In Turn Each Woman Thrust Her Head


Arts & Culture

Poster for The Penelopiad at the Buddies and Bad Times Theater.


In the hot attic bedroom in Minneapolis, my twelve-year-old daughter is reading to me from the Odyssey. Curled in the center of the orange paisley chair, she conjures ship-smashing gales, feasts of roast lamb, a mouth full of salt. The words wash over me as I do leg lifts, building strength after breaking a foot, eager to run again. Sweat sticks skin to the polished wood floor. Sparrows chatter and build nests of junk-mail scraps and dryer lint on beams outside, just above the windows. A lock of dark hair hangs in my daughter’s face as she adopts the goddess Athena’s shocked voice. Odysseus has dared to doubt her, and in her wounded pride, she sounds a bit like an aggrieved mother.

Your touching faith! Another man would trust
Some villainous mortal, with no brains—and what
am I? Your goddess-guardian to the end
in all your trials.

It’s a story we both love, though this is my daughter’s first encounter with Homer’s original. Athena, in particular, is magnetic. We’ve both dressed up as Zeus’s daughter at different times for Halloween. In the seventies, I went door-to-door in a lacy thrift-store dress that led everyone to ask if I was a fairy princess, and me to answer, through clenched teeth, “No. I’m the goddess of wisdom, weaving, and defensive war.” Two years ago, my daughter held a plastic shield from a knight costume on which she pasted a green foam Medusa’s head. Gray eyes, bronze-tipped spear, strategizing mind: there’s no denying Athena’s appeal. To slip into her golden sandals, even if they are just shiny fabric hot glued to flip-flops, is to slip on a measure of power. 

Then, as I wind one end of the rubber exercise band around my ankle and another around the base of the radiator, I brace myself.

We are a good way though the book. At this point, Odysseus has returned home after ten years of fighting the Trojan War, then ten more battling sea monsters, only to find his banquet hall crowded with men. Assuming he’s dead, they are drinking his wine and hounding his wife to remarry, choosing one of them. Guided by Athena, who loves to interfere—enhancing Penelope’s beauty to rekindle Odysseus’s love, making the suitors extra obnoxious to spur Odysseus’s rage—he has just slaughtered them all. The great hall is washed in blood, suitors’ bodies heaped high, and I know what comes next.

They are wrapping up loose ends. My daughter’s mouth twists as she pronounces Odysseus’s instructions to his son, Telemachus. Make the housemaids who slept with the suitors clean up the mess of the butchered corpses, Odysseus tells his boy. And then: “hack them with your swordblades till you cut / the life out of them.”

Odysseus’s fury toward the young women in his house has been building, through his return home, through his plotting, through his conversations with his wife. Earlier, disguised as a beggar, Odysseus lies outside his own door and hears the maids slipping out to meet their lovers; he can’t sleep, and “anger took him like a wave to leap / into their midst and kill them, every one.” He needs no divine prodding to be enraged by the young women’s laughing pleasure in their bodies, the night air, a brief break from drudgery.

The next part is what I remember most clearly from when my father read the Odyssey to me when I was ten, lying in the bed he built and painted with dragons. It stayed with me more than Nausicaa bravely facing down an ocean-soaked stranger, or the sailors swept into Scylla’s mouth from the deck, or the entrancing notion of a bed carved from a still-rooted tree. The words lie in wait, and I am tempted to skirt them, the way you might avoid a trail with a hidden leghold trap. Telemachus will address the maids, “you sluts, who lay with suitors.” A clean death is too good for them, he will say, and then defy his father’s methods but not his purpose:

They would be hung like doves
or larks in the springes triggered in a thicket,
where the birds think to rest—a cruel nesting.
So now in turn each woman thrust her head
into a noose and swung, yanked high in air,
to perish there most piteously.
Their feet danced for a little, but not long.

It’s chilling. The humiliation of scrubbing blood off the tables and carting out the gore, the way they bring their own necks to the rope, the transformation of their hopes—nesting, dancing—into death metaphors. In my ten-year-old mind, those feet, which should be used for sprinting through a field or exploring strange islands, became the birds seeking shelter. They flutter in a panic, then the awful stillness.

But what particularly disturbs me now, what disturbed me even at ten, is the way that this is all just part of Telemachus’s training. Young women in the Odyssey have less to fear from Charybdis than from their male peers. Telemachus would have known the maids all his life, brushing against them in the hall. The Odyssey is, for him, a coming-of-age story, and the first thing his absent father does on returning home is launch his son’s education. Dominating women and policing their chastity are integral to becoming a man, essential lessons that Odysseus wants to pass on.

What do I want to pass on, I wonder, watching dismay wash over my daughter’s face when she hits the word “sluts.” She seems herself on the cusp of transformation these days, like she might fly up and turn into a swallow in the rafters or slip into the skin of a trusted adviser. One minute, she pretends to be the cat, crouched on the chair, licking her paws. The next, she asks about order of operations in algebra. As a mother, a writing professor, a believer in literature, what lessons do I have for her about becoming a woman?

