POTW: The Odyssey - On Dangerous Women & Their Looms
Christian Classical education is “logo-centric” (among other things) – driven by language, in love with words, books, literature, truth; both logos and the Logos. Living in a time of confused and devalued language, then, proves difficult for many of us. To use one example, the title of “classic” can now apply to any book people are still talking about after a month or so. And to make sure the label of “classic” sticks a smattering of specific categories has been created: “modern classic”, “cult classic”, “destined to be a classic”, and so on.
Such free usage of the term is unfortunate. The works of Homer – The Iliad and The Odyssey – are classics. They have endured the test of time (a really long time) and provide new riches with each encounter. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book (capitalize, if you like). After multiple readings, it is still a favorite. If God blesses my wife and me with another son, I want to call him Atticus (and now that it’s in print my wife has to go along with it, right?). I love the story. But to call it a “classic” is a stretch.
It may seem that I am just being picky, drawing unnecessary distinctions or perhaps encouraging a bit of chronological snobbery. That is not my intent. Rather I wish to point out that if we learn to grapple with Homer, to delve into just a bit of his ingenious layering, then books like To Kill a Mockingbird are no problem.
Weavers of Forgetfulness
On my most recent excursion into The Odyssey, I found myself again struck with the richness of the text; its shockingly complete, brilliantly layered, and beautifully woven together. These layers drew me to contemplate the many examples of literal (physical) weaving within the tale. The first reference to weaving is in Book IV and does not directly involve Odysseus. Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, has arrived from Ithaca to inquire of Menelaus the whereabouts of Odysseus. Helen, Menelaus’ wife and “the face that launched a thousand ships”, joins the men with her workbox, full of yarn, by her side. Her weaving is stitching to pass the time, perhaps, but I would argue that it is related to Helen’s role, as revealed a bit later in the book. Knowing the horror and heartache of the Trojan War, Helen wants the men to forget. She offers them wine, mixed with a drug that causes men to forget all care, sorrow, and ill humor. But, Helen is a weaver of forgetfulness. She hopes Menelaus will forget the horrific memories of war and that Telemachus will forget the pain of his missing father.
At the beginning of Book V, Athena again implores Zeus to allow for Odysseus’ return to Ithaca. Her request is granted under the conditions that Odysseus could not be convoyed by either god or man and would continue to face a perilous voyage on a raft until reaching Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians. Word of Zeus’s decision is then sent via Hermes to Calypso, the goddess on whose island Odysseus had been stranded for seven years. During that time, Odysseus spends his days on the beach weeping for home and his nights sleeping with Calypso under the force of her enchantment.
Hermes arrives on her beautiful island, finding Calypso at home, a warm fire on the hearth, the goddess sweetly singing while working at her loom. She is angered by the gods’ message and, though she cannot resist the will of Zeus, attempts yet again to force Odysseus to stay. Claiming to let him go of her own free will, she tempts the wanderer with the question, “Why would you leave a goddess, who can make you immortal, and this island paradise to return to Penelope (an aging, mortal woman), and Ithaca?” Odysseus concedes that Penelope and Ithaca are not near as beautiful as Calypso and her home, but he longs to return to them nonetheless. Calypso is a weaver of forgetfulness, tempting Odysseus to let go of his homesickness and his love of Penelope in favor of ease, beauty, and immortality.
In Book VI weaving appears again, this time by the Queen of Phaeacians, the mother of Nausicaa, who discovers Odysseus when he washes up on the island. Nausicaa has gone down to the stream with her maidservants for a washing day and they find Odysseus hiding in the bushes, nearly naked and with his body covered in salty sea grime. Athena emboldens her and Nausicaa does not run away, allowing him to bathe while she and the maidens stand aside. She gives him clothing and takes him to her father’s palace, but only after Athena has transfigured Odysseus into a handsome, godlike figure. Beholding him, Nausicaa begins to consider that this is just the kind of man she wants for a husband. Though not as overt or supernatural as Odysseus’ encounter with Calypso, it seems that Nausicaa (or at least Nausicaa and her mother) also play the part of weavers of forgetfulness – the hint that Odysseus could be tempted to forget Penelope and Ithaca, marrying again and remaining on the comfortable island (Scheria, the reader should note, was a distinctly “cushy” place, known for its comfortable beds, warm baths, dances, and excellent food, as Odysseus is told in Book VIII).
