SERIES II · EPISODE II
Around the sixteenth year they had come, first a few, then in swelling numbers until it seemed that every rough blooded adventurer in the Seven Islands was gathered under this single roof.
They ate all of the food that came into the house, and drank up the casks of wine in the cellars. They slept in all the palace beds, in the corridors and the great hall. They opened all the chests and dressed themselves in the fine clothes and coloured linen. They burned up all the wood in the great fireplace.
And even as they did, the Lady of this House awaited the return of her husband. She did this even though the thieves and pirates that now stalked their halls called her ‘The Widow’, and every day, taunted her and asked her: which one of them was she going to marry?
The Dream of Penelope remixes and reinterprets events drawn from the Homeric epic of the Odyssey, the story of Odysseus’ return home from the Trojan Wars, which is endlessly frustrated by the malice of the Gods, and from less well known stories which claim his wife Penelope was the mother of the Greek Divinity of shepherds and wild countryside, the faun-like God called Pan. It is set on the Island of Ithaca, one of seven islands in the Ionian Sea to the West of mainland Greece. There is a modern island of Ithaca, but no one is exactly sure if it is the same Island where the Odyssey is set. In the story, suitors from four different island kingdoms congregate on Ithaca seeking to wed Penelope and take Odysseus’ kingdom for themselves.
Penelope’s story is embedded within the Odyssey, Homer’s epic which tells the story of her son Telemachus and his search for his father, and her husband as his troubled return from Troy to Ithaca. Within this narrative, she plays the role of the faithful and enduring wife, who over the course of five years after the Fall of Troy and Odysseus’ disappearance, keeps her faith in his return alive, uses her wit and intelligence to stave off the advances of the encroaching suitors, and welcomes her husband back after his eventual return. Throughout Greek literature and culture, she held up as a feminine ideal as a direct comparison to the failings of her sisters - the infidelity of Helen, who eloped with Paris, and the disloyalty of Klytemnestra, who murdered her husband Agamemnon.
But there is more to Penelope than this. Firstly, within the Odyssey itself, Penelope’s wit is subtle, and her motivations can be as mercurial as Odysseus himself. A traditional reading of Penelope makes her an often passive actor in Odysseus’ story; while she orchestrates the deception of the shroud, after this she is she waits and she mourns; she is sometimes directed by Athena, and in the end, she is forced to bow to the will of the suitors until her husband reveals himself after killing the suitors. However, other readings suggest that Penelope plays a more active and collaborative role in the return of her husband: seeing through his disguise, she orchestrates the contest of the bow to give her husband the right opportunity to slay the suitors. Not only that, but the contest of the bow, and her probing of his true identity, establish that Penelope is testing the worthiness of Odysseus himself to return to his place as King of Ithaca. Indeed, the Odyssey itself not only calls Penelope wise, but compares her more than once to a lion or lioness.
Not only this, but there were alternative stories about Penelope which contradicted or complicated her legend as the Faithful Wife. Some ancient authors questioned Penelope’s chastity during the absence of her husband. One tradition stated that she was seduced by the leader of the suitors Antinous, and exiled by Odysseus on his return home. Several sources insist that Penelope was the mother of the Greek God Pan, either because she slept with every single one of the suitors - a play on the name of ‘Pan’, which meant ‘All’ - or that she was the lover of the God Hermes.
Some of these alternative traditions were clearly misogynistic in nature, created specifically to disparage the character of women by denying Penelope’s legend. But they also represent an opportunity to tell a different story about Penelope from a contemporary perspective.
This episode tells the story of Penelope’s encounter with Hermes and the birth of Pan in the course of the events of the Odyssey. Through the Gates of Dream, Hermes comes to her under the guise of the suitors. While Penelope attempts to defend her stewardship of the vacant throne against the depredations of the other islanders, she is forced to deal with their violent intentions for her son, and the increasingly precarious nature of her position. Through these dreams, Penelope is presented with a variety of possible choices and futures. From these dreams, and out of the confinement on Ithaca is born Pan, a wild god of nature.
In employing the handmaidens as spies, courting the attentions of Amphinomus, and demanding the death first of all of the suitors, she displays a degree of ruthlessness on par with her husband. Just as Athena makes Odysseus young and beautiful before battle to glorify him, she gives Penelope youth and beauty as tools to manipulate the suitors and increase their hubris. In the end, Penelope and Odysseus are shown as partners in the making of their myth. If Odysseus is a pirate king - as brutal a man as the ingenious one he is often remembered as - then here, Penelope is his pirate Queen: unsentimental about, and complicit in, the violent restoration of their power, including the killing of every last suitor and the handmaidens who might contradict her legend as the woman-who-waited.
