Goddesses in the Dirt: Penelope of Ithaka

Unearthing the Divine  Feminine, one archetype at a time......

Issue #11: Penelope of Ithaka

Penelope is the wife of Odysseus, the hero of the epic poem, The Odyssey, written by the bard Homer. Odysseus' adventures comprise the balance of the story's action: from sailing to Troy to fight alongside Achilles and coming up with the idea for the Trojan Horse, to blinding the Cyclops and pissing off his father, Poseidon the god of the sea. Bad idea. Just as Odysseus is getting close to home - the island of Ithaka - after 10 years away, Poseidon blows him off course and forces him to spend yet another 10 years trying to get back home. And what keeps him going all this time, while he narrowly avoids getting sucked into the Scylla and Charibdes, drawn upon the rocks the by Sirens and bewitched by the sorceress Circe? Memories of his wife, Penelope, and their son, Telemachus, a newborn when he left the island. 

Ever-faithful and possessing the patience of Job, Penelope is in the background of the story - in some ways, she is the whole background of the narrative. Holding down the fort - or palace, as it were - she spends her days weaving and her nights fighting off the ever-emboldened suitors who have come from islands all around to seek her hand in marriage and take her presumed deceased husband's place. 

But Penelope never loses faith. Convinced her husband is still alive, she concocts a plan to keep the suitors at bay. She tells them that once the garment she is weaving is finished, she will choose a suitor to marry. Unbeknownst to them, what she weaves by day, she secretly pulls apart at night, only to begin weaving all over again the next day. This works for a while, until the suitors become increasingly restless and demand for her to finish the work. She conspires with her son, Telemachus, to hold off the suitors until Odysseus returns to Ithaka, disguised as a beggar.  As the climax is pretty exciting, I won't spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't read it, but suffice it to say that she is really happy to see her husband show up after 20 years. 

We learn very little about this character except that she has plenty of it: character - in the form of resolve, patience, and a certain amount of something that may have rubbed off from her husband - cunning. But her traditional role in the epic speaks volumes about the perception of women in antiquity. 

Margaret Atwood has written a book from the point of view of Penelope, entitled, befittingly, The Penelopiad, the title a take off on Homer's other epic poem, The Iliad. With women in the background of many of these ancient classics, it's refreshing and humorous to consider how events might have been perceived through the eyes of women instead of men. Another book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, by Sarah Pomeroy, sheds further light on the role of women in antiquity through the lens of modern feminism. 

In all the time I spent excavating on Ithaka while we searched for the palace of Odysseus, the most exciting finds were not necessarily the 29 silver Corinthian coins we found in one trench, or the foundation of a Hellenistic tower. It was the loom weights we unearthed every few weeks or so: small triangles of clay with holes drilled in them, small enough to fit in my palm. Every time I held one I thought of this stoic woman, waiting year after year on this remote island for her husband, always believing he would return to her some day — and wondered if it could have once been in Penelope's hand;  she slipping through the woolen skeins and readying the fabric to be pulled apart, waiting for the moment when the sun would slip over the distant edge of Homer's wine dark sea.


  1. The end of this post gave me chills on both legs and arms.

    I did not know about Penelope's (cunning) weaving and unraveling. Brings a whole new shade of meaning to the Ecclesiastical verse about a time for everything under the sun.

    I have only read two of Margaret Atwood's books, 'The Handmaiden's Tale' and 'Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.' But though my exposure to her writing has been limited, let me just say that I loved the title 'Penelopiad,' and can just imagine that I would enjoy reading it as much as said title promises.

    Thank you for another mini-journey from my kitchen table. :)

  2. Dear "Twin", Penelope has ALWAYS been a particular heroine of mine.
    I would have had chills too if I unearthed those loom weights...you ARE truly linked to those beautiful days of fateful legend!

    I have been immersed in the Lands of "Giants, Nibelungen and Gods these past few weeks. And....I did think of you because this "Ring" has a decidily Feminine Stance to it....e-mail me with your home address and I will mail you a programme....I think you will enjoy it!

    Love, always,

    ♥ Robin ♥

  3. I didn't know about Atwood's book, and will look for it. Ms Atwood is a feminist and a great storyteller. That Homer chose to make Penelope the opposite of Helena, a loyal woman intent on keeping the hope alive is a beautiful commentary of the richness of the story he told. Odysseus could stay focused on returning home, on returning to his beloved and his responsibilities with the knowledge that his wife was loyal and faithful.

  4. Thank-you for reintroducing me to this epic novel, so brilliantly outlined. Definitely a Margaret Atwood fan!

  5. Suze said it best.."thanking you for another journey from my kitchen table"..thats how I feel when I visit you too.I am also moved not only with the story of Penelope but with the finds that you unearth,touching these treasures for the first time,but knowing deep in your soul that other hands touched it long long ago..Oooh fills my heart with joy imagining you holding these loom weights.Can you send me a picture..okok..I know your busy,but if you can, I would be so thrilled see them.I feel like such a goober asking for this request,but to see them,after hearing this wonderful story,well,its simply wonderful.Hugs,Cat

    Just incase..cat1(at)cfl.rr.com

  6. I remember studying the Odyssey atone point — long ago. Penelope did a great job if fending off would-be husbands, staying true to her Odysseus, while he was on his adventure and miss-adventures. Reminds me of the portrait of the good wife in the Bible.

