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Thursday, 13 October 2011

Penelope: The Circumspect Wife, the Crafty Stranger, and the Homeric Test by Do-It-Yourself Carpentry


Odysseus and Penelope
: Francesco Primaticcio (1505-1570), c. 1563 (Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio)

She was going down as she spoke, her heart in a turmoil of debate whether to keep her distance while she examined her dear lord, or go straight up at once and kiss his head and clasp his hand. So when at length she came in across the stone threshold it was to take a seat in the fire-light facing Odysseus, but over against the further wall. He sat at the base of a tall pillar, waiting with drooping eyelids to hear his stately consort cry out when she caught sight of him. But she sat there in a long silence, with bewildered heart. One moment she would look and see him in his face; and the next moment fail to see him there, by reason of the foul rags he wore -- till Telemachus named her in disapproval. 'Mother mine,' he cried, 'unmotherly mother and cruel-hearted, how dare you hold aloof from father, instead of running to sit by his side and ply him with questions? No other woman could in cold blood keep herself apart, when her man got home after twenty years of toil and sorrow. Your heart remains harder than a stone.' But Penelope explained: 'Child, my heart is dazed. I have no force to speak, or ask, or even stare upon his face. If this is Odysseus in truth and at last, then shall we soon know each other better than well by certain private signs between us two, hidden from the rest of the world.' At which the glorious-suffering Odysseus smiled and said hastily to Telemachus, 'After that, leave your mother alone for the test in her room with me presently. Soon she will come to fuller understanding. The filth of my body, these shabby clothes -- such things make her overlook me and deny it can be myself.'

Meanwhile, within, old Eurynome washed and anointed Odysseus, draping upon him a fair tunic and cloak, while Athene crowned him with an especial splendour that filled the eyes; she made the hair of his head curl downward floridly, like bloom of hyacinth. As a craftsman lavishly endowed with skill by Hephaestus and Pallas washes his silver-work with fine gold until its mastery shines out, so the grace from Athene glorified his head and shoulders and made his figure, when he left the bath-chamber, seem divine. He retook his former throne opposite his wife and declared, 'Proud lady, the heart that the lores of Olympus gave you is harder than any true woman's. None but you would pitilessly repulse the husband who had won his way home after twenty years of toil. Old dame, favour me now by arranging my bed somewhere apart, that I may lie solitary: for the heart in her breast has turned to iron.'

Said Penelope with reserve, 'Proud lord, I neither set myself too high nor esteem you too low: nor am I confused out of mind. It is that I remember only too well how you were when you sailed from Ithaca in your long-oared ship. So Eurycleia, when you make up his great bed for him, move it outside the bridal chamber that he built so firmly. Heave forth the heavy bed-frame and pile it high with fleeces and rugs and glossy blankets.' This she said to draw her husband out; and indeed Odysseus was ruffled into protesting to his wife, 'Woman, this order pains my heart. Who has changed my bed? It would task the cunningest man -- forbye no god managed to shift it in whim -- for not the stoutest wight alive could heave it up directly. That bed held a marvelous feature of my own contriving. Within our court had sprung a stem of olive, bushy, long in the leaf, vigorous; the bole of it column-thick. Round it I plotted my bed-chamber, walled entire with fine-jointed ashlar and soundly roofed. After adding joinery doors, fitting very close, I then polled the olive's spreading top and trimmed its stump from the root up, dressing it so smooth with my tools and so knowingly that I got it plumb, to serve for bedpost just as it stood. With this for main member (boring it with my auger wherever required) I went on to frame up the bed, complete; inlaying it with gold, silver and ivory and lacing it across with ox-hide thongs, dyed blood-purple. That was the style of it, woman, as I explain: but of course I do not know whether the bed stands as it did; or has someone sawn through the olive stem and altered it?

