Penelope's Web

Penelope was the wife of the ancient Greek warrior, Odysseus, who fought ten years in the Trojan War and journeyed for ten more years before returning home. Penelope waited for Odysseus's return: during this wait, her son grew to maturity; her mother-in-law, with whom she lived, died of grief, suiciding; and many suitors courted Ithaca's queen. Her father-in-law retired to the hills, living among the herders: she, alone, managed the household. As was the custom, the suitors came to her home, exploiting her hospitality, screwing her servants, insulting her son, insisting Odysseus was dead and would never return. She developed a stratagem to delay them against his return: every day she wove the shroud for her father-in-law's eventual burial, and each night she unraveled nearly all the day's work. For years, she kept the suitors away until they found out about the unraveling from a servant. They confronted her, and still she declined their posturing, seeking the goddess's protection until Odysseus, in disguise, drew near.

Penelope's power is self-contained and not contingent upon Odysseus's presence.

The series, Penelope's web, is about power: the power of personal integrity amid the complexity of domesticity. The web is a symbol of protection. It is about connections to the dead and the living, about hope's secret struggle against despair. It is about connections and threads, which may unravel but remain connected to the true heart. It is about sending messages across the wine-dark sea, never knowing whether they will be heard. It is about protecting oneself, one's household in the face of insults, adversity, transgression and abandonment.
Penelope's web of protection can be a metaphor to explore our stewardship of the planet. We cannot neglect our duty, especially to our urban environment; we can use our creative skills to devise new strategies to protect our earth household, neither to exploit nor abandon it. Nor can we await someone else to complete it. Rather, we are the caretakers whose struggle retains the inheritance for posterity and dignity for the honored guest.

Alice Dubiel October 1999

From The Women's Dictionary of Myth and Symbols by Barbara Walker

Penelope's web is an interesting pattern of ten small pentacles ranged around a central wheel of ten spokes. All the pentacles together are composed of only two lines, as can be seen by following their interlaced patterns with the eye. This is a sign of protection like the simple pentacle, made even more suggestively defensive by the ring of twenty outward facing points, and the lines of connection drawing all sections together in the center, as a unifying cause or concept draws people together for the preservation of all.

The mythological figure of Penelope is especially associated with preservation and protection because it was she, with her constant refusal to cut the thread of like, who preserved the life of her husband Odysseus through his many adventures, even after a death curse had been laid on him by the Trojan Queen and High Priestess of Hecate. Penelope, whose name means Ôveiled one,' was really a title of the Fate-goddess who could determine men's destinies by the treatment of her woven threads. When she cut, the man would die. According to Homer, Penelope unwove her web each night rather than cut the thread that represented Odysseus; and so he escaped all dangers and eventually returned to his home.

From The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fitzgerald, Book 5, ll. 315-35

A great wave drove at him with toppling crest
spinning him round, in one tremendous blow,
and he went plunging overboard, the oar-haft
wrenched from his grip. A gust that came on howling
at the same instant broke his mast in two,
hurling his yard and sail far out to leeward.
Now the big wave a long time kept him under,
helpless to surface, held by tons of water,
tangled, too, by the seacloak of Kalypso.
Long, long, until he came up spouting brine,
with streamlets gushing from his head and beard;
but still bethought him, half-drowned as he was,
to flounder for the boat and get a handhold into the bilge--to crouch there, foiling death.
Across the foaming water, to and fro,
the boat careered like a ball of tumbleweed
blown on autumn plains, but intact still.
So the winds drove this wreck over the deep,
East Wind and North Wind, then South Wind and West,
coursing each in turn to the brutal harry.

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