Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought

  Bergren, Ann. 2008. Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought. Hellenic Studies Series 19. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BergrenA.Weaving_Truth.2008.


[In this on-line version, the page-numbers of the printed version are indicated within braces (“{” and “}”). For example, “{69|70}” indicates where p. 69 of the printed version ends and p. 70 begins. These indications will be useful to readers who need to look up references made elsewhere to the printed version of this book.]

On the cover of this book is an image of “Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night,” a “needlewoven tapestry” by Dora Wheeler from 1886. The work is a monument to its content. At 45″ × 68″, it depicts its Penelope at virtually full scale as a woman about 5′ tall, depending upon the length of her legs below the end of her dress. In its choice of subject, the tapestry points to the etymology of “text” from Latin textus “that which is woven.” This tapestry is a text of a text, a graphic translation of that portion of Homer’s Odyssey in which Penelope unweaves her weaving of Laertes’ shroud. We may recall Penelope’s “textual” stratagem. Her husband Odysseus is long absent, gone to fight with the Greeks at Troy, and has not returned, even some twenty years later. Her οἶκος “house” is beset by suitors, each pressing her to become his wife. Wait, she tells each man, until I finish weaving a shroud for Odysseus’ father, Laertes. When I complete this garment, I will marry one of you. By each day she weaves the shroud, moving with each turn of woof in warp toward the dissolution of Odysseus’ household. But by night, she unweaves her day’s work, moving backward toward her position as Odysseus’ wife. By blending fabric and words to construct one picture of her mind on the outside, while re-constructing another on the inside, Penelope preserves the integrity of her husband’s house. In its choice of this episode from the Odyssey and in the details of its construction, Dora Wheeler’s tapestry provides a graphic introduction to this book—to the introductory essay and to the three topics under which the remaining essays are arranged.


By depicting the figure of Penelope—her manipulation of meaning via the medium of a material text and the relation of this mastery to the maintenance of the οἶκος “house”—Dora Wheeler’s embroidery evokes the connection in Greek thought between language, the female, weaving, and the construction of truth. The first essay of this collection, “Language and the Female in Early Greek Thought,” explores the foundation of this nexus. It introduces {1|2} key texts and concepts that will recur throughout the book—in particular, the Muses’ transcendent knowledge and the ability it gives them to utter alêtheia “true things” and pseudea homoia etumoisin “false things like to real things,” whenever they wish, and the mythology of mêtis, the “transformative intelligence” fundamental to every technê, embodied in the goddess Metis, who teaches weaving to women as their defining art.

Weaving in Narrative: Textures of Space and Time

By choosing to focus upon the particular moment of “Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night,” Dora Wheeler’s embroidery points to the dimension of time in woven space. It recalls the question at the heart of the relation between weaving and truth: why call a narrative a “text”? Why call a medium that aims to represent non-static phenomena, embedded in temporal flow—changes of time or place, motions, actions, speeches and other sounds—why call this medium a static, silent material object? Why call a stream of words a connection of threads? What aspects of the tapestry does a narrative emulate? The three essays in this section of the book explore this question with regard to Homeric epic.

“Helen’s Web: Time and Tableau in the Iliad” begins with our first sight of Helen in the Iliad. She is weaving a microcosm of the poem, a tapestry of the “many contests that the horse-taming Trojans and bronze-armored Achaeans were enduring for her at the hands of Ares.” Her tableau contains the action of the epic within the frame of her web, thus suspending it in time. The essay traces how the poem adopts this temporality of the tapestry—the capture of a given interval of time and its extension in space—to convey the truth of war, its tragic transcendence of historical and local limits.

Besides the tapestry as a whole, a finished product, a text can also mirror the process of weaving. Both “Similes and Symbol in Odyssey v” and “Odyssean Temporality: Many (Re)Turns” examine the most basic constructive feature common to weaving and narration: spatio-temporal reversal, the alternation of direction in the movement through space and time.

In “Similes and Symbol in Odyssey v,” the interweaving is spatial—the “here, there, here again” order of the simile—within a single, simultaneous world. In the Homeric simile, the action of the poem is interrupted. The narrative eye and voice switch—via the phrase ὡς “just as”—to describe another action at another place, and then switch back—via the phrase “just so”—to the first place to declare the actions’ common features. Here is an example from the battlefield of the Iliad: {2|3}

νιφάδες δ᾽ ὡς πῖπτον ἔραζε,
ἅς τ᾽ ἄνεμος ζαὴς νέφεα σκιόεντα δονήσας
ταρφειὰς κατέχευεν ἐπὶ χθονὶ πουλυβοτείρῃ:
ὣς τῶν ἐκ χειρῶν βέλεα ῥέον ἠμὲν Ἀχαιῶν
ἠδὲ καὶ ἐκ Τρώων.
Just as snowflakes keep falling to the ground
which the strong-blowing wind, having shaken the shadowy clouds,
ever pours thick and fast upon the all-nourishing earth,
just so from the hands of these were the weapons flowing, both Achaeans
and Trojans alike.

