Book Chapter

Penelope’s Wonder: Navigating the Mythos of Masculinity

by Charles Underwood

Penelope’s wonder encapsulates both her amazement and an act of speculation, of reckoning her position among others in her social world.

Penelope first appears in the Odyssey in a moment of plaintive vulnerability, belying the depth of thought and her resistance to the mythos of masculinity that shape her character as the epic unfolds. Her appearance and sudden withdrawal from the scene is described with economy, yet in a mere forty lines, Homer constructs a compellingly vivid and complex portrait of Penelope. As Felson-Rubin (1994) rightly suggests, the audience (and reader) must “concoct” the sense of Penelope’s fullness and depth out of spare narrative cues. Understanding Penelope’s character is critically based on the recognition of her capacity for deep thought, which is closely intertwined with her sense of wonder.

Penelope’s initial appearance is coupled from the beginning with her most prevalent epithet: periphron. Felson-Rubin aptly translates periphron as “thinking all around,” which is certainly more to the point than its frequent translation as “wise” or “prudent.” In short, Penelope is a thorough thinker. She turns things over and over in her mind. She deeply and viscerally deliberates over them (phron, from phren and phroneo, and implying phrenes, the “locus or agency of thinking, feeling, and willing”) and regards them “all around” (peri-) from every angle (Felson-Rubin, 1994, 16; Barnouw, 2004, 73). She is, both characteristically (in her typical response to the world around her) and descriptively (at this particular narrative moment), “deep in thought.” Contrary to Vivante (1982) and others, I suggest that Homer’s use of the epithet, here and throughout the epic narrative, is strategic and connotatively loaded. It is both representational (descriptive or evocative) expression and narrative (semantically pertinent to the narrative moment), signaling both a general trait that typifies the character throughout and a situational portrayal of that character directly relevant to the particular scene in which it appears.

In her first appearance, Penelope stands at the entrance to the room where the singer Phemios captivates his audience. Modulating the formulaic opening typical of powerful speech among males, she begins in the initial sentence of her mythos – a speech act with persuasive intent – to address the singer with honorific expressions of praise and appreciation.

“Phemios, you know about so many other charms

to enchant us mere mortals, the actions of men and gods

that you singers have made famous…

Φήμιεπολλὰ γὰρ ἄλλα βροτῶν θελκτήρια οἶδας,
ἔργ᾽ ἀνδρῶν τε θεῶν τετά τε κλείουσιν ἀοιδοί:

(1.337-338).

Penelope’s comment is at once an admiring recognition of Phemios’ talent and a stinging critique of his choice of subject. On a much larger scale, it is, for the author(s) of the epic poem, a commentary, a veiled announcement of what the Odyssey is not – it is to be neither a rehash of the Iliad’s heroic world which Penelope abhors, nor is it simply to be the mythic interplay between gods and men that she requests.

When she entreats Phemios to “stop this harsh song, which always tears apart this heart inside my breast,” her words infuse the usually ostentatious formulaic masculine mythos with a depth of feeling. In the context of the Odyssey’s narrative, her words carry the epic poet’s hidden message that this story that is just beginning is no casual entertainment. It is a grim story describing the awful consequences of the Trojan conflict for real people – people whose feelings and actions the poet is now establishing as "real." Penelope's words are a comment from the author that the Odyssey is by no means a "relaxed and almost neverless" narrative (Kirk, 1989, in Clayton, 2004) that ranges easily about various Mediterranean sites of Archaic Greece in a time of peace. 

The peacetime of the Odyssey is a time of upheaval and recovery. Even the ostensibly “leisurely” feasting of the suitors represents a forced incursion by aggressive, destructive outsiders taking advantage of a household unprotected as a result of war. Although as Clayton (2004) notes, many critics have considered the Odyssey to be a charming and leisurely passage through an unmanly world, the words that Homer has Penelope speak suddenly declare it to be a heart-rending narrative about a violent world recovering from the devastation of war in a dubious, precariously sustained peacetime. Penelope’s critical commentary on Phemios’ song announces that not only Phemios’ version, but this narrative diversion, which we as audience or readers are witnessing and of which she is a “real” participant, is in fact a troubling account of a world of brutality, loss, and sorrow. In a few words, Penelope’s character has been marked by her forceful response to an agonistic situation that challenges and threatens her very sense of self.

But Homer does not tell us about her feelings or about Telemakhos’ feelings as he reacts to his mother’s words with a direct challenge. She has appeared at the moment when he is trying to establish himself as a man among men and his words indicate that he is threatened by her intervention. With harsh words, Telemakhos declares himself autonomous and sets aside his dependence on his mother. He reprimands her with a gender-charged command:

Go to your room and busy yourself with your own tasks,

the loom and distaff, and order your women servants

to go about their business. Speech is for men alone,

and especially for me. The power in this house is mine.

ἀλλ᾽ εἰς οἶκον ἰοῦσα τὰ σ᾽ αὐτῆς ἔργα κόμιζε,
ἱστόν τ᾽ ἠλακάτην τεκαὶ ἀμφιπόλοισι κέλευε
ἔργον ἐποίχεσθαιμῦθος δ᾽ ἄνδρεσσι μελήσει
πᾶσιμάλιστα δ᾽ ἐμοίτοῦ γὰρ κράτος ἔστ᾽ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ.

(1.356-359).

Telemakhos is clearly attempting to launch his own dispassionate semblance of authority, his own mythos as an adult male capable of powerful speech in the company of other men, in resistance to and in contrast to his mother’s emotionality, which he obviously regards as feminine, resembling all too much his own inner turmoil.

The Wonder of Displacement

Penelope does not say a word in reply. Instead:

Struck with wonder, she went back to her own room,

holding in her heart her son’s inspired assertion.

 μὲν θαμβήσασα πάλιν οἶκόνδε βεβήκει:
παιδὸς γὰρ μῦθον πεπνυμένον ἔνθετο θυμῷ.

(1.360-361).

