Penelope’s great web: the violent interruption

2016.03.10 | By Ioanna Papadopoulou

Dora Wheeler, "Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night" (1886)
Dora Wheeler (1856–1940)
“Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night” (1886)
Silk embroidered with silk thread, 45 x 68 in. (114.3 x 172.7 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Purchase, Sylvia and Leonard Marx Gift and funds from various donors, 2002 (2002.230)
http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/16951

Understanding Penelope’s weaving necessarily involves deep-diving in Odyssean poetics, because her famous “great web” is deeply connected with the overall thematic structure of the poem. I did this deep-diving in the past[1]; here I can offer only a concise overview of this important theme in Odyssean poetics, thrilled as I am to enter the dialogue that Greg and Andromache started.[2] So in this post my focal point will be the theme of violent interruption in relation to Penelope’s web. To make my point I will need to refer briefly to the broader context of weaving as a literary and ritual theme, on which I will expand in future posts.

There are three different loci in the Odyssey (Books 2, 19, 24) where the story about Penelope’s strange weaving is recounted. We first hear of the stratagem in Book 2, in Antinoos’s address to the assembly of the Ithacans, the first one to be convoked since Odysseus’s departure. The second narration is performed by Penelope in person, in Book 19, and her sole audience is Odysseus, who is still a stranger. The third and last repetition of the episode is delivered again by one of the suitors upon their arrival to Hades: Amphimedon’s psūkhē shares with the dead heroes in the underworld the story of the fatal web.

I will start with the narration delivered by Penelope herself, who is more explicit about the violent interruption of this strange process, which kept Odysseus’s oikos together during the last four years of his absence. In fact Penelope’s narration takes place during a crucial moment in the plot: the audience is Odysseus himself. The hero has returned, but he is meeting his wife for the first time still as a stranger; seated by her he will hear about her means of survival in the middle of this most awkward situation in Ithaca, where the suitors have been taken possession of the king’s oikos for years. Here is the text (19.137–158):

|137 οἱ δὲ γάμον σπεύδουσιν· ἐγὼ δὲ δόλους τολυπεύω. |138 φᾶρος μέν μοι πρῶτον ἐνέπνευσε φρεσὶ δαίμων, |139 στησαμένη μέγαν ἱστόν, ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ὑφαίνειν, |140 λεπτὸν καὶ περίμετρον: ἄφαρ δ᾽ αὐτοῖς μετέειπον· |141 “κοῦροι, ἐμοὶ μνηστῆρες, ἐπεὶ θάνε δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς, |142 μίμνετ᾽ ἐπειγόμενοι τὸν ἐμὸν γάμον, εἰς ὅ κε φᾶρος |143 ἐκτελέσω—μή μοι μεταμώνια νήματ᾽ ὄληται— |144 Λαέρτῃ ἥρωϊ ταφήϊον, εἰς ὅτε κέν μιν |145 μοῖρ᾽ ὀλοὴ καθέλῃσι τανηλεγέος θανάτοιο· |146 μή τίς μοι κατὰ δῆμον Ἀχαιϊάδων νεμεσήσῃ, |147 αἴ κεν ἄτερ σπείρου κεῖται πολλὰ κτεατίσσας.” |148 ὣς ἐφάμην, τοῖσιν δ᾽ ἐπεπείθετο θυμὸς ἀγήνωρ. |149 ἔνθα καὶ ἠματίη μὲν ὑφαίνεσκον μέγαν ἱστόν, |150 νύκτας δ᾽ ἀλλύεσκον, ἐπεὶ δαΐδας παραθείμην. |151 ὣς τρίετες μὲν ἔληθον ἐγὼ καὶ ἔπειθον Ἀχαιούς: |152 ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε τέτρατον ἦλθεν ἔτος καὶ ἐπήλυθον ὧραι, |153 μηνῶν φθινόντων, περὶ δ᾽ ἤματα πόλλ᾽ ἐτελέσθη, |154 καὶ τότε δή με διὰ δμῳάς, κύνας οὐκ ἀλεγούσας, |155 εἷλον ἐπελθόντες καὶ ὁμόκλησαν ἐπέεσσιν. |156 ὣς τὸ μὲν ἐξετέλεσσα, καὶ οὐκ ἐθέλουσ᾽, ὑπ᾽ ἀνάγκης: |157 νῦν δ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ἐκφυγέειν δύναμαι γάμον οὔτε τιν᾽ ἄλλην |158 μῆτιν ἔθ᾽ εὑρίσκω·

