Deeper into Jeopardy! XXXIV: Mythology – $800

Happy New Year, all my readers who are on the Gregorian calendar!

Jeopardy! category: MYTHOLOGY (22-12-2014)

$800 clue: During Odysseus’ absence, she wove a never-finished shroud

Correct response

The gist: Not that she’s a terrible slow weaver, though. Penelope is a character in Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, which follows the travels and tribulations of Penelope’s husband Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, as he returns from the Trojan War. While most of the poem tells the stories of Odysseus’ adventures, the scene regularly switches back to Odysseus and Penelope’s palace, where 108 suitors have been trying to convince her and her son Telemachus that Odysseus, who has been missing for twenty years (ten at Troy and another ten at sea), must be dead and she ought to remarry. Ever the faithful wife (in traditional versions of the story), Penelope promises the suitors, who have been feasting on the palace’s food, guzzling the palace’s wine, sacrificing the palace’s livestock, and sleeping with (many of) the palace’s maids, that she will pick a new husband soon, but only after she finishes weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law Laertes. Unbeknownst to the suitors, however, Penelope has been dutifully undoing her progress on the shroud every night before bed, so that she’ll never fulfill her promise and never have to take a new husband (and crown a new king). Sadly, a particularly unfaithful chambermaid named Melantho, discovers her noctural activity and tells the suitors, who again demand she choose a husband and force her to relent.

Happily, Odysseus finally arrives home around then, and enters the palace disguised as a beggar in order to scope out the situation. After speaking with the beggar (Homer is a bit cagey about whether she recognizes her husband or not), Penelope announces her final ruse to get rid of her unwanted suitors: whoever can string Odysseus’ famously stiff bow and shoot an arrow “through twelve axe heads”* will be her new king. As expected, no suitor can manage even to string the bow. Telemachus, though, comes tantalizingly close – and only doesn’t, perhaps, because he catches the beggar’s eye (whom Telemachus knows to be his father), who motions to him not to, or else he might supplant his living father as king. The beggar then succeeds in both tasks and, revealing his true identity, proceeds to slaughter all 108 suitors in what can only be described as an orgy of blood and violence – which he orders the twelve unfaithful maids to clean up, which he rewards by hanging them.

In the Graeco-Roman and Christian worlds, Penelope was revered for her chasity, faithfulness to her husband, and her wits (which, naturally, she uses to preserve her chastity and faithfulness). In art, she is often depicted sitting with her legs crossed, a very unusual pose meant to emphasize her defining trait. More recently, however, some authors have reinterpreted Penelope’s characters. Margaret Atwood‘s novel The Penelopiad sees Penelope telling her side of the story from Hades in the 21st century. This Penelope is depicted as witty, street-wise, and entirely capable, as well as decidedly less upbeat on the subject of her husband’s character – particularly as the poem heavily implies that Odysseus will leave Penelope again to go on further far-flung adventures. It’s also easy to imagine how difficult the shift from mistress of the palace (and effectively, ruler of the kingdom) to her husband’s subordinate must have been upon Odysseus’ return.


Penelope, with her legs crossed, is told by Eurykleia that Odysseus has returned


The clue: Not much here, just a mention of Odysseus and of Penelope’s weaving. It implies, but doesn’t state, a relationship between Odysseus and the correct response, and certainly doesn’t say they’re married. As well, the reference to the shroud isn’t something that’s likely to let you figure out the response unless you’re already familiar with the story.

In Jeopardy!: So as to not concern ourselves with other people named Penelope, we’ll just look at clues that mention both Penelope and Odysseus or the Odyssey, which total 18 regular clues. A full 14 of them reference, in one war or another, her marriage to Odysseus, which is really the most important thing to know about her. Three of the remaining clues mention Odysseus but without implying any close relationship between the two. The one clue that doesn’t mention Odysseus at all calls her the queen of Ithaca. Clearly, if it’s about Odysseus and marriage, it’s Penelope. But be careful: Odysseus, great hero that he was, had many other women, including the sorceress Circe and the sea nymph Calypso, so don’t automatically jump to her if the clue doesn’t make reference to her being Odysseus’ wife.

*What exactly it means to shoot an arrow through twelve iron axe heads is a hotly debated topic among Homeric scholars. Some take it at face value, meaning that in the Age of Heroes when Odysseus lived there were men who could shoot so superhumanly hard and straight that they could pass through twelve pieces of solid iron. Others, based on an obscure word used in the poem, suggest it refers to the handles of the axes which had iron loops used to hang them on the wall, or possibly some sort of “socket” in the axe had itself, implying that the shot was merely one of prodigious accuracy. A perhaps more literary interpretation is that the contest as announced by Penelope was taken by the suitors to mean shooting through the solid iron axes, a clearly impossible feat. But Odysseus, always known for his cleverness (he’s described in the poem’s opening lines as “Odysseus of many wiles”) more than his physical prowess, reinterprets the challenge as shooting through some hole or another in the axes, a still impressive but not entirely impossible feat.

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