While Odysseus, cursed by Poseidon, cannot find his way home and lives through a series of fantastical adventures, his wife Penelope is experiencing a deep wound of longing and despair. She is left to run the kingdom of Ithaca alone. At times she gives way to despair but she has an enormous ability to pull herself together and stay sober and level-headed amidst all the chaos and disarray of the suitors taking over her kingdom. The three epithets that Homer uses to describe her most frequently are “urbane”, “mentally present” and “thoughtful” or “wise.” While Odysseus sinks deeper and deeper into the inner world of his fantasy, she remains his anchor, a constant, a beacon, the safe harbor he hopes to reach one day.
Anthony Frederick Sandys, “Penelope”
Her name is hard to trace back etymologically, but apparently, and very significantly, it is connected with aquatic birds (species of a duck) and weaving. A bird, particularly aquatic bird, is an important aspect of the Mother Goddess, who in many myths, notably the Syrian one, is born out of an egg brought up from the watery depths by a fish and brooded by a bird. According to Barbara Hand Clow, the author of The Pleiadian Agenda, aquatic birds are linked to the stars of the Pleiades; birdsong being the sound and vibration connected with the Harmony of the Spheres and the creation of the universe. A winged goddess, so well-known in many mythologies, descended from the heavens to bring culture and civilization through transforming nature. Penelope is not unlike a goddess herself, being full of dignity and displaying a truly regal demeanor. In the previous posts of the series, I linked Odysseus’ ever changing adventures with him being a personification of the moon; it seems to me that his alchemical spouse, Penelope, in her constancy may be associated with the Sun. Also, we may say that her husband is getting in touch with his feminine, lunar side while she needs to develop her archetypal, solar/masculine side to restore harmony to her troubled kingdom.
But Penelope is also, and perhaps first and foremost, the ultimate woman. She tends the hearth, which is the centre of the house and the original altar. She accepts presents from her suitors to replenish Ithaca’s wealth. She is the giver of shelter and protection:
“Down to our day, the feminine vessel character, originally of the cave, later of the house (the sense of being inside, of being sheltered, protected, and warmed in the house), has always borne a relation to the original containment of the womb.”
Erich Neumann, “The Great Mother”
She also guards the marital bed, which in the Odyssey is constructed upon a sturdy pillar, keeping all the suitors at bay and awaiting Odysseus, her husband and soul mate. She is as cunning as Odysseus having developed a strategy to trick the suitors through weaving a burial shroud for Laertes, Odysseus’ father and undoing it at night to buy herself more time. There is pathos and glory in her character, which is very human, but it is weaving which puts her on par with the goddess. In the Odyssey, weaving is presented as a preoccupation of the goddess, notably of Circe and Calypso, also Athena, who was an accomplished weaver.
John William Waterhouse, “Penelope Weaving”
The Moirai, Greek goddesses of fate, constantly spin the thread of life. The Latin word “destino” means “that which is woven,” fixed with cords and threads, “bound to happen,” says Barbara G. Walker. By weaving, stalling and preventing the time from running out, Penelope tries to take control of her destiny which she believes is bound to that of Odysseus. In the Mahabharata, an Indian epic poem, G. Walker writes, there is an image of three Goddesses “weaving the veil of nights and days in an underground ’city of serpents,’ representing cycles of light and darkness with threads of white and black linked with the blood-red thread of life.” Penelope is intimately connected with the cycles of light and darkness. As a character, she makes an entrance during a dark moon period, when she is suicidal, desperate and suffers from dreary nightmares. She waits for 19 years to be reunited with Odysseus:
“Only then, with the moon at the same phase and in the same position against the background of stars as it had been 19 years earlier, would Odysseus and Penelope be reunited in their rejuvenated marriage bed.”
Florence and Kenneth Wood, “Homer’s Secret Odyssey”
For the Woods, Penelope is a personification of the luni-solar cycle:
“She tells the suitors in some anger that they should not be eating her out of house and home but instead presenting her with gifts. In response she is given a gown, 12 brooches, a gold chain and a pair of earrings, all of which are metaphorically evocative. On the embroidered gown of beautiful material were attached 12 golden brooches ‘each fitted with a pin with a curved sheath’ or fitted with ‘curved clasps’. If the golden brooches are metaphors for the sun and the curved clasps for the new moon, then Homer may be indicating the 12 solar months and 12 new moons of the lunar calendar set against the background of the heavens.”
Penelope, the weaver, personifies both the archetypal, immutable goddess and a mortal, mutable, woman: a victim of her circumstance with her proper fate apportioned to her. Having recently read a very illuminating essay on the symbolism of weaving written by Rene Guenon, I would like to conclude by quoting a few significant excerpts on the symbolism of weaving, as he understands it:
“If the meaning of this symbolism is to be clearly grasped, it should first be observed that the warp, formed as it is by threads stretched upon the loom, represents the immutable, principal elements, whereas the threads of the weft, which pass between those of the warp by the to-and-fro movement of the shuttle, represent the variable and contingent elements, in other words the applications of the principle to this or that set of particular conditions. Again, if one thread of the warp and one of the weft are considered, it will at once be seen that their meeting forms the cross, of which they are respectively the vertical line and the horizontal; and every stitch in the fabric, being thus the meeting-point of two mutually perpendicular threads, is thereby the center of such a cross. Now, following . . . the general symbolism of the cross, the vertical line represents that which joins together all the degrees of Existence by connecting their corresponding points to one another, whereas the horizontal line represents the development of one of these states or degrees. Thus the horizontal direction may be taken as depicting, for example, the human state, and the vertical direction that which is transcendent in relation to that state. … the vertical line represents the active or masculine principle (Purusha), and the horizontal one the passive or feminine principle (Prakriti), all manifestation being produced by the “actionless” influence of the first upon the second. Now, in another context, Shruti is likened to direct light, depicted by the sun, and Smriti to reflected light, depicted by the moon; but, at the same time, the sun and moon, in nearly all traditions, also respectively symbolize the masculine and feminine principles in universal manifestation…. From this standpoint again, the threads of the warp, by which the corresponding points in all states are connected, form the sacred book which is the prototype (or rather, archetype) of all traditional scriptures, and of which these scriptures are merely expressions in human language. The threads of the weft, each of which is the development of events in a certain state, form the commentary, in the sense that they give the applications relating to the different states; all events, envisaged in the simultaneity of the “timeless”, are thus inscribed in the Book, of which each represents as it were one character, being also identified with one stitch in the fabric.”
“The Essential Rene Guenon: Metaphysics Tradition and the Crisis of Modernity”
The Odyssey is a sacred Book, in which the human world meets the divine realm. It shows how our human destinies are interwoven with the timeless world of the archetypes.