Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19

  Levaniouk, Olga. 2011. Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19. Hellenic Studies Series 46. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Levaniouk.Eve_of_the_Festival.2011.

Chapter 15. Back to the Loom

Before turning to the question of larger context, it is necessary to consider one more muthos Penelope tells in Book 19: the tale of her weaving and unweaving of Laertes’ shroud. I have left Penelope’s most famous tale aside until now because it occupies a unique position in the dialogue. In general, Odysseus dominates the first part of the conversation, Penelope the second, but the tale of Laertes’ shroud is an exception: it is Penelope’s longest continuous narrative and it happens near the beginning of the book. In a sense, as much as Odysseus’ initial performance, it determines, or at least makes possible, the rest of the dialogue.

Looking back over the entire book, the exchange between Penelope and Odysseus is, in a paradoxical way, agonistic even as it leads to a degree of harmony between the speakers. Each performer has challenged the other to understand the hidden message and respond in kind, and each has engaged in what Martin terms “powerful self-presentation,” a fixture of agonistic speech. [1] Odysseus achieves such self-presentation by means of his “perfect king” comparison, his Cretan lie, his report about Odysseus in Thesprotia; Penelope achieves it through the myth of Aedon and her dream, but initially through the tale of her weaving. In terms of genre, the “conversation” of Odysseus and Penelope can be seen both as a performative dialogue and as a performa- {258|259} tive agon. [2] It is designated as muthoi (19.103), and here this word is used in its proper Homeric sense of authoritative speech acts. [3]

And yet in the mouth of Odysseus this consummate compliment is also a test. Odysseus’ muthos points indirectly to Penelope’s loss: Ithaca is manifestly not the flourishing kingdom Odysseus describes. It also points to Penelope’s problematic position as an independent woman, involuntary though it is. [5] It is a challenge, yet a challenge of praise, and as such it may be seen as the mirror-image of neikos, which Martin defines, in its Iliadic context, as the verbal duel between two warriors. [6] Odysseus begins with saying as much:

ὦ γύναι, οὐκ ἄν τίς σε βροτῶν ἐπ’ ἀπείρονα γαῖαν

(Odyssey 19.107–108)

Lady, no mortal on the boundless earth
would reproach you.

Penelope is quick to understand and avert any suspicion by defining her role in feminine terms:

ξεῖν’, ἦ τοι μὲν ἐμὴν ἀρετὴν εἶδός τε δέμας τε
ὤλεσαν ἀθάνατοι, ὅτε Ἴλιον εἰσανέβαινον {259|260}
Ἀργεῖοι, μετὰ τοῖσι δ’ ἐμὸς πόσις ἦεν Ὀδυσσεύς.
εἰ κεῖνός γ’ ἐλθὼν τὸν ἐμὸν βίον ἀμφιπολεύοι,
μεῖζον κε κλέος εἴη ἐμὸν καὶ κάλλιον οὕτω.

(Odyssey 19.124–128)

Stranger, the immortals ruined my excellence, my beauty and stature,
when the Argives boarded for Troy,
and among them was my husband Odysseus.
If he returned and took care of my life,
my glory would be greater and better in this way.

Penelope has been self-sufficient for twenty years, but she claims to be in need of her husband’s management. Her unusual independence is presented as a misfortune, which only detracts from her kleos. Thus begins the mutual renegotiation of their positions between Odysseus and Penelope, the re-establishment of their famous homophrosune. This like-mindedness, which should not be sentimentalized, involves a mutual agreement on the proper roles of husband and wife. [
7] In response to Odysseus’ provocation, Penelope proceeds in earnest with her self-presentation, the narrative of her weaving ruse. It is a tale not of a king, but of a faithful and resourceful wife. [8]

This tale, and Penelope’s weaving in general, has probably received more scholarly attention than anything else about Penelope, and it has justly been discussed in connection with speech and song. Weaving is a metaphor for the making of poetry, and Penelope’s work has been seen as emblematic of song in general and Odyssean poetics in particular. [9] It has been also seen as a peculiarly feminine mode of communication: for Penelope, who does not have access to the male world of public speaking, weaving itself becomes a silent {260|261} kind of speech. The plotting, the reversal, the repetition and variation, and the self-reflexiveness of Penelope’s work represents a manipulation of time and narrative typical of the distinctively Odyssean poetic technique. Indeed, Penelope the weaver has been seen, along with Odysseus, as “a figure of the poet, quietly working behind the scene.” [10] From that point of view, Penelope’s walking back and forth at her loom emerges as a key not only to Odyssean poetics, but specifically to what is perhaps its most distinctive feature, namely its pervasive and multi-layered self-referentiality. [11] The magnitude and intricacy of issues involved is immense and I will not attempt to do them justice here. My focus will be on her telling of the ruse to Odysseus in Book 19, and specifically on this telling in relation to her other muthoi in the dialogue. Although she may use her weaving as a silent language, and although she is indeed excluded from the masculine world of public discourse, Penelope, unlike Philomela, can use not only her loom, but also her words, which in her conversation with beggar-Odysseus constitute an actual poetic performance, albeit addressed to an internal audience of one.

