Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Woven-Faced Queen

We've talked a lot in the past about various heroic ladies, who go on quests, rule their kingdoms or manipulate their menfolk into universe-changing behavior, but today we're going to look at one of my favorites: Penelope.

Penelope appears in the Odyssey, where she is the legendarily faithful wife of Odysseus. She's an intensely interesting figure because she embodies the idea of the hero's journey in a very feminine way - she follows all of its steps and eventually wins her way to glory, but she does it in various ways that the Greeks considered to be essentially female behaviors, from traditional womens' occupations like weaving to emotional manipulation of men to leveraging her position as mother to send her son on errands to simply being smarter than everyone else in the room. She is spoken of with high praise by everyone not just as Odysseus' perfect mate - the only other person clever enough to match and hold ground with his cleverness - but as just a generally awesome example of humanity herself. In fact, Homer refers to her with the prized hero-description arete, meaning that she is both incredibly skilled and possessed of extreme moral virtue and spiritual strength.

But let's talk about what Penelope actually does, because it's all pretty hardcore.


Penelope's journey to awesometown begins when she is born a Spartan princess and her father promptly throws her off a cliff and into the sea; like many other ancient asshats, he had wanted a son and forcibly took the unwanted daughter from her mother to have her killed, but said mother is one of the naiads, ocean-nymph daughters of Oceanus, and because her blood runns in Penelope's veins the baby is rescued by sea birds and fed until her father discovers her again. Not being a total idiot, he surmises that she is blessed by divine powers, and takes her home again with no further attempts at infanticide.

Penelope's early connection to the sea is actually very interesting, considering that while the sea saves, protects and nurtures her, it also impedes, confuses and outright tries to murder her husband Odysseus later. Oh, ye jealous waves.

Once she's an adult, Penelope is married to Odysseus, king of Ithaca; he was actually in town to sue for the hand of the famously beautiful Helen, but when it became obvious that that wasn't going to happen, he instead sued for Penelope, winning the right to wed her only after successfully defeating all her other suitors in a foot race. It's the first time he has to demonstrate his peak excellence in order to be worthy of Penelope's consideration, but it won't be the last.

During his sojourn to the Trojan war and subsequent years of attempting to find his way back home, Penelope was left to govern Ithaca on her own with their young son Telemachus, which she did ably until Odysseus had been gone so long that people began to generally assume that he was dead. As a result, a slew of new suitors (over a hundred!) arrived in Ithaca, all of them hoping to win the coveted prize of marriage to Penelope and rulership over her kingdom (and, interestingly, Athena totally makes the situation worse by encouraging Penelope to let them see how beautiful she is and get really into it, on the theory that it's not a real heroic test of her smarts and virtue if they're not trying very hard). A large number of them actually moved into her palace and generally treated the place as their own, since they were hoping to make that true through marriage soon anyway, and Penelope is in danger of losing not only her faithful conviction that her husband would eventually make it home but her entire kingdom, too.

This would be a problem for someone with less badass brains, but luckily Penelope is no such person. When she was unable to convince the suitors that Odysseus might still be alive, she declared that she could not possibly marry anyone because she was currently busy with the sacred duty of weaving the burial shroud for Laertes, her father-in-law, who was due to die any day now and had to be sent off in proper style. Each day, she worked on weaving the shroud all the daylight hours for all to see, and then each night she unraveled all the work she had done the day before, making it appear that she was constantly employed in weaving but somehow never finished. She does this for three straight years, which is impressive partly because nobody ever catches on and partly because three years is a really long time to go without getting any sleep.


Unfortunately, years of having all these sexy, well-born dudes in the house constantly bothering their mistress has gotten to her twelve serving girls, who have begun taking lovers among the suitors and are kind of agreeing that maybe Penelope should move on with her life, and one of them eventually tells the suitors what she's up to. Outraged that she's been punking them all this time, they demand she choose one of them.

Penelope remains undaunted, however. She declares that she's not about to settle for anyone lesser than her previous husband, who had to win her through incredible feats of awesomeness, and that therefore she'll hold a contest to choose the worthiest suitor. She sets up an obstacle course of twelve axeheads, brings out Odysseus' bow, and declares that she'll marry anyone who can shoot an arrow through all twelve axes. And she makes fun of them, because her old husband could do it, how hard can it be, guys?

