The Design of Penelope’s Web

In the Iliad, Helen appears weaving a pharos that depicts “The many struggles of the horse-taming Trojans and the bronze-girded Achaeans / All the things they had suffered for her at Ares’ hands.” Τρώων θ’ ἱπποδάμων καὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν χαλκοχιτώνων, οὕς ἑθεν εἵνεκ’ ἔπασχον ὑπ’ ῎Αρηος παλαμάων, 3.121-128). And elsewhere she seems keenly aware that her story will be the subject of future songs (ὡς καὶ ὀπίσσω / ἀνθρώποισι πελώμεθ’ ἀοίδιμοι ἐσσομένοισι, 6.537-538).

Andromache, too, in the Iliad, weaves a garment whose imagery is described, even if briefly (22.437-441):

“So she spoke in mourning—but Hektor’s wife did not yet know anything.
For no one had come to her as a trusty messenger
To announce that her husband remained outside of the gates.
But she was weaving in the innermost part of her high-roofed home,
A double-folded raiment, on which she embroidered delicate flowers.”

῝Ως ἔφατο κλαίουσ’, ἄλοχος δ’ οὔ πώ τι πέπυστο
῞Εκτορος· οὐ γάρ οἵ τις ἐτήτυμος ἄγγελος ἐλθὼν
ἤγγειλ’ ὅττί ῥά οἱ πόσις ἔκτοθι μίμνε πυλάων,
ἀλλ’ ἥ γ’ ἱστὸν ὕφαινε μυχῷ δόμου ὑψηλοῖο
δίπλακα πορφυρέην, ἐν δὲ θρόνα ποικίλ’ ἔπασσε.

There is weaving throughout the Odyssey. Helen gives Telemachus a garment to give to his future wife (Od. 15.123-130). Calypso (5.62) and Circe (10.222) also weave while singing (what songs might they sing?). Nausicaa leaves a robe for Odysseus (6.214) which Arete recognizes because she made it (7.234-235). We even hear that the Naiads who live on the shore in Ithaca weave “sea-purple garments, wondrous to see” (φάρε’ ὑφαίνουσιν ἁλιπόρφυρα, θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι, 13.108).

But nowhere in the Odyssey is the imagery on any of these garments described. This might be less confounding if the works were not so prized, if those in the Iliad were not clearly described as bearing decoration and if an ancient scholar had not recognized in Helen’s weaving an embedded metaphor for Homer’s own art, which he calls “a worthy archetype for his own poetry” (ἀξιόχρεων ἀρχέτυπον ἀνέπλασεν ὁ ποιητὴς τῆς ἰδίας ποιήσεως, Schol. bT ad Il. 3.126-127)

The most famous woven garment in the Odyssey is Penelope’s delaying trick which she weaves and unweaves over nearly four years to avoid committing to a marriage. The famous stratagem is mentioned three times. At no time is any image on the cloth mentioned—in its final appearance, it is described as “shining like the sun or the moon”, but that is likely because it has just been cleaned. Here are the three passages:

Antinoos tells the tale to the assembled Ithacans, 2.93-110

“And she was devising this different trick in her thoughts:
She was weaving on the great loom she set up in her home,
A fine and large one. Then she announced to us:
“Young men, my suitors, since shining Odysseus has died
Wait here pursuing my hand in marriage until I complete
This garment, that my weaving might not be pointless,
A shroud for the hero Laertes, for when the ruinous fate
Of dreadful death comes over him,
And then no one of the Achaean women among the people
May criticize me if this man of great wealth lies without covering.”
So she spoke and each of proud hearts was persuaded.
And thereafter she was weaving on the great loom each day
But by night she set out torches and took it apart.
She tricked us this way for three years—she persuaded the Achaeans!
But when the third year came and the seasons were passing by,
One of the women who knew the matter clearly, informed us.
Then we discovered her unweaving the shining cloth by night.
So we made her, even though she was unwilling, finish it, under force.”