As Odysseus had run on, furnishing her with proof too solid for rejection, her knees trembled, and her heart. She burst into tears, she ran to him, she flung her arms about his neck and kissed his head and cried, 'My Odysseus, forgive me this time too, you who were of old more comprehending than any man of men. The Gods gave us sorrow for our portion, and in envy denied us the happiness of being together throughout our days, from the heat of youth to the shadow of old age. Be not angry with me, therefore, nor resentful, because at first sight I failed to fondle you thus. The heart within me for ever shook for terror of being cheated by some man's lie, so innumerable are those who plot to serve greedy ends. See, it was that way our life's sorrow first began. Argive Helen, the daughter of Zeus, did not in her own imagination invent the ruinous folly that let a strange man lie with her in love and intercourse. A God it was that tempted her astray. Never would she have done it had she known how the warrior sons of the Achaeans would fetch her back once more to her native land. But now with those authentic details of our bed, see by no human eye but yours, mine and my maid's (Actor's daughter, given me by my father before I came here and ever the sole keeper of our closed bed-chamber-door) you have convinced my heart, slow though you may think it to believe.'

Homer: The Odyssey, from Book 23: trans. T.E. Shaw [T.E. Lawrence], 1928-1931

Penelope: Domenico Bartefumi, c. 1514 (Seminario Patriarcale, Venice)

She turned then to descend the stair, her heart
in tumult. Had she better keep her distance
and question him, her husband? Should she run
up to him, take his hands, kiss him now?
Crossing the door sill she sat down at once
in firelight, against the nearest wall,
across the room from the lord Odysseus.
leaning against a pillar, sat the man
and never lifted up his eyes, but only waited
for what his wife would say when she had seen him.
And she, for a long time, sat deathly still
in wonderment -- for sometimes as she gazed
she found him -- yes, clearly -- like her husband,
but sometimes blood and rags were all she saw.
Telémakhos' voice came to hear ears:
cruel mother, do you feel nothing,
drawing yourself apart this way from father?
Will you not sit with him and talk and question him?
What other woman could remain so cold?
Who shuns her lord, and he come back to her
from wars and wandering, after twenty years?
Your heart is hard as flint and never changes!'

Penélopê answered:

.................................'I am stunned, child.

I cannot speak to him. I cannot question him.
I cannot keep my eyes upon his face.
If really he is Odysseus, truly home,
beyond all doubt we two shall know each other
better than you or anyone. There are
secret signs we know, we two.'

......................................A smile

came now to the lips of the patient hero, Odysseus,
who turned to Telémakhos and said:

'Peace: let your mother test me at her leisure.

Before long she will see and know me best.'

Homer: The Odyssey, from Book 23: trans. Robert Fitzgerald, 1961

Odysseus, in the guise of a beggar, tries to be recognized by Penelope
: terracotta relief, c. 450 BC., found at Milo; image by Jastrow, 2007 (Department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, Musée de Louvre, Paris)

Circe and Calypso, the courtesans, like mythic powers of destiny or bourgeois housewives, are introduced as diligent weavers, whereas Penelope like a courtesan sizes up the homecomer suspiciously, estimating the chances that he might really be just an old beggar, or perhaps a god on his travels. The famous recognition scene with Odysseus is of course truly patrician: "She sat there for a long time without saying a word, astonished beyond measure. At one moment, as she scrutinized his face, he seemed just like her husband; at another, his worn clothes made him unrecognizable." There is no spontaneous reaction, for she does not want to make a mistake, and can hardly permit one under the pressure of the order that so bears down on her. The young Telemachus, who has not yet entirely adapted to his future role, is annoyed by this, but feels he is man enough to rebuke his mother. The charge of stubbornness and hardheartedness that he brings against her is exactly the same as that already made by Circe against Odysseus. If the courtesan makes the patriarchal world-order her own, the monogamous wife is not herself happy with it and does not rest until she has made herself equal with the male character. Thus the marriage partners come to terms. The test Penelope puts the homecomer to concerns the immoveable position of the marriage bed; her husband had based it on an olive tree round which he had built the room itself -- the olive tree being the symbol of sex and property. Penelope's moving artifice is to speak as if the bed could be moved from its position; furious, her husband answers her with a detailed account of his longlasting piece of woodwork. He is the prototypical bourgeois -- the with-it hobbyist. His do-it-yourself effort is an imitation of the actual labor of a craftsman, from which, in the framework of differentiated conditions of property ownership, he has long been necessarily excluded. He enjoys this for the freedom to do what is really superfluous as far as he is concerned confirms his power of disposal over those who have to do precisely that kind of work in order to live. The cautious Penelope now recognizes Odysseus and fawns upon him with praise of his exceptional effort. But she adds to the praise (which contains a certain element of mockery) a sudden attribution of the reason for all their suffering to the gods' envy of the happiness that only marriage allows, the "promise of permanence": "The immortals sent misery down upon us, thinking it too much that we should enjoy our youth together and then gently reach old age." (Odyssey 23.210ff.) Marriage does not signify merely the order that requites in life but also solidarity in facing death. Expiation develops in it round about subjection, as in history to date the humane has flourished only and precisely in the savagery that is veiled by humanity. Even if the contract between the partners only calls down that age-old enmity, nevertheless, peacefully growing old together, they can vanish at the same moment like Philemon and Baucis: just as the smoke of the sacrificial altar turns into the wholesome smoke of the fireside. Marriage belongs to the primal rock of myth in the basis of civilization. But its mythic hardness and fixity stand out from myth as the small island kingdom from the infinite sea.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno: Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment (excerpt) from Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944: trans. John Cumming, 1989