Penelope’s wonder is unspoken; her silence is double-edged. As Vivante ponders, “Is she amazed because of his unexpected energy and wisdom? Is she suddenly proud of him, not resenting his harshness?” (1985, 115). Homer does not answer Vivante’s questions, but simply notes her withdrawal to her private space. Yet the reader is left with the question of Penelope’s wonder, set up masterfully by Homer. Readers are set up to wonder themselves if her wonder is in recognition of her son’s first act of asserting himself in contradiction of her expressed wishes. His statement is self-centered and unsympathetic to his mother’s view and beyond that, it is blatantly chauvinistic, putting his mother in her place as a woman. Penelope ignores the affront but marvels at her son’s self-assertiveness, his bold presence: he is no longer simply mingling among the suitors in their idle games, but is fully vying with them in deploying powerful speech to assert himself as a man among men, dismissing Penelope from this masculine world to her cloistered inner chambers and a feminine activity, fabricating woven mythoi that represent an alternative discourse, separate from the mythos of men (Clayton, 2004, 41). It is in this light that Penelope is struck with wonder at her son’s new self-possession.

We can read Penelope’s quiet ascent to her private room in various ways. Is she determinedly holding in her feelings? Is she making a show of graceful composure in the face of this indignity? Homer does not hint at her feelings; he simply “externalizes psychological and emotional developments in action” (Lord, 1965, 41). The audience witnesses her feelings when at the end of her silent ascent to her upper chamber, “she cried out for Odysseus.” The juxtaposition of Penelope’s quiet withdrawal from the room of suitors and her solitary outcry within her inner chamber intensify the depth of her sense of loss and displacement.

Penelope’s first appearance definitively, almost harshly, unmasks, and even destroys, the folkloric image of her as the prudent, ever-faithful spouse and in spare, concrete details conveys her profound social displacement. It is, we know, the beginning of her journey, the time and place from which her personal passage is to move toward a telos that is universally known to the audience yet, for her as a character in the unfinished narrative, remains uncertain. Katz (1991) has examined the indeterminacy of her status. In narrative terms, by highlighting the story of the house of Atreus as a paradigmatic narrative from the beginning of the Odyssey, Homer has situated the story of Penelope as an alternative to the accounts of Atreus’ two sons’ wives, Klytemnestra and Helen – an alternative whose direction and telos is yet to be established (Katz, 1991, 8). Even as an aristocratic woman in archaic Greek society, with her husband either dead or long missing, her situation is ambiguous. If cultural patterns of Mediterranean kinship are applicable to those in ancient Greek culture, we may infer that she holds no direct claim to Odysseus’ household and resources except as someone who requires a man’s keeping (Walcot, 1970, 1977; Arthur, 1981, 1982; and Winkler 1990, in Katz, 1991, 111n.). With separate, indefinite claims to being her guardian by the suitors and by Telemakhos, she is placed in the very dubious position of defending herself, her reputation, and her claim to a secure position in society. In short, “Penelope virtually ‘personifies’ the uncertainty and ambivalence of the situation in Ithaka” (Besslich, 1966, 20 in Katz, 1991, 10n.). Her displacement – the indeterminacy of her social status – is sharply accentuated by Telemakhos’ rebuke. His counter-claim to her guardianship and his assertion of his own authority in Odysseus’ household represents a verbal banishment of Penelope from any claim beyond her own private chambers. The suitors’ resultant “craving” to be in her bed is thus both a sexual yearning for the woman herself and an acquisitive impulse to make a claim they believe is socially justified to the entire household she occupies, including herself and her body.

In this context, we can regard each of the three main characters in this narrative as grappling with an extreme circumstance of social displacement. To paraphrase Katz, as Odysseus is geographically displaced – lost on a remote island far from any human being – his continued survival (“if he ever existed,” as both Telemakhos and Penelope say) and whereabouts unreported, as Telemakhos is temporally and developmentally displaced, his sheltered childhood and adolescence gone forever and his claim to his future birthright questioned, Penelope is sociologically displaced herself (cf. Katz, 1991, 7). Her marital status doubtful, her rights to social mobility and resource allocation denied within her own household and even her right to remain in her home in question, Penelope is as adrift as Odysseus. She can only retreat to her inner quarters and cry out to her husband. But she cannot rely even on him – she is denied his presence, his advice, his comfort – any more than she can rely on her son or her servants, many of whom demonstrate conflicted loyalties, threatening the social and economic dissolution of her household. She has no recourse. She is denied even sleep, as implied by the fact that it is the goddess Athena who is the agent enabling her to fall asleep.

In this regard, Penelope demonstrates many of the symptoms experienced by military spouses. As Marnocha notes, “both wives and husbands of deployed soldiers exhibit different stages of grief and loss, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance” (Marnocha, 2012, 1). Their experience is described as “a state of transition and vulnerability” (2012, 1). The prevalence among wives during their husbands’ deployment of what Boss has called “ambiguous loss” complicates and exacerbates this uncertain emotional state (Boss, 2007, in Rossetto, 2009, 10). Studies also note the prevalence among military wives of a sense of extreme helplessness, relational loss, disruption of personal and family dynamics, and financial strain (Rossetto, 6-7), as well as sleep disorders, among other physical and emotional symptoms (Marnocha, 2012, 6). In response to these challenges, contemporary military wives employ a number of strategies to cope with their circumstances, including what some have called “taking the reins” – that is, taking charge of family responsibilities that were formerly either shared with their husbands or viewed as their husbands’ sole responsibility (Marnocha, 2012, 3).

The metaphor is apt in relation to the Homeric concept of metis in that the concept represents a broad range of cross-gender skills such as weaving, driving chariots, and piloting ships, and in that Penelope’s ruse of weaving a shroud for Laertes represents a key strategy by which she has managed to “take the reins” (that is, manipulated the direction and pacing of the yarn’s elaboration) to gain greater control over her own predicament. Homer does not dwell explicitly on the inner turmoil of Penelope’s transitional status as the spouse of an absent soldier. The audience is simply allowed to witness her solitary outcry at the loss of her husband and her wonder at her son’s sudden insistence on his personal claim to her guardianship as he consigns her back to the “woman’s work” of weaving.