So they urge on marriage, and I wind a skein of wiles. First some daimōn breathed the thought in my heart to weave a garment, after setting up a great fabric in my halls |140 fine of thread and very wide; and I straightway spoke among them: “Young men, my wooers, since godlike Odysseus is dead, be patient, though eager for my marriage, until I finish this garment—I would not that my threads should perish useless—a shroud for the hero Laertes against the time when |145 the fell fate of grievous death shall strike him down; lest any one of the Achaean women in the land blame me, if he were to lie without a shroud, who had won great possessions.” So I spoke, and their proud hearts consented. Then by day I would weave the great web, |150 but by night would unravel it, after having placed torches by me. Thus for three years I went unnoticed and persuaded the Achaeans; but when the fourth year came, as the seasons rolled on, as the months waned, and many days had revolved, then verily by the help of my maidens, disrespectful bitches, |155 they came upon me and caught me, and upbraided me loudly. So I finished the web against my will perforce. And now I can neither escape the marriage nor devise any counsel more. [3]

The last four verses are too condensed to convey fully the intensity and the violence of the scene. Nevertheless, if we pay due attention to the wording in Penelope’s version, we will perceive the warlike overtones of the compressed episode. And as we will see, in the three narrations of the weaving stratagem in the Odyssey there are significant variations on this point (even if the core of the story remains more or less the same), because each time the focalizer is different. Let us focus on Penelope’s wording now (19.155–156):

εἷλον ἐπελθόντες καὶ ὁμόκλησαν ἐπέεσσιν. ὣς τὸ μὲν ἐξετέλεσσα, καὶ οὐκ ἐθέλουσ᾽, ὑπ᾽ ἀνάγκης

They came upon me and caught me, and upbraided me loudly. So I finished the web against my will perforce.

Ἐπέρχομαι ‘come suddenly upon, come against, attack’ is a verb used to convey the idea of a “hostile move towards,” like the movement of leaping on one’s prey (Iliad 10.485, 15.630: αὐτὰρ ὅ γ᾽ ὥς τε λέων ὀλοόφρων βουσὶν ἐπελθών / “But he attacked like a lion of baneful mind on a herd of cows”). Ὁμόκλησαν denotes threatening shouts (Liddell Scott Jones, Lexicon sv ὁμοκλάω: “shout or call in order to encourage or, more frequently, to threaten”). The Odyssey as we have it does not offer an expanded version of this episode. Nevertheless the sheer fact that the three repetitions are preserved in the textual tradition testifies to the importance of this theme in performance[4]. Furthermore, as we will see, the variations in our three narrations, which are inserted in three different contexts, are fully meaningful.

Thus, in the version of Antinoos, who speaks in the name of all the suitors in the assembly, the interruption of the unorthodox weaving is formulated cautiously. Still, all versions refer to the violent episode. As to the context of Antinoos’s version, one should keep in mind that the audience here is the people of Ithaca, convoked to an assembly for the first time since the departure of their king, Odysseus. We can measure by the solemnity of this occasion the importance of the weaving episode in the performance of the poem. This is a moment of great tension in the plot, and to a modern audience it is almost a paradox that the main subject of the speech is the weaving stratagem. Here is how Antinoos addresses Telemachus and the people of Ithaca present in this assembly (2.85–122):

