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Weaving, Writing, and Failed Communication in Ovid's Heroides

Caitlin Halasz

Ovid’s Heroides opens with a letter by Penelope, whose Homeric predecessor is perhaps the most famous weaver in Greek literature, and whose weaving trick is, in Homer, a clear sign that she possesses metis to match her husband’s (Winkler 1990; Felson-Rubin 1994; Clayton 2004; Bergren 2008). In the Heroides, however, Penelope barely references the weaving at all; she makes only two oblique references to it (Heroides 1.9-10 and 77-78). In the earlier of these two references, she describes herself as attempting to “deceive the long night” with weaving that “wearies her widowed hands” (“Nec mihi quaerenti spatiosam fallere noctem / lassaret viduas pendula tela manus,” Heroides 1.9-10). These two lines are the closest the letter comes to discussing her weaving trick, but they describe the weaving as mere drudgery, something to do during the long nights. This divergence from the Homeric model has been noted by many scholars who have written on Heroides 1 (Jacobson 1974; Kennedy 1984; Knox 1995; Lindheim 2003; Drinkwater 2006), and in this paper I build upon their work, as well as upon feminist criticism of the Heroides by Fulkerson (2005) and Spentzou (2003), by examining the glossing over of Penelope’s weaving trick within the larger context of the depictions of writing, weaving, and women’s communication throughout the single Heroides.

This paper argues that weaving is systematically disparaged throughout the Heroides: While Ovid is deeply concerned in his other works— particularly the Metamorphoses— with the mythology and metapoetics of weaving, textile work is only mentioned a few times in the Heroides, and, with the exception of a few brief mentions of Ariadne’s thread trick (4.60-61, 10.71-74, 10.103-104), the letters inevitably disparage wool-work and ignore the communicative and subversive power that is ascribed to it both throughout Greek mythology and in Ovid’s own later work. Outside of the passages already mentioned, the majority of the references to wool work in the Heroides fall within conventional descriptions of the work of slaves (3.69-76, 10-89-92), or else they come within equally conventional descriptions of gender roles, which set up a binary between women’s weaving and men’s fighting (9.73-80, 9.111-118, 14.65-66).

Weaving in Greek mythology is, in Ann Bergren’s words, “the sign-making activity of women par excellence” (2008, pp. 16-17); the Heroides, meanwhile, is a collection of letters written in the voices of well-known women from Greek mythology. The writing of letters, then, replaces weaving as the central sign-making and intellectual activity of these women. This replacement is not a positive one: wool-work in Greek mythology tends to be associated with the quality of metis (Holmberg 1997; Bergren 2008); often, as in the story of Procne and Philomela, weaving can be a form of communication between women that subverts the barriers put up by a male-dominated society. 

The letters of the Heroides, meanwhile, do not achieve the ends they are aiming for with any sort of success. For many of the letters, it seems impossible that they will reach their intended recipient at all; five letters (2, 7, 9, 11, and 15) end with the writer’s suicide; and while most of the other letters are unclear as to what happens after the letter is written, the mythological tradition tells us that very few end happily. The letter from Penelope to Odysseus, meanwhile, does not have much role in bringing about that couple’s happy ending, especially if we are to follow Kennedy’s (1984) argument that the letter in the Heroides is being written when Odysseus is already in Ithaca. Furthermore, the letters exclusively center communication between women and men concerning heterosexual romantic relationships. This contrasts with woven communication, which is often between women (as in the case of Procne and Philomela), or aimed at warding off the attentions of men, rather than attracting them (as in the case of the Homeric Penelope). Ovid’s Heroides thus depicts a group of women whose ability to communicate is severely restricted by their medium. 

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Gender Trouble in Latin Narrative Poetry

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