Wondrous Odyssey Weaver

by Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg

The ancient Greeks credited their goddess, Athena, with several inventions of civilization including the ship, the harness, and the loom. According to myth, the first mortal weaver became so proud of her skills that she challenged Athena to a weaving contest. Of course 330px-Velazquez-las_hilanderasthe goddess won, but rather than depriving young Arachne of life or talent, she merely turned her into a spider. Athena actually knew many a weaver, and in Homeric legend, she encountered several when she mentored the hero Odysseus on his long voyage home from the Trojan War.

Circe was a weaver who was also a witch. Odysseus men approached her house:

Presently they reached the gates of the goddess’s house, and as they stood there, they could hear Circe within, singing most beautifully as she worked at her loom, making a web so fine, so soft, and of such dazzling colours as no one but a goddess could weave (Odyssey book X).

Athena sent a potion to keep Odysseus immune to Circe’s charms, but his men were turned into pigs. Maybe they were already pigs, and Circe returned them to their true nature? In any event, Odysseus was not adverse to Circe’s hospitality—enjoying her bed by night and only weeping for his men at dawn. Once Circe noticed Odysseus’ grief, she took her wand and returned the pigs to humanity. Odysseus and his men enjoyed Circe’s food and drink for another twelve months, proving her a most merciful, generous, and resilient witch.

Like Circe, Calypso was a weaver:

There was a large fire burning on the hearth, and one could smell from far the fragrant reek of burning cedar and sandal wood. As for herself, she was busy at her loom, shooting her golden shuttle through the warp and singing beautifully (book V).

Despite missing Penelope, Odysseus stayed with Calypso for seven years, until Athena e4ae508b0322e4a50a54b60a23ada622convinced Zeus to fetch him home. Calypso trembled with rage: “You gods, she exclaimed, ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You are always jealous and hate seeing a goddess take a fancy to a mortal man, and live with him in open matrimony” (V).

Despite her anger, Calypso released Odysseus once she realized his sorrow:

His eyes [were] ever filled with tears, and dying of sheer home-sickness; for he had got tired of Calypso, and though he was forced to sleep with her in the cave by night, it was she, not he, that would have it so. As for the day time, he spent it on the rocks and on the sea-shore, weeping, crying aloud for his despair, and always looking out upon the sea” (V).

Calypso bade Odysseus leave her:

My poor fellow, you shall not stay here grieving and fretting your life out any longer. I am going to send you of my own free will; so go, cut some beams of wood, and make yourself a large raft with an upper deck that it may carry you safely over the sea. I will put bread, wine, and water on board to save you from starving. I will also give you clothes, and will send you a fair wind to take you home, if the gods in heaven so will it, for they know more about these things, and can settle them better than I can (V).

Even if Zeus was responsible for Odysseus’ departure, no hard feelings spoiled Calypso’sWeb most generous farewell.

Eventually, Odysseus returned to the spider-like Penelope who had saved his kingdom by moving her shuttle back and forth. She was as sharp witted as her husband, and knew that as soon as the suitors began to fill Odysseus’ hall, they wanted far more than her hand in marriage. The suitors complained to her son:

…there was that other trick she played us. She set up a great tambour frame in her room, and began to work on an enormous piece of fine needlework. ‘Sweet hearts,’ said she, ‘Odysseus is indeed dead, still do not press me to marry again immediately; wait, for I would not have skill in needlework perish unrecorded until I have completed a pall for the hero Laertes, to be in readiness against the time when death shall take him’ (XIX).

The suitors granted the favor and watched her “working on her great web all day long, but at night she would unpick the stitches again by torchlight…using the accomplishments Athena taught her” (XIX). Athena was so proud of Penelope that she cast a spell making the queen look as young as she had twenty years earlier when Odysseus first left for Troy. We don’t know if she did this to reward the hero or his wife, but it was a nice gesture.

Silk from spiders has always been one of the most resilient materials on earth; no wonder the women of the Odyssey were wondrous weavers. Their skill and patience equaled that of spiders, but their wisdom reflected another of Athena’s mascots.


Her Resilience

The bird in my house

Is not trapped—

Is not always a

Bad luck omen orpenelope_weaving

Magic crow on the

Witch’s shoulder –

Sometimes she is

My sister the owl

Medicine woman

Her Belly full of

Eggs and bones

Spreading her wings

Rising like Phoebus—

Rising like Phoenix

Like Shiva—

Nesting, nesting


Work Cited

Odyssey. Compiled c. 800 B.C.E. Trans. Samuel Butler. Internet Classics Archive. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1994. April 2017.Online.