In the first instance, the tale of her weaving is Penelope’s answer to Odysseus’ praise. Penelope reacts to the description of a perfect king by immediately focusing on Odysseus, leaving no doubt who is the perfect king on Ithaca. The return of Odysseus as the king is the underlying theme of the conversation in Book 19, and the “ruler’s truth” thus serves to highlight this dominant theme, much as the proem to an epic poem might do. Penelope’s performances in the second part of the conversation, the myth of Aedon and the dream, are also, to a certain extent, a response to the “perfect king” comparison, since they are all concerned with Odysseus’ regaining of that role and Penelope’s regaining of her own role as Odysseus’ wife.

In her initial response, Penelope does not entirely decline the beggar’s praise, but rather offers a corrective to it by means of the weaving tale. Indeed, it has been suggested that Penelope does not even entirely disown the role of king, because she, alone among the feminine characters in Homer, claims {261|262} to weave not only fabric, but also stratagems. [12] In general, Homeric women are confined to literal weaving, while the metaphorical weaving of wiles is done by men. Penelope is the only character whose weaving is both literal and metaphoric, and in this way she breaks through the gender boundary. As one scholar observes, this is just one of the ways in which the Odyssey signals Penelope’s exceptional position among women: she has indeed occupied the position of a surrogate king, and like a king, she is compared to lion, though a lion in dire straits. [13] Penelope’s kleos is also exceptional, even if it is not of the same kind as that of warrior heroes like her husband. [14] Together, the perfect king comparison and the loom tale reflect both Penelope’s exceptional position, a position too large for gender boundaries to contain, and her firm insistence on knowing her place all the same. In contrast to the muthoi she will tell in the second part of the dialogue, the narrative of the loom is much less private: it is told not only by Penelope but, with variation, by two of the suitors, so that it appears for the first time in the Odyssey long before Penelope sits down to talk with the beggar. The weaving story, therefore, constitutes public knowledge. In a sense, it is Penelope’s identifying story, her public face, [15] and it is no surprise that it is the first thing she tells the beggar about herself and that her telling is prompted by mention of kleos.

In fact, the theme of kleos is signaled every time this tale is told. In Book 2, when the loom tale is told for the first time, Antinoos claims that Penelope increases her kleos by postponing remarriage (2.125–126). In Book 24, when the tale is told for the last time, the shade of Agamemnon reacts to Amphimedon’s narrative by predicting immortal kleos for Penelope (24.196–197). In Book 19 Odysseus elicits the tale by talking of Penelope’s kleos, and she implicitly corrects him by declining the kind of kleos he offers her and instead laying claim to her proper kind, not that of a king, but that of his wife. The very repetition of the weaving tale makes it seem like a set piece, a song in its own right, so that in effect the tale is her kleos. We see it within the Odyssey itself spreading both into this world and the next as it is told first on Ithaca and {262|263} then in the underworld. It is an interesting detail that the tale is told twice by Penelope’s suitors, who benefit least from Penelope’s kleos, yet become its unwilling conveyers. In the first instance, Antinoos even compares Penelope to the famed women of old and finds none of them a match for her:

εἰ δ’ ἔτ’ ἀνιήσει γε πολὺν χρόνον υἷας Ἀχαιῶν,
τὰ φρονέουσ’ ἀνὰ θυμόν, ἅ οἱ περὶ δῶκεν Ἀθήνη,
ἔργα τ’ ἐπίστασθαι περικαλλέα καὶ φρένας ἐσθλὰς
κέρδεά θ’, οἷ’ οὔ πώ τιν’ ἀκούομεν οὐδὲ παλαιῶν,
τάων αἳ πάρος ἦσαν ἐϋπλοκαμῖδες Ἀχαιαί,
Τυρώ τ’ Ἀλκμήνη τε ἐϋστέφανός τε Μυκήνη·
τάων οὔ τις ὁμοῖα νοήματα Πηνελοπείῃ
ᾔδη· ἀτὰρ μὲν τοῦτό γ’ ἐναίσιμον οὐκ ἐνόησε.