The audience is left to its own questions and readings of Penelope’s wonder. On the one hand, her wonder may be recognition of her son’s separateness, of his no longer being the sheltered child she once cherished, mixed with a kind of admiration for his ideological becoming, his developing sense of who he is or could be. On the other, it may be that her son’s severe words enable her to see clearly for the first time her own social displacement, her own loss of social status and worth, her own inability to rely on anyone in her world except herself. Or perhaps she wonders at the immediate necessity to decide for herself among difficult choices. In this sense, her wonder is a transformative realization, opening up a path of personal discovery, not through voyaging over land and sea but through encounters with the brutality of ever-present forces that have displaced her from a sense of security and authority, even as the tacitly acknowledged head of her own household.

Wondering as an Alternative Mythos

Penelope’s path is an inner journey from discovery through recovery toward an indeterminate end. Homer allows us to witness her inner journey from the outside. When Penelope next appears in Book Four, she is told by Medon, a loyal attendant, of Telemakhos’ departure from Ithaka to search for news of his father. He reveals that not only has Telemakhos gone away on his own, but the suitors plan to “cut him down.” Homer uses the word kataktamen to accentuate the violent death they intend for Telemakhos. In recording Penelope’s reaction, Homer again gives us external evidence for the “heart-crushing sorrow” that “pours all over her” (ten d’ akhos amphekhuthe). She has no heart even to sit in a chair, but sinks down onto the threshold of her inner room and weeps. Her servants crowd around her also, and she cries out, lamenting her double loss, and blames her servants for not telling her Telemakhos was about to leave. Frantically, she tells them to call in Dolios, an old man, to go out and bring back Odysseus’ father, Laertes. She says,

Maybe that old man can in his mind weave some scheme

and go out weeping to the people, who seem so eager now

to eliminate his own and godlike Odysseus’ seed.

εἰ δή πού τινα κεῖνος ἐνὶ φρεσὶ μῆτιν ὑφήνας
ἐξελθὼν λαοῖσιν ὀδύρεταιοἳ μεμάασιν
ὃν καὶ Ὀδυσσῆος φθῖσαι γόνον ἀντιθέοιο.

(4.739-741).

Her cry for help (4.722-741), as Homer has crafted it, is loaded with implicit detail. Penelope sees clearly that neither she nor her servants have the power or mobility to go outside the household for help. She can only resort to an old slave, “whom my father gave me when I was about to come here, and who now keeps my garden with all its trees,” to go out and fetch a former king, now an aged man no longer in power, who might be able to raise a plea to “the people” – laoisin, from laos and laoi – the general body of one’s community” (Cunliffe, 2012, 245), those who follow the same leader and who as Penelope recognizes may be potentially mobilized for some purpose, but whose loyalties or compliance are at times ambivalent or manipulable (Haubold, 2000, 111-112). Mentor, in his speech to the assembly in Book Two, noted “how no one among the people he governed remembered the godlike Odysseus, and he was kind, like a father” (Odyssey 2.233-234). The implication is that the people’s backing “determines the power-struggle in Odysseus’ house” and may well “play the role of a third party who watches and judges from a distance” (Haubold, 2000, 113-114). The laoi themselves, throughout the epic narrative, represent an ambiguous and at times politically manipulated entity. Yet it is a potentially influential entity that Penelope recognizes and seeks desperately to secure for her own support. In short, Penelope’s outcry, expressing her grief and helplessness, is at the same time a realization of a brutal world of slavery, violence, and uncertainty, the recognition of her social and political displacement, and a call for help.

It is another old slave, the old nurse, Eurykleia, who answers her plea. Eurykleia was introduced at the end of Book One, holding a torch to light Telemakhos’ way to his bedroom at day’s end. She is introduced as the daughter of Ops Peisenorides. But she herself is far from the shelter of her parents.

Laertes had long ago used his wealth to buy her,

giving up twenty oxen for her when she was still

in the first bloom of her youth. And in his halls, he gave her

the same respect he gave his faithful wife, and never

coupled with her in bed, to avoid his wife’s fury.

τήν ποτε Λαέρτης πρίατο κτεάτεσσιν ἑοῖσιν
πρωθήβην ἔτ᾽ ἐοῦσανἐεικοσάβοια δ᾽ ἔδωκεν,
ἶσα δέ μιν κεδνῇ ἀλόχῳ τίεν ἐν μεγάροισιν,
εὐνῇ δ᾽ οὔ ποτ᾽ ἔμικτοχόλον δ᾽ ἀλέεινε γυναικός:

(1.430-433)

Homer suggests the tension between Eurykleia and Laertes’ wife, Antikleia, but he does not mention the latter’s name, as if to avoid any allusion to the antithetical relationship implicit in their names. Eurykleia is given the softer name, in opposition to the undeclared hardness or veiled antagonism evident in the wife’s name as well as to Homer’s reference to the fury (kholos) of her potential jealousy. The latter part of each name (-kleia, from kleos, or perhaps the verb kleio, which in the passive would be “told about” or “heard about”) is the same – they are both “celebrated” women, but the first two syllables of their names suggest that they are “heard about” or “heard from” for very different qualities. By implication, Eurykleia is perhaps more gentle, submissive, and indirect, especially given her officially low status, while Antikleia, given her high status, may have been more direct and assertive as wife and mistress. In the present scene, the wife is no longer alive, but the legacy of their relationship may linger in the slave woman’s relationship with Penelope. Although the former has transferred her loyalty and devotion to the latter, the slave obviously knows the bounds of her place in the household.