    I didn't know about Margaret Atwood's book. Having read The Handmaid's Tale, I suspect The Penelopiad would make a great read. Thanks for the idea.

    BTW, I really enjoy your "Goddess" stories.

  7. Such a fascinating tale, i'm going to my library (online) next to see if i can order Ms Atwood's book. i've had trouble commenting lately Amanda, i hope this makes it through.

    and i am with cat, i would love to see the loom weights also, what a brilliant find!

  8. the idol of a faithfull woman, times has changed and the myth is still true:)

  9. I shall keep an eye out for that Atwood book. Thanks.

  10. It’s actually a great and helpful piece of information. I am glad that you shared this helpful information with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing

  11. This was indeed a beautiful read as I share your interest in the feminine, mysterious and divine. I never read any of these books, but recall seeing a television series about Oddyseus' journeys and the endless wait of Penelope was very much highlighted.
    Furthermore, I am completely intrigued by the ancient Greece and Greek mythology, and those books I devoured as a young teenager. As an eight year old I read with an avid enthusiasm a book describing the excavation (and unearthing) of Troy by Heinrich Schliemann and decided right there and then that I wanted to be an archeologist.
    Your occupation is a source of endless enchantment to me and I wish that life would have permitted me to follow my childhood dreams.;))
    Have a lovely week,

  12. determined women,,yes, I am surrounded...Watched PBS special the other night,,, "Rebuilding the Parthenon",,you were there...thanks

  13. I am so into the divine feminine right now. And I'm also a huge Atwood fan. Gotta read this book. Excellent post.

  14. I learn so much from you, Amanda. This is yet another intriguing, thought provoking, beautifully written post.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing it all with us.

  15. Yes indeed Amanda, beautifully written, and liable to make me impatient for ancient Korcyra. Corfu's sea is not as 'wine dark' as it maybe used to be. A special post.

  16. suze - you are most welcome - and i agree - atwood was ultra inspired when she came up with the title penelopiad - i'm sure many writers out there wished they'd thought of it themselves!

    dear, sweet robin - i would love a program from der ring - i know you are in your element during opera season and adore hearing the latest updates from you! will send my address asap ~ xxoo

    rosaria - what an intriguing dichotomy you draw - penelope and helen. of course, when you consider both books thru the main female character you have a completely different tale. many classicists believe the odyssey to be the fictional account of the two, but penelope seems such a more real character. but then, where would we be without the face that launched a thousand ships?

  17. chiccoreal - you are welcome and many thanks for visiting!

    dear cat - you've got it! however, i'm sorry to say it won't be a photo of any loomweights we found at our site, but i can certainly send a representative example!

    kind thanks for your sweet comment♡ - it really touches me! xoxo

    r-bear - with myths in antiquity one never knows if there is a Biblical base to some of these stories - or if the Biblical story has roots in a more ancient tale.

    i didn't see where i was going with this goddess series when i first started but i am really enjoying it now. makes me feel great to know you are as well.

    thank you♡

  18. lori - i'm sorry to hear you've had trouble commenting - some other folks have mentioned this as well. i know that blogger has had its issues lately - i finally got my followers back after they'd been missing for a while.

    when i sent the loomweight foto to cat I'll copy you as well!!


    ola - times have changed indeed, but the story still holds up after more than 3000 years!

    dd - it's quite popular, only having been published in the past couple of years - i think you'll not have trouble finding it in paris ~

  19. leeds - thanks!

    zuzana - you were quite an advanced 8 year old to be reading about heinrich schliemann and troy - i'm impressed!

    thanks as always for your sweet and supportive comments ~ xoxox

    glenn - lucky man you are, to be surrounded by strong women!

    the PBS special sounds intriguing - i must look it up!

  20. tess - glad to hear you are turning your formidable attention to the divine feminine - i will await some heady poems to emerge from that~

    jo - you are the most supportive person! kind thanks, dear friend


    bob - corfu is well within the magnetic pull of ithaki - do the locals still feel that the palace is there? yes, the sea is not what it used to be, but even if i have to squint, i am convinced i can still see the wine darkness of it......chalk it up to being a hopeless romantic~

  21. I have always loved The Iliad and The Odyssey. And Penelope has always been a symbol of patience and perseverance to me. It amazes me that you have spent so many years excavating on Ithaca - the little island that I was so fascinated by when I was younger.

  22. It has been many, many years since reading these books and you reminded me of the story I was so obsessed with at 12 years old. I think the devine feminine will remerge and all of the attributes of women will be once again valued. Great post.

  23. You are an artful weaver yourself Amanda, your posts always leave me wanting to learn a little more. Smiles*!*

  24. I will have to check out the Atwood book. I have always found Penelope's strategem of unweaving by night what she diligently wove during the day to be so suggestive and rich with metaphoric possibilities, night undoing what we busy ourselves with by day ...

    Congrats on your 100th post and on the unique, original and inspiring list of 100 achievements.

  25. this is a lovely post. I am reading Caesars' Wives right now and the author mentions how various Caesars would uphold weaving as the ideal pastime for women and I always think of Penelope. It would be so exciting to find those weights!


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