What are Helen and Andromache weaving in the Iliad?

At two cosmically significant moments in the epic, the poet describes Helen and Andromache weaving diplaka porphyrein, a dark, gleaming, double-folded cloak:

At Iliad 3.125-128:
“[Iris] found [Helen] in a great room weaving on a great loom,
A dark, gleaming, double-folded cloak. She was sprinkling into it the many contests
Of the Trojans, tamers of horses, and the Achaeans, clad in bronze,
Who on account of her were suffering at the hands of Ares.”

At Iliad 22. 440-441:
“In an inner room of the high-roofed house, [Andromache] was weaving on a loom
A dark, gleaming, double-folded cloak. She was sprinkling into it patterns of dappled flowers.”

These two scenes sit at opposite ends of the poem, like bookends: Helen’s at the onset of events, Andromache’s as they move toward their fulfillment. In book three, Iris is sent to fetch Helen and bring her to the Trojan walls to watch the duel between Menelaus and Paris. Both sides have agreed that the contest’s winner will determine the war’s winner. Theoretically, the war could have ended there. But Aphrodite foils Menelaus and Paris’ attempt to resolve their personal quarrel one-on-one. She spirits Paris away, and the war grinds on. At roughly the extract opposite end of the poem, Andromache weaves “patterns of dappled flowers” into a cloak unaware that Hector has been killed and her world has irrevocably changed.

In scholarship, weaving and its products are described as women’s voices and compared with the production of poetry and pottery. On vase images, hand looms and lyres can at times be indistinguishable from each other. Elizabeth Wayland Barber (in ‘Women’s Work’) notes three kinds of communications that woven cloth could carry in ancient times. Images woven on cloth could announce or mark information, record events or other data, and invoke protections, curses, or divinations. These raise interesting questions not only about what Helen and Andromache are weaving but what we are to make of their scenes’ strategic placement and the use language (diplaka porphyrein) unique to those two scenes.

What are your thoughts?

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