Entry 26: Penelope’s Song- In the Glens of Antrim, where I was born, the sea has been a powerful shaping force throughout history and, indeed, pre-history. For 10,000 years people have walked through the glens, many having arrived by sea over the millennia and just as many having left by the same means. My father and grandfather were the latest in a long line of Glensmen who sought a livelihood across the sea stretching back to the Neolithic exporters of porcellanite axe heads found the length and breadth of the British Isles and much further afield.
John Masefield has set out in a poem, published in 1902, the allure of the sea-faring life to many a sailor; an allure as powerful as the attractions of the girls from the Belfast brothels of the previous entry.
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,/And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,/And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,/And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.
For most part, the womenfolk stayed at home and waited and waited; expected to emulate Penelope, spouse of the Greek hero Odysseus who warded off 108 suitors for twenty years by saying she would entertain their suit when she had finished her weaving, an appropriate wifely task. At night, she would undo what she had done the previous day. This embodiment of uxorial decorum is represented in art by her modest pose of leaning her cheek on her hand, and by her protectively crossed knees, reflecting her long chastity in Odysseus’s absence.
Her name has traditionally been associated with marital faithfulness, unlike her contemporary, Helen, who represents the fatal attraction of faithless beauty: Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? But some recent readings offer a more ambiguous interpretation of Penelope, the wifely paragon.
As Margaret Attwood has Penelope observe in The Penelopiad, when she recognises her husband’s beggarly disguise but refrains from calling him on it: it’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness. Continuing the deflation of the legend, she further assets that Odysseus was a liar and drunkard who had fought a one-eyed bartender then boasted it was a giant, cannibalistic Cyclops he had bested through his guile and strength.
Other, ancient sources including Duris of Samos and Servius, the Virgilian commentator, report that Penelope slept with all 108 suitors in Odysseus’ absence, and gave birth to Pan as a result. One wonders if, in fact, the song of the Sirens that tormented Odysseus was suspicious thoughts of what his wife was up to back in Ithaca.
In the early 7th Century, St Isidore, patron saint of the Internet, who is said to have been the last true scholar of the ancient world, asserted in his Etomologaie that there were three Sirens…One of them sang, another played the flute, the third the lyre. They drew sailors, decoyed by song, to shipwreck… According to the truth, he asserts, they were prostitutes who led travellers down to poverty.
In 1917, Franz Kafka writing about these creatures has this to say: Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing never happened, it is still conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.
But we don’t have to put up with their silence, thankfully. In my head I hear a partial roll-call of those intrepid men who heeded the summons of the sea and helped shape modern Australia, the place where I now live and call home: Bass, Baudin, Cook, Dampier, D’Entrecasteaux, Flinders, Frecinyet, Furneaux, La Perouse, Tasman, Torres. They all undertook voyages as legendary as that of Odysseus in the Bronze Age. The age of exploration across the vastness of land and sea has passed.
I think, instead, of an Irish writer who took on the immense themes found in the Odyssey and presents us with one day in the life of an unremarkable Dubliner as he wanders around his city on the 16th of June, 1904; a most propitious date that is still celebrated in cities around the world as Bloomsday where readings from the text take pride of place. In Sydney, it has been celebrated in a variety of venues including Bondi Beach where Irish backpackers congregate in large numbers in order to redden their pale Celtic backs in the sun and to redden their pale Celtic faces at the pub afterwards.
Some of them may even take part in marking the composition of Ulysses by James Joyce where we find Molly Bloom, who represents Penelope, lying in bed with her husband Leopold Bloom, who is Odysseus. The novel concludes with Molly’s remembrance of Bloom’s marriage proposal. And her reply? …yes I said yes I will Yes.