LilahLilah Grace Canevaro comes from South Shields, an ex- mining and shipbuilding town in the North East of England. She stayed close to home to study Classics (BA) and Ancient Epic (MA) at Durham University, and was awarded her PhD in Classics in October 2012. Lilah then spent a year in Heidelberg, Germany, as Alexander von Humboldt Post-Doctoral Fellow, and came to the University of Edinburgh as Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in autumn 2013. Her first book, Hesiod’s Works and Days: How to Teach Self-Sufficiency, was published by OUP in April 2015, and her current research centres on Women and Objects in Greek Epic.

This piece is part of a larger project on Women and Objects in Greek Epic, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and supported by the University of Edinburgh.


Art gets away with murder, the things language can’t always handle, including lies, and there were plenty of lies in Penelope’s web.

Christopher Rush, Penelope’s Web

Penelope, weaver of lies. Penelope, weaving to get away with murder. A dangerous woman, and a dangerous craft? This is Christopher Rush’s creative reimagining of the Homeric Cycle in his 2015 novel, yet it is strongly anchored in the archaic poems. Women in Homeric epic are treated as objects, as commodities to be exchanged in marriage or as the spoils of warfare. The list of prizes Achilles provides for Patroclus’ funeral games runs seamlessly from cattle to women to metal, with little differentiation between them:

He brought out prizes from his ships: cauldrons and tripods,
horses and mules and strong heads of oxen,
and well-girdled women and grey iron.

Iliad 23.259-61

Similarly, when Agamemnon appeases Achilles with gifts they include animate and inanimate alike:

They brought seven tripods from the hut, those which he had promised,
and twenty shining cauldrons, and twelve horses.
And they brought straightaway seven women whose work was blameless,
and the eighth was fair-cheeked Briseis.

Iliad 19.243-6

Women have prices put on them, Eurycleia having been bought by Laertes for the price of twenty oxen. [1] They are objects for market. Yet Homeric men would do well to ask, with Luce Irigaray: ‘what if these “commodities” refused to go to market? What if they maintained “another” kind of commerce, among themselves?’ [2] In the Iliad 19 passage, the women are prized for the work of their hands, which in Homeric epic implies more often than not the production of woven objects. Through the creation and distribution of textiles, these supposedly ‘commodified’ characters create their own commerce, and their own channels of communication.

As Alfred Gell puts it, objects can act as ‘a mirror, vehicle, or channel of agency’. [3] The women channel their agency through textiles, often outside the limits of their own domestic environs, and these textiles become a mirror for their creative credentials in a wider political sphere. Homeric women are not only objectified but are also well-versed users of objects, subverting the male viewpoint by using the very form they themselves are thought by men to represent. Homeric women and objects thus pose a very specific danger: to Homeric men.

Sadie Plant in her book Zeroes and Ones traces female involvement in technology from Ada Lovelace and her thinking machines to the Bomb Girls or the woman at the telecom switchboard. She sees the development of technology as one continuous process whose common denominator is weaving: ‘The yarn is neither metaphorical nor literal, but quite simply material, a gathering of threads which twist and turn through the history of computing, technology, the sciences and arts.’ [4] Women are liberated by technology, much of which is concerned with communication. Plant writes: ‘They “signal to each other”, whispering in their own strange codes, ciphers beyond his linguistic powers, traveling on grapevines which sidestep centralised modes of communication with their own lateral connections and informal channels.’ [5]

Similarly Jean Baudrillard in Cool Memories: ‘They are all involved together in secret discussions. Women weave amongst themselves a collusive web of seduction.’ [6] Yet these threads can be traced back to before the Jacquard loom, before wires and software – to woven objects in Homeric epic. These informal channels and secret discussions are already embedded in archaic Greek poetry. Homeric women too use technology for liberation, for autonomy, for a negotiation of agency within gender constraints.

Telemachus delineates these gender roles when he commands his mother Penelope:

But go back to the house and have a care for your own work,
the loom and the distaff, and see to it that your handmaidens
do their work too. Words are the concern of all men,
but me in particular: for mine is the power in this house.

Odyssey 1.356-9

Words for men, weaving for women: a division Telemachus sees as securing his own power. Yet there are flaws in his model. First, is ‘authoritative speech’ (the more accurate translation of the Greek muthos here) really the exclusive domain of men? Whilst in the Iliad only five instances of muthos are attributed to mortal women, in the Odyssey the number goes up to twenty seven – ten of which are Penelope’s speeches. In the Odyssey, muthos becomes less and less a male-only speech act, as women take on more autonomy. Second, it is far from clear whether words or weaving wield the greater power.

Penelope weaves a shroud for her father-in-law Laertes. It is a delaying tactic: suitors are vying for her hand in her husband Odysseus’ long absence, but she vows not to remarry until the shroud is finished. To prolong the suspense, Penelope unweaves at night that day’s weaving. The suitors are fooled – for a time, at least. But how? Are we to assume a convincingly complex web, such as that which takes over Christopher Rush’s novel and encompasses the entire Epic Cycle? Does Penelope weave the story of Odysseus’ travels, just as Helen in book 3 of the Iliad is said to weave the Trojan War? Or are the suitors simply not sharp enough to spot the stratagem? Are the men excluded from the female creative code? Penelope suspends time in Ithaca. She keeps control of household and kingdom, delaying her remarriage and keeping her marriage to Odysseus alive as an eternal present. In her web she traps the narrative itself. Penelope’s web is a literary object, imagined, created and described by the poet. And yet, it defies its own literary limitations. As Christopher Rush puts it, there are things that language can’t always handle.