Of course, the bow is magical - only Odysseus can shoot it, and he considers it such an important and dangerous artifact that he won't even take it outside the kingdom, which is why it's here and didn't go to the wars with him. The suitors fail miserably at attempting to even string the bow, much less manage to shoot it, and decide to do some sacrifices to Apollo for better archery skills and try again later, but finally Odysseus himself, disguised as a beggar, steps up and performs the feat. Penelope's like, "Welp, guys, thanks for playing, guess I'm marrying this homeless guy," and when the suitors get angry and unruly, Odysseus reveals his identity and he and Telemachus, with some help from Athena, kill them all in battle, as well as later executing the serving maids who gave away Penelope's tricks.


Here, however, is where Penelope becomes most interesting. Odysseus has revealed himself, and he certainly looks like he might look after being gone for a few decades, and he definitely did the thing with the axes, and he's been talking to their son Telemachus who certainly believes it's him, and Penelope herself has been talking to him on the sly ever since he got here in disguise, so she knows it's him. However, at this point she declares that she doesn't know for sure that it's him, so he has to prove himself to her as well. She's concerned that he might be a god in disguise - she's been around, she knows what Zeus is up to on any given day - and therefore she's not about to let him just march back into kingship and her bedroom, just in case. This is an excellent moment because not only is Penelope savvier than 98% of all Greek mythological people by even considering the possibility, she's also literally exercising her power over her kingdom over its very king himself. Odysseus may be the rightful king of Ithaca, but he's been gone for years; Penelope is the ruler with power there, and she isn't about to give it up unless she knows for certain it's the right thing to do.

Also, scholars have been arguing for literal centuries over whether Penelope is totally just doing this because she's worried it might be an impostor, or if she is also intentionally kicking Odysseus' ass a little bit just because she can. Like Odysseus himself, she's incredibly clever and solves most of her problems with hilarious trickery, so she may not be able to resist pulling one on the trickster himself, knowing he can't stop her; and after the dude has been gone for decades, leaving her to raise their son alone and run the entire kingdom and be harassed by suitors for years on end, she may feel like he deserves a little nut-kicking before he's back in her good graces again.

At any rate, she has her son set up a fake wedding to one of the dead suitors, to prevent the kingdom realizing what's going on up there and test how Odysseus might respond, and thanks him for his help but tells him he's not getting any special treatment other than allowing a servant to move Odysseus' bed into the hallway for him to sleep on (alone). Odysseus, however, knows that his bed was carved with one bedpost being a living tree planted in their bedroom, to symbolize the living nature of his love for Penelope, so he throws a massive tantrum at the idea of anyone daring to move it; that's the last sign Penelope's waiting for to prove that it's really him (and possibly also an intentional reminder to both of them of the strength of their love?), and she finally welcomes him home with open arms.


Of course, things get weird later, when Odysseus' children with other women that he conceived while gone all those years start showing up and Telemachus ends up marrying Circe, who used to try to bang his dad; and later writers confuse Penelope with another mythological Penelope, this one an Arcadian nymph and lover of Hermes, by whom she bore the god Pan. Writers found the similar names vastly confusing, especially since one Penelope is all about refusing to look at anyone but Odysseus and the other one is giving birth to rustic goat-gods in the fields, and a few odd little spin-off myths, including one where Pan is the result of Penelope wantonly sleeping with all the suitors at once, were created to try to explain the discrepancy.

Later versions and reinterpretations of the story, especially Roman ones, tend to spend all their time focusing on Penelope's wifely chastity and refusal to sleep with anyone as her best quality, but I think we can all agree that this is wilfully ignoring her incredible hardcore powers of intelligence, trickery and power politics. Penelope is another example of a female mythological hero who triumphs without the go-to "masculine" powers of strength of arms or prowess in battle, and all the more awesome because of her demonstration that those powers cannot oppose her, not even from Odysseus, the greatest warrior in the kingdom.