Eurykleia, with her special if marginal status, sees everything. She is truly the daughter of Ops – a word which in Greek suggests “visage,” the face as it is read by another, and thus “vision” as a reading of one’s surroundings or circumstances. As Ops’ daughter, Eurykleia sees all that happens and has happened in the troubled house of Odysseus. She was Odysseus’ nurse and in his absence has become his son’s most devoted attendant and his wife’s closest ally. When Odysseus returns, she is the very first to notice his scar and recognize him. In this moment of Penelope’s crisis, when the mother is agonizing over her son, Eurykleia is the one who ventures to caution and advise Penelope as she drifts into a perilous current of despair and hopelessness. In doing so, she is far exceeding her status as a slave by taking her mistress into her confidence, even into her power – removing, as it were, the veil of her social inferiority. She addresses Penelope not as her superior but as a nymphe, a young unmarried (and, by implication, innocent or sheltered) girl.

Dear girl, you may cut me down with pitiless bronze,

Here in your halls, but I will not hold back what it is

I have to say to you.

νύμφα φίλησὺ μὲν ἄρ με κατάκτανε νηλέι χαλκῷ
 ἔα ἐν μεγάρῳμῦθον δέ τοι οὐκ ἐπικεύσω.

(4.743-744).

To intensify her mythos, Eurykleia (and Homer as well) uses almost exactly the same expression about the suitors’ malicious intentions—to “cut Telemakhos down with sharp bronze”—but she turns it against herself, intimating that Penelope, when she hears what Eurykleia has to say, may decide to “cut me down with pitiless bronze,” – the use of nelees (“pitiless) instead of oksus (“sharp”) making the extended form of kteino with the prefix kata- (“cut down”) a form of violence even more personal. Eurykleia admits to Penelope that she has not only known about but actually helped Telemakhos in his plan to sail for Pylos. She craftily yet truthfully tells Penelope that she did not tell her earlier because of an oath she made to Telemakhos with the intent to protect and shelter her from unnecessary anxiety and tears.

I knew about all these things but brought him whatever

he asked for, bread and sweet wine. He took from me

a solemn oath, not to tell you before the twelfth day

comes, and you miss him and hear that he has gone,

so you would not spoil your lovely flesh with crying.

ᾔδε᾽ ἐγὼ τάδε πάνταπόρον δέ οἱ ὅσσ᾽ ἐκέλευε,
σῖτον καὶ μέθυ ἡδύἐμεῦ δ᾽ ἕλετο μέγαν ὅρκον
μὴ πρὶν σοὶ ἐρέεινπρὶν δωδεκάτην γε γενέσθαι
 σ᾽ αὐτὴν ποθέσαι καὶ ἀφορμηθέντος ἀκοῦσαι,
ὡς ἂν μὴ κλαίουσα κατὰ χρόα καλὸν ἰάπτῃς.

(4.745-749).

Not pausing her mythos here, she moves on to offer Penelope concrete advice, telling her to bathe and put on fresh, clean clothes (kithara… eimath’, suggesting “cleansed,” “spotless,” “pure,” or even “purified”) and go to her upper room and pray to Athena. She then finishes by suggesting the folly of the desperate plan Penelope has called for in her agony – going to Laertes for his aid. Eurykleia says, “Do not trouble a troubled old man,” and she ends with a note of optimism for the future.

Eurykleia’s mythos is remarkable. It is the first instance in the Odyssey when a mortal woman refers self-referentially to “what I have to say” – that is, her own mythos – as a statement of urgent import, a speech as crucial and thus necessarily as powerful in private as men’s mythoi are to them in public. Her mythos represents a rare instance of powerful speech among women, especially as it represents the transcendence or transgression of appropriate discourse between slave and mistress. She opens her statement not with honorific praise of the person to whom she is speaking. Instead, she calls on her own value as an ally and as an observant caretaker. She refers to Penelope as “Dear girl,” with the implication that she has known the woman since she was merely an innocent bride, unwitting of the weight of the world inevitably to come to her. The expression is at once an insinuation of the younger woman’s relatively sheltered inexperience and an assertion of her long familiarity with the older woman as one who has cared for her, watched over her, and looked after her. Immediately, Eurukleia then acknowledges her own vastly inferior status as a slave, saying in effect, “you can kill me for speaking above my rank, but…” She ends by hurrying to offer soothing, pragmatic advice and her belief that unlike her husband, she is by no means as odious as he is to the gods and that surely there is yet to be “some one” (the eti pou tis is clearly Homer’s foreshadowing reference to the nobody – outis – her husband later claims to be) who will take control of and secure her household. Importantly, if we count Athena, who dresses like a man to talk to Telemakhos but who is nonetheless a goddess, Eurykleia’s mythos is another instance of a woman giving sage advice with emotional support. As Athena has done with Telemakhos, Eurykleia does with Penelope.

After following Eurykleia’s guidance, after bathing, changing clothes, praying to the goddess of wisdom, Penelope is quiet but still in a state of urgency.

In her upper room, Penelope, thinking it over and over, 

lay without touching her food, without tasting

either meat or drink, agonizing over

whether her faultless son might escape death

or be brought down by contemptuous suitors.

Just as a lion, anxious among a gathering of men,

broods, as they draw their clever circle around it –

she was worrying, as sweet sleep came over her.

She sank back and slept, and all her joints relaxed.

 δ᾽ ὑπερωίῳ αὖθι περίφρων Πηνελόπεια
κεῖτ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἄσιτοςἄπαστος ἐδητύος ἠδὲ ποτῆτος,
ὁρμαίνουσ᾽  οἱ θάνατον φύγοι υἱὸς ἀμύμων,
  γ᾽ ὑπὸ μνηστῆρσιν ὑπερφιάλοισι δαμείη.

ὅσσα δὲ μερμήριξε λέων ἀνδρῶν ἐν ὁμίλῳ
δείσαςὁππότε μιν δόλιον περὶ κύκλον ἄγωσι,
τόσσα μιν ὁρμαίνουσαν ἐπήλυθε νήδυμος ὕπνος:
εὗδε δ᾽ ἀνακλινθεῖσαλύθεν δέ οἱ ἅψεα πάντα.

