Thursday, 8 September 2011

one hundred and thirty-two

 As part of Canongate's Myths series, Margaret Atwood tells the story of the Odyssey from the point of view of Odysseus' wife Penelope, who remained in Ithica while her husband fought in the Trojan War and afterwards roamed the seas trying to get home, and her twelve hanged maids, whom Odysseus ordered killed on his return. (In case you want to know, the maids had slept with the suitors who tried to steal Penelope and the kingdom away in Odysseus' absence; so their crime was to be desired - or maybe even have desire themselves.)

Reading The Penelopiad, I think back to how we were taught about Penelope at school: where Odysseus and smart and quick, so was she, making and unmaking a shroud to keep the braying, greedy suitors at bay; testing the returned Odysseus to make sure it was her husband. She was her husband's equal, our teacher said, to remind us that a person does not need to prove themselves with exaggerated feats and outrageous deeds.

Other than that, it was all faithfulness, fidelity, modesty and endurance: the ideal wife, I guess.

But I realise now that we studied one text of a poem conceived in a culture of oral storytelling. We didn't look past a particular version of Homer's Odyssey, did not explore the tales and stories that have been changed with region and time. Stories shift, are cut or lenghtened depending on the teller and audience. What else was there to know about Penelope? What hadn't made the version that sits bound on my bookshelf?

Who makes myths? Is there ever a final version? And when we study them, what good does it do us to take one book and read it, like that is the whole story?

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