Academic journal article Helios

Windy Words in Penelope's Joking Dream: Odyssey 4.787-841

Academic journal article Helios

Windy Words in Penelope's Joking Dream: Odyssey 4.787-841

Article excerpt

Introduction

As the Telemachia draws to a close, Penelope lies in her chamber, so worried about whether her son will survive the suitors' ambush that she cannot bring herself to eat or drink. When sleep finally overcomes her, Athena sends a dream that assures her of Telemachus's safe return, and Penelope seizes the opportunity to ask whether Odysseus is alive. The apparition refuses to answer for the perplexing reason that "it is bad to babble windy things" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Od. 4.837). An answer to Penelopes question would be anything but [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], whether construed as "trivial," "empty," "without purpose," or "ineffectual." Knowing that Odysseus is safe would shatter Penelope's defining uncertainty and change the entire second half of the epic, as the PQ scholion ad 4.796 astutely notes. The apparition might be expressing ignorance, but, as Stephanie West (1988,244, ad 4.837) writes, it is "absurd that the dream-figure should thus allege lack of reliable information as grounds for its refusal." I suggest here that the apparition's response is actually a brilliant example of multilayered metapoetic wordplay. Later Hellenic tradition features dreams whose interpretations depend on solving puns or word-riddles embedded in their content, (1) and such riddles or puns would be perfectly at home in the Odyssey, whose frequent engagement in wordplay is well-known. (2) Although most instances of Odyssean wordplay seem to be serious in tone, (3) some have been considered humorous. (4) The wordplay in Penelope's dream, I suggest, is of the latter sort: its rhetorical mechanisms help the passage develop an emotional rapport between its audience and Penelope which its concluding joke brings to a culmination.

Before considering how this wordplay works, let us examine some of the scene's other puzzling aspects, which cannot be justified by the literary nature of Penelope's dream, since some of them lack any obvious literary purpose while others actually seem to contradict the dream's ostensible literary functions. These aspects appear even odder in light of both Homeric and non-Homeric visitation and dream typology. (5) Perhaps the most striking feature is that Penelope's joy is postponed until after she awakens, with the result that she seems pleased by the apparition's refusal to speak about Odysseus rather by its good news about Telemachus. This is not simply a matter of Penelope needing to wake up before she can react emotionally to her dream, since she cries "though in a dream" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) at Odyssey 19.541. (6)

The dream-figure itself is no less strange. Only Zeus sends proxies in comparable scenes; in fact, in Homeric poetry, he always uses messengers instead of appearing to mortals personally. Athena, in contrast, always deals with humans personally, as, for instance, when she appears to Nausicaa in a dream that is otherwise strikingly similar to Penelope's. Christine Walde (2001, 47) theorizes that Athena sends the apparition to avoid disturbing Penelope with her own divine presence and thus disrupting the dream's calming effects. Yet if this were the case, Athena could simply have maintained her disguise as she does in Nausicaa's dream. Her absence does not seem to matter anyway, since Penelope surmises that her visitor is divine (Od. 4.831) without causing herself further agitation. The PQ scholion ad 4.796 offers another theory--that Athena sends the apparition "so that she won't be forced to say something about Odysseus" (7)--but surely Athena could have avoided answering Penelope at least as well as the dream-vision does. To imply that Penelope's question would put Athena in an awkward position smacks of the sort of Platonic moralism that is so alien to Homeric gods. Also, if this were Homer's primary concern, he could simply not have had Penelope ask her question in the first place, particularly since the question itself is unparalleled. …

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