3 & 10 SEPTEMBER

PENELOPE'S DREAM

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?  

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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 cousins - 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 in the play Iphigenia in Tauris. 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:

 

Chorus:

On the fertile plains of Delos, Leto gave birth to two great children: Apollo with the golden tresses and with his skill with the lyre and proud Artemis, who delighted in her unerring bow and arrows.

 

Leto wasted no time to leave her birthing place, there on the cliff by the sea, and brought her son to the peak of Parnassus with its rushing brooks and its frenzied celebrations of Dionysus.

There, in the shade of the broad-leafed laurel, lay a monstrous snake with gleaming dark skin, with eyes the colour of wine and with scales of every colour, guarding Earth’s ancient temple.

 

And though you were still a baby, Apollo and though you were still bouncing about in your mother’s lap, you still managed to kill that monster and become the new keeper of the sacred temple.

 

And so, your throne now is the golden tripod, a throne that knows no lies!

From the depths of the sacred sanctuary, you send the prophetic words of the gods to all the mortals.

 

You are the neighbour to the Castalian waters.

 

Your temple is the centre of the earth.

 

But then, when Apollo had driven Earth’s daughter, Themis, away from of this most sacred Pythian throne, at Delphi, Earth brought forth ghostly dreams that came out in the dark night.

 

Dreams that revealed to many mortals in their sleep, things that have happened and things that Fate decreed would happen.

 

And so it was that Earth, angered on behalf of her daughter, took away Apollo’s prophetic honours.

 

And so it was that Lord Apollo sped away on his quick feet to Olympus to wrap his young arms around Zeus’ throne and beg him to restore his Pythian temple to him, take it back from the anger of the goddess Earth.

 

Zeus laughed when he saw how his young child had already wanted to rule the realm of worship and of its endless stream of gold. With a shake of his long locks, Zeus put an end to all the ghostly dreams and tore out the shadowy faith the mortals had in them.

 

Apollo is given back the office of prophecy and the people thronged around his throne, with their faith in his oracles restored.

- Euripedes, Iphigenia in Tauris, l. 1230-1280

 

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!

MUSIC

This episodes feature 'The Death of Agamemnon', 'To Seek Meaning, Seek the Inner Shaman', Paean to Ares', 'Paean', 'Amatores' and 'Lampades (Nymphs of Hades)' by Michael Levy. You can listen to those tracks on the Lore & Legend Season 2 Playlist.

Sebastian Odell
HOST

Rick Scott
STORYTELLER

SOURCE MATERIAL

Source Texts

Homer, The Odyssey - A complete English translation by Theodoor van Thulden (Dutch, 1606-1669)

Homer, The Odyssey: Translated by Robert Fitzgerald (Vintage Classics)

Homer, The Odyssey, Homer,  Translated by Samuel Butler

Euripedes, Iphigenia in Tauris, Translated by George Theodoridis (2009)

'Pan' on Theoi Greek Mythology

'Hermes Loves' on Theoi Greek Mythology

​​​Geography

"Homer's Ithaca." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 Sep. 2020. Web. 4 Sep. 2020.

"Ionian Islands - The Heptanese ("Seven Islands")" on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 3 Jul. 2020. Web. 4 Sep. 2020.

"Ithaca." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 31 Aug. 2020. Web. 4 Sep. 2020.

"Cephalonia." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 28 Aug. 2020. Web. 4 Sep. 2020.

"Same (Homer)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 3 Jul. 2020. Web. 4 Sep. 2020.

"Zakynthos." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 Aug. 2020. Web. 4 Sep. 2020.

"Dulichium." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 Mar. 2020. Web. 4 Sep. 2020.

​​​​​​​

Research Sources

Ancient Greece Declassified, Episode 29: Penelope: Weaver of Fate w/ Olga Levoniouk (1 Feb. 2020)

Levaniouk, Olga. 2011. Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19. Hellenic Studies Series 46. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

'Penelope and Odysseus: The Perils of Dream Interpretation' by Kelly Bulkeley (29 Jan. 2013)

"Odyssey." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Sep. 2020. Web. 4 Sep. 2020.

"Penelope." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 16 Aug. 2020. Web. 4 Sep. 2020.

​"Suitors of Penelope." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 Jun. 2020. Web. 4 Sep.

 

​​​

Further Reading

Patricia Cox Miller, Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture (Princeton University Press 1998)

'PENELOPE AND THE PANDAREIDS', Olga Levaniouk Phoenix Vol. 62, No. 1/2 (Spring-Summer/printemps-été 2008), pp. 5-38 (34 pages) Published by: Classical Association of Canada

'The wily wife: why Homer's patient, faithful Penelope is more cunning than Odysseus' by Madeline Miller, The Telegraph Online

EPISODE CREDITS

Story interpreted by Rick Scott.
Sound editing, audio design and original illustrations by Rick Scott.
Podcast hosting by Anchor. Video and audiogram creation using Headliner.

Additional sound and effects sourced from the community at Freesound.org.

AUDIO CREDITS

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