While in Scheria, a banquet is thrown in Odysseus’ honor (though they were not yet aware of his true identity) and it is during that banquet that he is asked to share his story. In Book X, Odysseus and his men arrive on a strange island and several of them, sent out as scouts, discover the palace of Circe who turns them into pigs. While her palace was filled with other animals – apparently other men transformed – Odysseus’ men were made swine, and any attentive reader of The Odyssey can easily guess why. When these men, except for the wisely cautious Eurylochus, arrived at Circe’s palace, she was singing most beautifully and weaving at her loom.
Circe, another goddess, enchants her guests through wine (remember Helen?) and transforms them into beasts that, apparently, reflect their character. Odysseus, through the help of Hermes and the magical moly root (holy moly?), drinks Circe’s wine but remains unchanged, much to the confusion and fright of Circe. Yet, Odysseus and his men are drawn into the fine lodgings and food of Circe’s palace, remaining there for a full year and losing track of time. Circe - as Helen, Calypso, and Nausicaa and her mother - is a weaver of forgetfulness.
Penelope & Clytemnestra
Before leaving Circe’s island, she tells Odysseus that while he will return home, he must first journey to the house of Hades and dread Persephone to inquire of the blind prophet, Teiresias, who would give him counsel for the remainder of his journey back to Ithaca. Odysseus learns of the great troubles back home, particularly the number of suitors who daily seek the hand of his wife, Penelope.
Among the great number of souls he encounters in the underworld is Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae who led the Greeks against the powerful city of Troy. Upon his return home, Agamemnon was killed by his wife Clytemnestra with the help of her lover, Aegisthus. Before sailing off to Troy, Agamemnon offered up his daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice in exchange for favorable winds. Understandably, Clytemnestra never forgave Agamemnon for this cruel murder and she plotted his death for the decade he was away in Troy.
As part of her vengeful plan, Clytemnestra wove fine tapestries of crimson, a red carpet, for Agamemnon to walk upon as he entered his palace. These carpets, symbolic of the blood upon which Agamemnon had already tread upon, literally led him to his death. Fulfilling her gruesome plan, Clytemnestra stabs him to death in the shower, to the horror of the townsmen. In his play, Agamemnon, Aeschylus records the words of the men (the “Chorus”):
“Oh my king, my captain,
How to salute you, how to mourn you?
What can I say with all my warmth and love?
Here in the black widow’s web you lie,
Gasping out your life.”
While, in The Odyssey, Helen, Calypso, Nausicaa and her mother, and Circe are weavers of forgetfulness, Clytemnestra is pictured as a “black widow”, a wife who weaves the destruction of her husband.
Upon their meeting in Hades, Agamemnon relates his story to Odysseus and warns him to never trust a woman. Though acknowledging the goodness and faithful reputation of Penelope, Agamemnon cautions Odysseus to never let his wife know his full mind. Could not Penelope be weaving destruction for Odysseus? Could not Penelope have her own Aegisthus waiting in the wings?
Penelope – Weaver of Remembrance & Life
Agamemnon’s advice, in addition to ignoring his own culpability in his circumstances, was in keeping with much of what we see of women in The Odyssey. Women are ever-present in the tale, but rarely are flatteringly portrayed. The women are manipulative, dangerous, and even deadly (We haven’t even discussed the Sirens!).
But Penelope is different. She is not another woman in the story, she is the woman. Her weaving plays a major role in The Odyssey, but in a way that starkly contrasts her character with the aforementioned “weavers of forgetfulness.” Harassed by unworthy suitors who, insisting that Odysseus must be dead, want to marry her, Penelope takes to her loom, claiming that before she can choose a husband she must first weave a burial shroud for Laertes, her father-in-law. She labors all day at the shroud, only to unravel her work by torchlight each night. For three years she tricks the suitors with her loom. They call upon her to forget Odysseus and remarry, but Penelope is a weaver of remembrance, her tapestry buys time for her husband’s return.
Penelope is no “black widow”, weaving the destruction of her husband. She is no Clytemnestra. Penelope is crafty and clever, perhaps more so than any other woman in the story, but she protects her husband and her household. Penelope’s loom was a tool of death, but only for the wicked suitors who ate up the wealth of Odysseus and sought to steal his wife. Her loom was an instrument of life for her long-awaited Odysseus, whose return marked triumph over war, temptation, forgetfulness, and death.
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