THEMES & FOLKLORE
THE WEAVING OF THE SHROUD
One of the most famous components of the Odyssey and Penelope’s myth is the ruse of the shroud: Penelope delays being forced by the suitors to remarry by promising to do so once she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her husbands father, Laertes, who still lives on Ithaca. Secretly, Penelope and her handmaidens weave this shroud during the day, and unweaved it at night.
Our version of the story simplifies the story by identifying this as Odysseus’ burial shroud, lending it more immediate emotional and symbolic significance, and allowing for the motif of weaving and unweaving Odysseus’ story into the shroud, expressing Penelope’s doubts and ambivalence about her husband’s fate and the chance of his return.
Now from that episode of Ancient Greece Declassified that I mentioned, I know there are several important symbolic aspects to the shroud in Greek culture. Weaving was an activity undertaken by women, and Penelope manages the advances of the suitors using her authority as a woman over this aspect of cultural tradition. Arguably, the men’s lack of knowledge about weaving, and their disinterest in following or examining the work, allows her to deceive them about how long such a thing should take. The weaving of cloth, gowns and shrouds was also connected with key cultural events like weddings and funerals. Penelope’s assertion that ‘when the weaving stops, there will be a wedding or a funeral’, is an expression of a theme in Greek myth and in other cultures, where the feminine work of weaving is punctuated by key transitional moments in the lives of women and the community. In the Odyssey, the princess Nausicaa tells her father that she must stop weaving, which he recognises as meaning that she is ready for marriage. The demands of the suitors for Penelope to marry, and the symbolical representation of Odysseus’ return as a rebirth or renewal, is reinforced by the weaving of the shroud, which could instead be identified with the cloths used to re-dress Odysseus and Penelope’s marriage bed a symbol of (re)marriage and consecration of their union.
DREAM GATES AND DREAM STORIES
Several of the dreaming incidents in our episode have been added or invented out of other historical and mythical sources.
The story of the Mother of Dreams is a myth retold from the playwright Euripides. It is a part of the myth of Apollo which tells how he usurped the power of prophecy from the Thonic old golds, in this case, Mother Earth. It is one of several differing stories about the birth of dreams, which say they were born from Mother Night or from Mother Earth. Here, the myth about false dreams and their origins is symbolically linked to Penelope’s state of mind, as she she contemplates the many different possible visions of her future she has to contend with.
Her statement that ‘a woman may only trust the dreams she has of her husband the night before her wedding’ is a reference to a traditional genre in which brides would perform songs in which they claimed to have seen a dream of their husband the night before. This tradition apparently extended to several ancient cultures, and there are echoes of it in later European folklore. Dawn dreams about lovers was a motif in the troubadour literature of Europe, and in later English folklore, there are many recorded charms, spells and auspicious days which an unmarried girls used to summon a dream of the man which she was going to marry.
The time of the dream, in the early hours of the morning, may have been deemed important because of the belief that dreams in the early morning were more likely to come true: a claim found in the writings of Aristotle, in the Bible, and often repeated from these sources.
The story of Hermes visiting Penelope in dreams under the guise of a ram, and then in the shape of Odysseus and the other suitors, is a re-invention of the stories that Hermes slept with Penelope in the shape of a Ram, or that she actually slept with all of the suitors on Ithaca.
The confrontation between Penelope, Eurydamas and Amphinomus, about suing the suitor for sleeping with her in his dreams, is based on a bawdy tale sourced from a sixteenth-century medical text about love sickness. A less salacious version of the tale doesn’t involve sexual dreams, but instead tells the tale of how a cook tries to get a beggar to pay him money when he holds a piece of bread over a pot of hot stew in the hope of soaking up some flavourful steam. The judge decides that if the beggar has stolen only the smoke from the stew, the cook is owed only the sound of money jiggling in a purse.
Even without all of these additions, the story of the Odyssey is soaked in dreams and the language of dreams. Telemachus and Penelope are visited by dreams sent by Athena, and Telemachus leaves Ithaca due in part to the ‘new dream of his father’ the gods have given him.