|85 Τηλέμαχ᾽ ὑψαγόρη, μένος ἄσχετε, ποῖον ἔειπες |86 ἡμέας αἰσχύνων: ἐθέλοις δέ κε μῶμον ἀνάψαι. |87 σοὶ δ᾽ οὔ τι μνηστῆρες Ἀχαιῶν αἴτιοί εἰσιν, |88 ἀλλὰ φίλη μήτηρ, ἥ τοι πέρι κέρδεα οἶδεν. |89 ἤδη γὰρ τρίτον ἐστὶν ἔτος, τάχα δ᾽ εἶσι τέταρτον, |90 ἐξ οὗ ἀτέμβει θυμὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν Ἀχαιῶν. |91 πάντας μέν ῥ᾽ ἔλπει καὶ ὑπίσχεται ἀνδρὶ ἑκάστῳ |92 ἀγγελίας προϊεῖσα, νόος δέ οἱ ἄλλα μενοινᾷ. |93 ἡ δὲ δόλον τόνδ᾽ ἄλλον ἐνὶ φρεσὶ μερμήριξε· |94 στησαμένη μέγαν ἱστὸν ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ὕφαινε, |95 λεπτὸν καὶ περίμετρον· ἄφαρ δ᾽ ἡμῖν μετέειπε· |96 ‘κοῦροι ἐμοὶ μνηστῆρες, ἐπεὶ θάνε δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς, |97 μίμνετ᾽ ἐπειγόμενοι τὸν ἐμὸν γάμον, εἰς ὅ κε φᾶρος |98 ἐκτελέσω, μή μοι μεταμώνια νήματ᾽ ὄληται, |99 Λαέρτῃ ἥρωι ταφήιον, εἰς ὅτε κέν μιν |100 μοῖρ᾽ ὀλοὴ καθέλῃσι τανηλεγέος θανάτοιο, |101 μή τίς μοι κατὰ δῆμον Ἀχαιϊάδων νεμεσήσῃ. |102 αἴ κεν ἄτερ σπείρου κεῖται πολλὰ κτεατίσσας. |103 ὣς ἔφαθ᾽, ἡμῖν δ᾽ αὖτ᾽ ἐπεπείθετο θυμὸς ἀγήνωρ. |104 ἔνθα καὶ ἠματίη μὲν ὑφαίνεσκεν μέγαν ἱστόν, |105 νύκτας δ᾽ ἀλλύεσκεν, ἐπεὶ δαΐδας παραθεῖτο. |106 ὣς τρίετες μὲν ἔληθε δόλῳ καὶ ἔπειθεν Ἀχαιούς· |107 ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε τέτρατον ἦλθεν ἔτος καὶ ἐπήλυθον ὧραι, |108 καὶ τότε δή τις ἔειπε γυναικῶν, ἣ σάφα ᾔδη, |109 καὶ τήν γ᾽ ἀλλύουσαν ἐφεύρομεν ἀγλαὸν ἱστόν. |110 ὣς τὸ μὲν ἐξετέλεσσε καὶ οὐκ ἐθέλουσ᾽ ὑπ᾽ ἀνάγκης· |111 σοὶ δ᾽ ὧδε μνηστῆρες ὑποκρίνονται, ἵν᾽ εἰδῇς |112 αὐτὸς σῷ θυμῷ, εἰδῶσι δὲ πάντες Ἀχαιοί· |113 μητέρα σὴν ἀπόπεμψον, ἄνωχθι δέ μιν γαμέεσθαι |114 τῷ ὅτεῴ τε πατὴρ κέλεται καὶ ἁνδάνει αὐτῇ. |115 εἰ δ᾽ ἔτ᾽ ἀνιήσει γε πολὺν χρόνον υἷας Ἀχαιῶν, |116 τὰ φρονέουσ᾽ ἀνὰ θυμόν, ὅ οἱ πέρι δῶκεν Ἀθήνη |117 ἔργα τ᾽ ἐπίστασθαι περικαλλέα καὶ φρένας ἐσθλὰς |118 κέρδεά θ᾽, οἷ᾽ οὔ πώ τιν᾽ ἀκούομεν οὐδὲ παλαιῶν, |119 τάων αἳ πάρος ἦσαν ἐυπλοκαμῖδες Ἀχαιαί, |120 Τυρώ τ᾽ Ἀλκμήνη τε ἐυστέφανός τε Μυκήνη· |121 τάων οὔ τις ὁμοῖα νοήματα Πηνελοπείῃ |122 ᾔδη· ἀτὰρ μὲν τοῦτό γ᾽ ἐναίσιμον οὐκ ἐνόησε.