(Odyssey 2.115–122)

But if for a long time still she continues to torment the sons of Achaeans,
occupied in her mind with those gifts which Athena grants her,
to be an expert in beautiful handwork and have an excellent mind,
and clever thoughts, such as we have never heard of, not even about the women of old,
those well-tressed Achaean women who lived long ago,
Tyro and Alcmene, and Mycene with fine garlands.
Not one of them knew thoughts similar to those of Penelope.
But in this instance she did not think right.

Antinoos, of course, means what he says negatively, but he cannot quite pull it off. He first says Penelope excels over other women both in her work (no doubt her weaving is meant) and excellent mind. Then come the kerdea, her acts of cunning, in emphatically enjambed position, then another declaration that not even the women of old could compare to Penelope in their designs, and finally his only overtly negative claim, namely that Penelope did not think well enough about the damage to Telemachus’ property when she made her plans. Is this praise or blame? In the mouth of Antinoos, the reference to kerdea is ambiguous: he complains about Penelope’s cunning employed against himself but his words still constitute praise, since it is clear that his internal audience, the assembled Ithacans, will not find fault with Penelope’s trick. Unable to deny that Penelope’s cunning is worthy of kleos, Antinoos attempts to at least dampen her success by claiming that it comes at Telemachus’ {263|264} expense. There is some truth to his words, but only for the moment. Odysseus’ return, with much wealth, will more than make up for the temporary decrease of Telemachus’ patrimony, so that in the end Penelope’s kleos will be to Telemachus’ advantage. In any case Telemachus is a separate subject, and in the meanwhile it is clear that Penelope is creating a surpassing kleos for herself, and that Antinoos chafes at the thought that she is doing so at the suitors’, above all his own, expense.

When the weaving tale is told for the last time by Amphimedon in Book 24, the suitors are dead and lie unburied in the courtyard of Odysseus’ house (24.186–187). Now, if Laertes is buried in the shroud Penelope wove for him, it will be as a happy father and grandfather, whose male descendants are left behind to carry on his line. This is in sharp contrast to the Laertes we see for much of the Odyssey. The old man’s condition seems to be directly dependent on his male offspring, so that he serves as a barometer of sorts for the state of the genos. When Odysseus fails to return, he retreats to the countryside and grieves for his son, but still eats, drinks, and supervises his servants, leading a modest but sustainable life, as long as Telemachus is not in danger. When Telemachus leaves for Pylos, he stops eating and drinking and caring for his orchards, but only weeps, a picture of ultimate wretchedness (Odyssey 16.137–145). In this he is like Penelope, who says in Book 4 that she grieves for Telemachus even more than she does for Odysseus. Odysseus’ disappearance is a heavy blow to the family, but not its utter ruin. If Telemachus dies, then the devastation is complete. Conversely, when both his son and his grandson return safe and sound, the old man revives and, with Athena’s help, regains some of his former strength (Odyssey 24.265–282).

Amphimedon’s telling of the shroud tale is distinct from that of Antinoos in a telling temporal detail: Antinoos seems to imply that Penelope has {264|265} finished the shroud some time ago and therefore some time before Odysseus arrives on Ithaca. In Amphimedon’s tale, Odysseus’ arrival seems to follow immediately upon the end of Penelope’s weaving:

εὖθ’ ἡ φᾶρος ἔδειξεν, ὑφήνασα μέγαν ἱστόν,
πλύνασ’, ἠελίῳ ἐναλίγκιον ἠὲ σελήνῃ,
καὶ τότε δή ῥ’ Ὀδυσῆα κακός ποθεν ἤγαγε δαίμων
ἀγροῦ ἐπ’ ἐσχατιήν, ὅθι δώματα ναῖε συβώτης.

(Odyssey 24.147–150)

Then she displayed her fabric, having woven a great piece of weaving
and washed it, and it was like the sun and moon.
It was then that some evil spirit brought Odysseus
from somewhere to the edge of his estate, where the swineherd lived.

This discrepancy has not gone without scholarly comment, and this is no place to restate the possible explanations, though it seems reasonable for Amphimedon, looking as he is at the totality of the suitors’ courtship, to omit details of timing that are still important for Antinoos. The salient fact remains that this telling brings the completion of the web and the arrival of Odysseus into contact, so that in retrospect the two events seem linked. Amphimedon also believes that Penelope and Odysseus colluded and that it was Odysseus’ cunning idea to set up the archery contest. He is mistaken on the latter point, but the gist of his guess is not far from the truth. Though there is no direct collusion, Odysseus and Penelope do come to an understanding in Book 19. In contrast to Antinoos, Amphimedon acknowledges in retrospect that marriage to the suitors was a hateful prospect for Penelope, and that she was planning death for the suitors all along, her web a manifestation of this plotting:

μνώμεθ’ Ὀδυσσῆος δὴν οἰχομένοιο δάμαρτα·
ἡ δ’ οὔτ’ ἠρνεῖτο στυγερὸν γάμον οὔτε τελεύτα,
ἡμῖν φραζομένη θάνατον καὶ κῆρα μέλαιναν.

