The description of Penelope’s hand at Od. 21.6, χειρὶ παχείῃ, has caused consternation among critics, who have seen the adjective παχύς as more suitable for male bodies (Nagler, Reece, Vergados) or have sought to explain the adjective in a manner consistent with a feminine ideal (Wyatt: plump but small). We gain new perspectives on the passage, and on large bodies in Homer more generally, if we read it alongside the Iros episode in book 18. Iros’ fat body is deceptive, unerotic and gluttonous; Penelope’s thick (παχύς) body is powerful, attractive and consistent with a cross-gender conception of the erotic.
Iros’ body carries a string of negative associations. When they prepare to fight, the appearances of both Odysseus and Iros are deceptive. Odysseus’ beggarly clothes conceal his powerful frame; Iros’ large size belies the fact that he is no fighter. The punishment with which Iros is threatened for losing the bout (18.83-7) suggests further connotations of fatness. The expectation that Echetus will remove Iros’ genitals distances him from the erotic (cf. Levaniouk); Echetus’ feeding the genitals raw to dogs represents a condign punishment for Iros’ gluttony (for which see Arnould).
The description of Penelope at Od. 21.6 suggests more positive qualities. In the Iliad, the phrase χειρὶ παχείῃ describes both male warriors and the goddess Athena when engaged in action on the battlefield. The phrase therefore suggests a strong, capable body (Austin, Eide, Schlessinger and Roller and Roller), irrespective of gender. The adjective παχύς is also consistent with erotic attractiveness, as we see from the Odyssey. When Odysseus meets Nausicaa, he shields his genitals with a tree-branch, broken off “with his thick hand” (χειρὶ παχείῃ, 6.128). Later, Athena renders Odysseus πάσσονα, “thicker,” in order to impress Nausicaa (6.230), who then desires him for a husband. Athena transforms Odysseus in the same way before his erotic reunion with Penelope (23.157). The goddess also renders Penelope “thicker” (πάσσονα, 18.195) prior to her meeting with the suitors, where she uses her erotic charms to win gifts. As with Iros earlier in book 18, Penelope’s appearance is deceptive. The deception, however, resides not in the thickness of her body but in the fact that Athena renders her thicker than normal. As Od. 21.6 suggests, Penelope’s body is normally παχύς, but a παχύς body is not deceptive: it promises and delivers powerful action.
Therefore, while a given culture might find fat bodies erotic (cf. Bradley, Garland on fat in Greek statuary), in the Homeric poems size but not fatness contributes to erotic attractiveness, and this holds for male (Odysseus) and female (Penelope) bodies. Bodies that are παχύς – large and capable – are judged attractive, but not the disappointing physique of Iros. Similarly, the Homeric formula καλός τε μέγας τε (“beautiful and large”) is used, in different cases and genders, of both male and female characters. While Homeric poetry associates certain phenomena, e.g. perfumes, only with female bodies, the attractiveness conveyed by the adjective παχύς crosses gender lines.
Homer and Hellenistic Literature