Telemachus, you bold talker, unrestrained in fury, what a thing have you said, putting us to shame, and you want to fasten blame upon us! It is not the Achaean wooers who are responsible, but your own mother, for she is the most crafty. For it is now the third year and the fourth will soon pass, |90 since she has been deceiving the hearts of the Achaeans in their breasts. To all she offers hopes, and has promises for each man, sending them messages, but her mind is set on other things. And she devised in her heart this guileful thing also: she set up in her halls a great web, and fell to weaving— |95 fine of thread was the web and very wide; and straightway she spoke among us: “Young men, my wooers, since godlike Odysseus is dead, be patient, though eager for marriage, until I finish this garment—lest my threads perish useless—a shroud for the hero Laertes, against the time when |100 the baneful fate of pitiless death shall strike him down; lest any of the Achaean women in the land blame me, if he, who had won great possessions, were to lie without a shroud.” So she spoke, and our proud hearts consented. Then by day she would weave at the great web, |105 but by night would unravel it, when she had let place torches by her. Thus for three years she by her craft went unnoticed and persuaded the Achaeans; but when the fourth year came as the seasons rolled on, right at that time one of her women who knew all told us, and we caught her unraveling the splendid web. |110 So she finished it against her will, perforce. Therefore to you the suitors make you this answer, that you may yourself know it in your heart, and that all the Achaeans may know. Send away your mother, and command her to wed whomsoever her father bids, and who is pleasing to her. |115 But if she shall continue long time to vex the sons of the Achaeans, mindful in her heart of this, that Athena has endowed her above other women with knowledge of splendid handiwork and noble thoughts, and wiles, such as we have never yet heard that any even of the women of old knew, of those who long ago were fair-tressed Achaean women— |120 Tyro and Alcmene and Mycene of the fair garland—of whom not one had thoughts similar to Penelope’s; yet what she devised is not fitting.

As I said, despite the variation, we are still able to perceive the violence in Antinoos’s delivery. It is nothing but normal that he chooses carefully his words: breaking into the queen’s intimate space is certainly not good publicity for the suitors (2.110–111):

καὶ τήν γ᾽ ἀλλύουσαν ἐφεύρομεν ἀγλαὸν ἱστόν. ὣς τὸ μὲν ἐξετέλεσσε καὶ οὐκ ἐθέλουσ᾽ ὑπ᾽ ἀνάγκης:

We caught her unraveling the splendid web. So she finished it against her will, perforce.

But there is more than the idea of a violent interruption here. As it becomes clear when all three narrations are finally pronounced (for the last one we have to wait until the last book), the Odyssey chooses to measure poetic temporality through the rhythm of Penelope’s loom. Thus, in the ultimate narration of the crafty queen’s wile, it is the shade of the suitor Amphimedon who reveals the correlation between the accomplishment of the fabric and the return of Odysseus. This version is even more remarkably in variance with the other two, as the suitors are now dead, they are a swarm of shadows who make their entrance into the underworld like bats in a cave. In this ominous setting Amphimedon has no better way to recount the suitors’ collective doom to the dead heroes (24.128–150) than to repeat the story of the endless weaving: “she neither refused the hateful marriage, nor would she ever make an end, devising for us death and black fate” (24.126–127).[5]

This time though the story is no more endless, it has met its telos (ἐξετέλεσσε is the verb used). The dramatic shift related to the end of the weaving has become apparent: Odysseus is back. The weaving process can now be viewed in flashback and thus be invested with its full meaning (24.145–149):

|145 καὶ τήν γ᾽ ἀλλύουσαν ἐφεύρομεν ἀγλαὸν ἱστόν. |146 ὣς τὸ μὲν ἐξετέλεσσε καὶ οὐκ ἐθέλουσ᾽, ὑπ᾽ ἀνάγκης. |147 εὖθ᾽ ἡ φᾶρος ἔδειξεν, ὑφήνασα μέγαν ἱστόν, |148 πλύνασ᾽, ἠελίῳ ἐναλίγκιον ἠὲ σελήνῃ, |149 καὶ τότε δή ῥ᾽ Ὀδυσῆα κακός ποθεν ἤγαγε δαίμων

|145 And we caught her while she was unraveling her splendid fabric. So she finished it against her will, perforce; and when she showed us the garment after she had weaved it, after she had had it washed, similar to the sun or the moon, right at that time some malicious superhuman force [daimōn] brought back Odysseus.

