Saturday, May 23rd, 2020...2:15 pmChris Francese

Penelope to Odysseus part 1 (Ovid, Heroides 1.1-36)

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Penelope is not represented as the legendary wife of Odysseus but as a contemporary woman, dutifully engaged in needlework as she dreams about her husband, portrayed in the miniature before her.

Penelope (ca. 1868) by Charles-François Marchal. Penelope is not represented as the legendary wife of Odysseus but as a contemporary woman, dutifully engaged in needlework as she dreams about her husband, portrayed in the miniature before her. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Here begins what I plan to be a series on Ovid’s Heroides, in preparation for an open online seminar on the Heroides with Chun Liu of Peking University, July 16-20, 2020. We will read and discuss several of the Heroides together. Please sign up and join us!

Penelope starts by letting Odysseus know she feels abandoned, and criticizes the Trojan war as not worth the pain it has caused to the women back home in Greece. Ovid makes it clear immediately that she knows the war is over (Troia iacet certe, Troy undoubtedly lies in ruins). Certe means that something is certain in the mind of the speaker, and is often used in protests: the unspoken protest here being “you should be back by now!” Lento “slow” in the first line also makes this complaint. Other key words express her lonliness: deserto (empty), frigida (cold), relicta (left behind), viduas (alone)—some of these adjectives apply to things (her bed, her hands) but they all emphasize her psychological state. Throughout the poem Ovid tests your knowledge of the Odyssey, and the first is an easy one, the reference to Penelope weaving (pendula tela). If you have read the Odyssey you know Penelope spends a good amount of time weaving, most famously the shroud of Laertes. The tela is the “warp,” the upright threads into which the “weft” is woven. It is said to be pendula (“hangning, suspended”) which just means that it is upright, not that it is swinging from the rafters.

Haec tua Pēnelopē lentō tibi mittit, Ulixe;

nīl mihi rescrībās attinet: ipse venī!

Troia iacet certē, Danaīs invīsa puellīs;

vix Priamus tantī tōtaque Troia fuit.

ō utinam tum, cum Lacedaemona classe petēbat,                                       5

obrutus īnsānīs esset adulter aquīs!

nōn ego dēsertō iacuissem frīgida lectō,

nec quererer tardōs īre relicta diēs;

nec mihi quaerentī spatiōsam fallere noctem

lassāret viduās pendula tēla manūs.                                                            10


Penelope refers to herself as puella in line 3, which seems not right, since she is a mature married woman, but I think Ovid is trying to say that she is still in love, that she is in the class of lovers (puella is the standard term for “beloved” in Roman love poetry). He emphasizes this in the next section where Penelope talks about how afraid she is that Odysseus will get hurt, and that this is how lovers are, nervous and worried (solliciti).  She grows pale at the mention of Hector’s name, or at the mention of the victory of one of Troy’s other great champions, Memnon or Sarpedon. Here the testing of your mythological knowledge gets more intense. Hector: no problem there if you know the Iliad; the mention of the death of Antilochus is much trickier. Antilochus was a son of Nestor, mentioned in the Odyssey 4.187 as having been killed by the Ethiopian champion Memnon, son of the Dawn and a late arrival to Troy, after the Iliad ends.  Tlepolemus, according to Iliad 5.628–665, was killed by Sarpedon, another great Trojan ally, from Lycia. She identifies these heroes by their victims because she says she gets nervous any time he gets news that any Greek has been killed, “the heart of the lover grows colder than ice.” Again this emotion portrays her as a lover, not so much a wife, though of course a wife would be nervous, too.

Quandō ego nōn timuī graviōra perīcula vēris?

rēs est sollicitī plēna timōris amor.

in tē fingēbam violentōs Trōas itūrōs;

nōmine in Hectoreō pallida semper eram.

sīve quis Antilochum nārrābat ab hoste revictum,                             15

Antilochus nostrī causa timōris erat;

sīve Menoetiadēn falsīs cecidisse sub armīs,

flēbam successū posse carēre dolōs.

sanguine Tlēpolemus Lyciam tepefēcerat hastam;

Tlēpolemī lētō cūra novāta mea est.                                                            20

dēnique, quisquis erat castrīs iugulātus Achīvīs,

frīgidius glaciē pectus amantis erat.


Now Penelope makes it clear how she knows that the war is over and that Odysseus survived it: the other Greek leaders have all returned. Casto (23) makes it clear she has remained faithful, which she famously did, though pressed by numerous suitors. The altars are smoking (altaria fumant) with thank offerings, and loot from the war is being hung up as dedications (ponitur) in temples—not a Homeric detail but one taken from later times. The returning warriors are describing their exploits to their parents and wives, who are giving thank offerings to the gods for their safe return. Penelope’s exclusion from these celebrations is hinted at, a source of bewildered frustration for her and pathos for us. Ovid expands on the storytelling element of intimacy between husbands and wives, as Penelope dwells wretchedly on the happiness of others. In the process Ovid mentions some further mythological details for us to recognize and savor: the geography of Troy (Pergama), the Simois river, the promontory of Sigeum, the palace of Priam. The fact that the geography is drawn in wine on a table makes it clear this is happening at a welcome-home celebration of which she has been deprived. Ovid also now has a chance to mention the greatest of the Greek heroes, Achilles (Aeacides), and the famous episode toward the end of the Iliad where Achilles drags Hector’s corpse around the walls. Ovid is the master of compressed, allusive narrative: all he says is that “here (pointing to a spot on the diagram), mangled Hector terrified the galloping horses” hīc lacer admissōs terruit Hector equōs). In a single line with one verb, one subject, two nouns and two adjectives, we get the key event (insulting of the corpse) and the key emotion (terror), without any mention of dragging. Focalizing it through the eyes of the horses, who stand in for us as viewers of the grisly spectacle, is a beautiful touch.

Sed bene cōnsuluit castō deus aequus amōrī.

versa est in cinerem[1] sospite Trōia virō.

Argolicī rediēre ducēs, altāria fūmant;                                                         25

pōnitur ad patriōs barbara praeda deōs.

grāta ferunt nuptae[2] prō salvīs dōna marītīs;

illī victa suīs Trōica fāta canunt.

mīrantur iūstīque senēs trepidaeque puellae;

nārrantis coniūnx pendet ab ōre virī.                                                         30

iamque[3] aliquis positā mōnstrat fera proelia mēnsā,

pingit et exiguō Pergama tōta merō:

‘hāc ībat Simois; haec est Sigēia tellūs;

hīc steterat Priamī rēgia celsa senis.

illīc Aeacidēs, illīc tendēbat Ulixēs;                                                                35

hīc lacer admissōs terruit Hector equōs.’


[1] cinerem Eς Knox: cineres Gω, Loeb

[2] nuptae Heinsius Knox: nymphae codd. Loeb

[3] iamque Gς Knox: atque Eς Loeb



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