Iliad XII 156–160

Thus linked by the line of their shared attributes, the different locations and the different actions lose their apparent discontinuity. Revealing them now as sectors of a single spatial fabric, the simile can function as a symbolic commentary upon the action. The montage in Sergei Eisenstein’s film Strike offers a modern analogue, as the gunning down of striking workers is intercut with knife blows to the neck of an ox being slaughtered in an abattoir. [1] Typically in Homer, the similes in a given book of the epic are independent of one another. But in Odyssey v the similes work together to convey the interior, psychological significance of Odysseus’ journey—from his departure from Calypso’s island, through storms at sea, to arrival at the island of the Phaeacians—to cast this physical passage as a self-generated rebirth of the ψυχή “life-breath, soul.”

In “Odyssean Temporality: Many (Re)Turns,” a study of Odyssey 9–12, the interweaving is temporal. In these books, at the banquet in his honor at Phaeacia, Odysseus takes over the role of “poet” of the Odyssey, giving his guests what they ask in return for their hospitality, his identity. His tale displays two chronological circumstructures: both the “present, past, present” order of the husteronproteron “later thing” before “earlier thing” up to the “later thing” again, and the “present, future, present” order of prophetic prolepsis. In its overall structure, Odysseus’ “poem” is a husteronproteron “later thing” before “earlier thing,” beginning in the present and then recounting the past from the time he left Troy until he reaches the present again. This husteronproteron sequence stages the movement of remembering, the returning of the past to make the present self. At the center of this recollection, Odysseus recounts his descent into Hades where the “present, future, present” sequence of the {3|4} prophecy by the blind seer Teiresias foretells how he will achieve his goal of νόστος “return” home to Ithaca and later, how he will ultimately die, thus returning again to the realm of the dead, where the two of them stand right now. These temporal circles figure the two dimensions of Odysseus’ heroism, his many returns of body and mind.

Weaving pseudea homoia etumoisin “false things like to real things”

The essays in this section of the book probe the ambiguous dynamics of alêtheia “true things” and pseudea homoia etumoisin “false things like to real things” and the variety of efforts by both speaker and interpreter alike to control them. In “Helen’s ‘Good Drug’,” the female’s speech is presented as a pharmakon “cure, poison” that can tell painful truth without causing pain. At a banquet in Sparta with her husband Menelaus and Odysseus’ son Telemachus, their guest, Helen adds to the wine a pharmakon that makes even the death of your parents, your brother, or your son a pain-free sight. Under the influence of this “good drug,” Helen recounts a tale that enhances her glory in the eyes of her husband and guest, how back at Troy she remained loyal to the Greeks and aided Odysseus when he entered the city as a spy. But the ambivalence of the pharmakon turns against its practitioner, when it moves Menelaus to mention what pain might have kept beyond recall, Helen’s second Trojan husband, Deiphobus, the man she married after Paris’ death, thus belying her claim to pro-Greek allegiance. It is ἄλγιον “all the more painful,” says Telemachus, thus registering the re-doubling of his suffering. {4|5}

In “Sacred Apostrophe: Re-Presentation and Imitation in Homeric Hymn to Apollo and Homeric Hymn to Hermes,” the brotherhood of the two gods, Apollo and Hermes, figures the relation between unerring truth and its imitation—a supplementarity in which each acts as both rival and addition to the other. In the Hymn to Apollo, Apollo’s first act following his birth is to claim, “May the dear lyre and the curved bow be mine, and I shall unerringly repeat to humankind the unerring plan of Zeus.” Apollo’s possession of the lyre is thus the prerequisite of his oracular accuracy. Yet in the Hymn to Hermes, the first act of Hermes, Apollo’s younger brother, after his birth is to invent the lyre himself. Hermes then steals Apollo’s cattle by driving them backwards, thus making their hoofs imitate movement in the opposite direction. Upon discovering the ruse, Apollo exchanges the cattle for the lyre, so that now the property of each is his brother’s original possession. Following this transaction, Apollo gives Hermes what he had sworn to keep as his own, manteia “oracular speech.” Now both brothers have oracles, but their truth-telling roles are switched. For the responses of Hermes’ manteia are said to be discernibly true or false. But to the hapless human who asks more than the god wants him to know, Apollo’s oracle will give a vain response, while still accepting his gifts. Now which brother is the unerring prophet and which one the thief?

In “Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite: Tradition and Rhetoric, Praise and Blame,” the problem of telling alêtheia “true things” from pseudea homoia etumoisin “false things like to real things” is compounded by the clouds of eros. Confronted by the goddess Aphrodite, disguised as an “un-tamed virgin” destined to be his wife, the mortal man Anchises is blinded by erotic desire. In an effort to determine her identity, he tests for two possibilities, that she is a goddess or that she is the mortal woman she pretends to be. He neglects the possibility of duplicitous ambiguity. For were he to “see through” her disguise, he could not consummate his passion. Motivated as he is by eros, his quest for truth is pseudo-sincere. Rather than finding alêtheia, his desire is that this instance of pseudea, this imitation of the truth, should be truthful. Thus beguiled, he yields to the goddess’s masquerade. But in her mimetic conquest, the goddess, too, suffers defeat. For her seduction of Anchises results from Zeus’ playing “Aphrodite” against the goddess herself. To prevent her from remaining forever exempt from the divine-human unions she causes among the other gods, Zeus instills within her the degrading desire to sleep with a mortal man. Thus does the goddess’s hymn frame her mimetic mastery with erotic subordination. {5|6}