The weaving theme is multifaceted. As I said, one of its functions here is to measure poetic time, which represents a real challenge in such a complex poetic structure.[6] For instance, at its very beginning the Odyssey uses the Assembly of Gods and the authority of the divine word to stage time and place in this multilocal poem (let us not forget that when the Odyssey opens, Odysseus is invisible for humans, and only divine intervention can help audiences of all times to follow his story and “see” the hero; Calypso who is keeping him at her island at that moment is “the Concealer”[7]). Throughout the epic, at crucial moments, temporality in Ithaca is expressed through the story about Penelope’s weaving.[8]

Weaving is chosen to measure time because it works as a code in the context of Odyssean poetics. “As long as the fabric is upright, marital union is not possible,” says the scholiast in his comment about Penelope’s stratagem. In a cultural context of oral performance, this connection can be better understood if I quote the following verses, which belong to the very first version of the story delivered by the suitor Antinoos (2.115–118); this is his way of concluding the description of the weaving stratagem (each version offers a different “conclusion”):

|115 εἰ δ᾽ ἔτ᾽ ἀνιήσει γε πολὺν χρόνον υἷας Ἀχαιῶν, |116 τὰ φρονέουσ᾽ ἀνὰ θυμόν, ὅ οἱ πέρι δῶκεν Ἀθήνη |117 ἔργα τ᾽ ἐπίστασθαι περικαλλέα καὶ φρένας ἐσθλὰς |118 κέρδεά θ᾽ . . .

|115 But if she shall continue long time to vex the sons of the Achaeans, mindful in her heart of this, that Athena has endowed her knowledge of splendid handiwork and noble thoughts, and wiles . . .

We can relate these verses to the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, where the “works of maidens” (a formulaic expression used to denote weaving and related to Athena) that the goddess teaches to young girls are opposed to the “works of Aphrodite” (HHAphr.V, 7–9, 14–15):

|7 τρισσὰς δ’οὐ δύναται πεπιθεῖν φρένας οὐδ’ ἀπατῆσαι· |8 κούρην τ᾽ αἰγιόχοιο Διός, γλαυκῶπιν Ἀθήνην: |9 οὐ γὰρ οἱ εὔαδεν ἔργα πολυχρύσου Ἀφροδίτης, . . . |14 ἣ δέ τε παρθενικὰς ἁπαλόχροας ἐν μεγάροισιν |15 ἀγλαὰ ἔργ᾽ ἐδίδαξεν ἐπὶ φρεσὶ θεῖσα ἑκάστῃ.

|7 But there are three whose phrenes she cannot win over or deceive. |8 The first is the daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus, bright-eyed Athena. |9 For she takes no pleasure in the things done by golden Aphrodite. . . . |14 And she it is who teaches maidens, tender of skin, inside the palaces, |15 the skill of making splendid pieces of craftsmanship, putting it firmly into each one’s mind.[9]

This same difficult coexistence between “works of Aphrodite” and “works of Athena” can be perceived in Sappho Fragment 102, quoted by Greg in a recent post:[10]

γλύκηα μᾶτερ, οὔτοι δύναμαι κρέκην τὸν ἴστον | πόθωι δάμεισα παῖδος βραδίναν δι’ Ἀφροδίταν

My dear sweet mother! I just can’t work the shuttle on my loom, since I’m overcome by desire for a young one—and it’s all because of delicate Aphrodite.

Thus weaving appears to be an ideal code for a deeper pattern in Odyssean poetics, in which the royal couple of Ithaca is retrojected to an age before marriage. In fact this “flashback” movement forms a highly suggestive pattern that sustains the poetics of Odysseus and Penelope’s reunion: the plot is set to imply that the return of the hero and the reunion with his wife have to be accomplished as a remarriage. Hence the importance of premarital mythical themes like weaving-to-be-accomplished and like the contest of the bow, where Odysseus competes de facto. The king and the queen respectively will have to go through the stages of premarital wooing (which includes other characters, like the suitors on Penelope’s side or Calypso, Circe, Nausicaa on Odysseus’s side), and when they reunite, they do so as strangers.[11]