(4.787-790).

The epithet periphron is here used both representationally to portray Penelope as one who is characteristically “deep in thought,” and evocatively to depict her as “thinking things over and over” in this particular narrative situation, as she goes without food or drink in “wondering” (hormainous’) what might become of her son. The verb hormaino is not used frequently in the Odyssey. It is usually translated as “pondering,” but this is no casual pondering over one’s options. On the contrary, in this and other instances in which the verb is employed, the context appears to indicate a person’s urgent grappling with extraordinary matters. This passage shows the close relation between the two deliberative verbs, hormaino and mermerizo. As Barnouw notes, in the simile of the lion that extends and intensifies Penelope’s anxious, visceral wondering, “No choice of alternatives governs this use of mermerizo, just as Penelope is not in a position to effect the outcome of the events she is ‘pondering’ or worrying about;” on the contrary, the verb, used for the lion’s brooding anticipation of the human hunters around it, “has the range to cover an anguished suspension or wondering; it does not necessarily frame a deliberation between alternative courses of action” (Barnouw, 2004, 68). Interestingly, the lion portrayed in the simile is designated as male, signifying that Penelope’s anguished wondering is not at this moment merely a gendered – that is, feminine – response to her circumstances but a visceral animal stance against the pressing challenge to her very survival. As Barnouw states:

The practical thinking in pondering or thinking or deliberating (at times more desperate worry than intellectual reflection) involves passions and impulses as its material, working from and with them. The engagement of thumos and phrenes and the heart (denoted by various terms) and related foci of mental-visceral activity reflects the subjective experience of practical calculation under the pressure of danger (Barnouw, 2004, 102).

The verb’s consistent use throughout the Odyssey confirms this view of Homeric cognition. For Telemakhos pepnumenos, it is a matter of the inspired gathering of his thoughts to meet the stark denial of his emerging manhood and his economic and political fortune. For Odysseus polymetis, it is the gut-wrenching problem of determining which of many possible shrewd stratagems to choose to survive the yet another life-threatening emergency; it is a matter, as usual, of “always thinking ahead.” Similarly, for Penelope periphron, it is the life-or-death scrutiny and anticipation of possible strategies to hold off and hopefully overcome the ever-deepening, multi-dimensional dilemma of her own and her son’s social survival. In this context, Penelope’s pondering is integrally connected to her wonder. As Barnouw writes:

The force of the simile [of the lion] makes us project the character of the lion’s deliberating’ onto Penelope’s ‘pondering.’ She is turning her son’s chances over in her mind in the same spirit that the lion turns circles in tense anticipation. Neither she nor the lion are weighing alternatives; they are looking for a hope, an opening (Barnouw, 2004,115).

Penelope’s wonder, earlier at her son’s rebuke and now in the face of the threat to his life, is a heart-wrenching recognition of her own situation, and at the same time a marveling at the swirl of human and (in her mind) possibly super-human activity around her. It is, more crucially, an anticipation of a necessary change in her involvement in the situation; it is, in other words, what Rogoff (1995) would call the “participatory appropriation” and I am here calling “anticipatory appropriation,” a transformative process, set in motion by the nurturing Eurykleia, of a change in both the level and the nature of her participation in the predicament she faces and in the circumstances she is about to face. In agonizing over what that change might be, she drifts into sleep and “all her joints [which by implication have been as taut as the lion’s in anticipating her future] relaxed.”

Penelope’s condition after hearing Medon’s news about her son is described as “heart-breaking anguish.” Athena sees the need for intervention to break the impasse in which Penelope is locked, even in her sleep. She sends “a vision” of her sister, Iphthime, to Penelope in her room as she weeps and mourns in her sleep. Suggestive that this is another instance of a woman’s speech (or rather the speech of the image or vision of a woman – in fact, Penelope’s sister), forceful in its own gendered manner. In her dream, Penelope’s wonder is absent; she is caught within her own sense of loss and despondency. But the shadowy apparition of her sister tells her to take heart, and keep in mind that the goddess Athena is by her son’s side. The vision of Iphthime concludes, “and it was She who sent me now to articulate [muthesasthai] these things to you.”

In responding to the vision, Penelope is again periphron. Turning these things over in her mind, she asks her sister, if she is herself a goddess or has spoken to one, to tell her if “that unlucky man,” keinon oizuron, or “the one who brings grief and sorrow in his wake” (Cunliffe, 2012, 286) is alive or dead. The vision has been sent to convey a specific mythos, not to resolve Penelope’s overall problem or anxiety, but to signal, as Barnouw suggests, “a hope, an opening.” It is an intriguing pedagogical strategy for extricating Penelope from her dejected point of view. The poet then ends the longest, most complex book of the epic by quickly shifting the scene to the suitors and ironically presenting another, very different use of hormaino. He describes the suitors setting sail, “weighing in their hearts the outright murder of Telemakhos.”

It is clear that thinking in the Odyssey is rarely a form of quiet contemplation. On the contrary, it is generally characterized by gut-wrenching disquiet, a weighing of risk and hazard. At the end of Book Four of the Odyssey, Penelope begins a new stage of engagement in grappling with her own and her son’s social displacement. As she awakens, warmed by “so clear a vision flashing before her in the depths of the night,” we are left with the sense of a developing awareness of her predicament and the range of options that are open to her.

Penelope’s Weaving as a Narrative of Displacement

Penelope has already been strategizing on how to divert the suitors’ demands that she marry one of them. The story about her weaving Laertes’ burial shroud is told three times in the Odyssey, twice by suitors, Antinoos and Amphimedon, and once by Penelope herself. The three nearly verbatim accounts have been viewed by some analysts as indicating additions or later changes to the original epic text (Clayton, 2004, 23), but if we look closely at the three versions, we see a masterful storyteller at work. Amphimedon’s version, told in the underworld after the suitors have been killed, is exactly the same as Antinoos’ earlier telling, except he adds two additional lines. Both versions are expressions of outrage against a woman’s tortuous deception. Antinoos uses his telling of the story in response to Telemakhos, as the justification for his demands that Penelope’s marriage be expedited and for his dire warning to the young man that the suitors will continue to use up all his possessions and leave him with empty hands and regret, unless she agrees to marry one of the suitors promptly.