(Odyssey 24.125–127)

We were wooing the wife of Odysseus, who was long-absent,
but she would neither reject hateful marriage, nor accomplish it,
devising for us death and black destruction. {265|266}

Penelope’s own telling of the shroud tale is subtly distinguished from the other two, even though the main part of it is repeated verbatim on each occasion. For example, both Antinoos and Amphimedon report that the truth was revealed to them by one of the maids, ‘who knew it clearly’ (2.108). Penelope apparently does not know which of the maids betrayed her to the suitors, for she blames them collectively, and, naturally enough, she lays emphasis not on their knowledge but on their treachery (19.154–155). [17] But the greatest change is effected not within the tale itself, but by the way it is framed. Against the background of the other two tellings, the theme of Penelope’s kleos stands out all the more clearly, though Penelope never makes it explicit. By telling the shroud tale when she does, right after Odysseus says that her kleos reaches heaven, she implicitly agrees with the others that her kleos is epitomized by that tale. At the moment of the telling, however, Penelope finds that kleos wanting, and claims that it would have been both greater and better if Odysseus were there. And indeed though Penelope’s kleos does not require Odysseus to never absent himself from Ithaca, (in fact it is hardly compatible with such a scenario), it does require him to return, and Penelope here recognizes the ultimate dependence of her reputation on Odysseus. [18] Her achievements in his absence may be exceptional, and she may indeed surpass other women, but if Odysseus fails to come back and she is forced to marry one of the suitors, then surely her kleos will be much diminished and her achievement destroyed. Conversely, Odysseus’ kleos depends to some extent on Penelope, because coming back to Ithaca to find his wife gone to another’s house would be a sad outcome of his long effort. Granted, it would not be as dreadful a blow as Agamemnon suffers on his return, but it would hardly be glorious. Perhaps Odysseus’ cross-gender comparison of Penelope to a king implies, on his part, a recognition of their mutual dependency. [19] Nagy observes that Penelope is the “key not only to the nostos but also to the kleos of Odysseus” and that the {266|267} shade Agamemnon in Book 24 foresees that Odysseus will have kleos because of his wife. [20]

The notion of comparing and almost equating Penelope and Odysseus, the king and the weaver, may even be reflected in Penelope’s diction. [21] The verb Penelope uses to describe her weaving of wiles is not the expected ὑφαίνω, ‘to weave’, but τολυπεύω, which also means ‘to bring to an end, complete’, and words conveying the notion of completion occur both at the beginning and end of the tale, marking it off in a ring composition: Penelope asks the suitors to wait until she completes the shroud (ἐκτελέσω, 19.143) and is forced to do so at the end (ἐξετέλεσσα, 19.156). [22] Unlike ὑφαίνω, which is frequently used of both plotting and weaving, τολυπεύω literally means to wind up wool into a clew and is used metaphorically of deception only here. Τhis unusual choice of word requires a better explanation than the simple avoidance of repeating ὑφαίνω twice. The effect of τολυπεύω is to establish a parallel between Penelope and Odysseus and thus to augment the theme of their mutually dependent kleos. [23] It can do so because in the Odyssey this verb is used primarily in the meaning ‘to bring to an end, complete’ and twice about Odysseus’ accomplishment of the Trojan war (ἐπεὶ πόλεμον τολύπευσε, 1.238, 14.368). Moreover, the accomplishing of war, designated by τολυπεύω, is specifically connected with the kind of kleos one gets or does not get in Odyssey 24. Just before the suitors arrive in the underworld with the tale of their own death, the theme of kleos is activated in a dialogue between the shades of {267|268} Achilles and Agamemnon. The latter hero is, of course, consistently contrasted with Odysseus throughout the poem, as is Clytemnestra with Penelope. On this occasion too, after hearing Amphimedon’s report, Agamemnon will famously praise Penelope’s arete and claim that immortals will make a pleasant song for (and about) her, while that of Clytemnestra will be hateful (24.196–202). Before the suitors’ arrival, however, Agamemnon compares himself not to Odysseus, but to another Achaean more fortunate than himself in kleos, Achilles:

ὣς σὺ μὲν οὐδὲ θανὼν ὄνομ’ ὤλεσας, ἀλλά τοι αἰεὶ
πάντας ἐπ’ ἀνθρώπους κλέος ἔσσεται ἐσθλόν, Ἀχιλλεῦ·
αὐτὰρ ἐμοὶ τί τόδ’ ἦδος, ἐπεὶ πόλεμον τολύπευσα;
ἐν νόστῳ γάρ μοι Ζεὺς μήσατο λυγρὸν ὄλεθρον
Αἰγίσθου ὑπὸ χερσὶ καὶ οὐλομένης ἀλόχοιο.