Telemachus repeats his command later in the poem, almost verbatim:

But go to the house and have a care for your own work,
the loom and the distaff, and see that your handmaidens
do their work too. The bow is the concern of all men,
but me in particular: for mine is the power in this house.

Odyssey 21.350-3

There is one change: the bow has replaced words. Has Telemachus realized that speech is not an exclusively male province? Is he trying to shore up the gender boundaries by adding an element of warfare? Trying to match Penelope’s weaving with an object of his own choosing? Once again, there are chinks in his armour. He chooses an object that, at this point in the narrative, is actually more Penelope’s than his. The dividing line is blurring, and Penelope cannot be separated from the male action. Earlier in book 21 she proposed the test of the bow, which will bring Odysseus home and initiate the suitors’ bloody downfall. In so doing she phato muthon – she made an authoritative speech act – and Telemachus’ command is a direct reaction to it. She goes to the storeroom to get the bow and axes, and the narrative unfolds through a sequence of objects: the key, the bow and arrows, the threshold, the door bolts, the chest. Objects can offer a way of responding to speech with silence, without closing down the conversation. Not only do Homeric women use muthos, but through their control over objects they even go beyond it. Telemachus mentions the bow, a pivotal object in the narrative and one which we know has already fallen into Penelope’s hands. It is this object which will let Penelope ‘get away with murder’. Penelope’s proposed test shows that, despite the stark delineations of gender attempted by Homeric men, both authoritative speech and battle can be brought inside the house: through the agency of a ‘dangerous’ woman.

The gendered dichotomies show that the role of women in Homer is ostensibly and ideally a domestic one. Whilst men go to fight, women run the household. Within the domestic sphere, objects abound, and it is through these objects that Homeric women express and negotiate agency within the household, creating a domestic politics. But they also go further. Homeric women take this politics of objects outside the household, using domestic objects to negotiate their agency in a wider forum, to project the female outside the home. In Odyssey 15, Helen – another of Homer’s dangerous women – gives Telemachus a woven gift:

I give you this gift, dear child,
as a reminder of the hands of Helen, for the time of much-desired marriage,
for your wife to wear. But for now, lay it beside your dear mother
in the palace. May you, rejoicing in my gift, reach
your well-built home and your fatherland.

Odyssey 15.125-9

This is a gift meant to last, and to travel. That it is described as a ‘reminder of the hands of Helen’ is striking. First, mnema (reminder, even monument) is a rare word in the Odyssey, used elsewhere only of Odysseus’ bow. Second, this is the only item of Homeric clothing to have its commemorative function made explicit. Further, though Helen gives the robe for Telemachus’ wife to wear, for now he is to lay it beside his mother. It is to be a coded communicative channel: and more specifically, a communiqué between Helen and Penelope.

When in Odyssey 19 the disguised Odysseus describes his own visit to the home of his alter ego, Aethon, the account centres around clothing, a tool of recognition for Penelope, who asks what kind of clothes her husband wore. The elaborate description culminates in this way:

Indeed many women gazed at him in wonder.
But I will tell you another thing, and you take it to heart:
I do not know whether Odysseus wore these things on his skin at home,
or some comrade gave them to him as he went on his swift ship,
or perhaps even some guest-friend, since Odysseus
was dear to many: for few of the Achaians were like him.

Odyssey 19.235-40

The disguised Odysseus flatters Penelope, depicting the clothing she made for her husband as an object of wonder. A line of communication is set up between Ithaca and the places to which Odysseus travels, through the medium of clothing. Further, according to the story, Aethon as host then gave Odysseus gifts due a guest-friend. He gives him a bronze sword, a double-folded purple cloak, and a tasseled tunic. The weapon makes this an exchange between men: but the textiles are typically made by women’s hands. The women who admired Penelope’s handiwork now have a chance to circulate their own, and the communication becomes two-way.

As Sadie Plant writes: ‘Because there is no difference between the process of weaving and the woven design, cloths persist as records of the processes which fed into their production: how many women worked on them, the techniques they used, the skills they employed.’ [7] In telling the story, Odysseus seems to be aware of this feminine politics and makes use of it. However, his alter ego is explicitly not aware of it. Aethon claims not to know where Odysseus’ clothes came from: whether from Penelope or someone encountered along the way. Female textiles send messages that have been missed or misunderstood by men, from Penelope’s suitors and Odysseus’ alter-ego to modern experts on Homeric epic.

This is an astoundingly layered passage – aptly, Odysseus’ tunic is described as ‘shining like the peel on a dried onion’ [8]. It shows a sensitivity to the female code on the part of the poet, and a nuanced deployment of it. According to the ancient scholia, in Helen’s weaving in Iliad 3 ‘the poet has crafted a worthy model for his own poetic enterprise’. Homeric women emerge from the confines of their ostensibly androcentric heroic poems, equated with the poet – and yet somehow more. The male rhapsode may weave words, but it is Homer’s female characters whose textiles materialize from the text.

Christopher Rush presents Helen: ‘Look at her – she walks right out of the web, vibrant and alive.’ Literary object meets Vital Materialism, and creates a woman. A dangerous woman, who cannot be confined to the house – nor even the text.


[1] Odyssey 1.431.

[2] Luce Irigaray (1985) translated by C. Porter and C. Burke, The Sex Which Is Not One, Ithaca, p.196.

[3] Alfred Gell (1998) Art and Agency: an Anthropological Theory, Oxford, p.20.

[4] Sadie Plant (1997) Zeroes + Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture, New York, p.11.

[5] Sadie Plant (1997) Zeroes + Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture, New York, p.107.

[6] Jean Baudrillard (1990) translated by C. Turner, Cool Memories, London / New York, p.102.

[7] Sadie Plant (1997) Zeroes + Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture, New York, p.66.

[8] Odyssey 19.233.