Each variation on the narrative of the loom constitutes a mythos, an instance of persuasive speech. Yet the different contexts in which each mythos is rendered, almost but not quite verbatim, extend the understanding of what mythos is: no longer simply a speech act typified by its persuasiveness and power, it has taken on the sense of being a genre of speech act. We could characterize Antinoos’ version of the story as a narrative of justification in the context of answering Telemakhos’ arguments in the public assembly, while Amphimedon’s almost identical variant represents a narrative of complaint against unfair treatment. Various critics have viewed Penelope’s version of the story as powerless speech – that is, speech without an explicit point to make, as opposed to the pointed, public expression of power and authority associated with the dominant male mythos (Clayton, 2004, 38). As such the story brings up the craft of weaving as a covert, subversive discourse that undermines conventional meanings (Cixous, 1981) based on “the univocal and hegemonic discourse of the masculine” (Butler, 1990, 19, in Clayton, 2004, 39-40).

These perspectives offer new ways of reading the epic and its poetics, and I would only hesitate to ratify the characterization of Penelope’s mythos as powerless. It may be covert and subversive, but it is also powerful and persuasive in its own way. It is unclear whether Penelope has somehow recognized Odysseus – Homer leaves us, the audience, without any information or hints that might enable us to guess. For the stranger, the story is a mythos of considerable rhetorical power that also suggests a genre of speech. If she does guess or suspect that the beggar is in fact Odysseus, then it represents a defense of her strategies to hold her own against the Akhaian men’s impositions. If she does not, the narrative represents a lament explaining why she has lost “the excellence, in both beauty and figure” for which an empathetic listener has complimented her.

In either case, Penelope’s mythos is what might more comprehensibly be called a narrative of displacement. She is giving a beggar whom she may or may not recognize as her husband a prime example of the predicament by which she has lost her place within her own society and household and her attempts to navigate her way through this male-dominated set of circumstances by means of cunning stratagems. Whether she recognizes Odysseus or not, she addresses her narrative to her guest as a stranger, a beggar, someone who is himself geographically and socially displaced. Narratives of displacement capture the rhetorical construction of identity, as those who are displaced resist and subvert the dominant discourses that have been arbitrarily imposed on them (Powell, 2015, 189). The displaced may have no choice but to engage in, if not accept, the discourses forced upon them, but in their narratives of identity, they use those dominant discourses in ways that are potentially positive (Powell, 2015, 7). In this way, such narratives further enable us “to understand how the displaced move within accepted and subversive discourses and the ways that representation is a crucial component of that movement” (Powell, 2015, 7). We are able to see how narratives of displacement enable displaced people to establish narrative identities in resistance to the identities imposed on them (Powell, 2015, 13).

In the face of her displacement, her weaving of the shroud represents a complex process of weaving, unweaving and reweaving; it is, as the suitors complain and Penelope herself admits, a metis, a cunning device or stratagem intended to delay the shroud’s completion and keep her in a liminal time and space, “a realm of pure potentiality” beyond the aggressive reach of the suitor’s dominating occupation of what had formerly been her home (Clayton, 2004, 40). As an artistic or cultural activity, this device intertwines her physical act of weaving together with her cognitive act of weaving the metis that holds off the suitors (Clayton, 2004, 23). As an artistic or cultural object, a textile portrayal or “story cloth” of a narrative mythos in honor of Laertes, it is a mythos in itself – that is, an alternative narrative in opposition to the bardic theme and method of Phemios (and conceivably to the epic theme and poetics of the Iliad), an act and an object representing an alternative poetics, a feminine discourse in contradistinction from the dominant male mythos of argumentative public discourse.  As a mythos, Penelope’s weaving of the shroud is a gendered rhetorical act, a specifically female communicative process whose telos, or ultimate intent, is veiled.

The most distinguishing feature of this mythos is its metis. Clayton sees the weaving, unweaving, and reweaving of the shroud as a distinctively feminine metis representing a more comprehensive non-bardic poetics characteristic of the Odyssey itself. Similarly, Katz focuses on narrative indeterminacy as exemplifying an Odysseian poetics – the ways in which meaning is created and conveyed in the text (Katz, 1991, 18), its “strategies of meaning” (Katz, 1991, 17) that allow for contradictions that explore without rigidifying logic of narrative truth. This poetics of indeterminacy represents a compelling narrative strategy that calls into question not only the representation of reality in narrative but also the reality of reality (Katz, 1991, 10).

Approaching both the weaving of the shroud and the story of the weaving as narratives of displacement, we are freed to focus on it as an exemplar of the Odysseian revision of mythos. In the Odyssey, the significance of mythos – and of the mythoi that various characters tell – has become not the effective performance of the dominant male discourse (as in the Iliad) but the effectual utterance of those who have been displaced from their former position in society – that is, it is speech that is viewed not as powerless speech in the sense of ineffectual speech, but as powerful speech spoken by a person in the absence of social power and authority. The narrative of displacement in the Odyssey is thus an utterance involving a response to challenges to the self, or to the shattering of identity as a result of displacement, expressed in “moments where identities are not fragmented in the negative sense, but rather recognized for their sense of movement, liminality, and contingency” (Powell, 2015, 13). The narrative of displacement is an “act of discursive power” enacted in relation to broader systems of power, and answering that power in expressions that “assert an active identity, in process, reflecting the in-motion and in-process qualities of the displacement where ‘moving identities’ are constantly in action” (Powell, 2015, 15). Penelope’s almost three-year act of weaving the shroud for Laertes is a response to the suitors’ forceful appropriation of her domestic space and their implicit suspension of her social position as queen of Ithaka.

