Seven Quick Takes on Penelope

So, a bunch of my FB friends keep posting about Craeft and Craftsmanship and the like (Which is interesting to read about, since I tend to want to be a brain in a jar and probably need to actually not be quite as often) and someone … Melanie? Kyra? I can’t remember – posted something about the importance of spinning and weaving for creating Viking sails and as sort of the lifeblood of the ancient economy, even though it was women’s work and often hidden from view. (Hey. It’s the International Day of Women too! How serendipitous.)   Anyway, being a brain-in-a-jar who recently suffered through an MBA program, I started wondering about the economic value of labor that was destroyed by Penelope’s nightly unweaving on her loom.  SO. (See, I told you I’d be random and not care about a platform.  So now you need to suffer through my frustrations as a failed Classicist whose eldest daughter is currently in “Greek Culture” year on the Kolbe Curriculum, but running behind schedule.)

So the first question was – Was the shroud wool or linen?  We don’t know. Homer thought it was so obvious, he didn’t bother to tell us.  Here’s the problem. Apparently, in the Classical age, our records suggest the Greeks used wool for almost everything, and that Linen was a trade good because the Greek climate was wrong for growing Flax. But we also have records in Linear B talking about the cultivation of Linen at Pylos during the Mycenean period, and the Odyssey takes place during that period.  So, on one hand, it’s anyone’s guess.

On the other hand, most of the information I could dig up on the size and thickness of shrouds around the world assumed linen. And even if linen was a luxury good, she was a queen weaving a shroud for her father-in-law.  So let’s just assume linen, OK? Because I want to pretend this was more than a time-waster.

So, a typical ancient shroud was a rectangle of fabric abut 15 feet long and 4 feet wide.  How long would it take a skilled weaver to create that? Well, I couldn’t find data on THAT, but my friend Google Book Search turned up information on linen used for armor.  Here’s a link to the book. I forget what search terms I used, but it looks entertaining all the way through anyway, and the authors probably deserve your money.

A little bit of arithmetic.   Penelope wove and unwove to delay her suitors for 3 years. If she was sitting at her loom 10 hours a day (and we certainly imagine her focused only on her loom and ignoring all else) then she wove for 1095 days.
It would have taken about 40 hours, or 4 days of work, for a woman skilled at the loom to weave a shroud under normal circumstances, based on the calculations from the above-mentioned armor book on the time to weave linen. 

So, each day she wove and unwove a quarter of a shroud.  By the time she was found out and forced to finish, she’d woven and unwoven 16,380 square feet of linen – enough for 273 shrouds.
In today’s prices, for machine-made linen bought in bulk online, that’s a mere $11,669.33 dollars of economic value destroyed. Sadly, I couldn’t find any numbers on bronze age linen sales, other than Phoenician purple which commanded an extra price.  Why? Because it was so necessary and so valuable, you didn’t SELL it. You kept it to make sails and clothe the household and dress statues in the temple and all sorts of other important things.

So, this also got me thinking more about Penelope and weaving. And specifically how weaving is Athena’s special craft, and how the Athenians wove a giant peplos to clothe their statue of Athena in the Acropolis each year.

And also about the idea of burnt offerings in Greek religion, and libations.  When the Greeks destroyed something and made it useless, that destroyed bit was an offering to the gods.
So, is Penelope’s unweaving actually an extended offering to Athena?  After all, it’s when she’s forced to stop unweaving that Athena springs into action, frees Odysseus from the island, sends Telemachus on his journey, and sets the entire plot in motion.  If Athena brings about Odysseus’s return home, perhaps it’s Penelope’s nightly sacrifice that spurred her to action?

Anyway, no, I’m not tying this back to Lent because.. Ancient Greek and pagan Gods. Not going to force a metaphor just to be a better Catholic Blogger ™, especially since I’m not really branded anything. (THE FREEDOM!)

Instead, I just wanted to share the rabbit hole I explored the other day when  I ought to have been doing something productive!

So here are some more links on Greece and Textiles, just because.

Textiles in Athens


AHS said…
Oh, thanks for working this out!

You know, I *still* haven't read that "No Wool, No Vikings" article everyone directed me to. Sob.
Zina said…
Funny to come across your post just right after finishing Madeline Miller’s Circe.

I'm listening to The Odyssey in the car right now-- Claire Danes reading Emily Wilson's translation. This is a very fun rabbit trail.

1. It was Alice whose Facebook page had the cool conversation about wool.

2. I'm really fascinated by the wool vs linen question.

3. I totally want it to be linen because I'm allergic to wool. So yes, let's make it linen!

4. I've always wondered if Penelope wasn't doing some kind of extra fancy weaving into this shroud. Was it plain linen or did it have a pattern? Images? What did it look like?

5. What does it say about me that I want to imagine she wasn't working that long at the weaving? I've always imagined that not only was she unweaving, she also wasn't working

6. I'm really fascinated by the idea of the unweaving as a sort of offering to Athena.

7. Yay links!

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