A girl at the loom is at the service of Athena, preparing, certainly, to be a woman and join Aprhrodite’s realm but not yet there. Penelope’s weaving is playing on the stereotype about the incompatibility between premarital weaving in progress or unaccomplished weaving and marriage. The meaning of course is far from straightforward, especially when it comes to set themes which have ritual implications (and serve to connect Homeric heroes to gods in a specific way, as Penelope’s close relation to Athena). Penelope’s textile activity is not an isolated wile, it is part of a coded language. And just to make a big leap in time, it is noteworthy that the first occurrence of the verb ‘analyse’[12] in our literary trdition comes from Penelope’s unraveling of the fabric. The metaphoric potential of weaving is far-reaching.

I would like to come back briefly to the verses about Penelope as a devotee of Athena. What Antinoos says essentially in his version is that Penelope is not weaving for Laertes, she is weaving for Athena. These verses signify that Penelope’s weaving is not an isolated wile, it is a coded language rooted in established communal practices, beliefs, superstitions. Thus, this code draws from a wide variety of contexts. Some of them are relevant to mystic moments. This last topic relates to ritual weaving and to Orphic sources; therefore it demands a longer development.[13] I will come back to this point in a future post. For now, I can refer the reader to an article I wrote in collaboration with Françoise Labrique for Greg’s Donum Natalicum: “Les déesses au métier : Isis et Perséphone tisserandes”;[14] Persephone at the loom conveys powerfully the intimate relation between the weaving of a young girl and the purity of this age devoted to Athena.

 


Notes

[1] I. Papadopoulou-Belmehdi, Le Chant de Pénélope, Paris, 1994.

[2] See the post by A. Karanika (“Weaving, interrupted,” Classical Inquiries, Dec. 3, 2015)

[3] Translation of the Odyssey here and elsewhere by A. T. Murray, 1919 (Perseus Project), slightly modified.

[4] I will come back to this in a future post, to show that Penelope’s odyssean weaving substantiates the hypothesis that “repetition in Homeric poetry is a matter of performance, not only composition” (Gregory Nagy, “Poetics of repetition in Homer,” Greek Ritual Poetics [ed. D. Yatromanolakis and P. Roilos] 139–148, at 139, Hellenic Studies 3, Cambridge, MA and Washington, DC, 2004).

[5] ἡ δ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ἠρνεῖτο στυγερὸν γάμον οὔτ᾽ ἐτελεύτα, ἡμῖν φραζομένη θάνατον καὶ κῆρα μέλαιναν.

[6] As Aristotle puts it the Poetics (1459b19): “[Homer] made the Iliad ‘simple’ . . . and the Odyssey ‘complex’. ” This of course has to do with the structure of the plot.

[7] Her name derives from the verb καλύπτω ‘cover’.

[8] Phemios’s performance in Book 1 partakes of the same function; see I. Papadopoulou-Belmehdi, Le chant de Pénélope, Paris, 1994, p. 59–76.

[9] Translation by Gregory Nagy.

[10] Gregory Nagy, “Weaving while singing Sappho’s songs in Epigram 55 of Posidippus,” Classical Inquiries, January 7, 2016.

[11] I. Papadopoulou-Belmehdi, Le chant de Penelope, Paris, 1994, p. 95–110.

[12] ἔνθα καὶ ἠματίη μὲν ὑφαίνεσκον μέγαν ἱστόν / νύκτας δ᾽ ἀλλύεσκον, ἐπεὶ δαΐδας παραθείμην (19.149–150). The form ἀλλύεσκον is the poetic imperfect iterative of ἀναλύω.

[13] See I. Papadopoulou-Belmehdi, L’art de Pandora. La mythologie du tissage en Grèce ancienne, Paris, 1992.

[14] Françoise Labrique and Ioanna Papadopoulou, “Les déesses au métier : Isis et Perséphone tisserandes,” Donum natalicium digitaliter confectum Gregorio Nagy septuagenario a discipulis collegis familiaribus oblatum (ed. Victor Bers, David Elmer, Douglas Frame, and Leonard Muellner) Washington, DC, 2012.



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