Penelope’s metis in weaving the shroud is an attempt to minimize her social displacement by prolonging her liminal status until either her son comes of age or her husband returns to Ithaka to restore her place in the world. The object of her weaving, as a narrative of displacement, is simply to delay and resist the power that the suitors are exercising over her household and her life, and to assert her own identity, by whatever craft or ruse necessary, as the wife of Odysseus. Moreover, her narrative is a way of navigating the dominant male discourse that has placed her outside her former world. Hutchins (1995) has defined navigation as a distributed system of cognition in which people work not as solitary individuals but as small groups or teams of collaborating partners, all of them pooling information and resources in order to answer the crucial questions of establishing one’s position and anticipating one’s movements over time. “The central computations in navigation answer the questions, Where are we? And if we proceed in a certain way for a specified time, where will we be?” (Hutchins, 1996, 39).  In this process, one reckons one’s position in relation to where one wants to be or anticipates being within a certain time frame and anticipates one’s course accordingly, a process called dead reckoning. Viewed from this perspective, Penelope’s act of weaving is a metis, a navigational tool for plotting her course among the suitors for a time. In this activity, Penelope relies on the unwitting collusion of the suitors to make her way as long as possible.

By the time her metis has been discovered, it has already served its purpose for at least as long as might have been expected. Having reached an impasse in that activity, she is again confronted with both a social dilemma and a cognitive problem. She is alone in a house to which she has at best a doubtful claim, at least within the cultural framework of lineage and entitlement in which she has to find her way. It is only when Telemakhos sends her away to her private room that Penelope at last fully comprehends the extent to which the impersonal power of male dominance in her society has curbed the sway of her physical presence and stifled the flow of her voice. What little she might have implicitly asserted before, her son has explicitly denied with his own act of growing self-assertion. In the privacy of her own room, she has expressed the devastation this change has brought to her sense of identity. She is left with only the moral support of her slave, Eurykleia, and the apparition of her sister, signifying a hint of support from the goddess. But her course of action is now unclear.

Both the activity of weaving the shroud and the implicit tenuous assumption of maintaining a semblance of authority are no longer viable strategies for holding off the suitors and delaying her physical as well as political and social exclusion from her home in the land of Ithaka. Her narrative of displacement is framed in this context. Like the activity of weaving the shroud, her narrative about the weaving of the shroud to the beggar in Book Nineteen is an act of self-assertion by a woman thinking and acting on her own. It is a story told to the only listener that a woman with no one to talk to has available, aside from a slave (powerless yet actively resistant against the suitors in her support of Penelope), and it is a story told to someone who represents a potential ally. Who knows? The stranger might be a god or some other person who might help her find a new way of thinking about and acting on the problem, a new metis, to recover a place for herself in the disintegrating social milieu of her absent husband’s homeland which, after all, has never been her own land.

She turns to the beggar, Odysseus in disguise, and with a unique personal twist that emphasizes her own role in asking him the ritual question that only a host always asks a guest, says to him: 

Stranger, I myself will first ask you this.

Who are you among men and from where?

Where is your city and where are your parents?
ξεῖνετὸ μέν σε πρῶτον ἐγὼν εἰρήσομαι αὐτή:
τίς πόθεν εἶς ἀνδρῶνπόθι τοι πόλις ἠδὲ τοκῆες;

(19.104-105).

Odysseus answers with an expression of deep respect, putting aside any doubt of her right to speak as a host, an observation that is more than an idle compliment. Odysseus continues by saying that in spite of the respect he has for her, he begs her not to ask him about his background, because of the deep pain it would cause him to recount it. Periphron Penelope answers:

Stranger, any distinction of mine, either in beauty

or figure, the gods destroyed the day they embarked for Ilios,

the Argives, and with them my husband, Odysseus…

ξεῖν᾽ τοι μὲν ἐμὴν ἀρετὴν εἶδός τε δέμας τε
ὤλεσαν ἀθάνατοιὅτε Ἴλιον εἰσανέβαινον
Ἀργεῖοιμετὰ τοῖσι δ᾽ ἐμὸς πόσις ᾖεν Ὀδυσσεύς

(19.124-126).

Her dismissal of his expression of respect is made with extreme bitterness and sorrow, implicitly referring to the Argives with resentment and revulsion as the cause of her husband’s absence, which itself is in her view the ultimate cause of all her problems. If she recognizes this strangely familiar guest, ragged as he is, her statement is a piercing complaint; it she does not, it is an expression of deep sorrow, loss, and discouragement. Homer never gives us a clue and the audience is left wondering about her impressions and motives. Penelope adds that “some god” (daimon) must have brought her all this trouble, such that “in longing for Odysseus, I waste away my own heart.” She says she no longer believes any news she hears and, besieged by the suitors, she carries out deceit.

Her story of the shroud is told in this specific context. While she tells much of the tale exactly as Antinoos and Amphimedon do, the variations express the devastating emotional power of her social displacement and her temporal sense of the tedium and duration of her experience of displacement. At the end of her story, she delineates her predicament in near brutal detail to the man sitting before her.

Now, I am unable to avoid the marriage or to find

some other deception. My parents are pushing me

to marry, while these men eat up all my provisions,

and my son is beside himself, as he well knows.

Because he is a man by now, able to manage

a household, and Zeus gives honor for such a thing.

νῦν δ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ἐκφυγέειν δύναμαι γάμον οὔτε τιν᾽ ἄλλην
μῆτιν ἔθ᾽ εὑρίσκωμάλα δ᾽ ὀτρύνουσι τοκῆες
γήμασθ᾽ἀσχαλάᾳ δὲ πάϊς βίοτον κατεδόντων,
γιγνώσκωνἤδη γὰρ ἀνὴρ οἶός τε μάλιστα
οἴκου κήδεσθαιτῷ τε Ζεὺς κῦδος ὀπάζει.

(19.156-161).

