The Penelopiad

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.


How can you not love her?

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.)


About Cathy Borders

Writer. Book Midwife. The Republic of Letters. Waterline Writers. Omnia Vanitas Review.
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6 Responses to The Penelopiad

  1. The more connections you make, the happier I am — fort/da, the elaboration of traditional myth, etc. It almost makes me want out the Engels.

    I do want to say, I really don’t like sensational rape cases as it encourages the belief that this sort of behavior isn’t normal and thus the public has a right to moral outrage. They totally don’t. I left academia because of university policies on sexual assault and harassment — which consist of very elegant looking brochures. There was also an interesting response that I came across on IMDB while trying to gauge the impact of the “The Invisible War,” which I want to be massive, of course. (Good luck!) Someone wrote something to the effect of — if women shouldn’t join the military because of the high instance of assault, they also shouldn’t attend college, as there is a comparable ratio.

    There’s a real Freudian doubling/substitution that is mind-numbingly mystical when it comes to victim blaming — which is super hilarious to the extent that it’s most often the “rational” who engage in this sort of mind trick the most shamelessly in the hopes of othering trauma. They may very well be specialist on Freud, so you’d think they’d know better! I was called the “Cassandra” of the department at university, and one of my harassers was a “specialist” in “l’écriture féminine!” And then, when I finally quit from sheer exhaustion, I end up a… Tarot reader? Hahaha. We should all mind the mythic. It’s chills my blood. 😉

  2. You’re exactly right about sensationalizing specific rape cases. People often jump on the story’s tailcoats, thinking it will help highlight the staggering number of similar cases, when, sadly, usually the opposite takes place: people become so immersed in the case du jour that every parallel story then seems less severe and already tired.

    It seems to me, that when people blame the victim it’s because they like to think that the only reason they have never been raped is due to their personal vigilance. If you blame the rapist, then we’re admitting that the victim (the one we’re supposed to empathize with) was powerless, which would then, thus, take away our own delusions of power. Not, of course, to be confused with autonomy; it’s just that our own will often cannot stop the will of another.

    Your personal academia story sounds very interesting, probably the making of an amazing short story. I love l’écriture féminine so much that I’m disheartened to think anyone else who does can suck so much. Did no one believe you? Is that why you were called Cassandra? How awful.

    Also, your blog is so cool. I tried to “follow you,” and I don’t know if it’s the button’s fault, or me (though it said to use a valid email, and I was, as it’s all linked and I was logged in, etc.), or a temporary glitch in wordpress, but I thought you should know that after several tries the system still wouldn’t let me follow.

    • Yeah, you’re having some sort of WordPress problem. It didn’t notify me that you responded on WordPress but it did send me an email, so this is felt from my end, too. Here’s a link Try using the Widget in Reader to add blogs you wish to follow (thanks!) But I’d recommend emailing support as the orange notification doesn’t pop up for me when you respond, and it does for others. Ususally there are already discussions on topics but I couldn’t find one about this. (Oh, you’re following from another address! Does that work? Was that the problem?)

      The psychology of victim blaming that you outline is spot on, and it works for every other tragedy, too. There’s an imaginary economy of pain where the victim earns trauma — homelessness comes to mind — in lieu of asking how any civilized society could let anyone rot on the pavement regardless of their back story or what they’ve “done.” Judith Butler wrote one line in “Precarious Life” that so turned me off I didn’t want to touch the book, although I did. She said 9/11 taught us that it could happen here. We didn’t know?! How delusional and unimaginative we must be! To that end, I adored this post on another blog that I follow —

      With my personal story, people believed me once they experienced it firsthand, 3-12 months later, but no one caught up and the situation was a mise en abîme that lagged horribly. I wrote a 50 page report, in lieu of my dissertation (which was on the body as site of political agency — ironic, no? 😉 ) on university policies and protocol, lack of staffing, conflict of interest, lack of training as necessarily negligent on the part of the school, and Title IX. It hurt! SAFER Campus told me to contact the ACLU, and the ACLU referred me to the Office of Civil Rights. The OCR sent me a 20+ page dismissal that I still haven’t actually been able to read the whole way through. The entire process took 4 years to unfold. Ouch! So I quit the university and sent the report to the entire department saying no one’s innocent by way of ignorance (I had always hid the names of all colleagues/students and gave them numbers because the problem was structural). But the act made me feel like Eris with her golden apple.

      If anything should ever happen at the school or concerning the people involved, or if the OCR should ever be questioned, I figure I’ll pass all information on with a note saying I’ll do whatever I can to help and I will most definitely go on record. I get the sense it would be like the DSK scandal with people coming out of the woodwork. And if not, I’m out of it and not complicit, which I need to be so I can stand in front of the mirror and brush my teeth every morning. Phew!

      • PS — I also want to say that I really appreciate the fact that you didn’t balk when I both enlargened and personalized the Steubenville reference. It’s like some Tourette-like tic for me that I need to articulate that one note applies to every key, which really should be evident by the shoddy sentence those men received and the media’s pitifully apologist response… but I don’t mean to hijack a literary discussion and I know it does have that effect sometimes. It’s difficult to know how to organize it all. So, thank you.

        You might be curious, and totally not surprised, to know that The High Priestess card is also the card of women who work in the sex industry. The story’s powerful, as she is, but never the happy-go-lucky “I just love sex” story that the media started to love as porn got increasingly mainstream. Instead it’s a dissociative independence resulting from abuse — it makes me think of “Daddy’s Lil’ Girl” by Bikini Kill, actually. Like in that role, that is her song. Also, The High Priestess and Hanged Man are considered two of the most independent and genuinely countercultural cards in the deck. They “know” things others do not and therefore renounce.

        I hope your WordPress issues resolve! Your blog is great!

        Take care,

      • I couldn’t imagine balking at either enlarging or personalizing anything on this blog. The entire purpose of writing is to be read, and through reading, interpreted, and from there, applied and then either responded to or disseminated. I’m happy to take any of these posts in any direction readers see fit. That’s part of the fun. So never worry about hijacking any of my literary discussions.

        Tarot is so fascinating! For me, it’s that love of symbolism and deconstruction that makes it so interesting. I did not know that about the High Priestess. I say that like I know a lot about Tarot, I know very little actually. Whenever my friends and me gave each other readings we interpreted the cards as we would any text. There’s so much in Tarot that I want to study. It’s the not the direction of my current project, but I smell it on the horizon of my next one.

        Thanks again for your interest and zeal! It really means a lot.


        Oh, and I think I was able to fix some of my wordpress issues. (Thanks for clueing me into some I hadn’t seen too!) I don’t know why you’re not being notified when I respond though. Diving into the bowels of wordpress is on my to-do list, but man, it’s nowhere near the top.

      • Ha! Awesome! That’s how Tarot divination started. It was just some dumb game but the illustrations on the Trumps, which were once hand painted, invited further reading. It then grew popular in both its capacities with the advent of the printing press and the public sphere. I really like this story! Your WordPress problems seem to be resolved; I got the orange flicker. So the bowels can wait. 😉

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