It’s not just me who stumbles on that scene. Margaret Atwood told the Independent that she came to her book The Penelopiad—a novel from Penelope’s perspective, with the murdered maids as a chorus—because she was interested in retelling myth. She made several false starts on other tales before “out of my unconscious, where I keep so many things, there appeared in particular the hanged maids, who have always bothered me about the Odyssey.”

And scholar Emily Wilson, whose English translation of the Odyssey—the first by a woman—was published last year, struggled with it too. Wilson avoids using the words sluts, whores, or creatures and centers the moment on Telemachus’s discomfort, as he says:

I refuse to grant these girls
a clean death, since they poured down shame on me
and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.

It’s still unbearable.

I remember in college encountering Milton’s Eve, with her hair that waved “as the Vine curls her tendrils, which impli’d / Subjection,” and Duessa from The Faerie Queene, with “her neather partes misshapen, monstruous.” At eighteen, I didn’t read with cool intellectual distance. I read like I ate—for joy, for sustenance, for fuel to make me into the person I wanted to be. The women in those pages were not recognizably human, just forces to be diminished so they could be controlled. My friends and I did endless feminist analyses, but it didn’t help with the sick feeling. The stories were not for me, and that realization was its own very dismaying, very female coming-of-age. The sense of betrayal, of being thrown out of the text, like being tossed from a boat, was acute. The shock of icy water made it hard to catch my breath.

Some scholars find Telemachus, who orders his mother around—and, in some translations, demands she be quiet, telling her, “Speech shall be for men”—a funny and psychologically apt characterization of a typical teenage boy. But typical teenage boys and their attitudes can do harm, particularly to teenage girls, which my daughter hovers on the brink of becoming. She shifts in the chair, tucks the hair behind her ear, as I switch to the other leg.

At the university, in my literary-nonfiction class, female students bring me their stories. They are eighteen, nineteen, twenty and should be writing about gathering friends, stocking a ship with provisions, going out to seek adventure. But too often, one will hand me an essay about being raped. I realize the ability for women to articulate these stories is new and should be celebrated, but they carry Odysseus’s judgments, Homer’s lens. The students wonder: Did they somehow give permission? Did they obediently mop up the blood? Did they put their own heads through the noose? And the male students described are clearly rehearsing instructions for what they think makes a man. I am overwhelmed by the tales of the maids.

Robert Fitzgerald, in the translation my daughter is reading, has made his own amendment. He omits the early scene of Telemachus silencing his mother. Fitzgerald offers no reason except to comment in his endnotes that he left out lines “thought spurious or out of place in antiquity.” Maybe it had to do with the fact that he, like parents before him, faced presenting the story to his family. Fitzgerald’s own daughter, a novelist in the office across the hall from me at the university, remembers his reading sections of his translation to his restless children after dinner.

In his essay “Two Long Engagements with Homer,” Fitzgerald describes visiting Greece to see the Odyssey’s landscape and meeting a twelve-year-old girl in pigtails from New Jersey, working in her grandmother’s shoe store. When he asks her name, she says, “Oh, I’m Athena.” He recalls Athena’s many disguises. Maybe he saw a goddess. Maybe he just saw a young girl. Could they be the same?

He writes, too, about the challenges of translating an oral tale that shifted from one night to the next. “Our Iliad and Odyssey are merely those performances that got recorded, no one knows how.” Improvisation must have been part of each recitation, Fitzgerald says—there is no one text to be faithful to, “sacred or otherwise.” This provides a sense of freedom, he writes. “The possibility arises of translating not from one dictionary into another dictionary, so to speak, but from one tradition into another, from one life into another.”

My daughter stares into the abyss of this seductive book. Should I tie her to the mast? In real life, she wields sabers as a fencer and does fifty push-ups every night to build muscle. She reads, if possible, with even more abandon than I did. Underneath her bed is a ransacked library of books in progress: Sherlock HolmesTo Kill a MockingbirdThe Hunger Games. I want her to have this tradition, handed down from lost poets to Homer, to his scribe, to a network of translators, to Fitzgerald, to my father, to me. Reading made me. It’s what I have to offer.

And now here we are, in our attic banquet hall. The muse is singing. Faith or tinkering? Accuracy or improvisation? Maybe this wrestling with Telemachus’s cruelty is as much a part of the experience of reading the Odyssey as anything else. Regardless, I’m not ready for her to be faced with a world that will hate her for laughing, that will respond to her body with vicious repression. I don’t want those maids to haunt her. Not yet.

Just as Telemachus is leading them away, I put my hand on my daughter’s bare foot.

“I hate that part,” I say. And explain: Why should those young women be killed? Maybe they didn’t want to sleep with the suitors. They didn’t have much power. And if they did, if they liked them, what was wrong with that? Odysseus isn’t punished for lingering on the island with the nymph Calypso, and he’s married.

And then I say, “You can skip it.”

She looks me in the face, nods, and turns the page. Once again, I’ve briefly donned the sandals of Athena, the divine meddler—though unlike her, I will soon watch my charge sail ahead past familiar landmarks and on to places I can’t follow.


Kim Todd is the author of three books of literary nonfiction: SparrowChrysalis, and Tinkering with Eden. Her work appears in Orion, Smithsonian, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing, among other places.