(Odyssey 24.93–97)

But even in death you have not lost your name, but forever
you will have noble glory among all men, Achilles.
But for me what pleasure was it that I brought the war to conclusion?
On my return Zeus devised a dismal death for me,
at the hands of Aegisthos and my accursed wife.

Although Agamemnon does not say that Achilles has kleos, ‘glory’, while he himself does not, the implication is there that his accomplishing (τολύπευσα) of war did not bring him the kind of kleos that Achilles has, or the kind he would like to have, and the reason for that is his terrible nostos, ‘return’. He might have kleos indeed, but like that of Clytemnestra, it can hardly be called esthlon, ‘good’. There is no further use of τολυπεύω, ‘to carry through, accomplish’, in the Odyssey, so that the parallel between the masculine task of bringing the war to conclusion and Penelope’s task of completing her guiles stands out clearly, as does the connection of both accomplishments to kleos. When Penelope and Odysseus meet in Book 19, he has accomplished the war, and she has accomplished her weaving, yet neither is able to have the kind of kleos they desire. Both have kleos in the making, suspended and incomplete. Penelope is compared to the women of old, known no doubt through song, and the songs about Odysseus have already reached Phaeacia and indeed Ithaca, if Phemios’ performance of the nostos of the Achaeans in Book 1 includes him. And yet Penelope in Book 1 wants Phemios to stop singing, and it has been suggested that it is precisely because she is dissatisfied with what the song says about Odysseus, which at that point can only be that he disappeared. For {268|269} Penelope the nostos of the Achaeans is not a finished matter, because she is still hoping for a different song about Odysseus. [
24] That Odysseus’ kleos is bound up with his nostos has been argued in detail and hardly needs restating, but Penelope’s kleos is bound up with his nostos too, and that she makes clear to her guest at the beginning of their conversation in Book 19. [25]

When Antinoos tells the assembly of Ithacans about Penelope’s ruse of the shroud, the completion of her work seems like a victory for the suitors because it is their assumption that the finished shroud brings the new marriage closer. The victory is small and short-lived, however, for Penelope, although she herself links remarriage to the completion of the shroud, shows no immediate intention to choose a new husband even after her weaving is over. And indeed Penelope never actually promises to marry when she finishes the shroud but only requests that the suitors stop pressing her to remarry while she weaves (2.97 = 19.142 = 24.132). When in Book 19 Penelope says that her heart is still divided whether to remarry or to continue waiting, this is often taken as a sign of her despair, but the very fact that she continues to {269|270} see waiting as an option at all at this point is remarkable, and suggests that for Penelope the game continues. For Antinoos, Penelope’s ruse of the loom appears to be one of several. He recalls that Penelope used to give hopes to the suitors and to send messages to them, but in retrospect he sees that she was not sincere, and this seems to be Penelope’s first strategy. The weaving is “another deception” that she has devised:

ἤδη γὰρ τρίτον ἐστὶν ἔτος, τάχα δ’ εἶσι τέταρτον,
ἐξ οὗ ἀτέμβει θυμὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν Ἀχαιῶν.
πάντας μέν ῥ’ ἔλπει, καὶ ὑπίσχεται ἀνδρὶ ἑκάστῳ,
ἀγγελίας προϊεῖσα· νόος δέ οἱ ἄλλα μενοινᾷ.
ἡ δὲ δόλον τόνδ’ ἄλλον ἐνὶ φρεσὶ μερμήριξε·
στησαμένη μέγαν ἱστὸν ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ὕφαινε.

(Odyssey 2.90–94)

It is already the third year, and soon will be the fourth,
since she has been thwarting the desire in the hearts of Achaeans.
She gives hope to all, and makes promises to each one,
sending out messages, but her mind has other intentions.
Here is another trick she devised in her mind:
setting up a great loom in her house, she started to weave.

Like the first tactic, the ruse is exposed as such, but there is no telling whether or not it is the last one. Of course, from the point of view of the external audience it has to be, because it is such a climactic and striking one, and because we know that it succeeds. From an internal point of view, however, the possibility of further tricks has to be entertained. After all, Penelope presents her last strategy, the ruse of the loom, as a result of divine inspiration (19.138) and who can tell whether or not it may come again? [
28] Moreover, Penelope’s narrative of her weaving makes it clear that she can secretly hope for Odysseus’ return while openly denying it. Within her story, Penelope quotes herself telling the suitors that Odysseus is dead: {270|271}

κοῦροι, ἐμοὶ μνηστῆρες, ἐπεὶ θάνε δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς,
μίμνετ’ ἐπειγόμενοι τὸν ἐμὸν γάμον, εἰς ὅ κε φᾶρος
ἐκτελέσω, μή μοι μεταμώνια νήματ’ ὄληται.