Eurasian Widgeon (Anas penelope), female
: photo by Dick Daniels, 5 November 2009

The origin of her name is believed by some like Robert S.P. Beekes to be Pre-Greek and related to pēnelops (πηνέλοψ) or *pēnelōps (*πηνέλωψ), glossed by Hesychius as "some kind of bird" (today arbitrarily identified with the Eurasian Widgeon, to which Linnaeus gave the binomial Anas penelope), where -elōps (-έλωψ) is a common Pre-Greek suffix for predatory animals; however, the semantic relation between the proper name and the gloss is not clear. Pēnelopē (Πηνελόπη) is usually understood to combine the Greek word pēnē (πήνη), "weft", and ōps (ὤψ), "face", which is considered the most appropriate for a cunning weaver whose motivation is hard to decipher. Alternatively, the derivation pēnē and lepō (λέπω), "peel", because of the shroud-unweaving mytheme, has been suggested.

Eurasian Widgeon (Anas penelope), male
: photo by Kuribo, 22 February 2007

[85] So saying, she went down from the upper chamber, and much her heart pondered whether she should stand aloof and question her dear husband, or whether she should go up to him, and clasp and kiss his head and hands. But when she had come in and had passed over the stone threshold, she sat down opposite Odysseus in the light of the fire [90] beside the further wall; but he was sitting by a tall pillar, looking down, and waiting to see whether his noble wife would say aught to him, when her eyes beheld him. Howbeit she sat long in silence, and amazement came upon her soul; and now with her eyes she would look full upon his face, and now again [95] she would fail to know him, for that he had upon him mean raiment. But Telemachus rebuked her, and spoke, and addressed her: “My mother, cruel mother, that hast an unyielding heart, why dost thou thus hold aloof from my father, and dost not sit by his side and ask and question him? [100] No other woman would harden her heart as thou dost, and stand aloof from her husband, who after many grievous toils had come back to her in the twentieth year to his native land: but thy heart is ever harder than stone.” Then wise Penelope answered him: [105] “My child, the heart in my breast is lost in wonder, and I have no power to speak at all, nor to ask a question, nor to look him in the face. But if in very truth he is Odysseus, and has come home, we two shall surely know one another more certainly; [110] for we have signs which we two alone know, signs hidden from others.” So she spoke, and the much-enduring, goodly Odysseus smiled, and straightway spoke to Telemachus winged words: “Telemachus, suffer now thy mother to test me in the halls; presently shall she win more certain knowledge. [115] But now because I am foul, and am clad about my body in mean clothing, she scorns me, and will not yet admit that I am he.

