Love, Murder and Ritual Execution: Atwood and Homer Telling the Tale

Illustration: Penelope by Sarah Burgess Cherry.

Odysseus’ boat riding the waves of Penelope’s flowing hair, illustration by Sarah Burgess Cherry.

Once upon a time, in the tiny island kingdom of Ithaca off the coast of Greece, Penelope ruled while her husband Odysseus was away: first he went on a military expedition to Troy (that war lasted 10 years), and then he got lost on the way home (there went another 10 years). What’s a girl to do?

Penelope and Odysseus were in love, not a usual thing among royalty in those times. They had great sex in their custom-made bed and afterword Odysseus would tell stories of heroic exploits. Penelope loved to listen to these stories—she was a good listener. From their union came an heir to the throne. They named the little royal, Telemachus.

Penelope was a young bride; she was still in her teens when Odysseus left for Troy. She took on the task of raising Telemachus and assumed the mantle of Queen of Ithaca. The Greek poet Homer sang of the exploits of Odysseus, but was largely silent on what Penelope faced in Odysseus’ absence.

American poet Dorothy Parker mused about Penelope’s life in this ironic poem:

In the pathway of the sun,
In the footsteps of the breeze,
Where the world and sky are one,
He shall ride the silver seas,
He shall cut the glittering wave.
I shall sit at home, and rock;
Rise, to heed a neighbor’s knock;
Brew my tea, and snip my thread;
Bleach the linen for my bed.
They will call him brave.
— Dorothy Parker, Sunset Gun, Poem 27

But, it was left to Canadian author Margaret Atwood to tell Penelope’s story in her novel The Penelopiad. She tells the tale with gusto and sheds light on the true character of Odysseus too. Brava!

As The Penelopiad begins, Penelope is dead; her shade speaks to us from Hades (the classical Greek hell at the edge of the world, across the river Styx):

“Now that I’m dead I know everything. This is what I wished would happen, but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true. I know only a few factoids that I didn’t know before. Death is much too high a price to pay for the satisfaction of curiosity, needless to say.

“Since being dead–since achieving this state of bonelessness, liblessness, breastlessness–I’ve learned some things I would rather not know, as one does when listening at windows or opening other people’s letters. You think you’d like to read minds? Think again.”
–The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood

The maids that attended Penelope and did other chores around the palace, such as entertaining the Penelope’s suitors, form a chorus and chant in the background while Penelope narrates.

The Penelopead: 12 maids a hanging

The maids are dead too—they were hanged by the neck; summarily lynched by Odysseus after he first murdered the suitors who had come to Ithaca seeking Penelope’s hand in marriage (they assumed she was a widow).

Here is the Chorus singing their first little ditty directly to Odysseus:

we are the maids
the ones you killed
the ones you failed

we danced in air
our bare feet twitched
it was not fair

[. . .]
–from The Chorus Line: A Rope-Jumping Rhyme

Perhaps Odysseus was a bit hasty in his summary judgment. The maids seem to think that they were judged harshly. Well, in Hades all are equal and the maids are free to torment Odysseus—fair is fair, right?

What about this hero, Odysseus? He seems somewhat bad-tempered and ill-mannered. Homer gives a clue to Odysseus’ state of mind in the opening verse of the Odyssey:

Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,
the man who wandered many paths of exile
after he sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
He saw the cities—mapped the minds—of many;
and on the sea, his spirit suffered every
adversity—to keep his life intact,
to bring his comrades back. In that last task,
his will was firm and fast, and yet he failed:
he could not save his comrades. Fools, they foiled
themselves: they ate the oxen of the Sun,
The herd of Helios Hyperion;
The lord of light requited their transgression—
he took away the day of their return.
–from the translation by Allen Mandelbaum.

Odysseus failed his task of bringing his men home alive, no wonder that he was “out of sorts” when he got back.

Turning again to the Odyssey: in Book XXII, Homer writes that Odysseus dispatches the suitors with his sword, leaving a bloody mess. Odysseus then questions his nurse about the women of the house:

 . . . Then Eurycleia,
his dear nurse, answered him: “I shall indeed
tell you, my son, the truth. Within this house
you have some fifty women servants: these
we’ve trained to do their work—to card the wool
and to be chaste in every way. In all,
just twelve have given way to wantonness,
with no respect for me or even for
Penelope. . . .