(Odyssey 19.141–143)

Young men, my suitors, since godlike Odyssues died,
hold off pressing for my marriage until I finish
this robe, so that my weaving is not wasted in vain.

As Penelope herself admits to her guest, what she told the suitors was not sincere: it was a dolos (19.137). She claimed that Odysseus was dead, and continued, for three years, to weave and unweave the fabric, giving him time to return. Later in the dialogue Penelope will again deny that Odysseus will come back, but the possibility that she can utter such denials without believing them has been strengthened by her own account of her past tactics.

The story of Penelope’s weaving appears strikingly different in its different re-tellings in the Odyssey, in spite of the almost verbatim repetition of its main narrative. In fact, it appears so different in part precisely because of the repetition. When the tale is told for the first time, the fabric is the shroud of Laertes and the completion of Penelope’s work seems to presage Penelope’s separation from the house of Odysseus. At the last tale, new details emerge: the fabric is compared to the sun and moon simultaneously and we are told that Penelope washed it (24.146–147). These details have been connected specifically to wedding preparations, since Penelope’s washing recalls the only extended laundry scene in the Odyssey, that of Nausikaa, whose sudden decision to wash clothes is overtly presented as preparation for marriage (Odyssey 6.25–67). [29] The fact that Penelope’s fabric shines like the sun and moon has invited similar thoughts, since “the conjunction of sun and moon is a particularly propitious time for marriage.” [30] In the Odyssey, the comparison to sun and moon occurs two more times, in an identical verse describing the houses of Menelaos and of Alkinoos respectively (4.45 = 7.84). [31] In the first of these houses, a double wedding is being celebrated as Telemachus arrives. In the second, Odysseus is offered Nausikaa’s hand. Odysseus’ arrival on Ithaca may itself take place under the conjunction of sun and moon, since the festival of Apollo marks the end of one month and the beginning of another (in accordance {271|272} with the rhythm of the moon) and at the same time Odysseus’ return is correlated with the return of the sun, perhaps with the winter solstice. [32] In retrospect, from the vantage point of Amphimedon in the underworld, Penelope’s work does not seem like a shroud for Laertes at all, but instead like a splendid accoutrement of her remarriage to Odysseus. Penelope claimed, of course, that it was a shroud for Laertes, but Penelope does not always tell the suitors the truth. Her weaving, ever recurrent and itself subject to the celestial rhythm (woven by day, unwoven by night) is too polysemic to be so easily classified. What seemed at one point to be preparation for Laertes’ death now emerges as a preparation for marriage. It has always seemed like a virginal weaving since Penelope, married woman though she is, is put in a position of a marriageable maiden. This kind of weaving stops once marriage begins, and conversely the marriage is in the future while the weaving goes on. Wool-working may be the main occupation of a good Homeric wife, but it is also true that both literary and pictorial representations feature it predominantly as an emblem of maidenhood. Ferrari observes that scenes of wool-working on vases “show that spinning is the mark of females who are maidenly” and that “signs of wool-working are primarily attached to pretty girls” and that in literary representations as well “wool-work is predominantly an emblem of maidens.” [33] Penelope may be making clothes all the time as part of her wifely duties, but the weaving she undertakes to trap the suitors is specially marked since she sets up a ‘great loom’, (μέγαν ἱστόν, 2.94 = 19.139 = 24.129, 2.104 = 19.149 = 24.139), for it, something that is evidently not always there and needs to be constructed for the occasion. Like Odysseus himself she is thrown back in time, becoming a parthenos again, her weaving a lead-up to marriage. In retrospect, it leads up to marriage specifically to Odysseus, and that is how Amphimedon presents it in the underworld: as soon as the weaving is done, Odysseus appears on the scene.

When Penelope tells her weaving tale to the beggar in Book 19, this retrospective view is not yet possible in terms of the plot, but in the manner of oral poetry, Penelope’s telling refers to all other occurrences of her tale, including the one in the underworld that is chronologically still in the future. [34] Talking to the disguised Odysseus, Penelope concludes her tale despondently, saying that she cannot find another ruse and her son and parents are pressing her to remarry. The virginal weaving is finished, and now it is time for marriage. At {272|273} this moment, the meaning of Penelope’s work seems evenly split, balanced on the cusp between the two poles represented by the two other tellings of the loom tale, the shroud of Laertes and the splendid wedding tapestry. There is irony in the way these words lead Penelope directly back to inquiring who the stranger is, and doing so in a marked way. Penelope augments the customary formulaic question regarding her guest’s identity by adding ‘since you are not from an old-renowned tree or rock’.