Meanwhile the housewife Eurynome bathed the great-hearted Odysseus in his house, and anointed him with oil, [155] and cast about him a fair cloak and a tunic; and over his head Athena shed abundant beauty, making him taller to look upon and mightier, and from his head she made locks to flow in curls like the hyacinth flower. And as when a man overlays silver with gold, [160] a cunning workman whom Hephaestus and Pallas Athena have taught all manner of craft, and full of grace is the work he produces, even so the goddess shed grace on his head and shoulders, and forth from the bath he came, in form like unto the immortals. Then he sat down again on the chair from which he had risen, [165] opposite his wife; and he spoke to her and said: “Strange lady! to thee beyond all women have the dwellers on Olympus given a heart that cannot be softened. No other woman would harden her heart as thou dost, and stand aloof from her husband who after many grievous toils [170] had come to her in the twentieth year to his native land. Nay come, nurse, strew me a couch, that all alone I may lay me down, for verily the heart in her breast is of iron.” Then wise Penelope answered him: “Strange sir, I am neither in any wise proud, nor do I scorn thee, [175] nor yet am I too greatly amazed, but right well do I know what manner of man thou wast, when thou wentest forth from Ithaca on thy long-oared ship. Yet come, Eurycleia, strew for him the stout bedstead outside the well-built bridal chamber which he made himself. Thither do ye bring for him the stout bedstead, and cast upon it bedding, [180] fleeces and cloaks and bright coverlets.”

So she spoke, and made trial of her husband. But Odysseus, in a burst of anger, spoke to his true-hearted wife, and said: “Woman, truly this is a bitter word that thou hast spoken. Who has set my bed elsewhere? Hard would it be for one, [185] though never so skilled, unless a god himself should come and easily by his will set it in another place. But of men there is no mortal that lives, be he never so young and strong, who could easily pry it from its place, for a great token is wrought in the fashioned bed, and it was I that built it and none other. [190] A bush of long-leafed olive was growing within the court, strong and vigorous, and girth it was like a pillar. Round about this I built my chamber, till I had finished it, with close-set stones, and I roofed it over well, and added to it jointed doors, close-fitting. [195] Thereafter I cut away the leafy branches of the long-leafed olive, and, trimming the trunk from the root, I smoothed it around with the adze well and cunningly, and made it straight to the line, thus fashioning the bed-post; and I bored it all with the augur. Beginning with this I hewed out my bed, till I had finished it, [200] inlaying it with gold and silver and ivory, and I stretched on it a thong of ox-hide, bright with purple. Thus do I declare to thee this token; but I know not, woman, whether my bedstead is still fast in its place, or whether by now some man has cut from beneath the olive stump, and set the bedstead elsewhere.” [205] So he spoke, and her knees were loosened where she sat, and her heart melted, as she knew the sure tokens which Odysseus told her. Then with a burst of tears she ran straight toward him, and flung her arms about the neck of Odysseus, and kissed his head, and spoke, saying: “Be not vexed with me, Odysseus, for in all else [210] thou wast ever the wisest of men. It is the gods that gave us sorrow, the gods who begrudged that we two should remain with each other and enjoy our youth, and come to the threshold of old age. But be not now wroth with me for this, nor full of indignation, because at the first, when I saw thee, I did not thus give thee welcome. [215] For always the heart in my breast was full of dread, lest some man should come and beguile me with his words; for there are many that plan devices of evil. Nay, even Argive Helen, daughter of Zeus, would not have lain in love with a man of another folk, [220] had she known that the warlike sons of the Achaeans were to bring her home again to her dear native land. Yet verily in her case a god prompted her to work a shameful deed; nor until then did she lay up in her mind the thought of that folly, the grievous folly from which at the first sorrow came upon us too. [225] But now, since thou hast told the clear tokens of our bed, which no mortal beside has ever seen save thee and me alone and one single handmaid, the daughter of Actor, whom my father gave me or ever I came hither, even her who kept the doors of our strong bridal chamber, [230] lo, thou dost convince my heart, unbending as it is.”

Homer: The Odyssey, from Book 23: trans. A.T. Murray, 1911

Gold ring representing Penelope waiting for Odysseus: artist unknown, Syria, last quarter of 5th century B.C.; image by Jastrow, 2005 (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibiliothèque nacionale de France)

For the first time in the whole Odyssey Odysseus is mastered by a sudden impulse ('with a burst of anger') and speaks without perceiving the implications of his interlocutor's words. This is Penelope's triumph, and the ever recurrent and ever deserved triumph of every intelligent and patient wife.

