What is Penelope wondering about?

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?

9 thoughts on “What is Penelope wondering about?

  1. I’m so glad to hear your analyses of Odysseus’ odysseys! My first impression of that incident was that Penelope obeyed Telemachus and went back upstairs to her weaving, but probably was giggling a little bit at him. It didn’t occur to me that she might be weaving deceptions into the clothes she was making. I remember as a young boy being all about Arab mathematical designs like arabesques and tintinnabulations, and how secret messages could be woven into the rugs (I know the word tintinnabulation was invented by the American Edgar Allan Poe but I always thought it should be used in any sentence containing the word arabesque). The part about Penelope laying her son’s words in her spirit reminds me of Mary laying her son’s words deep in her heart.

    1. I think of Mary when I read that passage as well! And I love these connections you make to secret messages being woven into cloth. It’s beautiful and moving how the desire and need to communicate can express itself so similarly across time and place. I was reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities last week, and one of the characters in the novel does that as well, but with knitting!

      1. It’s funny that Homer knew thousands of years after Athene put on her imperishable golden sandals and grabbed her redoubtable bronze spear that we would still be sending messages through the air and still knitting our clothes!

  2. This is so interesting! I wish I knew more about The Odyssey so that I could weigh in. For what it’s worth, I love your theory and think it makes a lot of sense!

    1. I highly recommend the book Odyssey too, especially if you like spears, nautical terms, sandals, golden fleece, and Greek islands!

  3. I don’t have much to add as I’m also not very familiar with The Odyssey but so fascinated by your theories. I’d love to hear more about what comes out of your reading on all these associations. It makes me long for my English literature days when we were studying Poe and constantly talking about rituals and the power of language. I’m always so fascinated by what language does, hence why I pursued linguistics, so love all these discussions!

    1. “I’m always so fascinated by what language does”—> me too, endlessly! There are so many codes and so many layers embedded in language. The longer I study ancient Greek, the more I believe that the structure and function of language seems to reflect a different way of organizing the world. It’s challenging and thrilling to try to access it.

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