ἀλλὰ καὶ ὧς μοι εἰπὲ τεὸν γένος, ὁππόθεν ἐσσί·
οὐ γὰρ ἀπὸ δρυός ἐσσι παλαιφάτου οὐδ’ ἀπὸ πέτρης.

(Odyssey 19.157–163)

But even so tell me your origins, where you are from,
for you were not born from an old-renowned tree, or a rock.

The form of her request suggests that she has a more than usual interest in this beggar, who is, already at this point, no ordinary stranger to her and who will, as we know and she might already suspect, will give her weaving its happier meaning and bring her kleos to completion. [
35] {273|}


[ back ] 1. Martin 1989.87. Odysseus makes an open claim to be a king and a veiled claim to be Odysseus. His claim that Odysseus is bringing home great wealth is, I have argued elsewhere (Levaniouk 2000a), offered to Penelope almost by way of justification for his long absence. In her turn, as Marquardt (1985, esp.45–46) has argued, Penelope also engages in this kind of apologetic discourse, explaining to Odysseus why his house is full of suitors.

[ back ] 2. Oral-traditional societies tend to have developed traditions of agonistic discourse: see Ong 1981 and Martin 1989:66–67 with further references. Martin discusses such discourses in the Iliad as a subgroup of muthoi, which he defines as authoritative speech acts mimetic of actual performances (Martin 1989:22–42 and 65–77, building on earlier findings of Nagy 1979:222–242).

[ back ] 3. Martin 1989:22–42 and 65–77, Nagy 1979:222–242.

[ back ] 4. Cf. Odyssey 8.74.

[ back ] 5. See Nagler 1990, Jamison 1999.

[ back ] 6. Martin 1989:22–42 and 65–77, Nagy 1979:222–242.

[ back ] 7. The fact that what emerges as their proper roles is not to the liking of many modern readers of the poem is a different matter. Penelope has high demands for her husband, as she amply demonstrates in Book 19, but once he is fully back he sends her upstairs to weave, and she leaves silently, disappearing from the poem. Much has been said about Penelope and the difficult question of a woman’s power and powerlessness in Homer. See, e.g, Papadopoulou-Belmehdi 1994:79–86, Foley 2001:126–144, Nieto Hernández 2008:39–62. Cf. Ferrari’s observation à propos an entirely different (and non-Odyssean) episode in Penelope’s story: “From the start and in all ways, Penelope knows her place.” (2002:55).

[ back ] 8. For a survey of scholarship on the shroud tale, see Bona 1966:107–22, Heubeck 1992:374–375, Goldhill 1988:1–3.

[ back ] 9. On the Indo-European association between poetry and weaving see Schmitt 1967:298–301. On Greek archaic poetry see Snyder 1980–1981:193–196. Papadopoulou-Belmehdi 1994 and Clayton 2004 are two very different treatments of Penelope’s weaving in relation to song, speech, and the poetics of the Odyssey. See also e.g. Felson 1994:15–42, Slatkin 1996:234–237.

[ back ] 10. Winkler 1990:156.

[ back ] 11. Clayton 1994 goes a step further to suggest that the poetics of the Odyssey exhibit a particular affinity with the feminine, that is, those aspects of it that can be seen as Penelopean, (emphasis on process over product, ambiguity, variation, etc.), can also be seen as specifically feminine. The difficulty I see with this argument is that, as Clayton herself says, “Penelope’s web models oral poetic performance in general, and not just the Odyssey” and therefore all oral poetry “shows affinity with the feminine, or Penelopean, narrative process” (82). This seems overly general and hard to justify. In any case, if all oral poetry shares Penelopean qualities, the argument that Odyssean poetics has something distinctively feminine about it is weakened.

[ back ] 12. As Clayton 1994:24 points out, the verb ὑφαίνω, ‘to weave’, is used as often with a metaphorical object (metis, dolos) as with the literal one. In the metaphorical instances the subject is invariably male. On literal vs. metaphorical weaving of wiles see also Clayton 1994:21–52.

[ back ] 13. I am indebted to Papadopoulou-Belmehdi’s (1994:82–84) discussion of literal and metaphorical weaving in Homer and of Penelope’s unique position among women. See further Papadopoulou-Belmehdi 1994.85–86 (with reference to 1992:195–233) on metaphorical connections been weaving and good royal governance.

[ back ] 14. On the problematic nature of Penelope’s kleos see, e.g., Loraux 1987:2, Foley 2001:138–143.

[ back ] 15. Odyssey 2.93–110, 19.137–156, 24.129–148. The differences between these tellings are examined by Lowenstam (2000), to whom I am much indebted.