Thus, the fate of the 12 maids was sealed. First they were made to clean up the carnage left by Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors, and then they were led into the court, where, at Telemachus’ urging they were summarily hanged from the portico:

That was said, and then he bound
the cable of a dark-prowed ship around
a sturdy pillar of the portico,
then ran it to the round tower, stretched it high,
so then no woman’s feet might reach the ground.
Just as when doves or thrushes, wings outstretched,
head for their nests but fall into a net
that’s set within a thicket, finding death
and not the place where they had hoped to rest,
so were these women’s heads, aligned, caught tight
within a noose, that each of them might die
a dismal death. Their feet twitched for a while—
but not for long.

As the Odyssey continues Homer makes it quite clear—the suitors were dispatched and an even dozen of the maids were hanged. Those singular events are the crux of the Penelopiad. I agree with Atwood’s telling of the tale; the shades of the maids have every right to be upset with Odysseus and Telemachus.

Atwood closes her story with a flourish: Odysseus is put on trial for the murder of the suitors, and the chorus chants an envoi, a classical summing up of the story:

we had no voice
we had no name
we had no choice
we had one face
one face the same

we took the blame
it was not fair
but now we’re here
we’re all here too
the same as you

and now we follow
you, we find you
now, we call
to you to you
too wit too wee

too wit too wee
too woo

The Maids sprout feathers, and fly away as owls.
–Envoi, The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood

Penelopiad: The Grand Entrance, Toronto Production.

In 2007, Atwood brought The Penelopiad to the London theater where it met with success. The piece is now playing in Canada, and the reviews are positive—the Canadians are proud of their author, of course. Here is an excerpt from the Toronto Sun, Friday, January 13, 2012:

“There are, wags assure us, three sides to every story:
his side, her side and the truth.

“In the case of Homer’s Odyssey, however, it seems Greece’s blind bard concentrated almost exclusively in the telling of the story of the marriage of Odysseus, hero of the Trojan War, and his long-suffering wife, Penelope, on the male’s side of the story — as witnessed by the story’s title.
But now, a few thousand years after Homer either spun his yarn or wrote it down, Canada’s own beloved bard, Margaret Atwood, takes up the torch to tackle the distaff side of the timeless tale, finally giving voice to the woman forced to keep the home fires burning when her husband carelessly angers the god Poseidon and is forced to spend a decade and more getting home from the war. Or at least, that’s what he claimed.”

The theater reviewer for Vancouver’s Globe and Mail of Friday, Jan. 13, 2012 notes that a “Fine female cast makes for a magical Penelopiad” and continues with:

“Penelope may have spent the last few millennia pacing the gloomy halls of Hades, but she still knows how to make an entrance.

“You might say, The Penelopiad, which Atwood transformed from a novella to a play in 2007, is about the destination, not the journey.

“Penelope, the long-suffering wife of Odysseus, retells a certain Homeric epic from the perspective of the home front – reliving the 20 years she spent waiting for her hero to return from the Trojan war to Ithaca, a place name she pronounces as if it were a detestable sexually transmitted disease.

“While her husband is off on his odyssey, Penelope has to battle boredom, raise her rebellious son Telemachus, and fend off a pack of so-called suitors wanting to put their hands on Odysseus’s riches.

“What continues to horrify Penelope in the afterlife is what happened on Odysseus’s eventual return, however: The suitors were slain, but so were 12 maids who consorted with them.

“In Atwood’s feminist version of the great myth, the maids were simply playing along as part of a plot by the pragmatic Penelope.

“These 12 Ithacan maids are a constant presence in the play – haunting Penelope, but also helping her relate this cautionary tale full of rue for the horrors inflicted upon women in war, a dramatic theme that can be traced back at least to Euripides.”

The Penelopiad was a joy to read (I bought the eBook from KOBO); it rights the scale and gives an alternate telling of events that happened long ago.

April is National Poetry Month in the US. Read a poem today. Better yet, read a poem to a friend or family member.

Week 13-2012: The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood (2005, theater version, 2007).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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