penelope-caught

c. 440 BCE

ἡ δὲ δόλον τόνδ’ ἄλλον ἐνὶ φρεσὶ μερμήριξε·
στησαμένη μέγαν ἱστὸν ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ὕφαινε,
λεπτὸν καὶ περίμετρον· ἄφαρ δ’ ἡμῖν μετέειπε·
κοῦροι, ἐμοὶ μνηστῆρες, ἐπεὶ θάνε δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεύς,
μίμνετ’ ἐπειγόμενοι τὸν ἐμὸν γάμον, εἰς ὅ κε φᾶρος
ἐκτελέσω, μή μοι μεταμώνια νήματ’ ὄληται,
Λαέρτῃ ἥρωϊ ταφήϊον, εἰς ὅτε κέν μιν
μοῖρ’ ὀλοὴ καθέλῃσι τανηλεγέος θανάτοιο,
μή τίς μοι κατὰ δῆμον ᾿Αχαιϊάδων νεμεσήσῃ,
αἴ κεν ἄτερ σπείρου κεῖται πολλὰ κτεατίσσας.
ὣς ἔφαθ’, ἡμῖν δ’ αὖτ’ ἐπεπείθετο θυμὸς ἀγήνωρ.
ἔνθα καὶ ἠματίη μὲν ὑφαίνεσκεν μέγαν ἱστόν,
νύκτας δ’ ἀλλύεσκεν, ἐπὴν δαΐδας παραθεῖτο.
ὣς τρίετες μὲν ἔληθε δόλῳ καὶ ἔπειθεν ᾿Αχαιούς·
ἀλλ’ ὅτε τέτρατον ἦλθεν ἔτος καὶ ἐπήλυθον ὧραι,
καὶ τότε δή τις ἔειπε γυναικῶν, ἣ σάφα ᾔδη,
καὶ τήν γ’ ἀλλύουσαν ἐφεύρομεν ἀγλαὸν ἱστόν.
ὣς τὸ μὲν ἐξετέλεσσε καὶ οὐκ ἐθέλουσ’, ὑπ’ ἀνάγκης·

Penelope narrates the tale to a disguised Odysseus, 19.137-161

“They were hurrying me to marry—But I was weaving my tricks.
A god first put in my mind to weave a robe
As I stood before the great loom in my home,
A fine and large one. Then I announced to them all:
“Young men, my suitors, since shining Odysseus has died,
Wait here pursuing my hand in marriage until I complete
This garment, that my weaving might not be pointless,
A shroud for the hero Laertes, for when the ruinous fate
Of dreadful death comes over him,
And then no one of the Achaean women among the people
May criticize me if this man of great wealth lies without covering.”
So I spoke, and their proud hearts consented.
Thereafter I was weaving on the great loom by day
And unraveling at night once I put out the torches.
I passed this way for three years and persuaded the Achaeans.
But when the fourth year came and the seasons were moving on,
[as the months dwindled and many days had ended]
Then they caught me, thanks to some serving girls, uncaring bitches,
Entering my chambers and assailing me with words,
Insisting that I finish it, even though I was unwilling, under compulsion.
Now I cannot evade some marriage and I can discover no other
Trick. My parents are urging me to marry.
My son is anxious because they are eating up his fortune,
And he knows it—for he is already a man how knows how
To care for this home which Zeus makes wealthy.”

penelope-pinturichio-1509

Pinturichio, 1509

οἱ δὲ γάμον σπεύδουσιν· ἐγὼ δὲ δόλους τολυπεύω.
φᾶρος μέν μοι πρῶτον ἐνέπνευσε φρεσὶ δαίμων
στησαμένῃ μέγαν ἱστὸν ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ὑφαίνειν,
λεπτὸν καὶ περίμετρον· ἄφαρ δ’ αὐτοῖς μετέειπον·
‘κοῦροι, ἐμοὶ μνηστῆρες, ἐπεὶ θάνε δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεύς,
μίμνετ’ ἐπειγόμενοι τὸν ἐμὸν γάμον, εἰς ὅ κε φᾶρος
ἐκτελέσω, μή μοι μεταμώνια νήματ’ ὄληται,
Λαέρτῃ ἥρωϊ ταφήϊον, εἰς ὅτε κέν μιν
μοῖρ’ ὀλοὴ καθέλῃσι τανηλεγέος θανάτοιο·
μή τίς μοι κατὰ δῆμον ᾿Αχαιϊάδων νεμεσήσῃ,
αἴ κεν ἄτερ σπείρου κεῖται πολλὰ κτεατίσσας.’
ὣς ἐφάμην, τοῖσιν δ’ ἐπεπείθετο θυμὸς ἀγήνωρ.
ἔνθα καὶ ἠματίη μὲν ὑφαίνεσκον μέγαν ἱστόν,
νύκτας δ’ ἀλλύεσκον, ἐπὴν δαΐδας παραθείμην.
ὣς τρίετες μὲν ἔληθον ἐγὼ καὶ ἔπειθον ᾿Αχαιούς·
ἀλλ’ ὅτε τέτρατον ἦλθεν ἔτος καὶ ἐπήλυθον ὧραι,
[μηνῶν φθινόντων, περὶ δ’ ἤματα πόλλ’ ἐτελέσθη,]
καὶ τότε δή με διὰ δμῳάς, κύνας οὐκ ἀλεγούσας,
εἷλον ἐπελθόντες καὶ ὁμόκλησαν ἐπέεσσιν.
ὣς τὸ μὲν ἐξετέλεσσα καὶ οὐκ ἐθέλουσ’, ὑπ’ ἀνάγκης·
νῦν δ’ οὔτ’ ἐκφυγέειν δύναμαι γάμον οὔτε τιν’ ἄλλην
μῆτιν ἔθ’ εὑρίσκω· μάλα δ’ ὀτρύνουσι τοκῆες
γήμασθ’, ἀσχαλάᾳ δὲ πάϊς βίοτον κατεδόντων,
γινώσκων· ἤδη γὰρ ἀνὴρ οἷός τε μάλιστα
οἴκου κήδεσθαι, τῷ τε Ζεὺς ὄλβον ὀπάζει.