W. B. Stanford: editorial note re. Odyssey 23.182, 1947

Eurasian Widgeon (Anas penelope), pair (male above)
: photo by Kuribo, 22 February 2007

Eurasian Widgeon (Anas penelope), pair (male above): photo by Kuribo, 11 March 2007

Last of Lawrence's motorcycles: the original (restored) SS100 Brough Superior: photo by Joe MiGo, 17 August 2010 (Imperial War Museum)

T.E. Lawrence's pseudonymous prose translation of the Odyssey, excerpted at the top of this post, was a long and painstaking labour, of Homeric -- or perhaps one ought to say, Lawrentian -- proportions. Lawrence would often spend an hour over three lines of Greek, weaving and then undoing the weave, producing and then rejecting as many as fourteen English renderings before settling on the "right" one. The work earned him a nice sum, part of which went into the purchase of the last of his SS100 Brough Superior motorcycles. It was the latter vehicle that conveyed him prematurely to the underworld in May 1935, when, at the age of 46, just two months out of military service, driving on a dipping road near his cottage in Clouds Hill, Dorset, he swerved to avoid two boys on bicycles, lost contro
l and went over the handlebars, suffering fatal injuries.


Ed Baker said...

this-all comes in at a precise moment as I have just discovered
(and am into the "Nature" section)
of Norman Brown's LOVE'S BODY

and have (also) just come to a term DEEP IMAGE
that is too an active "well-spring"


to finish this Brown "thing" then me-thinks will ACTUALLY read this Homer Epic!

see just what T.E. did with it (can one yet find his translationing of) & SEE with own Imagination

just what Odysseus & his Merrie Band of
"the warrior sons of the Achaens" did do to murder Mother & capture the Faire Maiden at the end of the

now? to retreat into my Luscious Cave and see
transpires/develops out of the Dark Room Fluids...

seems, so far & down through The Ages
that the "thrust" has always been to initiate the boys and capture (penetrate) the girls !


Erin O'Brien said...

Well isn't this a lovely place!

TC said...


Lawrence's Odyssey has eluded the net until now; I had to hunt-and-peck it in, blind as old Homer, from one of those old paper-product thingies... a boke, as I believe such things were called.


Welcome, and I hope our ragged stragglers will avail themselves of the shiny new side link to your extremely cool blog. Between you and Nin, Ohio is starting to feel... well, different.

(I spent much of the forlorn autumn of 1959 in Bob Lee's bar on Euclid Avenue, plainly at least fifty years too early... alas Odysseus never arrived in his disguise-rags to, er, penetrate that solitude.)

Ed Baker said...

abe books has a copy for FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS !

amazone has 2wo... one for $275 and one for $39 ..

hells-bells... I can get the movie on HULU for free

and if I join JSTOR I can see/read a virtual copy of it !

on my iPad that iclouds everything Homer & I ever did !


off into the Real World... to replace my stolen leaf rake
....will get one at Value Village

and see if in their book-section they got any Poetry !

TC said...


Might be the worst movie ever made. Still recall Kenneth Tynan's comment on the scene in which Kirk Douglas, as Odysseus, has himself lashed to the mast, fighting off the wily temptations of the Sirens... "with the grinning rictus of a demented ventriloquist".

Ed Baker said...

never saw that one

I was thinking of that Harryhousen "thing" Clash of the Titans

I guess one Penelope is as good as another ?


I betchuh that there is a movie "out there" called Penelope !

starring Diana Dors ?

Anonymous said...

A lovely collection Tom. The first Penelope is odd because (to state he obvious) of her head not sitting on her body but in his hand. I liked the 5thC terracotta the best, Odysseus ("& his Merrie Band") looks medieval, another impression for the mind's eye.

I love the Penelope Widgeons, of course. Beautiful feathers.

