Aphrodite-like Penelope (Part 2.3)

This is a series on Penelope, who rocks and everyone should know more about. The breakdown is based on my reading (in ancient Greek, thank you very much) of the Odyssey and with some help from Jenny Strauss Clay, Nancy Felson-Rubin, and Sheila Murnaghan. Read Goddess-Like Penelope, Hera-Like Penelope, and Artemis-Like Penelope below.

Aphrodite, on the other hand, offers Penelope New Life. The myths of the Goddess of Love are in many ways the most applicable to Penelope’s situation. Think, for example, of the fling she had with Ares, the God of War while she was still Hephaestus’ wife, or the fact that it was her intervention that caused Helen to leave Menelaus and elope with Paris, thus beginning the Trojan War. These are examples of Dalliance as described by Nancy Felson-Rubin.

Nevertheless, Aphrodite does not merely advocate free love in this scenario but new marriage. This is particularly noticeable in the quotation below where it is she, and not the Protectress of Marriage (Hera), who petitions Zeus for the marriage of the daughters of Pandareos. When Penelope washes her face in the ambrosia of Aphrodite (18.185), the hardship, the old weighing life she had, falls away and she is born anew, just as the Goddess of Beauty ritually renews herself in the sea.

So if Aphrodite is running the show, Penelope would do well to go ahead and choose one of the Suitors for her husband and start a new life with him. Likewise, if Artemis is running the show, the only option that will bring her relief is a chaste death. Hera, as we saw in a previous post, is not well-equipped to help women in Penelope’s position and indeed, barely manages when her own husband isn’t in eye-sight.

It’s also worth noting that Aphrodite is a powerful goddess, and more of a personality in the Odyssey than Artemis – who, as you may recall from the last post, represents the chaste-death option for Penelope. Helen, who comes down the stairs looking like Artemis, of all people, is the one who makes that power most obvious. Helen takes no responsibility for her behavior; she was forced, she says, by Aphrodite. Poor Penelope. She knows the story of Helen, and that of Klytaimnestra, and so she knows the influences that Aphrodite can have on women’s lives when she chooses to interfere. But she does not know which goddess is running the show in her own life, and is caught in between trying to decide on the correct direction.

Felson-Rubin, Nancy. “Penelope’s Perspective: Character from Plot.” Reading the Odyssey: Selected Interpretive Essays. Seth L. Schein, ed. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1996

Next week: Which goddess is Penelope really like?


2 responses to “Aphrodite-like Penelope (Part 2.3)”

  1. Well, since we know she didn’t choose option Hera, Aphrodite, or Artemis (thank goodness, what a waste that chaste-death would have been), we’re left with option Athena (my favorite goddess). That makes sense. I’m thinking about Penelope in a new light here. My teachers always presented her basically as the prize to be won with no emphasis on her own ingenuity in keeping the suitors at bay. She was just pretty much there waiting to be rescued by the man. I’ve never pursued it much more than what I was taught until now, except in relation to the dog, Argos (I think), that patiently waits in the trash for his master to come back only to die of a broken heart when Odysseus doesn’t look at him for fear of being recognized. I’ve often wondered why Penelope would let her husband’s dog be treated in such a fashion. I know, weird mind and I’ve gone on too long. Good series so far.

  2. Yay! I’m glad someone is getting something out of it.

    It drives me nuts when people talk about Penelope the way your teachers did. And even though ancient Greece was certainly an extremely patriarchal place, Homer wouldn’t be the genius I believe he (or the many people together who made up Homer over time) was.

    Penelope’s position is, to me, more interesting than that of Odysseus. While he’s just got one adventure after another, she plays the ultimate game of craftiness, trying to balance between all of the possible outcomes with the best advantage for her and probably her son. Exhausted? Yes. But not passive. She and Odysseus are true soul-mates – there’s that whole “homophrosyne” thing again – and everything you ever learned about his awesome trickiness can and should be applied to her as well.

    Also, I had totally forgotten about the dog. But, like Odysseus sacrificed his sailors, I doubt Penelope’d have any qualms about letting him die if it made a difference to her success.

    I have to admit, seeing her as a crafty agent as opposed to a prize to be one would not make her a heroine in contemporary narratives, but it probably might in ancient Greek ones.

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