[ back ] 16. Lowenstam 2000:341–342. As he points out, Penelope wove the shroud during the day, in the light of the sun, and undid her work at night; but the web, ironically, represents death and night in its completion, while its undoing connotes day and life. Lowenstam concludes: “This reversal is what the suitors did not understand, pressing Penelope during the day to finish her deathly task.”

[ back ] 17. See Lowenstam 2000 for a detailed discussion of the timing indications in all three tellings of the tale and for differences in detail between them.

[ back ] 18. As has been remarked. See, e.g., Loraux 1987:2, Foley 2001:138–143.

[ back ] 19. On their mutual dependency and on the relationship between Penelope’s weaving and the notion of a just king see Papadopoulou-Belmehdi 1994:79–86.

[ back ] 20. Nagy 1979:36–38 (see also 38–39 for a discussion of the Odyssean equation of the “best of the Achaeans theme” to the question of who will marry Penelope, all leading to the “incontrovertible conclusion” that Odysseus is the best of the Achaeans). Nagy’s interpretation of Agamemnon’s words in the underworld is based in part on understanding as masculine the pronoun οἱ at Odyssey 24.194-198: ὡς ἀγαθαὶ φρένες ἦσαν ἀμύμονι Πηνελοπείῃ, | κούρῃ Ἰκαρίου, ὡς εὖ μέμνητ’ Ὀδυσῆος, | ἀνδρὸς κουριδίου. τῶ οἱ κλέος οὔ ποτ’ ὀλεῖται | ἧς ἀρετῆς, τεύξουσι δ’ ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἀοιδὴν | ἀθάνατοι χαρίεσσαν ἐχέφρονι Πηνελοπείῃ. Nagy (1979/1999:37–38) translates the lines in question as “Thus the kleos of his arete shall never perish, and the immortals shall fashion for humans a song that is pleasing for sensible Penelope.” On this interpretation, the ‘merit’ (arete) of Odyseus is “to have won a Penelope (rather than a Clytemnestra).” Others have taken the pronoun as referring to Penelope (Schein 1995:23, who also comments on the dependence of Odysseus’ nostos and kleos on Penelope, and Foley 2001:127). There is no certain way of resolving the question: the preceding clause refers to Penelope, weighing perhaps in favor of the feminine pronoun and Penelope’s kleos, but the passage as a whole is a praise for Odysseus, (beginning with Agamemnon’s first words, ὄλβιε Λαέρταο πάϊ, πολυμήχαν’ Ὀδυσσεῦ, 24.192), opening the possibility of the masculine pronoun.

[ back ] 21. See Papadopoulou-Belmehdi 1994:79–86 for a discussion of this equation.

[ back ] 22. Lowenstam 2000:341.

[ back ] 23. On the effects of τολυπεύω, including blurring of gender-differences and the interplay of literal and figurative in Penelope’s use of it, see Clayton 2004.32–33.

[ back ] 24. Nieto Hernández 2008:39–62, with references.

[ back ] 25. See Nagy1979/1999.26–39 on Odysseus’ kleos and nostos and the contrast between him and Achilles, who can only have kleos if he gives up nostos.

[ back ] 26. For a different opinion, see Foley 1995.102–103, Heitman 2005. 63–84.

[ back ] 27. As, for example, in the Uzbek Alpamysh. There is a large number of tales in which the husband comes back on the day of the rival’s wedding to his abducted wife (Aarne and Thompson 1928: 301, 531, 555). This subject is discussed in detail by Zhirmunsky 1966, esp. 281.

[ back ] 28. One of the subtle differences between Penelope’s and Antinoos’ version of the story is the fact that Penelope presents her weaving deception as the first one (πρῶτον, 19.138), Antinoos as the second (ἄλλον, 2.93). Possibly Penelope is less keen to tell the beggar of her first stratagem, that of sending encouraging messages to the suitors. In any case, the use of πρῶτον sets up an expectation that more is to come, but instead Penelope denies that she will devise any more ways of postponing a new marriage.

[ back ] 29. Clayton 2004:47.

[ back ] 30. Austin 1975:283 (with references) and 251. On this point see also Bieber 1949:33 and Papadopoulou-Belmehdi 1994:117–119.

[ back ] 31. On further implications of the two houses see Clayton 2004:47–49.

[ back ] 32. Papadopoulou-Belmehdi 1994:118. See above, p106-107, on the signs of spring correlating with Odysseus’ return.

[ back ] 33. Ferrari 2002:57.

[ back ] 34. See Nagy 1996:50 on this point.

[ back ] 35. On implications of the phrase ‘tree and rock’ see above, p90-91.