Athena-Like Penelope (Part 2.4)

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 (Part 1), Hera-Like Penelope,  Artemis-Like Penelope, and Aphrodite-Like Penelope below.


“Ordinary men may surmise that “some god” has intervened, but the poet [Homer] knows which one,” Clay points out. But the audience doesn’t count as “ordinary men.” Odysseus and Penelope don’t know who has intervened, but the audience (us and the ancient Greek audience listening to the same story some 2500 years ago) realizes that “the goddess Athena quickly emerges as the source and sponsor of the plot that follows.”(Murnaghan, 61) And while Hera offers only a currently unattainable status quo, Artemis brings chaste death, and Aphrodite gives new life with a suitor, Athena is the embodiment and purveyor of survival. She clearly celebrates all the lies and tricks and skill that bring Odysseus through to Ithaca and his happy ending. It is almost easier to see her through the cunning acts of Odysseus that she endorses.

Although Penelope does call upon Athena in Book Four, the poet doesn’t say they are alike, as she is like Aphrodite and Artemis. Instead, she only seems to be like her. Penelope is a weaver, like Athena, and what’s more, she weaves mêtis (a cool word meaning craftiness, prudence, wisdom, trickiness, etc and not coincidentally, the name of Athena’s biological mother who was swallowed by Zeus) into her work. The epithet most associated with Penelope, periphrôn, thinking-around, is clearly more like Athena than either the Huntress or the Goddess of Love. And Athena has a distinctive way of approaching the situation. Although she nearly necks Penelope in order to get her to submit to a makeover, she does not send her down as Aphrodite might have, itching for a man. She sends her down conflicted. In order for the tricks to succeed, the inner conflict, displayed to the audience in Penelope’s laugh through gritted teeth, is necessary.

Athena never deals directly with sexuality, but only through mêtis, even inspiring Nausicaa in the guise of a virgin friend. (Murnaghan, 66) Despite the extremes represented by Artemis and Aphrodite, for Penelope, as for Athena, sexuality is something to be controlled. I argue that even the reason for Penelope’s silence on her true emotional state is a result of either her likeness to Athena or Athena’s direct action. Emoting is not what Athena does, and despite the number of tears the run down Penelope’s cheeks (a common enough reaction in epic poetry), her thoughts are still mysterious enough to have inspired an entire generation of Classicists to write.


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