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Penelope: The Crafty Ideal of Greek Womanhood
One might think of Achilles, the hero of the Iliad, as the Greek masculine ideal. He triumphs over his enemies in an open agonistic contest because he is a greater warrior than they. He shows the virtue of compassion when he finally yields Hector's body to Priam. Even Achilles's arrogance and his obsession with honor, his inability to deal with slights to his reputation, though they might seem repugnant to our sensibilities, are clearly meant to elicit the sympathy from Homer's audience. They might wish to act in the same way if they stood in his shoes. Yet Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, presents an entirely different masculine ideal. He shuns glory because it brings responsibilities that are not really in his best interest. Though a brave and able fighter, he is "the man of many wiles" who triumphs because of his clever deceptions and strategies. Perhaps the author of the Odyssey, at least, considered his hero a superior character. While Achilles enjoys fleeting glory within the scope of the Iliad, he ultimately fails, being killed by a bow-shot from the feeble Paris before Troy is sacked. Odysseus, on the other hand, despite his many misfortunes, ultimately succeeds. It is through his trickery that Troy is taken and that he eventually makes it back home. Another good reason for thinking of Odysseus as a masculine ideal is that Odysseus's wife Penelope is unquestionably an ideal of Greek femininity. Penelope, however, succeeds through the same tricky nature as her husband. Both ultimately have the same goal, the continuation, or even restoration, of their marriage and family, and both are protected by that most Greek of the gods, Athena. Taken together, Penelope and Odysseus represent the ideal of the male and female sphere of Greek life. In Penelope, we are able to see all the characteristics of a model wife, mother, daughter-in-law, and queen. Unlike her, Alcmene or Megara helplessly need to be rescued by another suitor; other victims would have remarried; Atalanta tried to avoid marriage by testing her suitors.
Penelope's actions were like an etiquette book for Greek society. All of her problems came about because she obeyed the Greek rules of hospitality and accepted her suitors as guests. But she went beyond this and even treated beggars with hospitality while they were mocked by the suitors, supposedly noblemen. She was an ideal wife, mother, and queen. Above all, she remained faithful to her marriage which even Odysseus could not do; but fidelity was more a wifely than a husbandly virtue in ancient Greece. She was patient and faithful, devoted to both her husband and son. Her faithfulness to her husband goes beyond the demands of social convention to a deep and abiding love.
Penelope listened with tears flowing down.
Her flesh melted -- just as on high mountains snow melts away under West Wind's thaw, once East Wind blows it down, and, as it melts, the flowing rivers fill -- that's how her fair cheeks melted then, as she shed tears for her husband, who was sitting there beside her. (Od. XIX.204-09)
Athena favored Odysseus and his family. She guided the hero through the perils of his return and aided him through divine intervention in the massacre of the suitors. She guided his son Telemachus in the mortal disguise of Mentor (Od. II.255). Athena was as much a helper to Penelope, however, as she was to her son and husband. Towards the beginning of her story, Penelope invokes Athena according to the best Greek traditions, offering her sacrifice and making a prayer, and reminding the goddess of her family's past service to her:
She placed some grains of barley in a basket and then prayed to Athena:
untiring child of aegis-bearing Zeus, hear my prayer.
If resourceful Odysseus in his home ever burned a sacrifice to you -- plump cattle thighs or sheep -- recall that now, pray.
Save my dear son and guard him well from those suitors and their murderous pride."
With these words, Penelope raised a sacred cry, and the goddess heard her prayer. (Od. IV.761-67)
The prayer for salvation of her son is, of course, in essence a prayer for the salvation of the family, and it is one that the goddess answers, intervening to help Penelope just as she does Telemachus and Odysseus.
The most virtuous activity for women in Greek aristocratic households was weaving. Penelope acknowledges this when she says that if she shirked her weaving, she would become the subject of women's gossip throughout Greece (Od. XIX.146-47). Athena is the patron of weaving, as was demonstrated in one of her best known myths, in which she transformed Arachne into a spider for daring to challenge her status as the greatest weaver. Accordingly, Penelope uses Athena's art as the basis of her wily stratagem. She fobs off the suitors for three years by telling that she cannot marry until she fulfills a last duty to the family of her presumably dead husband.
You young men, my suitors, since lord Odysseus is dead, you're keen for me to marry, but you must wait until I'm finished with this robe, so I don't waste this woven yarn in useless work.
It's a burial shroud for lord Laertes, for when the lethal fate of his sad death will seize him... (Od. XIX.142-45)
This is only a pretext, however, to buy time. She stretched the time out to three years by the device of unweaving each night what she had woven during the day.
So every day I'd weave at the big loom.
But at night, once the torches were set up,
I'd unravel it.
And so for three years tricked Achaeans into believing me.
But as the seasons came and months rolled on, and many days passed by, the fourth year came.
That's when they came and caught me undoing yarn -- thanks to my slaves, those ungrateful *****es. (Od. XIX.149-55)
There is a strong contrast here between the virtue of Penelope who works to protect her family and the betrayal of the maids who have been corrupted by the suitors. They will later be executed for their treachery by Telemachus on Odysseus's orders. Penelope's trick of playing for time by unweaving at night what she wove during the day allows her to deceive and (at least temporarily) defeat the suitors whom she is not strong enough to directly engage. It is precisely the same, therefore, as the deceptions Odysseus used in contriving the Trojan horse and in his encounter with Polyphemus, which allowed him to overcome enemies too strong to be overcome with mere force. Penelope and Odysseus both use the wisdom of Athena to overcome enemies rather than, for instance, the more aggressive style of Ares. Penelope shows the same kind of craftiness in devising the archery contest for the suitors.
I'll now organize competition featuring those axes he used to set inside his hall, in a line, like a ship's ribs, twelve of them in all.
He'd stand far off and shoot an arrow through them. www.mala.bc.ca/~Johnstoi/homer/odyssey19.htm"
I'll now set up this contest for the suitors.
The one whose hand most deftly strings his bow and shoots an arrow through all twelve axes is the one I'll go with. (Od. XIX.571-75)
Similarly, Penelope uses a clever device to test the identity of her husband once he returns, questioning him about the details of their bedroom furniture only he could know (Od. XXIII.178-230).
Penelope is the model of aristocratic Greek womanhood. She commands and protects her household and practices the prototypical virtues of hospitality and weaving. She protects her family and remains loyal to her husband. She accomplishes all these things in the same manner as her husband Odysseus through the wily devices granted her by their patron goddess Athena.
Homer. Odyssey. trans. Ian Johnston. 25 April 2008 http://www.mala.bc.ca/~Johnstoi/homer/odysseytofc.htm.
Roman View of Penelope
In the Odyssey, Penelope is portrayed as an ideal of aristocratic Greek womanhood. She exemplifies the feminine virtues of hospitality, faithfulness, prudence, and above all weaving, the symbol of chaste, virtuous conduct in women in Greece as much as it was in Rome. Under the protection of the crafty Athena, Penelope's great claim to fame was her stratagem of unweaving each night from her father-in-law's shroud the work she had done during the day to deceive and delay the suitors from forcing her to wed one of them after they asserted that the absent Odysseus must be dead. In this way, she showed she was as wily and cunning as her husband. Every educated Roman was intimately familiar with the character of Penelope and her various exploits in the Odyssey; indeed, the Homeric Epics would for the most part have been memorized in childhood in the same way that, until recently, English speakers largely memorized the King James's Version of the Bible (Marrou 251). For this reason, Ovid's use of Penelope in the Heroides, a series of poetic letters written under…[continue]
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