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            The dream presented to the beggar by Penelope, at first glance seems to be a conscious and subtle attempt at deciphering whether the stranger in her presence is in actuality her husband. Keeping in mind that the Queen of Ithaca is also Odysseus’s match in guile and cunning, Homer would have his audience believe that this interaction is a ploy at mentally testing each other to see how the affections and situations really are. However, Penelope’s dream is not to be taken at face value, and it is these complexities, which open the question to what the Queen’s true intentions are, or what Homer would have them be.

Penelope interestingly, implies an interpretation of the dream within her dream. Odysseus seconds the voice in the dream, which claims that “the geese were your suitors-I was once the eagle but now I am your husband, back again at last.” (19.618-19). But according to the dream there are “twenty geese in the house” (19.604) and there had been a hundred and eight suitors courting the queen and granted that they symbolize the suitors, then why is it that the Queen who pines for her husband is distraught when the eagle kills her geese. Why would Penelope intentionally allude to the beggar, whom she may suspect to be Odysseus that she may mourn their death? There is too great a discrepancy to follow this interpretation. On the other hand, the twenty geese may indicate the twenty years that Odysseus spent away from Ithaca and his wife- it is the number of years that Penelope feels are lost. She is told that the her wait after twenty years is over, but upon waking within the dream, she finds the geese still present. It may betray the idea that the Queen is afraid of having her hopes thwarted over her husband’s return. Similarly, why is it that Penelope would have her dream interpreted by a stranger and not a prophet, if she truly had such a dream? Perhaps she is inspired to concoct such a ploy by “the godlike seer Theoclymenus”(17.163), who had advised that Odysseus was alive and “sowing seeds of ruin for all your suitors, so clear so true, that bird sign I saw”(17.173-4).

Furthermore, it is to be noted that Homer aptly uses the device of repetitive imagery, which to an extent explains its purpose at some stage in the narrative poem. The only other reference made to geese and an eagle is in the form of a supposed omen. In the account between King Menelaus, Helen and Telemachus, an eagle swoops past them “clutching a huge white goose in its talons” (15.180). In this scene there is only one eagle and one goose, and surprisingly, the eagle does not choose to kill its prey but flies off with it.. The omen is to be interpreted, oncea gain not by a prophet but by Helen, who offers to be one because the interpretation of this occurrence as she claims “ the gods have flashed it in my mind and it will come to pass,” (15.191-3). Helen too reassures Telemachus that the omen means that “Just as the eagle swooped down from the crags..snatched that goose fattened up for the kill inside the house”(15.193-5), that Odysseus will “descend on his house and take revenge” (15.197). The audience is well aware not to trust Helen’s word, so does Homer establish by linking this imagery in Penelope’s dream that her words are not to be taken literally. After all, Penelope is related to Helen, and should not she be held in suspicion by Odysseus and the audience?

Even when the beggar supports the interpretation, Penelope stops him and rejects his claim. She explains that dreams pass through two gates,: one made from ivory and the other from horn. Those that pass through ivory “bears no fruit “ while those passing from horn “are fraught with truth” (19.633-35). She does not believe that her dream shall come to pass because it will pass through the ivory gates. However, the reference to ivory and iron is not repeated much by Homer. Except when Athena transforms Penelope in front of the suitors and “she made her taller, fuller in form to all men’s eyes, her skin whiter than ivory freshly carved”(18.222-23), followed by when “close to the fire her women drew her favorite chair with its whorls of silver and ivory” (19.58-9). And when Odysseus disguised as a beggar narrates how he had encountered the Queen’s husband, upon hearing which Penelope is distraught-“Odysseus’ heart went out to his grief stricken wife, but under his lids remained stock still, they might have been of horn or iron”(19.241-44).

It is after Odysseus’ eyes become as if of horn , does Penelope say, “Now stranger, I think I’ll test you, just to see” (19.248). The beggar goes on to physically describe Odysseus, but this too surprisingly is rejected by the Queen of Ithaca. She claims,” but my heart can sense the way it all will go…There was a man, or was he all a dream?” (19. 358-362). Only after this encounter does Penelope’s dream appear. However, if  the horn is indicative truth, then would Homer have us associate Odysseus as having the sincerity of truth, albeit disguised under his guile, and Penelope who is the linked with ivory being the one who is cunning in this situation? Does Homer employ the scene of the dream to show Penelope’s subtlety and craftiness, which equals her husband’s? Odysseus here is the more vulnerable party, especially since he has evolved and been humbled to an extent.

Perhaps, Homer, has the queen of Ithaca extract a form of mental revenge. It is after all before she mentions the dream that Penelope alludes to herself as the Nightingale- who symbolizes Procne. Procne, having discovered her husband Tereus’ rape of her sister Philomela, avenges herself by killing their own son Itys. Penelope may not be as distraught over her husband, and it can be imagined that Homer has us discover a more lethal and proactive side to the ever-weeping Penelope. Would she kill Telemachus and end Odysseus’ legacy? The possibility prevails and we along with Odysseus are left unaware as to what Penelope’s true intentions are. Homer, would have us suspect that Penelope’s dream is to subtly diffuse the tension when husband and wife finally come face to face, however it is quite the opposite. It is this scene which ups the ante and leaves the audience anxious to see if The Odyssey may turn into a tragedy.

[1] Langston Hughes

20 Responses to ““Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die; Life is a broken winged bird that can not fly” : Analyzing Penelope’s Dream”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Alina,

    I think you do a good job of wrestling with a difficult topic. As you and I discussed, I thin you have to be right about the significance of 20; there are 108 suitors, after all, but he was gone for 20 years. As far as I can tell, 20 has no other resonance. So perhaps Odysseus has the wrong interpretation (although what he says does in fact happen). Or perhaps the whole dream is false; Penelope thinks it came through the gate of ivory, after all.

    I think you are absolutely right to note the assocation of Penelope with ivory. One reference which you missed, but which supports your point, is that the key she uses to open the secret treasury is bronze with an ivory haft (21.8). Presumably it is Odysseus’ key, but it is significant, I think, that she is the one using it.

    And, of course, Odysseus’ bow is horn (21.157, 21.188, 21.442). So you are right, too, to associate him with horn. It is odd that the deceitful Odysseus is associated with horn and the seemingly straightforward Penelope is associated with ivory! But then we know from many places that she is a matchless queen of guile, at least by reputation (and by deed, if we remember the weaving episode). And of course she is the one who brings up the gates in the first place. So this is a complicated issue.

    I like your point about her perhaps learning from Theoclymenus (note that she is described as “reserved” in her response [17.177]) and I like your point about the ante being upped in Book 19. There is certainly a possibiilty for tragedy there, especially with the Procne reference that you rightly point out. We know there is peace at the end, but what does peace really mean? Two generations of Ithaca’s finest men have been wiped out. As Tacitus will later remark about another set of heroes/rogues (and as Byron will sample): they rob, slaughter, and plunder under the false name of empire; they make a desert and they call it peace.

    KH

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