Amphimedon tells the story to Agamemnon in the Underworld, 24.125-155

“We courted the wife of long-absent Odysseus.
But she was refusing a hateful marriage or a resolution,
Instead devising death and black fate for us.
She was weaving on the great loom she set up in her home,
A fine and large one. Then she announced to us:
“Young men, my suitors, since shining Odysseus has died
Wait here pursuing my hand in marriage until I complete
This garment, that my weaving might not be pointless,
A shroud for the hero Laertes, for when the ruinous fate
Of dreadful death comes over him,
And then no one of the Achaean women among the people
May criticize me if this man of great wealth lies without covering.”
So she spoke and each of proud hearts was persuaded.
And thereafter she was weaving on the great loom each day
But by night she set out torches and took it apart.
She tricked us this way for three years—she persuaded the Achaeans!
But when the third year came and the seasons were passing by,
One of the women who knew the matter clearly, informed us.
Then we discovered her unweaving the shining cloth by night.
So we made her, even though she was unwilling, finish it, under force.
When she showed us the robe she wove on the great loom,
After she washed it, it shone like the sun or the moon.
And then a wicked god brought Odysseus from somewhere
From the farthest part of the country, where the swineherd lives.
That’s where godly Odysseus’ dear son came home too
From sandy Pylos, sailing with his black ship.
The two of them came to the famous city,
Devising an evil death for the suitors—well, Odysseus
Came later, it was Telemachus who led him there first.”

