I love Margaret Atwood. I open one of her books, wondering if I’m going to read it next, and then I’m on page 35. Her prose is like really expensive vodka: clear, neat, but surreptitiously powerful. I love it.
Just as Christa Wolf gives voice to Cassandra (though in Wolf’s retelling, Helen is disembodied: an excuse; a representation of woman as the binary opposite of man: 0: Cassandra: nothing), Atwood gives us Penelope’s perspective. Woven throughout the text is the chorus of the 12 maids who were hanged upon Odysseus’s arrival for “treason,” for sleeping with the suitors. These maids have haunted Atwood, and in The Penelopiad, Penelope gives us their story, uncoiling the truth behind their brief and dismissive appearance in The Odyssey.
Penelope reminds us that Odysseus competed for Helen’s (her cousin) hand but lost to Menelaus. After the games, each man swore an oath to protect Helen and Menelaus’s marriage. Depending on which myth you read, Helen was either stolen or gifted to Paris by Aphrodite, but Atwood goes with Occam’s razor: that Helen ran off with prettyboy Paris. Either way, Odysseus had sworn an oath, so off he goes to fight in the Trojan War. After 10 years, victorious, he sets sail for home. This journey also takes 10 years. He fights and blinds Cyclops, Poseidon’s son, creating a powerful enemy, particularly when you travel by boat; fucks and parties with Circe for a while; goes down to the Underworld; pisses Zeus off, then has to stay and fuck Calypso for a couple of years to redeem himself.
Through it all, Penelope waits.
Some suitors come after her (loot). Shouting that her husband is dead, they plant themselves in her court, eating and raping as they see fit, all the while demanding she marry one of them. The ever-faithful wife heeds the advice of her naiad mother:
Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.
She schemes around the obstacle, telling the suitors that she will choose one of them, but only after she weaves a shroud for her father-in-law. By day she weaves, and by night, with the help of her 12 youngest and prettiest maids–her daughters, as she calls them, since she’s known them and loved them since they were children–she unweaves. She sends these 12 maids to spy on the suitors, soak up all the information they can. Some are raped, some acquiesce to avoid the pain of rape, some, inevitably fall in love, but all report back to Penelope. None of them are unfaithful.
Their deaths are unjust. They are thrown away without a second glance. Because, after all, sex with the help is allowed but only with the master’s permission. As Odysseus was away and could not grant permission, the suitors were charged with theft, not rape. And since the concept of rape is a modern concept, the girls were blamed, charged with treason, and hanged.
(Oh, but wait, blaming the victims for their own rape isn’t all that archaic. Here’s a collection of hideously horrible tweets blaming the 16yo victim in the Steubenville rape case.)
In the afterlife they haunt Odysseus with their crooked necks and dangling feet. So much so, he never sticks around, instead he opts for rebirth. Thus, perpetually leaving Penelope, who then waits another lifetime until he dies again.
This is her fort/da. The waiting game. Her trauma repetition compulsion that she can’t get away from, even in death. Home/Away. Arrival/Departure. Love me/Leave me.
My favorite part was the meta-analysis in chapter 29, “The Chorus Line: An Anthropology Lecture,” where Atwood (presented by the maids) deconstructs the significance of the 12 maids’ deaths. I’m always a sucker for this kind of thing. Symbolism makes my day, my life. As a kid, I thought there was truth in symbolism, as though the “signs” I encountered were prophetic. And still, there is a sort of “truth” in unveiling the hidden messages in texts. Of course, interpretations are limitless, but still, it’s fun to decipher and illuminate (an often applicable) nugget of wisdom. Symbolism is the closest thing I have to divinity.
The 12 maids are the 12 months, which can be attributed to the virginal Artemis of the moon, because, as we know, month comes from moon and Artemis is the goddess of the moon. And since there are technically 13 lunar months, we’ll count Penelope as the High Priestess, the incarnation of Artemis. The maids, at the behest of their High Priestess, engage in orgiastic fertility rituals with the suitors, then after Odysseus slain the suitors, the maids were forced to clean up their bodies, their blood, possibly purifying themselves as Artemis had done in the blood of Acteon. In The Odyssey, Odysseus competes for Penelope’s hand in games rigged in his favor, notably, he is the only one who knows how to work the bow used to shoot an arrow through the 12 axe-heads. Bow: “the curved old-moon bow of Artemis.” 12 axe-heads: 12. “The arrow passed through the loops of their handles, the round, moon-shaped loops!” Then the maids were killed. Just as the moon hangs above the earth, the women hang before the men.
Thus possibly our rape and subsequent hanging represent the overthrow of a matrilineal moon-cult by an incoming group of usurping patriarchal father-god-worshipping barbarians. The chief of them, notably Odysseus, would then claim kingship by marrying the High Priestess of our cult, namely Penelope…
In the pre-patriarchal scheme of things, there may have well been a bow-shooting contest, but it would have been properly conducted. He who won it would be declared ritual king for a year, and would then be hanged – remember the Hanged Man motif, which survives now only as a lowly Tarot card. He would also have had his genitals torn off, as befits a male drone married to the Queen Bee. Both acts, the hanging and the genital-tearing off, would have ensured the fertility of the crops. But usurping strongman Odysseus refused to die at the end of his rightful term. Greedy for prolonged life and power, he found substitutes. Genitals were indeed torn off, but they were not his – they belonged to the goatherd Melanthius. Hanging did indeed take place, but it was we, the twelve moon-maidens, who did the swinging in his place.
How do you not love Margaret Atwood?
She turned The Penelopiad into a play now too! Which makes an infinite amount of sense, considering how made for the theater The Penelopiad is. Atwood in an interview: “The book is in essence theatrical. It’s a lot like the structure of a Greek tragedy, in that the central characters’ stories are told in quite long monologues, then the chorus comment on the action.”
Please come to Chicago!
(And The Handmaid’s Tale is now an opera as well! Swoon.)
The Penelopiad is part of the series, “The Myths,” from Canongate Books, a print publisher, in which top writers retell myths. I’ve only read Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ from that series. And I loved that too. (I also wrote about it.)