It is almost impossible for us not to wonder if she is pointedly describing her inescapable situation to a man she knows to be or suspects of being her husband in disguise, or if she is seeking to gain the sympathy if not actual assistance of the stranger. This indeterminacy is made even more emphatic as she suddenly waves away her own problems and repeats the ritual request for her guest to reveal who he is.

Penelope’s anger and bitterness are here transformed into either a frank interest in mutually sharing with her guest each other’s troubles or a probing metis of insinuating skepticism. She is not going to let this man go easily. If he can or will help her, she wants to find out how. She draws on an old folk saying that is suggestive in its own way – “since you did not just spring up out of the oak of old stories or from some rock.” On the one hand, she is asserting that he is by no means a man without a past, outside of history. On the other hand, she is implicitly calling on him to expose, as she has done for him, not the vague pretense of a man appearing as if being hard as a rock, the same on the inside as on the outside, but the raw heart of his genuine presence before her as a human being. The words are also suggestive on another level. The poet is again conveying to us, the audience, the poetic sense of the reality of the imaginary and the unreal, imaginative quality of the real. The words represent a denial, by a character in the story, of the fact that Odysseus is himself a character that has emerged in the fruition of a burgeoning tradition of storytelling (druos… palaiphatou, “the oak of old stories” or “the oak put forth long ago” or “of old renown” – Cunliffe, 2012, 309), yet has nonetheless more vitality than the heavy, resistant, weight of a rock (petres). This rhetorical gesture is perhaps a further indication that Katz and Clayton are right in claiming that a feminine, even proto-feminist, poetics is here at play.

Coming at the climax of Penelope’s narrative of displacement, it is an example of Penelope’s continuing wonder at the world around her. Whether or not she in fact recognizes Odysseus at this point is thus irrelevant; she is pursuing her quality of being periphron, of thinking things through thoroughly from every angle, in a new context of cognitive activity. With this new intruder, this stranger, unrecognizable yet somehow familiar, Penelope has come upon a new activity in which to execute her navigation of the male world in which she lives. Penelope continually enters into successive activities that enable her to establish her own position in relation both to specific others and to a sense of generalized others. In weaving the shroud for Laertes, the activity was a solitary, perhaps even secret, activity performed within the social context of the suitors as a whole. Ironically, it was a social activity, performed for a given audience though not in their presence, yet it was carried out in response to her social exclusion from any but the most incidental, brief, and primarily inactive participation in the more public domains of her own household. When her act of weaving, unweaving, and reweaving is discovered, she is left with only her son and a few powerless slaves as possible allies in her resistance to the suitors. However, her son’s declaration of his own authority and her expulsion by him from the public domain, leaves her at an impasse.

With the arrival of the stranger, there is a new potential ally with whom she can align herself in resisting her situation. Her narrative of the shroud to the stranger, whom she has affirmed as her rightful guest, is an exploration of his potential usefulness as a partner in her navigational plotting, enabling her to have someone who is present, if not entirely welcome, among the suitors, and who thus represents a source of information about where she stands and what her next moves might conceivably be. As such, her narrative represents an act of resisting the suitors’ definition of her and her situation. The stranger, whoever he may be, is another point of reference, enabling her to ascertain a reckoning of her position both in space and time – that is, in reading the dynamics of her household and anticipating how long she can delay the suitors’ intent.

Penelope’s wonder, then, encapsulates both her amazement – at her son’s emerging maturity, at the shock of the extreme violence of male domination and of the growing insolence of some of her servants, and at the puzzling question of the stranger’s identity – and an act of speculation, of reckoning her position among others in her social world. Virtually denied participation in the social life of her own household and community, she plots her path with metis, and given the successive challenges and obstacles to her path, her answer is to anticipate new strategies and activities, new ways of participating in activities with others and appropriating new forms of participation in the exclusionary world of male domination. As her space and time become more and more confined, her wonder is a cognitive response comparable both to Telemakhos’ expansive learning process and to Odysseus’ wide-ranging visceral recovery from the hidden injuries of war. Our sense of the narrative of the shroud as an account told to a stranger by the displaced military wife of an absent spouse adds to our understanding of the cognitive dimensions of Penelope’s wonder, both as a response to the recognition of her son’s newly emergent manhood and her husband’s still synergetic (if so far disguised) presence, and as a means for recovering her own sense of place. It lends further insight into her counterpart, the self-ascribed nobody who is struggling to become Odysseus, a different kind of hero in a post-heroic universe.

NB: Diacritics available in the original book chapter.


References

Barnouw, J. (2004). Odysseus, hero of practical intelligence: deliberation and signs in Homer's Odyssey. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Besslich, S. (1966). Schweigen-Verschweigen-Übergehen. Die Darstellung de Unausgesprochenen in der Odyssee. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Cixous, H. (1981). “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Translated by K. Cohen and P. Cohen in E. Marks and I. de Courtivron (eds.) New French Feminisms. Pantheon.

Clayton, B. (2004). A Penelopean poetics: Reweaving the feminine in Homer's Odyssey. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Cunliffe, R. J. (2012). A lexicon of the Homeric dialect: Expanded edition. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Felson-Rubin, N. (1994). Regarding Penelope: From character to poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Haubold, J. (2000). Homer’s people: Epic poetry and social formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hutchins, E. (1996). Learning to navigate. Understanding practice: Perspectives on activity and context, 35-63. Chaiklin, S. & Lave, J. (Eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Katz, M. A. (1991). Penelope's Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the" Odyssey". Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Marnocha, S. (2012). Military wives' transition and coping: Deployment and the return home. ISRN Nursing, 2012.

Powell, K. M. (2015). Identity and power in narratives of displacement (Vol. 22). New York: Routledge.

Rossetto, K. R. (2009). “You can freak out or deal with it”: Military wives' perspectives on communication and family resilience, coping, and support during deployment. Ph.D. Dissertation. Austin: The University of Texas at Austin.

Vivante, P. (1982). The epithets in Homer: A study in poetic values. New Haven: Yale University Press.

 

 

 

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