Lately, I have been reading about the web of associations among weaving, oral poetry, and rituals (festival and funeral) in ancient Greece, as traced across vase images, Homeric narrative, and the structure of language. These associations are so intricate that it has been a struggle to wrap my head around it. It makes me wonder how much we can ever truly understand about the inner lives of people who are operating in such a different daily reality from our own, within a different web of meanings, expectations, intuitive understandings.
One thing (among many) this has me thinking about is a passage from the Odyssey that I’ve found especially intriguing for a long time:
“Penelope went back inside the house, in amazement, for she laid the serious words of her son deep away in her spirit.” 1.360, Lattimore translation
What has amazed Penelope, and what is she wondering about?
I am intrigued. At this point in the narrative, Penelope has come down from her room to ask Phemios to stop singing his sad song about the Achaeans’ disastrous homecomings, and Telemachus has told her not to “begrudge” the poet the song of his choosing since poets are not to blame for the songs they sing: Outcomes are the will of Zeus. And anyway, Odysseus is not the only Trojan war hero to lose his homecoming. Telemachus then instructs Penelope to harden her heart, consent to hear the song, and return to her loom and distaff.
What is happening here? On a surface level, we seem to have Telemachus telling Penelope to mind her place. But what is Penelope’s “place” in this epic? One thing we know is that her metis/cleverness (a quality she shares with Odysseus) has manifested itself through her loom and her distaff, via the funeral shroud for Laertes. Her ruse to avoid the suitors’ demands that she pick a new husband bought her four years, until it was revealed. Now she needs to weave a new scheme.
Is her “place” to spin the ruses that keep the suitors at bay and safeguard Odysseus’ place so that he can return, earning both husband and wife kleos (fame through immortal song)? Is this why Telemachus instructs her to return to her loom? Also, his instructions to her to “harden her heart” prefigure Odysseus’ advice to himself later in the poem, when he needs to see a plan to its fulfillment. Is Telemachus reminding her to keep her eye on the prize, as the preservation of his, Penelope’s, and Odysseus’ identities depend on it?