Weaving in Architecture: The Truth of Building

And finally, there is the impact of Dora Wheeler’s placement of Penelope in relation to her web. Again Wheeler’s design differs from the typical composition in Classical art. Rather than being shown from the back or in profile, as she might walk along from one end of the weft to the other, with the tapestry alone facing us, Penelope, too, is turned forward. She stands upright like the threads of the warp. Her arms are stretched out from her shoulders, in line with the weft threads she pulls away from the web. In this posture, the body of Penelope parallels her weaving. By turning her back upon it, she becomes her web’s duplicate. Woman is her weaving.

The essays in this section of the book investigate this connection between architecture and the female. In “The (Re)Marriage of Penelope and Odysseus,” we find the founding exemplars in early Greek thought of the two primary processes of architectural construction, the woven wall, in Penelope’s web, and the column, in the living tree that forms the post of Odysseus’ marriage bed. In the Odyssey these two architectural elements cooperate to construct an {6|7} ideal of gender relations in which the ambiguity of female mobility—she must be movable in order to be exchanged in marriage, but then she is supposed to stay put—is arrested in the institution of “immovable (re)marriage.” The stability of this institution rests upon the philosophical ideal of truth as unique selfsameness. Accordingly, in their culminating act of architectural partnership, Penelope and Odysseus design tests to prove Odysseus’ unique identity, a proof only possibly compromised by the maid Actoris, who could have divulged the secret sign of the marriage bed.

In “Architecture Gender Philosophy,” I bring the nexus of the female, weaving, and architecture under the rubric of mêtis to bear upon the contemporary architectural collaboration between philosopher Jacques Derrida and {7|8} Peter Eisenman. For the program of their project, the pair used an essay by Derrida upon the khôra “space, place” in Plato’s Timaeus. Plato’s text describes khôra “space, place” as a nurse, mother, and receptacle, an absolutely passive medium in which material entities are “built” as perfect copies of their Forms as models. Plato’s creator god is the Demiourgos, a cosmic architect. In his analysis Derrida concentrates upon khôra as that which receives all things, but—so as to produce perfect copies of the Formal models—remains a perpetual tabula rasa, never taking on any characteristic herself. He resolutely abjures the “anthropomorphism” of khôra’s female gender as mother and nurse. It is this wholly passified, gender-free khôra that Derrida and Eisenman use in their effort to create a design that will “dislocate” the foundational tenets of Classical architecture. But in their exclusion of the gender of khôra from their model, the collaborators miss the pre-Platonic tradition of the female’s mêtis and her ambiguous mobility and neglect the aspect of the Platonic khôra that might have programmed architectural dislocation—the continual dynamic movement of khôra before the institution of cosmic architecture.

What architecture will “dislocate” architectural Classicism? The question arises again in “Female Fetish Urban Form.” This essay focuses upon a Greek comedy by Aristophanes, the Ecclesiazusae, in which a group of Athenian women, under the leadership of their “general” Praxagora, disguise themselves as men in order to infiltrate the male-only legislative assembly, the ekklêsia, there to vote in a new political regime, a communistic gynocracy, thus abolishing the social, political, and economic power structures of father-rule. In Praxagora’s new order, the play addresses the question of what women will build if allowed to form the city. The play’s answer is unexpectedly ironic—she will build exactly as we have taught her in the “architecture school” of the Classical οἶκος “house.” The action of the play recalls other Greek texts, in particular Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, that describe how the young wife is educated by her husband to mold her household and herself in accordance with male design: she is to emulate the male role of a “general” and to make within the walls of the οἶκος “house” a microcosm of the πόλις “city.” In this formation of the female as an imitation-male, the Classical οἶκος “house” parallels the construction of the fetish in Freudian thought, a Penisersatz “substitute penis” that the male subconsciously appends to the female genital so as to deny and affirm simultaneously that genital’s phallic lack. It is this training as a “para-male” and the indecidable ambiguity of the fetish that constitute Praxagora’s urban plan. She extends the borders of her household to coincide with the borders of the city, making the πόλις “city” {8|9} one large, single οἶκος “house” with herself as general. In this reduction of the formation of the female to female urban form, Praxagora—like the fetish—simultaneously fulfills and abolishes the Classical architecture of father-rule. {9|}


[ back ] 1. On the parallels between Eisenstein’s montage and the Homeric narrative, see Garcia 2007.

[ back ] 2. For depictions of women weaving in ancient Greek art, see Barber 1994. For a video demonstration of ancient weaving practices, see Edmonds, Jones, and Nagy 2004.

[ back ] 3. See Freud 1933 [1932]:132.

[ back ] 4. See Semper 1989:102–103, 254–255 and Herrmann 1984:205.