It's an odd translation in parts, I thought, the TE, for one so agonized over. Be not angry with me, therefore, nor resentful, because at first sight I failed to fondle you thus, for example. I can't see anyone saying that except possibly the other Lawrence.

He is the prototypical bourgeois -- the with-it hobbyist. His do-it-yourself effort is an imitation of the actual labor of a craftsman, from which, in the framework of differentiated conditions of property ownership, he has long been necessarily excluded. He enjoys this for the freedom to do what is really superfluous as far as he is concerned confirms his power of disposal over those who have to do precisely that kind of work in order to live.
This is ridiculous, isn't it?

Artur (prototypical bourgeois with-it hobbyist).

Curtis Faville said...

Those mallards look real enough to be decoys!

Barry Taylor said...

As long as people live together in intimacy and experience flashes of knowing they don't know for a moment who the other actually is, that episode will resonate.

This is a lovely place, indeed, and it's nice to be back in its orbit.



Such a complex compendium of legend and image here (could teach us to drink deep, ere we depart), thanks. . .


red orange of cloud above still shadowed
ridge, whiteness of moon behind branches
in foreground, waves sounding in channel

that condition therefore is,
which is connected to

it is, “linear element,” is
system of coordinates

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
white cloud in pale blue sky on horizon

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Great series of translated "snatches" of Homer's poetry accompanied by equally interesting photographs but

INTERVIEWER: What about as "idea," quite aside from poetic considerations? As statement of a philosophical or religious position.

SEFERIS: I don't know. I have no idea about philosophical positions and world views. You know, whenever world views begin interfering with writing--I don't know. I prefer world views in the sort of dry, repulsive, and (I don't know how to put it) prosaic way. I don't like people who try to express world views in writing poetry. I remember once I had a reading in Thessalonike, and a philosopher stood up and asked: "But what, after all, Mr. Seferis, is your world view?" And I said: "My dear friend, I'm sorry to say that I have no world view. I have to make this public confession to you that I am writing without having any world view. I don't know, perhaps you find that scandalous, sir, but may I ask you to tell me what Homer's world view is?" And I didn't get an answer.

--from The Paris Review interview, Fall 1970

Nin Andrews said...

I love this series. My mother studied Ancient Greek and archeology --studied with Lattimore, so as you can imagine, I was raised on the stuff--
at the same time she was a dairy farmer, which meant a lot of our animals were named Penelope or Zeus or what have you . . .
I can still hear the myths and stories in her voice, years later . . .

TC said...

Thanks all.

Barry, wonderful to have you back.

Nin, the Lattimore version of this is pretty great... In fact, it's kicking around here on the cutting room floor. I like the idea of a cow named Zeus.

About that funny detachable Penelope head in the Primaticcio, Artur -- never fear, it's merely a decoy.

Ah, that Teddy Adorno, marvelous sense of humour!

And so... a funny thing happened to Odysseus on the way back from Home Depot: "Tie me to the mast! Tighter! And don't untie me!"

Ed Baker said...

hells-bells that just happened daze before I
cleaned out the wax in my ears so's I could
-as Kirk so was "lashed to the mast"
nekked so to hear that Siren "bring 'it' on !

while he with his erection & helplessly tied up to
another pole

& while his Merrie Band of boys in the back-ground are master-bating
ALL moving in consort

towards an Epic orgasm:

as Kirk says after everyone calms down and lights a cigarette:

those Sirens/Goddesses ARE
(in a word, his word)


TC said...

I love it when he says, "get the wax!"

Ed Baker said...

and then the sailor says:

"no man who hears their Song can ESCAPE" !

& then, in a subsequent version (1997) we pick things up with Odysseus "in the drink"
hanging on to that "mast" drifting towards a Virgin Stone...

Calypso (who has not "seen" a man in an 100 years) and her Virgin Maidens (who have NEVER "seen" a man in their entire lives):

( as I once said to Steve Addiss: "What's a phantasy?"

methinks it s the Stuff" of poetry.... exspectually of E-pics

as someone once wrote:

"exegesis will always remain unfinished"

Anonymous said...

Haha. "Quick, get the wax."

Anonymous said...

Oh, you wrote that already.