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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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 one comes deceptive dreams, and through the horn gate comes true dreams that will be fulfilled. These gates are first mentioned in the Odyssey, where Penelope states that she dreamt an eagle flew down and killed 20 geese (the implication being that Odysseus is the eagle and the geese are the suitors who are desecrating his home). However she then questions whether or not her dream will come true:


“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 spoken.

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 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, no doubt inspiring the great Western empire- and nation-builders of the 19th century.

It is has since been shown that there is much more to Virgil’s epic. 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:


“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

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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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 popular of Odysseus’ travels. The savage monster and our hero’s cunning escape plan make for an excellent story of brains triumphing over brawn. However, at the same time we are invited to sympathise with the monster, and to censure Odysseus for his violence and arrogance. It is a very rich story, but by the end the reader is left perhaps a bit unfulfilled: while we applaud Odysseus’ wit, we cannot help but feel a bit disappointed by his arrogant boasts, and it is difficult not to feel sorry for the monster he leaves blind and isolated.

While it is tempting to pity the Cyclops, it is important not to forgot that he is 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.

In Greece rules about behaviour between host and guest (xenia) were very important, they were considered sacred to the gods. For the cyclops to eat his guests in his own house is the ultimate sacrilege, an affront to the rules of society. The same applies to the fact 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 makes eating Odysseus’ men not far off cannibalism. Likewise cooking is a sign of civilisation, it requires the use of tools and skill. The cyclops is primitive and savage; the antithesis to civilised Greek society.

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 is great. He calls out to the neighbouring Cyclops, but they are unhelpful, and laugh when they hear that ‘Nobody’ has hurt him. However we mostly feel sorry for the Cyclops when he is letting his flock out of his cave, stroking their backs to make sure that the Greeks are not escaping with them and unaware that they are hiding under their bellies. 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’: it is the poet’s great vision, so that for all of his characters we see the good and the bad, we are shown both sides to every story. Thus we are made to take another look, even at the monstrous Cyclops.

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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 violent and terrifying. He has resolved to kill Hector no matter what.

While there is life, there is hope. And when Achilles’ first javelin throw misses, Hector is briefly triumphant. However, when he then misses his own shot, 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.’

As in Book 6 it is what other people think that defines heroism for Hector. In ancient Greek thought there was a strong link between great deeds and poetry. Heroes are remembered through poetry, it is through epics like the Iliad that they live on. Hector is concerned with his ‘undying glory’, for the songs of the poet are the closest a mortal man can get to immortality.

The glory of war and the desire for a glorious death are important themes in the Iliad. However, it is interesting that the actual depictions of death are extremely graphic and often grotesque. In no way does Homer glorify the cost of war, and Hector’s death and the mutilation of his body is humiliating rather than glorious. Achilles’ rage is terrible, and even with his enemy dying at his feet his revenge is not satisfied.

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Homer’s Iliad Book 6: Hector’s farewell

Hector’s fate in the Iliad is perhaps western literature’s greatest tragedy. In some ways he is Homer’s most modern hero: a family man forced to fight in a war that is not his doing. And yet he is very much a product of Homer’s heroic society, and his understanding of the world is shaped by the epic values of a warrior.

The story of Hector cannot be summed up in one post. There’s far too much to say! However here I’ve copied a bit from the end of Book 6, where Hector speaks to his wife and child. Although the hero does not know it yet, it is to be their last meeting before he is killed by Achilles. It is one of the Iliad’s most memorable scenes, in which Hector displays a heartbreaking affection for his wife and son.

The scene starts with Hector returning from the battle, eager to see his wife Andromache and his baby son Scamandrius, nicknamed Astyanax. However his wife is not at home but is running around the city in a frenzy, fearful that her husband has been harmed in battle. Hector runs out and finds her at the city gates:

And with her there went a maid carrying at her breast their innocent child no more than a baby, Hector’s only beloved son, shining lovely as a star. Hector’s name for him was Skamandrios, but the other’s called him Astyanax, Lord of the City, because Hector was Ilios’ sole protection. Hector looked at his son and smiled in silence.

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