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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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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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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Ovid 10.287-297: The Ivory Girl

The myth of Pygmalion has fascinated writers through history and has been retold many times. It tells of an artist called Pygmalion who sculpts an ivory statue so beautiful that he falls in love with it. He kisses her, worships her and prays to find a girl like her. The goddess of love Aphrodite answers his prayer, and Pygmalion returns home to find his statue brought to life.

The story comes from Ovid’s Metamophoses, a long poem telling lots of stories of mythological metamorphosis. One of the things it is famous for is giving a voice to silent, or silenced, female characters. He explores how women who have been silenced can overcome this and communicate in other ways, finding their voice.

In the story of Pygmalion the silent woman is of course the statue. She does not even have a name, she is defined by the man who made her and his lust for her. However, in this extract, which comes from the end of the myth, the point of view switches from Pygmalion’s to that of the statue. She feels Pygmalion’s kisses, she opens her eyes and she sees the sky. Pygmalion’s statue is the ultimately passive woman, in that she was created by a man for the sole purpose of loving him, but in Ovid are given a very brief glimpse into her world. She has her own consciousness that is separate from the man who made her.

He is amazed; but stands rejoicing in his doubt;
while fearful there is some mistake, again
and yet again, gives trial to his hopes
by touching with his hand. It must be flesh!
The veins pulsate beneath the careful test
of his directed finger. Then, indeed,
the astonished hero poured out lavish thanks
to Venus; pressing with his raptured lips
his statue’s lips. Now real, true to life—
the maiden felt the kisses given to her,
and blushing, lifted up her timid eyes,
so that she saw the light and sky above,
as well as her rapt lover while he leaned
gazing beside her—and all this at once—
the goddess graced the marriage she had willed,
and when nine times a crescent moon had changed,
increasing to the full, the statue-bride
gave birth to her dear daughter Paphos. From
which famed event the island takes its name.

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