A Penelopiad

The more time I spend translating Penelope’s speech and scenes, the more “heroic” she seems to become—possessing superhuman strength, pursuing fame, potentially being the recipient of cult honors.

It makes me wonder what she meant to the historical women of archaic and classical Athens. Three potential clues might be 1) the existence of women cult heroes, 2) women-only festivals, and 3) the importance of weaving in the ancient world, practically (for the time and skill it demanded in a time before mass production), artistically (in its intersections creatively with pottery design), and conceptually (in how the ancient Greeks conceptualized the world).

It does not feel like a great leap to imagine women reciting their own version of the Odyssey, from Penelope’s point of view, in which she is the hero who Athena patronizes. It surely feels like the Odyssey provides enough material to work with. Here are two passages from Odyssey 19 that I worked on earlier this summer:

“Stranger, friend, let me tell you truly about the excellence seen in my form.
The immortals destroyed it when [the Achaeans] went to Ilion
From Argos, and with them went my own, my husband Odysseus.
If he were to come back, longing to care for my life,
In this way, my fame would be greater and more beautiful.
But now, I grieve for myself, for so great are the ills a superhuman force has set against me.” (19.124-9)

“While [the suitors] urge for a wedding feast, I spin schemes to trap them.
My first was a large cloth, which a god breathed into my consciousness,
Making it stand on a great loom, to be woven in a large room,
Subtle and well-fitted. Straightaway, I spoke among them.” (19.137-40)

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “A Penelopiad

  1. I always love the idea of celebrating a powerful woman – especially a woman who may not seem powerful at first!

    It’s a bit different, but this sort of makes me think of how, in recent years, there’s been a trend of reframing Cinderella as strong because she stayed positive and good despite abuse and found a way out of it, never compromising her principles.

    On another note, I LOVE your translations! Is the internal rhyme in this line: “Making it stand on a great loom, to be woven in a large room,” intentional/mirroring the orignal? I think it sounds very catchy and a bit cheeky in a way – really great for what Penelope is describing!

    1. I haven’t been following the reception of Cinderella, so this is really nice to hear. You know how much I love to see different kinds of power being shown and celebrated!

      And thank you so much for your kind words about my translations! They are such a joy to work on, honestly. I’m not doing them in any particular meter (which can be a controversial choice). I’m not at the point where I can succinctly explain why yet, aha, but basically, I wasn’t necessarily trying to replicate something in the verse. I’m just trying to capture the meaning and the improvisational feeling of going line by line while being (hopefully) enjoyable and engaging to read. “Great loom” and “large room” is pretty much an accidental effect of a fairly literal-ish translation!

    2. I’ve only seen one Cinderella movie, Ever After. But it is so good! 🥹 I love how they included Leonardo de Vinci and Gypsies and Female Empowerment and Social Injustice into such a sweet and beautiful little movie.

      1. You’re welcome! I was happy to find you on WordPress again! I got off IG a while back. I really miss your posts and all the great discussions about Achilles and how great he was! 🙂

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