penelope-german-illustration

μνώμεθ’ ᾿Οδυσσῆος δὴν οἰχομένοιο δάμαρτα·
ἡ δ’ οὔτ’ ἠρνεῖτο στυγερὸν γάμον οὔτε τελεύτα,
ἡμῖν φραζομένη θάνατον καὶ κῆρα μέλαιναν,
ἀλλὰ δόλον τόνδ’ ἄλλον ἐνὶ φρεσὶ μερμήριξε·
στησαμένη μέγαν ἱστὸν ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ὕφαινε,
λεπτὸν καὶ περίμετρον· ἄφαρ δ’ ἡμῖν μετέειπε·
‘κοῦροι, ἐμοὶ μνηστῆρες, ἐπεὶ θάνε δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεύς,
μίμνετ’ ἐπειγόμενοι τὸν ἐμὸν γάμον, εἰς ὅ κε φᾶρος
ἐκτελέσω, μή μοι μεταμώνια νήματ’ ὄληται,
Λαέρτῃ ἥρωϊ ταφήϊον, εἰς ὅτε κέν μιν
μοῖρ’ ὀλοὴ καθέλῃσι τανηλεγέος θανάτοιο,
μή τίς μοι κατὰ δῆμον ᾿Αχαιϊάδων νεμεσήσῃ,
αἴ κεν ἄτερ σπείρου κεῖται πολλὰ κτεατίσσας.’
ὣς ἔφαθ’, ἡμῖν δ’ αὖτ’ ἐπεπείθετο θυμὸς ἀγήνωρ.
ἔνθα καὶ ἠματίη μὲν ὑφαίνεσκεν μέγαν ἱστόν,
νύκτας δ’ ἀλλύεσκεν, ἐπὴν δαΐδας παραθεῖτο.
ὣς τρίετες μὲν ἔληθε δόλῳ καὶ ἔπειθεν ᾿Αχαιούς·
ἀλλ’ ὅτε τέτρατον ἦλθεν ἔτος καὶ ἐπήλυθον ὧραι,
[μηνῶν φθινόντων, περὶ δ’ ἤματα πόλλ’ ἐτελέσθη,]
καὶ τότε δή τις ἔειπε γυναικῶν, ἣ σάφα ᾔδη,
καὶ τήν γ’ ἀλλύουσαν ἐφεύρομεν ἀγλαὸν ἱστόν.
ὣς τὸ μὲν ἐξετέλεσσε καὶ οὐκ ἐθέλουσ’, ὑπ’ ἀνάγκης.
εὖθ’ ἡ φᾶρος ἔδειξεν, ὑφήνασα μέγαν ἱστόν,
πλύνασ’, ἠελίῳ ἐναλίγκιον ἠὲ σελήνῃ,
καὶ τότε δή ῥ’ ᾿Οδυσῆα κακός ποθεν ἤγαγε δαίμων
ἀγροῦ ἐπ’ ἐσχατιήν, ὅθι δώματα ναῖε συβώτης.
ἔνθ’ ἦλθεν φίλος υἱὸς ᾿Οδυσσῆος θείοιο,
ἐκ Πύλου ἠμαθόεντος ἰὼν σὺν νηῒ μελαίνῃ·
τὼ δὲ μνηστῆρσιν θάνατον κακὸν ἀρτύναντε
ἵκοντο προτὶ ἄστυ περικλυτόν, ἦ τοι ᾿Οδυσσεὺς
ὕστερος, αὐτὰρ Τηλέμαχος πρόσθ’ ἡγεμόνευε.

[For a great analysis of the differences among these passages, see Steven Lowenstam. “The Shroud of Laertes and Penelope’s Guile.” CJ 95 (2000) 333-348]

What was on the shroud?  Most authors say nothing about it. The weaving is recognized as a metaphor for intelligence (see Detienne and Vernant 1974. Les ruses de l’intelligence. La mètis des Grecs. Paris); Penelope’s delaying has been understood as equivalent to the delaying narrative strategies of the Odyssey (e.g. Norman Austin, Archery at the Dark of the Moon 1975, 253; and Peradotto Man in the Middle Voice 1990, 83-84.). But few commentators ancient or modern have worried about what might actually be pictured on the finely woven cloth.

(Although, to be fair, in her forced rush to finish it, perhaps Penelope left out the finer touches!)

Barbara Clayton in her 2004 book (A Penelopean Poetics) writes:

34: “Homer tells us nothing about Penelope’s design for Laertes’ shroud; based on textual evidence, there is no reason to assume that the shroud had a design at all. However, we can speculate that as a burial garment it would have been a special cloth, one more precious and painstakingly made than a garment intended for everyday use.”

34: … “Homer’s audience would have assumed an implicit narrative component in Penelope’s web, perhaps that she is depicting the heroic deeds of Laertes….I do not think that Homer’s silence on the this point represents the omission of an unimportant detail. I would argue instead that Homer deliberately leaves the narrative content of the web within the realm of potentiality. And this aspect of potentiality in turn complements the fact that Penelope’s web is potentially never complete.”

standing-weaving-vase

On weaving and female fame, see also Melissa Mueller. “Helen’s Hands: Weaving for Kleos in the Odyssey”. Helios 37 (2010) 1-21.

For the possibility that in other traditions of Odysseus’ return home Laertes and Penelope were colluding, see Benjamin Haller. “Dolios in Odyssey 4 and 24: Penelope’s Plotting and Alternative Versions of Odysseus’ nostos.” TAPA 143 (2013) 263-292.

For the suggestion that the shroud actually becomes the robe Penelope gives to Odysseus’ in disguise, see William Whallon. “How the Shroud for Laertes became the Robe of Odysseus.” CQ 50 (2000) 331-337.

4 thoughts on “The Design of Penelope’s Web

  1. Extremely interesting and well researched (as usual)!

    Quick question, only tangentially related: any ideas about the kitty-cat in Pintoricchio’s painting? Is that some weird Renaissance take on Agros?

  2. Pingback: “Feminine Fame”: Homer on Why We Disbelieve Women | SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE

  3. Pingback: Tension and Precarity: The Iliad’s Simile of the Weaving Woman | SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE

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