful creatures with the ability to shape the adventures of Odysseus. However it is important not to get carried away, and remember the incredibly dark side of Homer’s world in regard to its treatment of women. In my posts on Helen of Troy and the Sirens I look at how formidable women use their voices to bewitch men. 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:


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:


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 precedes sexual misconduct. There is a link in Homer between the female voice and women who need to be contained, most strongly portrayed in the sirens who lure men to their deaths with their song.

The punishment these women receive for their crimes 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 they must die for their crimes:


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 tragic and horrific death, and Homer highlights this by comparing them to birds caught in a net and describing their twitching feet.

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Ovid’s spider girl: Unravelling the female gaze

Arachne in Gustave Doré's illustration for Dante's Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy series.

Arachne in Gustave Doré’s illustration for Dante’s Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy series.

Ovid’s epic the Metamorphoses is constantly playing with different narrative voices. In the myth of Arachne we are shown how fleeting our stories can be. Ovid looks at the tension between the male and female voice, exploring the fragility a woman’s tale has in contrast to the authoritative male perspective.

In this myth, the young girl Arachne boasts that she is a better weaver than the goddess Minerva. She challenges the goddess to a contest, and the goddess answers. In her tapestry, Minerva depicts the gods and goddesses in all their divine majesty, and in the corners she weaves mortals who have been punished for daring to challenge the divine. Arachne on the other hand portrays the rapes of the gods. She shows them using disguises to deceive girls into sleeping with them. Unlike Minerva’s stately and structured masterpiece, Arachne’s is confused and fluid, and yet when the goddess inspects it she can find no fault with it. Enraged, Minerva destroys the tapestry. Arachne, who is devoted to her art, is devastated and hangs herself. The goddess feels a modicum of pity and rescues Arachne by turning her into a spider, sentenced to spend the rest of her days spinning webs.

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Philomela and Tereus: Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Female Voice

In ancient literature weaving was a metaphor for poetic creation. However, as weaving was a female activity it also became associated with the female voice within texts. Denied a voice in ancient literature women are portrayed as using a weave to tell their story. Perhaps the most interesting example of this takes place in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the story of Tereus and Philomena.

After the latest series of Game of Thrones there has been a lot of debate about sexual violence in the media. The Metamorphoses shows us that graphic violence, particularly against women, has been a part of popular culture for a very long time. This is perhaps the most explicit story of Ovid’s epic. The tyrant Tereus has married Procne, the daughter of the King of Athens, and after five years away from home Procne asks her husband to bring her sister Philomena over for a visit. However when Tereus sees Philomena he is maddened by his desire for her. He kidnaps her and rapes her, and when she threatens to reveal his crime he cuts out her tongue. He then keeps her hidden away in a forest and pretends that she has been killed. Philomena however weaves her story and through a servant manages to send the message to her sister. On receiving her sister’s weave Procne rescues Philomela and plots a terrible revenge: she murders her own son and feeds him to Tereus hidden in his dinner.

The rape is described in a truly horrific way, and the portrayal of Philomena is desperate:

The poor child trembled as a frightened lamb,
which, just delivered from the frothing jaws
of a gaunt wolf, dreads every moving twig.
She trembled as a timid injured dove,
(her feathers dripping with her own life-blood)
that dreads the ravening talons of a hawk
from which some fortune has delivered her.

When she first saw his sword above her head.
Flashing and sharp, she wished only for death,
and offered her bare throat: but while she screamed,
and, struggling, called upon her father’s name,
he caught her tongue with pincers, pitiless,
and cut it with his sword —The mangled root
still quivered, but the bleeding tongue itself,
fell murmuring on the blood-stained floor.

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Homer’s Odyssey Book 4: Helen of Troy again

My last post was on the Sirens in the Odyssey, and as a follow up I thought I’d write a quick post about how Helen is portrayed in the Odyssey. We see Helen in Book 4, returned to her husband and playing the role of the obedient housewife. Odysseus’ son Telemachus has come to the the court of King Menelaus to seek information about his father’s whereabouts. Since the Trojan War Odysseus has vanished from Greece. Menelaus welcomes Telemachus but does not recognise him. It is Helen who correctly reveals the identity of the young prince. The group drink together and reminisce about the heroes at Troy, weeping for those who are lost. Helen then does something very curious. She mixes a drug into the men’s wine. It is a drug that removes all sorrow, so that a man’s parents could lie dead in front of him and he would not be sad.

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Homer’s Odyssey 12:181-201: Siren Song

The Odyssey is an incredibly rich text and even the briefest of the hero’s adventures can be subject to endless different readings and interpretations. His encounter with the Sirens only takes up 20 lines of Greek text but has been represented countless times in art ever since. These women on the edge of civilization who lure men to their deaths appeal to an almost morbid fascination in the reader, however the scene is also a very self-reflective moment for Homer regarding the nature of his poetry.

Odysseus has been warned by the witch Circe to plug his crew’s ears with earwax, and that if he wants to hear their song he must be restrained to prevent his going to them. The hero’s famous curiosity prevails and he orders his crew members to tie him to the mast. The story in the text is told by Odysseus as he narrates his adventures to the sympathetic Phaeacians.

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Ovid Metamorphoses 3.337-508: Vain Love

Ovid’s tale of Echo and Narcissus is one of unrequited love and the waste it brings. Echo falls in love with Narcissus, who turns her away scornfully. Devastated by his rejection she roams the forest without food or rest, until  she fades into nothing but a voice. Narcissus is punished for his pride and, catching sight of his reflection in a calm pool, in turn falls in love with his own beautiful image. Unable to fulfil his desire he too wastes away. He dies at the side of the pool, but instead of a body all that remains is a small white flower with a yellow centre, the Narcissus.

Nymphe by Gaston Bussière.

Nymphe by Gaston Bussière (1862-1929).

Echo was a talkative and cheeky Nymph employed by Jupiter to distract his wife while he was off having affairs. When Juno finds out, she curses Echo to only ever repeat other people’s last words. Narcissus was a handsome youth who was desired by many but scorned all those who approached him.

On a hunting trip Narcissus strays away from his friends and is spied by Echo. The nymph falls instantly in love. The following dialogue between the two is a brilliant display of the adaptability of language. By taking away her power of speech Juno threatened to transform Echo into a nonbeing, a person without a voice. But the nymph resists this fate and maintains control, giving her own meaning to the words of Narcissus.

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