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Pandora and the Pandareids: The Struggle to Define Penelope in Odyssey 18-20

Rachel Lesser

In Books 19-20 of the Odyssey, Penelope twice invokes the daughters of Pandareos in relation to herself, first in a simile and then in a prayer. These references are in fact the only two mythological exempla that Penelope employs in the entire epic (McDonald 1997, 3); this suggests their crucial importance to interpreting Penelope’s self-presentation. Focusing on the second passage, I read the Pandareids as mythical models invoked by and for Penelope to compete with other mythical paradigms foisted upon her by male characters and the external narrator. The second Pandareid exemplum (20.61-82) tells the obscure myth of orphaned sisters who are nurtured by Olympian goddesses but then, on the brink of marriage, are whisked off by the stormwinds to serve the Erinyes in the underworld. I argue that Penelope’s plea to replicate the untimely demise of the Pandareids is a discursive site of resistance to a persistent masculine construction of Penelope as a Pandora-figure within the preceding narrative of the poem.

In the first parts of the Odyssey, the suitors and Telemachus attempt to construct Penelope as a nymphē in the Nausicaa model, but in Book 18, the external narrator, with the help of Athena, and the delighted collusion of Odysseus, repositions her as a bride in the Pandora mode. Athena beautifies Penelope while she sleeps and she then appears before the suitors as an evil trick, rekindling their passion and thus exposing them to Odysseus’ revenge, as well as eliciting all sorts of gifts—pan[ta] dōra—by which she metaphorically eats away at their livelihood. Brown (1997, 44-46) sees Penelope’s resemblance to Pandora as a cipher for how Penelope uses feminine wiles to deceive the suitors and expose their adulterous intentions. But I read the Pandora-guise as coerced and contrary to Penelope’s volition, following Murnaghan (1995, 70-71).

Penelope’s description of the Pandareid sisters in Book 20 calls to mind the very same Pandora myth, as we know it from Hesiod. Like Pandora, the Pandareids are endowed with gifts that make them attractive females by a host of divinities, including Athena and Aphrodite, and they are explicitly positioned as prospective brides. The scholia to the Pandareid passages explain the larger story of Pandareos and his family, which exhibits several additional motifs shared with the Pandora myth, including Zeus penalizing theft, doggishness, and the involvement of Hermes and Hephaestus. I argue that Penelope, in her prayer to Artemis for an end like that of the Pandareids, rejects her own interpellation as a Pandora. With the exemplum she acknowledges the Pandora-model, but employs a story that ends not with marriage and the destruction of men, but rather with a variation on the Bride of Death motif (Felson 1994, 35-36, cf. Redfield 1982 and Johnston 1994). My analysis reveals that the second Pandareid tale, which has long defied secure interpretation, is a carefully chosen myth with a pointed ‘argument function,’ in an approach that builds on scholars’ recent instrumental treatment of the Pandareid exempla (Levianouk 2008 and De Jong 2001).

After conjuring up the Pandareids’ example, Penelope asks to descend to Hades herself with Odysseus in her mind’s eye rather than marry a suitor. Although it is ultimately self-annihilating, Penelope makes the active gesture of redirecting her constructed plot and asserting the primacy of her own original desire. With this contention, I synthesize Doherty’s reading (1995) of the poem as a ‘closed’ androcentric work with other feminist readings that see the Odyssey as an ‘open’ or multivocalic text that admits degrees of female subjectivity and agency (e.g. Katz 1991, Felson 1994, Clayton 2004). This paper suggests that the Odyssey’s implied author offers a dominant narrative that is patriarchal, but gives a key female internal narrator a will and a voice to contest, if not fully abnegate, the role she is made to play in that narrative. 

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Homer, Odyssey: Speech and Ritual

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