But the most famous dream episode in the Odyssey is Penelope’s conversation with her disguised husband, the dream of the twenty geese killed by the eagle, which then announces itself as Odysseus. In the past, many have taken this incident at face value. Odysseus is in disguise, Penelope doesn’t recognise him: she has had a dream which interprets itself for her, but she doesn’t believe it, and goes on to set the test for the suitors, which Odysseus is fated to win. However, many modern interpreters argue that something else is going on here: that Penelope may actually recognise Odysseus, or suspect that it is him, and that her story about the dream is i equal parts a test, and a coded communication. Scholars Louise Pratt and Kelly Bulkeley point out that there are only twenty geese in the dream, and that this matches up better with the twenty years that Odysseus has been absent than the 108 suitors said to be in the palace. Bulkeley suggests that Penelope’s strange emotional reaction to the death of the geese - they are said to be the suitors, yet she cries at their destruction - as well as the stores of grain they eat up, might instead be a reproach toward her husband, for the twenty years of loss and waste experienced in his absence. Olga Levaniouk argues that in telling the story about the eagle’s return, it is Penelope herself and not Odysseus, who dictates the meaning of the dream. She is in effect, secretly asking Odysseus if he has returned, and if this is what he is going to do. Not only is she communicating her recognition of her husband, but she also communicates her expectations - including her expectation that he will kill all of the suitors.
The idea that Penelope’s dream is a coded communication matches up with the fact that Odysseus himself uses stories about dreams elsewhere in the Odyssey and in other mythic sources to manipulate people and situations around him and get what he wants. This episode would make that tactic common to both characters, and shared means of strategy and communication.
Penelope’s dream is also the source for one of the key pieces of lore about dreams in the Greek mythos - the Gates of Horn and Ivory. The idea that dreams could be either true or false, and that they came through either or a horn or ivory gate, is actually a piece of punning and wordplay in the original Greek, where the words for ‘fulfil’ and ‘horn’, and ‘deceit’ and ‘ivory’, looked and sounded similar. In English, the words ‘honest’ and ‘horn’ and ‘invidious’ and ‘ivory’ were about as close as we could get to replicating it. The motif of the gates emphasises the central truth about dreams In Greek myth and culture: that they were seen as inherently ambivalent and untrustworthy. Unlike oracles, which were always true, but which could be incredibly deceptive based on perspective and the assumptions people made when interpreting them, dreams predicting the future could often be completely false. We see this in the very beginning in the Iliad, when Zeus sends a spirit called Deceitful Dream which lies to Agamemnon by promising him victory if he immediately attacks Troy.
Yet the nature of dreams is always double: Athena’s dreams to Telemachus and Penelope are both comforting and true. In light of this fact, Penelope’s confusion, her doubts, and her need to strategically verify the identity of her husband, are all very understandable.
Finally, at the end of the Odyssey, the God Hermes is shown leading the ghosts of the slain suitors to the edge of the world, where they pass under a great white rock, through the gates of the sun, and through the land of dreams before reaching their final place in Hades. These are all landmarks in the mythical geography of the Underworld: a topic we’ll have an opportunity to explore in greater depths in future episodes!
The Orphic Hymns includes a hymn to Selene:
VIII. TO THE MOON [SELENE]
Trans. Thomas Taylor
The Fumigation from Aromatics.
Hear, Goddess queen, diffusing silver light,
bull-horn'd and wand'ring thro' the gloom of Night.
With stars surrounded, and with circuit wide Night's torch
extending, thro' the heav'ns you ride:
Female and Male with borrow'd rays you shine,
and now full-orb'd, now tending to decline.
Mother of ages, fruit-producing Moon,
whose amber orb makes Night's reflected noon:
Lover of horses, splendid, queen of Night,
all-seeing pow'r bedeck'd with starry light.
Lover of vigilance, the foe of strife,
in peace rejoicing, and a prudent life:
Fair lamp of Night, its ornament and friend,
who giv'st to Nature's works their destin'd end.
Queen of the stars, all-wife Diana hail!
Deck'd with a graceful robe and shining veil;
Come, blessed Goddess, prudent, starry, bright,
come moony-lamp with chaste and splendid light,
Shine on these sacred rites with prosp'rous rays,
and pleas'd accept thy suppliant's mystic praise.
This episodes feature 'Song to Selene' by Michael Levy. You can listen to it here, or follow the links to the Lore & Legend Season 2 Playlist.
Story interpreted by Rick Scott.
Sound editing, audio design and original illustrations by Rick Scott.
Lore & Legend Series Themes composed and performed by Robert Bentall.
Podcast hosting by Anchor. Video and audiogram creation using Headliner.
Additional sound and effects sourced from the community at Freesound.org.
Incidental music, background ambience and sound effects by multiple authors sourced from Freesound.org. See below for the full list of audio files and attribution credits: