“Many were struck across their flesh by pitiless bronze
Whenever they turned and bared their backs
As they struggled, although many were also struck through their shields.
The towers and walls were decorated everywhere with the blood
Of men from both sides, from Trojans and Achaeans.
Yet, they still could not force the Achaians to flee—
No, it held as when an honest weaving woman holds
The balance and draws out the weight and the wool on both sides
to make them equal so she might earn some wretched wage for her children.
So the battle and the war was stretched even on each side
Until Zeus gave the glory over to Hektor
Priam’s son, who first broke through the wall of the Achaeans.”
“The equal balance of those fighting, [Homer] compared to the beam of a loom, again. For nothing is so precisely similar to an even balance. And the one weighing this out is not the mistress of the household—for she does not often trouble this much for so small an equal bit—nor is it one of the household maids—for they would not seek to make so precise a measure since they are fed by the household’s master and do not risk their nourishment if they mess up on the loom weights—but it is a woman for hire who must provide what is needed for living by the effort of her hands.”
This passage has always moved me because, as with the earlier simile, the great ‘epic’ themes and images of war were reduced to something simple, daily, and completely understandable. Even in the ancient world where many members of the audiences probably had considerably more experience of violence than we do and where most aristocratic audience members would certainly have nothing but contempt for working for a living, many probably heard a crucial echo of their own lives in this surprising comparison.
I also appreciate the way that the scholiasts here home in on how dire this woman’s position is, making the dubious but nonetheless striking claim that the household servants led less precarious lives than the woman of the simile who draws the weight so precisely because her pay—and the lives of her children—depend upon it. In a crucial way, this simile evokes the same sense of scarcity as that of the men on the field—but it adds that an all too familiar anxiety from the precarity that emerges when one lives constantly with the sense of how scarce those things we value are.
Indeed, the scarcity and precarity evoked by this simile and the one that precedes it extends the transitional moment begun with the image of the farmers to create anticipatory tension in the audience. At the epic’s middle, before we move from book 12 to 13 and to the slaughter of the Achaeans at the ships, the balance hangs ever briefly before it breaks. Hektor surges through the Achaean fortification: the balance of action fails just as the balance of the plot will too—the story of Achilles’ withdrawal will now translate into the slaughter he asked Zeus to precipitate leading to the death of Patroklos, Hektor and, ultimately, Achilles too.
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.”
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: