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Study Guide for Educators
Inspired by Homer’s Odyssey
Severson Theater: March 5–22, 2015
Photos: Luis Escobar Reflections Photography Studio
Table of Contents
Welcome to the PCPA / Theater Etiquette.................................................................. 2
How to Use This Study Guide..................................................................................... 3
Production Team and Cast........................................................................................... 4
Story and Production Elements
Synopsis of The Penelopiad................................................................................. 5
Themes............................................................................................................. 10
Key Words........................................................................................................ 11
Design Concept................................................................................................ 13
Student Activities
Suggestions for Pre-Performance Activities...................................................... 14
Supplementary Materials..................................................................................15
Writing and Discussion Prompts.......................................................................17
Context of the Story
About the Authors............................................................................................ 19
Ancient Greek Religion.................................................................................... 21
Ancient Greek Afterlife..................................................................................... 23
Weaving............................................................................................................. 24
Slavery............................................................................................................... 24
Important Locations......................................................................................... 25
The Trojan War: Myths and history................................................................. 26
Odyssey excerpt, Book 22: The death of the maids........................................... 29
Thank you for bringing your students to the PCPA at Allan Hancock College. Here are some helpful
hints for your visit to the Severson Theater. The top priority of our staff is to provide an enjoyable day of
live theater for you and your students. We offer you this study guide as a tool to prepare your students
prior to the performance, and to prompt discussion, critical thought, and creativity after the
Notable behavior is a vital part of theater for youth. Going to the theater is not a casual event. It is a
special occasion. If students are prepared properly, it will be a memorable, educational experience they
will remember for years.
1. Have students enter the theater in a single file. Chaperones should be one adult for every ten students.
Our ushers will assist you with locating your seats. Please wait until the usher has seated your party
before any rearranging of seats to avoid injury and confusion. While seated, teachers should space
themselves so they are visible, between every group of ten students. Teachers and adults must remain
with their group during the entire performance.
2. Once seated in the theater, students may go to the bathroom in small groups with the teacher's
permission. Please chaperone younger students. Once the show is over, please remain seated until the
House Manager dismisses your school.
3. Please remind your students that we do not permit:
‣ food, gum, drinks, smoking, hats, backpacks, or large purses
‣ disruptive talking
‣ disorderly and inappropriate behavior (stepping on/over seats, throwing objects, etc.)
‣ cameras, iPods, cell phones, beepers, tape recorders, handheld video games
‣ (Adults are asked to put any beepers or cell phones on silent or vibrate)
In cases of disorderly behavior, groups may be asked to leave the theater without ticket refunds.
4. Teachers should take time to remind students before attending the show of the following about a live
Sometimes we forget when we come into a theater that we are one of the most important
parts of the production. Without an audience there would be no performance. Your
contribution of laughter, quiet attention, and applause is part of the play.
When we watch movies or television we are watching images on a screen, and what we
say or do cannot affect them. In the theater the actors are real people who are present
and creating an experience with us at that very moment. They see and hear us and are
sensitive to our response. They know how we feel about the play by how we watch and
listen. An invisible bond is formed between actors and a good audience, and it enables
the actors to do their best for you. A good audience helps make a good performance.
The PCPA welcomes you as a partner in the live theater experience from the moment you take your
seats. We hope that your visit will be a highlight of your school year.
How to use this study guide
This study guide is a companion piece designed to explore many ideas depicted in the PCPA’s
stage production of The Penelopiad. Although the guide’s intent is to enhance the student’s
theatrical experience, it can also be used as an introduction to the components of a play and
the production elements involved in a play’s presentation. While many students are familiar
with the story of the Odyssey, this alternate retelling answers many questions about Penelope’s
side of the Odyssey, in addition to presenting a wealth of new questions for this generation to
answer. The guide has been organized into three major sections:
Story and Production Elements
Student Activities
Context of the Story
Teachers and group leaders will want to select portions of the guide for their specific usage.
Discussion questions are meant to provoke a line of thought about a particular topic. The
answers to the discussion questions in many instances will initiate the process of exploration
and discovery of varied interpretations by everyone involved. This can be as rewarding as the
wonderful experience of sight and sound that The Penelopiad creates onstage.
See the Suggestions for Pre-Performance Activities section for recommendations to prepare students
before attending the PCPA performance of The Penelopiad.
Based on the Odyssey by HOMER
Director Mark Booher
Assistant Director Polly Firestone Walker
Choreographer Elizabeth Stuart
Movement Director Karin Hendricks*
Voice & Text Director Kitty Balay*
Scenic Designer Abby Hogan
Costume Designer Alycia Matz
Lighting Designer Michael P. Frohling
Sound Designer / Composer Elisabeth Rebel
Stage Manager Ellen Beltramo
Elizabeth Stuart*
Zoe / Icarius / Suitor
Annali Fuchs
Selene / Young Penelope
Mandy Corbett
Holly Halay
Sydni Abenido
Michaela Jose
Iole / Oracle / Anticleia
Ambre Shoneff
Celandine / Naiad Mother
Claire Louise Harlan
Karin Hendricks
Polly Firestone Walker
Kitty Balay*
Phasiana / Suitor / Laertes
Katie Wackowski
Narcissa / Suitor
Julia Nardi-Loving
Chloris / Suitor
Mary Reagan
Klytie / Suitor
Alyssa Perry
Alecto / Telemachus
Charlette Rawls
* Member, Actors’ Equity Association
Synopsis of The Penelopiad
(Page 1 of 5)
Format: The layout of the play is characterized by monologues and narration from Penelope in the underworld, flashbacks to
important events in Penelope's life, and poetic and musical segments from the maids, both in the underworld and during the
–––––BRIEF ODYSSEY SUMMARY––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Homer's Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus's ten year journey home to Ithaca after the ten year Trojan
War, fraught with many perils, mythic creatures, and divine beings. By the time he makes it back to
Ithaca, he finds his home overrun with one hundred and eight suitors all vying for his faithful and
cunning wife Penelope's hand in marriage. Odysseus, with help from his son Telemachus and his patron
goddess Athena, kills all of the suitors and the twelve palace maids found to be disloyal.
––––––––––ACT ONE––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
The story begins with Penelope alone in the Greek underworld of the dead. Penelope, the wife of
Odysseus renowned for her faithfulness, has decided to tell her side of the famous Odyssey story. Penelope
is haunted in the underworld by the spirits of her twelve maids, the ones who Odysseus ordered to be
killed upon his return to Ithaca.
Penelope begins with the story of her birth: her father was the Spartan king Icarius and her relatively
absent mother was a naiad. After Penelope was born, her father consults an oracle who tells him that his
daughter will weave her father's burial shroud (or father-in-law's). Icarius interprets this as a sign that his
daughter will kill him. He decides to throw the baby Penelope into the sea. Penelope is rescued by a
bevy of purple-striped ducks. Icarius takes this as a sign from the gods in Penelope's favor and bestows
her with the nickname "Ducky."
When Penelope is fifteen, King Icarius holds a foot race to choose a husband for his daughter. Odysseus
drugs some wine before the race and gives it to his fellow competitors. Before the race begins, Penelope's
maids tease Odysseus for his rural appearance and Penelope for her naïveté about sex. The beautiful
Helen, cousin of Penelope and wife of another Spartan king (Menelaus), also joins them in teasing
Penelope and Odysseus, who had also been one of Helen's suitors. The race begins; the competitors are
significantly slowed by the drugged wine and thus Odysseus wins the race and Penelope's hand. A
marriage ceremony and banquet is held immediately after. Penelope's naiad mother gives her some
advice: she reminds her daughter that she is half-water, that water is patient and flows around obstacles
rather than resisting. This advice serves as foreshadowing for Penelope's actions during the later conflict
of the play. That night, Odysseus is charming and reassures a terrified Penelope. After they
consummate their marriage, they talk for a long time. By the time morning comes, Penelope has
developed romantic feelings toward Odysseus.
Odysseus takes Penelope on a ship back to Ithaca. She meets his parents, the friendly King Laertes and
the icy Queen Anticleia. She also meets Odysseus's dear, dependable nursemaid Eurycleia, the one who
raised him from infancy. Eurycleia assures Penelope that she has everything under control; all Penelope
has to do is work on producing a son. Sure enough, Penelope soon gives birth to a son, Telemachus.
The twelve maids are also born around the same time and are taken to be raised as playmates for
Penelope has little control in her new life in Ithaca. Eurycleia has taken over the raising of Telemachus;
Telemachus says his first word, "Mama"—to Eurycleia. Penelope, with no friends and nothing to do,
Synopsis of The Penelopiad
(Page 2 of 5)
ends up spending much of her time weaving in the women's quarters with the female slaves. The
highlights of her life were her nights with Odysseus. One night, Odysseus tells her the secret of his bed:
he carved one of the bedposts from a rooted olive tree. Penelope and Odysseus are interrupted by a ship
bringing news.
The news is that Penelope's cousin Helen eloped with Paris of Troy. Odysseus has to go to Troy because
of an oath made between Helen's suitors: that they would defend the honor of the man who won her
hand. Odysseus leaves for the Trojan War.
Polly Firestone Walker as Odysseus, Elizabeth Stuart* as Penelope
The Trojan War lasts ten years. During this time, Anticleia passes away and Laertes moves out of the
palace and into the countryside. Telemachus grows up with Eurycleia spoiling him immensely. Penelope
is left with learning to run the kingdom on her own; she does well with the task and even increases his
stock, hoping to impress and please Odysseus. Throughout the years, Penelope hears bardic songs about
the war and Odysseus's exploits. At last, the Greeks win the war with Odysseus's Trojan horse ploy: the
Greeks build a large wooden horse that was ostensibly an offering to the gods, but was actually filled with
Greek soldiers. The Trojans brought the horse into their city, allowing the Greek forces to finally
overcome the impenetrable walls of Troy and destroy the city. The Greek soldiers depart from Troy, and
Synopsis of The Penelopiad
(Page 3 of 5)
Odysseus is expected home soon. However, for the first two years after the war, Penelope only hears
rumors of his travails (portrayed in "The Wily Sea Captain" cabaret-style song): escaping the land of the
Lotus-Eaters, outwitting the Cyclops, and his affair with the goddess Circe. (See Books 9–10 of Homer's
Odyssey for more about the stories referenced in "The Wily Sea Captain.") Then, even the rumors stop.
––––––––––ACT TWO––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
The second act begins with a moment between the ghosts of Penelope and Helen in the underworld.
Helen is on her way to take a bath (despite the fact that they don't have bodies) with a flock of warrior
ghosts following her. Helen bathes in front of the ghosts as a form of repayment, since she caused so
many of their deaths. There is a moment paralleling the warrior ghosts following Helen with the maids'
ghosts following Penelope, then Helen leaves and Penelope returns to her story.
A couple of years after the war ended and Odysseus still hadn't returned, young noblemen begin to
arrive at the palace assuming Odysseus was dead and Penelope was again on the marriage market. The
suitors, whose numbers eventually grow to over one hundred, begin a perpetual feast at the palace,
consuming Odysseus's livestock and wine as a coercion tactic (i.e., marry one of us or we'll eat you into
poverty). Penelope can't force the suitors to leave; they have numbers and weaponry on their side. As
the tension rises, Penelope keeps in mind her mother's reminder that she is half-water—she encourages
different suitors, but promises them nothing.
Then Penelope comes up with an idea: she tells the suitors that she mustn't remarry until she fulfills her
filial duty and weaves her aging father-in-law's burial shroud, or else risk the wrath of the gods. Penelope
declares that she will choose a new husband upon completion of the shroud and the suitors acquiesce.
Penelope chooses her twelve favorite maids to help her weave the shroud. (These twelve were the ones
who were brought up as playmates for Telemachus, raised and trained by Penelope herself.) Every night,
Penelope and the twelve maids secretly unravel the shroud, and the suitors, Eurycleia, and Telemachus
are none the wiser.
Over the course of the next three years, Penelope weaves and unweaves, talking and laughing with the
maids until the girls become like family to her. The maids also serve as sources of knowledge about the
suitors. Penelope worries that one of the suitors, Antinous, is growing suspicious; she tells one of the
maids, Melantho, to distract him. She directs the maids to become close to the suitors and gives them
permission to speak ill of her and her family to enhance the guise.
Melantho and the maids do as Penelope bids; they flirt with the suitors in order to distract them and
gather information. However, the suspicious Antinous notices Penelope giving Melantho a significant
look; he confronts Melantho about it and about the length of time it's taking Penelope to finish the
shroud. Melantho denies any knowledge. Antinous and several other suitors rape Melantho along with
the other maids.
Later, as Penelope tends to the abused girls, the maids beg their mistress to tell Eurycleia about the ruse.
Penelope refuses, fearing that Eurycleia wouldn't be able to keep the secret and the suitors would find
out. Proving her point, Eurycleia bursts in with the news that Telemachus has left on a ship in search of
Odysseus (even though Telemachus made Eurycleia promise not to tell), and that the suitors are planning
to kill him on his way back.
After an indeterminate amount of time, Telemachus returns from his voyage. He argues with Penelope,
berating the suitors and the maids for consuming his inheritance and his mother for her apparent
Synopsis of The Penelopiad
(Page 4 of 5)
inaction. Telemachus eventually tells Penelope that he found out Odysseus is alive but trapped on an
island with a goddess. The two manage to find a moment of connection at the end of the scene.
One night, Penelope is unweaving her shroud with her maids—except Melantho. The maids are
significantly quieter than the last time the audience saw them unweaving; Penelope promises them that
everything will be better when Odysseus returns, that he'll be pleased and reward them for their loyalty.
Suddenly, the suitors burst into the room with Melantho, catching Penelope in the act of unweaving the
shroud and breaking the ruse.
The pressure on Penelope increases and her thoughts grow darker. Penelope has bad dreams as she
sleeps. Penelope dreams about her naiad mother's advice to be like water. She dreams a reprise of "The
Wily Sea Captain" song, containing more of Odysseus's adventures: the Isle of the Dead, the Sirens, the
whirlpool Charybdis, the monster Scylla, the goddess Calypso, and the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa.
(See Books 5–6 and 11–12 of Homer's Odyssey for more about the stories referenced in "The Wily Sea
Captain" reprise.)
Elizabeth Stuart* as Penelope, Karin Hendricks as Helen, Polly Firestone Walker as Odysseus
Synopsis of The Penelopiad
(Page 5 of 5)
Finally, after twenty years of absence, Odysseus returns disguised as a beggar; he takes in the state of his
palace and the rude behavior of the suitors and maids who threaten and insult him. Odysseus meets his
now young adult son Telemachus and reveals his identity to him. Odysseus bids Telemachus to help him
retrieve some weapons, but not to tell Penelope so she wouldn't give away his disguise. Odysseus
converses with Penelope, who proclaims that she will marry whomever can string Odysseus's bow and
shoot an arrow through twelve axeheads—a feat that only Odysseus could perform. Penelope then
recounts one of her dreams: that an eagle kills a flock of geese beloved to her. Odysseus interprets the
dream as an omen that her husband will return and kill the suitors, but Penelope is unsure that the geese
are the suitors (because of her sorrow at their deaths). Penelope orders Eurycleia to wash Odysseus's
feet; Eurycleia sees a telltale scar on Odysseus's thigh and realizes the beggar is her master. Odysseus
threatens Eurycleia to secrecy.
Penelope divulges to the audience that she recognized Odysseus immediately, but didn't want to reveal
that she knew and mar Odysseus's pride in his wit. Penelope leaves for the night, excited to tell Odysseus
and the maids on the morrow. As per Odysseus's instructions, Eurycleia locks Penelope in her bedroom
in order to spare her from the carnage.
The following morning, the suitors try and fail to string Odysseus's bow. Odysseus successfully strings
the bow and shoots an arrow through twelve axeheads, then he kills the suitors with help from
Telemachus. Odysseus orders Eurycleia to bring the maids to the hall to clean up the massacre then to
have them killed. Telemachus and Eurycleia protest; Eurycleia narrows the number down to the twelve
most disloyal maids (Penelope's twelve maids). Odysseus leaves the matter in Telemachus's hands. The
maids beg Telemachus to talk to Penelope, insisting that they were under her orders. Telemachus
hesitates, but Eurycleia pushes him into action. After the deed is done, Eurycleia wakes Penelope, telling
her of Odysseus's return, the death of the suitors, and the hanging of the twelve maids. Penelope and
Odysseus finally reunite; however, it's certainly not a happily-ever-after. Both have changed during the
past twenty years, and much lies beneath the surface of their words.
Back in the underworld, Penelope talks about the reincarnation process and her hesitancy to be reborn.
Odysseus wants to be with Penelope in the underworld; but the ghosts of the twelve maids give Odysseus
anguish and he continually leaves to be reborn again. Penelope directly addresses the maids' ghosts,
imploring them to leave Odysseus alone, asking what they want from Odysseus and herself. However,
the maids don't speak to Penelope or stay when she approaches them; they continually flit away from her.
Penelope is held up as a legendary bastion of faithfulness. However, Penelope herself feels otherwise, as
is revealed to us during the opening monologue of the show. The theme of fidelity is explored
throughout the play; the idea of maintaining faithfulness or breaking it, and the consequences of these
As you watch the play, take note of:
• The repercussions of loyalty; from Penelope, Eurycleia, the maids, Odysseus, etc.
• The differing expectations of fidelity for different characters.
One of the main themes of The Penelopiad is responsibility and the way it weighs both consciously and
subconsciously on the characters. In regards to the death of the maids, Margaret Atwood doesn't give
audiences a clear answer about responsibility. Ostensibly it would appear to be Odysseus, but as the play
progresses, audiences realize the issue is much more complicated than the surface indicates.
As you watch the play, take note of:
• The moral dilemma explored by the maids in "The Birth of Telemachus" (Act 1).
• The scene between Penelope and Helen in the underworld (Act 2).
• The irresolution at the end of the play.
Human value
Another idea examined in The Penelopiad is disparate human value and the varied ways in which that
value is measured—e.g., class, sex, age. With these different values come different expectations,
privileges, and limitations. This is particularly apparent in a society where slavery and rigid patriarchy
are accepted norms.
As you watch the play, take note of:
• The amount of power Eurycleia holds in relation to the household vs. to Odysseus.
• The double standards held to some of the characters (Penelope, the maids, etc.).
Related to differential human value is the theme of the intimate relationship between power and
powerlessness. Penelope struggles with a lack of power in her own home, both early on in the story with
Eurycleia and Anticlea, and later on with the pressure and threat from the suitors. Other characters,
including Odysseus, Eurycleia, and, of course, the maids, have their own conflicts with power and lack of
power, often with disastrous results.
As you watch the play, take note of:
• The repercussions the powerful have on the powerless.
• When power and powerlessness coexist within individual characters.
• How the maids find some measure of control in a life of powerlessness; described in the maids'
"Kiddie Mourn" choral poem near the beginning of the play.
Key Words
(Page 1 of 2)
Key words, characters, and important figures from The Penelopiad. Further information can be found in
the Context of the Play section.
Anticleia: Queen of Ithaca, daughter of
Autolycus, mother of Odysseus.
Antinous: The devious and belligerent unofficial
leader of Penelope's suitors in Ithaca.
Aphrodite: Goddess of love and beauty; in
mythology, she sets the spark for the Trojan War by
giving Helen to Paris.
Athena: Goddess of wisdom, war, and weaving
whose symbol is the owl. Athena favors Odysseus
for his tricks and cunning mind.
Artemis: The goddess of the hunt, virginity, and
the moon.
Autolycus: A famous thief who was given the
power of trickery from the god Hermes; named his
grandson Odysseus.
Eurycleia: A slave woman purchased by Laertes;
raised Odysseus and Telemachus from infancy.
The Fates: Also called the "Three Fatal Sisters."
Three older, hag-like sister goddesses who weave
the fates of men. One sister spins the thread,
another measures the length, and the other cuts the
The Furies: Three monstrous sister goddess of
revenge called upon by victims to curse their
offenders with madness, disease, and hunger.
Hades: God of the underworld of the dead; the
word "Hades" is also sometimes used to refer to the
underworld itself.
Fields of asphodel: The dull, twilit area of the
underworld where most of the dead reside,
consuming the asphodel flowers for food.
Helios: The god personification of the sun, who
rides across the sky in a chariot.
Helen: The "face that launched a thousand
ships" (Doctor Faustus, V.i.); her elopement with Paris
of Troy was the catalyst for the ten year Trojan
Hospitality, laws of: An important social rule in
ancient Greece that required hospitality to visitors
and strangers. The suitors in Ithaca commit a
major faux pas by abusing this rule.
Icarius: A Spartan king, married to a naiad,
father of Penelope.
Ithaca: A small, rural island in the Ionian Sea of
Greece. Its main features are agriculture and
Laertes: An Argonaut on Jason's quest for the
Golden Fleece; King of Ithaca, father of Odysseus.
Melantho: One of Penelope's favorite palace
maids in Ithaca.
Menelaus: A Spartan king, married to Helen,
known for his power and wealth, a major figure in
the Trojan War. After the Trojan War ended, it
took Menelaus eight years to make it home to
Sparta. On his way home, he hears from a god
that Odysseus is alive and trapped on Calypso's
island—information he relays to Telemachus.
Naiad: A type of female elemental spirit (nymph;
see below) associated with fresh water, especially
Nymph: A nature spirit in the form of a beautiful
young woman, often associated with a particular
area or land feature. Nymphs were sex symbols of
Greek mythology who would seduce men with
sometimes fatal results.
Odysseus: King of Ithaca, an important figure in
the Trojan War (came up with the Trojan horse
ploy to gain access to the city of Troy), favored by
Athena for his wiliness.
Oracle: An important and highly influential priest
considered to be a mouthpiece of the gods; made
calculatedly vague predictions that were never
wrong (any incorrectness was ascribed to mistakes
in interpretation, never to the oracle).
Penelope: A Spartan princess, cousin of Helen,
married to Odysseus, renowned for her faithfulness
and cunning mind.
River Lethe: The river of forgetfulness, one of
the five rivers of the underworld. Drinking its
waters before reincarnation caused a soul to forget
its past lives.
Sparta: A city-state remembered in modern times
for its military prowess. In Homeric times, it was
known more for its poetry and pottery.
Telemachus: Odysseus's son, in infancy when
Odysseus left for the Trojan War.
Key Words
(Page 2 of 2)
Trojan War: A ten year war between the city of
Troy and the united Greek forces of the
Mycenaean era. It was a very important event in
Greek mythology and oral storytelling, though
there is no definitive historical or archaeological
evidence. The vast majority of ancient Greeks
believed unequivocally that it was a real historic
Troy: A city in distant Anatolia, home to King
Priam and his handsome son Paris. The
impregnable walls of Troy were built by the sea
god Poseidon.
Additional Odyssey Key Words
The following key words involve events and characters referenced in "The Wily Sea Captain" song and
reprise in The Penelopiad. For more details, read Books 5–6 and 9–12 of Homer's Odyssey.
Calypso: A nymph goddess who "rescues"
Odysseus after his ship was destroyed by Charybdis
in the second year of his journey. Calypso wants
Odysseus as a husband, and thus keeps the man on
her island for seven years until the gods order her
to release him.
Charybdis: The female monster personification
of a great oceanic whirlpool; the first time
Odysseus and his crew encounter Charybdis, they
avoid her. The next time, a god-sent storm sends
the ship right into Charybdis who consumes the
ship and crew (except for Odysseus).
Circe: A sorceress-nymph goddess who turns
Odysseus's men into pigs near the end of the first
year of Odysseus's journey. Odysseus outwits her
with help from the god Hermes; impressed, Circe
sleeps with Odysseus and hosts him and his crew
on her island for a year.
Cyclops: A giant one-eyed monster who eats
several of Odysseus's men before he outwits him
and escapes during the first year of his journey.
The Cyclops turns out to be the son of the sea god
Poseidon, who retaliates by making Odysseus's
journey home long and grueling.
Isle of the Dead: The underworld; Odysseus
performs an animal sacrifice ritual in order to
communicate with the ghost of Tiresias.
Lotus shore: One of the first stops on Odysseus's
journey; the natives feed some of his crew their
lotuses, which causes the men to forget about home
and the war; Odysseus and the rest of the crew
force the protesting men back on the ships.
Nausicaa: A beautiful and wise princess of the
mystical kingdom of Phaeacia, famous for its
seafaring and legendary hospitality. Odysseus
leaves Calypso's island on a raft which gets
destroyed by Poseidon; he ends up swimming
naked to the Phaeacian island. Nausicaa and her
maids find Odysseus while they're doing laundry;
she clothes him and directs him to the palace.
Odysseus tells his hosts the story of the first two
years of his journey, and the Phaeacians help him
make it home to Ithaca at last.
Scylla: A flesh-hungry monster with six snakelike
heads, lives on the land opposite of Charybdis.
She consumes six of Odysseus's men as they pass
her cave; the sacrifice was a conscious decision
made by Odysseus in order to avoid Charybdis.
Sirens: Beautiful female creatures who lure sailors
to their doom with their enchanting songs.
Odysseus ties himself to his ship's mast in order to
hear the sirens’ songs without fear of succumbing
to them.
Sun's cattle: The sacred cattle of Helios, the god
personification of the sun. Against Odysseus's
orders, his crew slaughters and eats some of the
cattle, angering Helios. The gods retaliate with a
storm sending the ship back to the whirlpool
Charybdis, who destroys the ship and kills the
entire crew except for Odysseus.
Tiresias: The blind seer of Apollo famous for his
predictions and foresight. Gives Odysseus
instructions for the end of his life, involving a final
journey in Poseidon's name in order to make
amends with the god.
Design Concept
The style of The Penelopiad celebrates the art of storytelling; twelve maids play a large number of roles,
from human beings to animals to props and scenery. The storytelling is influenced by a variety of styles,
including narrative monologues, poetry, Greek choruses, music throughout history, dance, and abstract
Scenic design was inspired by images of ropes and weaving, vast caverns with a sense of
claustrophobia, half-buried ancient architecture, and the geometric rock formations of the Giant’s
Causeway (Ireland) and Fingal's Cave (Scotland). Lighting design was influenced by the longing of
the characters; by the idea of cracks of light shining through into the underworld where the shades of
the dead can just catch glimpses of life above. Costume design sought to support the surreality of the
afterlife and the anachronistic tone throughout the play; costumes were inspired both by antiquity and by
contemporary and Victorian interpretations of Greek fashion. Sound/music design also took a
timeless approach to the play by using a variety of song styles throughout the ages and the world;
birdcalls and songs, ethereal multi-part harmonies inspired by the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, mystical
Tibetan singing bowls, fun cabaret-style sailor drinking songs, and aggressive, raw heavy metal music.
Elizabeth Stuart* as Penelope, Polly Firestone Walker as Odysseus, Kitty Balay* as Eurycleia, Karin Hendricks as Helen
Suggestions for Pre-Performance Activities
- Read the Odyssey by Homer. Reading the entire epic poem is recommended, if time permits. It could
also be helpful to choose portions to read aloud and discuss together.
Especially relevant sections:
• Books 1–2, 4. The story begins in the ninth year of Odysseus's travels. These introductory
books contain information about the situation at home on Ithaca with the suitors, Penelope,
Telemachus, and Eurycleia. Penelope's shroud ploy is discussed by the suitors in Book 2.
Telemachus begins his journey to Pylos and Sparta to find information about his father.
• Books 5–6. Readers catch up with Odysseus, who has been on the nymph goddess Calypso's
island for the past seven years; the gods order Calypso to release Odysseus. Odysseus ends up
on the island kingdom of Phaeacia, where he meets the wise young princess Nausicaa.
• Books 9–12. Odysseus recounts the adventures of the first two years of his journey to his
Phaeacian hosts. This includes many of the references from "The Wily Sea Captain" song in
The Penelopiad.
• Books 13, 16–23. Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca to find his palace overrun by one hundred
and eight belligerent suitors. He disguises himself as a beggar and meets his wife Penelope, who
announces that she will marry whomever can string Odysseus's bow and shoot it though twelve
axeheads. With the help of his son Telemachus, a couple of allies, and the goddess Athena, he
kills the suitors and the maids in Book 22 (an excerpt from the Odyssey about the maids' death is
included in this study guide).
- Read The Penelopiad novella by Margaret Atwood; this could also be a useful post-performance
- Explore the Context of the Play section, or have your students research and present information on topics
such as these.
- Watch a film or read books/articles about ancient Greece and the Trojan War. (See the following
Supplementary Materials section for reading and viewing ideas.)
Supplementary Materials (Page 1 of 2)
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
- Novella published by Knopf Canada, 2005.
Odyssey by Homer
- Recommended edition: The Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition,
• Also recommended: Bernard Knox introduction to the Fagles translation.
Public domain edition: The Odyssey translated by Samuel Butler, 1900. Available online and in
multiple downloadable formats at
The Trojan War
- Troy (2004). Epic war blockbuster movie based on the Iliad, starring Brad Pitt as Achilles. Rated R
by the MPAA for graphic violence and some sexuality/nudity. Recommended for home viewing.
- In Search of the Trojan War (Michael Wood, BBC, 1985). Documentary miniseries about the history
and archaeology of the Trojan War.
- Iliad by Homer.
• Recommended edition: The Iliad translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1990.
• Public domain edition: The Iliad translated by Samuel Butler, 1898. Available online and in
multiple downloadable formats at
- In Search of the Trojan War by Michael Wood, 1985. Book version of the aforementioned BBC
Ancient Greek History
- Part 1 of The Spartans, a three-part PBS documentary series, 2003.
- "Greek & Roman Mythology."
• Includes helpful Odyssey plot timelines, maps, and pronunciation guides in the "Homer" section.
- "Mortal Women of the Trojan War."
- "Ancient Greece, 1000 B.C.–1 A.D."
- "Hellenica: Information about Greece and Cyprus."
Supplementary Materials (Page 2 of 2)
Ancient Greek History (cont.)
- Chapters 1–3 of Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times by Thomas R. Martin, Yale
University, 2007.
- "The Mycenaeans and the End of the Bronze Age 1600–1100 BC" chapter in The Aegean
Civilizations by Peter Warren, Peter Bedrick Books, 1989.
"From stone to iron: the prehistoric period" chapter in Ancient Greece: A Concise History by Peter
Green, Thames & Hudson Inc., 1980. Also contains helpful maps.
"The Heroic Age" chapter in The World of Ancient Greeks by John Camp and Elizabeth Fisher,
Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2003. Contains a large amount of illustrations and diagrams.
"The World of Odysseus" chapter in Greece and Rome: Builders of Our World by Emily Vermeule,
National Geographic Society, 1968.
"Under the Sign of Lycurgus" chapter in The Spartans by Paul Cartledge, The Overlook Press, 2003.
Book version of the aforementioned PBS documentary series.
Ancient Greek Mythology
- Classical Mythology by Mark P. O. Morford and Robert J. Lenardon, Oxford University Press, 2007.
- Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton, Little, Brown and Company, 1942.
- The Chiron Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology tr. Elizabeth Burr, Chiron Publications, 1994.
- The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology by Pierre Grimal, Penguin Books, 1991.
Writing and Discussion Prompts
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Creative writing
1. Create your own alternate retelling of a myth, fairy tale, or famous story. Find another perspective
to tell the story from and explore how that alters the plot line.
A. Write a short story, poem, song, play, or use a combination of writing styles.
B. Stage a scene or create a movement piece based on your story. Feel free to use props,
costume elements, music, or sound to enhance your story.
The Odyssey
2. Find references from The Penelopiad in Homer's Odyssey (e.g., the weaving of the shroud, Odysseus's
arrival to the palace in Ithaca, the killing of the suitors and the maids). Compare Margaret
Atwood's version with the source material. How does Atwood's interpretation add depth to the
story? How does Atwood alter Homer's version, and what function do these changes serve for
Atwood's story?
3. Who is responsible for the death of the twelve maids? Additionally, how are we in modern day held
4. Penelope is held up as a legendary bastion of faithfulness. How is this idea dismantled and
reexamined throughout the play?
5. Think about the various levels of human value explored in The Penelopiad. How are different
characters valued? What advantages and limitations does this give them? How is this different (or
not) today?
6. There are many relationships of power and powerlessness throughout this story, both between
different characters and within individual characters. Find and analyze examples of this.
7. Discuss the roles of antagonist and protagonist in this play. When is the line between the two clear
and when is it blurred?
8. Examine the function of perspective in this story. The Odyssey story is shifted when it is told from
Penelope's point of view. How might Penelope's perspective have altered the story? How might the
story be different from another point of view (Telemachus, Eurycleia, Helen, etc.)?
Story specifics
9. What is the intent of the twelve maids' ghosts in the underworld? Why do they do what they do?
What do they want from Odysseus? From Penelope? From the audience?
10. Analyze the dynamics of authority in Ithaca between Laertes, Anticleia, Eurycleia, Odysseus, and
Penelope in The Penelopiad. What are the different levels of power and areas of authority? How are
they altered during Odysseus's absence?
11. Analyze the two ghost processions following Helen and Penelope in the underworld (the warriors
and the maids, respectively). Why do they follow Helen and Penelope? Compare the guilt Helen
and Penelope have.
12. What does the scene between Helen and Penelope in the underworld reveal about Helen's character?
Writing and Discussion Prompts
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Story specifics (cont.)
13. Recall the "Kiddie Mourn" choral poem near the beginning of the play. How do the maids find
some measure of control and choice in a life of powerlessness? How does Penelope later take that
control away?
14. Think of the reunion between Penelope and Odysseus near the end of The Penelopiad. How have
these two characters changed? How has their relationship changed? Explore the layers of everything
that is said and unsaid between them. How does this carry over into their relationship in the
15. Discuss your reaction to the end of the play. What was resolved and what was left unresolved? Why
do you think Margaret Atwood chose to end the play in the way she did? What do you think of the
director's decision for the final image of the play?
Elements of production
16. Critique the PCPA production of The
Penelopiad. Think about specific
production elements that worked or
didn’t work for the play. How did the
directing choices serve the text? What
did the costume and scenic designs tell
you about the world of the play? How
did the lighting designer use lighting and
absence of lighting to create ambience?
What did the costume designs inform
you about the characters and setting?
How did the various music styles tell the
story in different ways?
17. The Penelopiad is not a linear, narrative
piece of storytelling; instead, it moves
through space and time and uses songs,
poetry, and movement in the telling of
the story. Discuss how this format adds
to (or takes away from) the story. What
did you gain (or lose) from these pieces
as an audience member?
18. Analyze the symbolism and imagery in
The Penelopiad; examples may include the
different bird references, the rooted olive
tree bedpost, the various ways the maids
are used in movement storytelling and as
scenic elements.
Elizabeth Stuart* as Penelope, Polly Firestone Walker as Odysseus,
Kitty Balay* as Eurycleia
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About the Authors
Margaret Atwood
Canadian author Margaret Atwood (currently 75 years old) is a prolific and award-winning novelist,
poet, short story writer, essayist, and critic. From a young age, Atwood has been keenly interested in
mythology and folk/fairy tales, which inspire much of her poetry. Atwood is one of Canada’s most
famous and respected literary figures.
Published in October 2005, Atwood’s original novella The Penelopiad was part of a Canongate series of
myths retold by contemporary authors. The Penelopiad reexamines Homer’s epic story the Odyssey through
a variety of genres: narrative, a classic Greek chorus, various types of poetry and song, and modern
settings including a court trial and an anthropology lecture. Like much of Atwood’s work, The Penelopiad
has frequently been considered feminist literature by critics and the public, though Atwood herself resists
the label. Shortly after The Penelopiad was published, Atwood adapted it into a theatrical script, which
premiered in 2007 in a joint production from the British Royal Shakespeare Company and the Canadian
National Arts Centre.
Like Shakespeare, Homer is a highly influential but extremely mysterious literary figure. His exact
birthdate is unknown, and seven cities in Greece all claim to be his birthplace. Homer is attributed with
two of the most famous works of ancient Greek literature: the Iliad and the Odyssey (even that is contested
by some, though without much concrete support). Scholars estimate that the Iliad and the Odyssey were
written sometime in the late 8th or early 7th century BCE, making them the first known literature in
Europe. Many, from history through modern times, believe Homer was blind—however, there is no
proof supporting this (especially since Homer uses vivid imagery and color descriptions in his poetry).
Dactylic hexameter
The Iliad and Odyssey were written in dactylic hexameter verse. “Hexameter” refers to the
number of metrical units per line (six). These units are measured based on pronunciation time—
literally how long it takes to pronounce a syllable (as opposed to English metrical units, which are
based on stress).
The metric units used in this form are dactyls, one long syllable plus two short syllables (— - -),
and spondees, two long syllables (— —). The formula went thusly: the first four metric units in a
line could be either dactyls or spondees, but the final two units must be dactyl+spondee. One
was also permitted to use spondee+spondee in the final two units, but this was rather uncommon.
One could never end a line with a dactyl.
Note that, unlike iambic pentameter, deviations from the above rules are not accepted. However,
the rules for the first four metric units do by nature result in some degree of flexibility; lines of
dactylic hexameter verse could be between 12–17 syllables long within this framework.
Oral Tradition
Homer’s works come from and are shaped by a long oral tradition of storytelling. One theory
states that the Odyssey was originally developed orally, at least in part. This theory suggests that
Homer may have used oral performance to develop the story in parts (i.e., the opening
“Telemachiad,” Odysseus recounting the first two years of his journey, Odysseus’s return to
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Ithaca, etc). Much of the support for this comes from the style in which Homer writes—a style
originating from an oral tradition of improvisational bardic performance. Features of this style
include a mishmash of eras (the Bronze Age of the Mycenaean era and the then-modern Iron
Age seem to exist simultaneously in the Odyssey) and dialects from different time periods (the early
Aeolic and the later Ionic). This is attributed to the centuries-old oral tradition, traveling from
generation to generation and producing a poetic style with a blend of forms and time periods, old
and modern.
Another feature of this oral tradition is the repetition found throughout the Odyssey, such as the
descriptive epithet attached to a name (e.g., “wily” Odysseus). These epithets did function in a
descriptive manner, and perhaps to remind audiences of who the character was—however, their
main function was to aid bards in improvisational performance. These bards could choose an
epithet for a character from a pool of possible titles of varying lengths. Choices could be made
depending on how many syllables the poet needed to complete a line according to the rigid rules
of dactylic hexameter.
Elizabeth Stuart* as Penelope, Kitty Balay* as Eurycleia, Polly Firestone Walker as Odysseus
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Ancient Greek Religion
Ancient Greek religion was based on the belief in a multitude of gods who possessed immortality,
superhuman powers, and a wide range of personalities. Greek mythology was based on stories and
legends originating in the Mycenaean era, which were passed down orally through to Homer’s time.
Greek religion had almost no specific guidelines that practitioners must obey—all a Greek individual had
to do was to believe the gods exist and perform sacrifices and rituals in the gods’ honor. Instead of a
specific dogma, Greek religion had a vast body of myths about their gods, realms, and heroes. Notably,
these stories were not held sacred and untouchable; it was perfectly acceptable for poets, bards, and
dramatists to alter or invent myths. Homer’s works were highly influential in Greek religious beliefs
about the gods, the afterlife, and the great Greek heroes.
The Olympians
The twelve major gods in the Greek pantheon were believed to reside on Mount Olympus, the tallest
mountain in mainland Greece, and were hence frequently referred to as the “Olympians”. There were a
lot more than twelve gods; thus, which individuals exactly were included in the twelve Olympians was
highly flexible (the number was always fixed at twelve though). The twelve most commonly portrayed
Olympian gods were as follows: Zeus (king of the gods), Hera (queen of the gods), Poseidon (the sea),
Athena (wisdom, war, weaving), Apollo (music and prophecy) and his twin sister Artemis (hunting),
Hermes (the messenger, and god of guides), Aphrodite (love and sexuality), Ares (war), Hephaestus
(metalworking), Demeter (agriculture), and either Dionysus (wine and theater) or Hestia (domesticity).
The goddess of wisdom, war, and weaving. Athena has one of the most well-known birth stories:
after mating with a Titan Oceanid named Metis, Zeus heard a prophecy that she would bear a
son more powerful than him. Since Zeus had just overthrown his own father (the Titan Cronus),
he was probably feeling cautious, so he decided to swallow Metis whole. Later, he gave birth to
Athena—from his head. In other versions of the story, Zeus was complaining of a headache to
Hephaestus, who split his skull open with an axe (the obvious solution), and out popped Athena,
fully grown and equipped with a set of armor and weapons. (Note: In many stories, Athena is
referred to as a “motherless goddess,” and storytellers either don’t include or disregard Metis.)
Owls were sacred to Athena; archaic images often portrayed her with an owl. Because of this,
owls came to be associated with wisdom, a symbol that persists today.
Odysseus, with his cunningness and deception, quickly became a favorite of Athena’s. In the
Odyssey, Athena is a highly prevalent and active character, working behind the scenes to help
In The Penelopiad, Atwood refers to Athena as “Athene,” and also by her epithet “Pallas Athene.”
Athena is closer to the pronunciation in the Attic Greek dialect (ca. 500–300 BCE), while Athene
is closer to the other major Greek dialect, Ionic Greek (c. 1000–300 BCE). Meanwhile, the
epithet “Pallas” is said to have come from Athena’s childhood friend, Pallas, daughter of the god
Triton. The story goes that Athena and Pallas were fighting; Zeus distracted Pallas, and Athena
accidentally killed her. Athena took Pallas’s name in memory of her friend.
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Non-Olympian deities and spirits
Nymphs were female elemental goddesses who were attached to specific land features or locations
(especially springs, which were associated with life and fertility). These spirits were young and
beautiful women, and stories featuring them were almost always of a sexual nature, involving love
affairs or the violence of a jealous nymph.
In most stories, nymphs were semi-immortal: they could never become ill or die of old age, but
they could still be killed. However, if a nymph mated with a god, their offspring could be fully
A naiad was a type of nymph that presided over a body of fresh water. However, although
naiads were different from ocean spirits (Oceanids) and river gods, their domains were not strictly
limited, since the Greeks believed that all bodies of water were part of a large singular water
system originating in the depths of the earth.
Naiads were the subject of local worship; ritual practices included ceremonial cleansings and
drowning animal sacrifices in their waters. Naiads could be helpful or malevolent, depending on
the story.
The Fates
The Fates (or Moirai) were the three sister goddesses of fate. At an individual’s birth, the
goddesses worked together to weave the fate of his life, determining his potential actions and the
consequences. A man’s fate was more conditional rather than absolute (e.g., if you do x, then y
will happen). Each sister had a job: Clotho spun the thread, Lachesis determined the length, and
Atropos cut the thread. The sisters were portrayed as ugly, elderly women with an austere
The Furies
The Furies (or Erinyes) were three sister goddesses of revenge. Later writers named them Allecto
(endless anger), Tisiphone (punishment of murder), and Megaera (jealous rage). The Furies
could be called upon by a victim to curse their offender with madness, hunger, and disease. The
way to satisfy the Furies was usually through ritual purification and the completion of some task.
The goddesses also worked part time for Hades and Persephone in the underworld, punishing the
dead who had committed serious offenses against the gods or society (not eternally, only until
their debt had been paid). The Furies were portrayed as monstrous, winged women with snakes
entwining their hair and body.
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Ancient Greek Afterlife
Homer had a grim vision of death and the underworld; ghosts were more like shades or husks, pale
memories of their former selves. In the underworld, these ghosts often took the form of screeching bats.
In the Odyssey, the dead could communicate with mortals through a ritual in which a ghost consumes the
blood of a sacrificed animal. Homer’s dark vision of the afterlife had a large impact on the general
Greek populace’s beliefs about the afterlife. The Homeric underworld also had a large influence on later
Western views of the afterlife (e.g., Dante’s Inferno).
In Homer’s description of the underworld in the Odyssey, your body/soul and your shadowy ghost in the
underworld were separate concepts. For example, although the physical self of the dead hero Heracles
(aka Hercules) is enjoying immortality with the Olympian gods, there is still a ghost of Heracles
wandering through the halls of the underworld. During Homer’s time, there was no separate idea of
what we might consider the soul (something separate from the body that retains the essence of an
individual); instead, the body and the “soul” were considered one, and when your body died, that was
the end of the soul too. (Later beliefs in reincarnation brought around the idea of an immortal soul
trapped in a cycle of reincarnation, continually being imprisoned in other physical bodies. The only way
to free one’s soul from the rebirth cycle was through proscribed rituals and behaviors, which would give a
soul higher reincarnations until it finally escaped the cycle, reaching divinity.)
Improper burial of human remains was believed to invoke the anger of the gods. It was thought that
you could not enter the underworld if your body had not been properly buried, and you would remain
stuck on earth as a vengeful wraith. This belief is subject to some degree of flexibility; when Odysseus
travels to the underworld in the Odyssey, he finds a recently deceased comrade of his who pleads with him
to properly bury his body so that he doesn’t become a vengeful wraith. However, since he makes this
request while in the underworld, the burial rules are obviously not set in stone.
Hades / the underworld
“Hades” was actually the name of the Olympian god of the underworld, though his name is sometimes
also used to describe his domain. The underworld was believed to be a grey, sunless place deep beneath
the earth’s surface, and was made up of three main locations: the Fields of Asphodel, the Fields of
Elysium, and Tartarus. The Fields of Asphodel were where most of the dead went; it was a dull, twilit
place filled with asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. The Fields of Elysium were a happier expanse of
meadows, home only to a select few especially favored by the gods (note: it had nothing to do with how
“good” you were). Tartarus was where only those who had committed a serious crime against the gods
or society went, to be punished by the Furies until his debt had been paid, after which he was released to
the Fields of Asphodel.
The five rivers of the underworld
Styx: The river of hatred; the central river of the underworld. The Olympians used the river
Styx to swear unbreakable oaths by.
Lethe: The river of forgetfulness. Stories said that when your ghost entered the underworld, it
would drink from the river Lethe, thus eliminating who you were. Stories about reincarnation
stated that a soul drank from the river Lethe in order to forget their past lives before being
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Acheron: The river of woe or pain. In many stories, it was the Acheron that carried Charon’s
ferry, bringing the dead to the underworld—in other stories it was the Styx, or sometimes both
the Acheron and the Styx.
Cocytus: The river of lamentation. The Cocytus flowed into the Acheron.
Phlegethon: The river of fire. Plato believed the Phlegethon lead to Tartarus.
A belief in reincarnation did not come about until the Classical age of Greece. Reincarnation ideas
were commonly associated with Orphism, the mystery religion that began around the 5th cent. BCE.
Orphism was founded by the mythic Greek hero Orpheus, who mesmerized the world with his music
and embarked on an epic journey to the underworld and back. Orphic religious beliefs stated that the
soul was immortal, but trapped in a cycle of reincarnation, continually being imprisoned in other bodies.
The only way to free one’s soul from the rebirth cycle was through proscribed rituals and ascetic
behaviors, which would give a soul higher and higher reincarnations until it finally escapes the cycle,
reaching divinity.
Ancient Greek weaving was performed on a warp-weighted loom, the main device used for weaving until
the Middle Ages. This type of loom has been in use since 7000 BCE, and is still used in parts of the
world today. The warp-weighted loom was an important technological innovation that increased
efficiency and allowed the creation of large, elaborate cloths.
Weaving was a very important activity for the highest status ladies in ancient Greece. During the
Mycenaean era (the time period in which the Iliad and Odyssey were set), weaving was the main economic
export, and women who were skilled weavers were extremely valuable.
Weaving was associated with wisdom and cleverness, both literally and metaphorically. One of the
goddess Athena’s domains, in addition to war and wisdom, was weaving. The cunning and cryptic
weaver was an archetype in many Greek stories. (Penelope herself is an example of this—in fact, one of
the possible origins for her name is from the Greek word pene, meaning threads/weft, and ops, meaning
face, eye.)
To the ancient Greeks, slavery was considered an inevitable consequence of war and marauding. This is
certainly true throughout the Iliad and the Odyssey. When a settlement was attacked, the loot was
plundered, the men were killed, and the women and children were kept or sold as slaves. For this reason
especially, most slaves were foreign.
Other ways of becoming a slave included kidnapping, abandonment from parents (most often because
parents wanted a son instead), or parents selling their children for money (again, this usually happened to
daughters, as sons could bring in money from working).
Women on the losing side of a war were considered spoils of war—sex slaves for the conquerors. In the
Iliad, after the Greeks conquered Troy, the deceased Trojan prince Hector’s wife Andromache was taken
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as a concubine-slave for Achilles’s son Neoptolemus (her brother was taken for a slave and Andromache
and Hector’s baby son was thrown from the city walls).
The Greeks thought that slavery was a necessary part of a functioning society, and indeed, slaves were
the base of the Greek economy. Aside from being used in family homes, slaves were also used in
agriculture, industry and trade, and mines/quarries. In some uncommon cases, slaves could become
relatively wealthy and independent; they could live and work on their own (esp. in trade and
craftsmanship), and send periodic payments back to their master in return for the privilege.
Slaves working in a household had a relatively better life than slaves in other industries; they were often
treated almost as members of the family and sometimes participated in family rituals. Household slaves
were supervised by the woman of the family. Most wealthy Greek households had about 10-20 slaves;
Odysseus’s household had fifty maidservants, in addition to a number of male slaves.
Important Locations
Mycenaean Greece
The Mycenaean era held the last Greek civilization of the Bronze Age, located in the mainland of
Greece between c. 1600 BCE and c. 1100 BCE. Mycenaean society was known especially for trading,
warfare, engineering, and architecture. Mycenaean civilization is commonly believed to have fallen due
to invasion; alternate theories include natural disaster and climate change. Many of the stories of Greek
mythology and literature were set during the Mycenaean era, including the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Troy was a city in northwest Anatolia, or Asia Minor. Troy was also called “Ilios” (hence the title of the
Iliad). As for the historical Homeric city of Troy, recent archaeological finds have found a strong
candidate. The site, Hisarlik (located in Turkey), shows evidence of a city destroyed in warfare and has
been dated to c. 1180 BCE, which corresponds with the timeframe for Homer’s Troy. Much is still
unknown about the city itself, however.
In the Iliad and in other stories of the Trojan War, the city of Troy was plundered and destroyed by the
united Greek army. The men were killed, including some of the male children; the rest of the children
and women were sold or kept as slaves. Later, the Romans believed they were descended from the
Trojan hero Aeneas, a minor character in the Iliad but the title character of Virgil’s Aeneid.
Sparta was an ancient Greek city-state (located in Laconia) that existed from c. 900–192 BCE. Almost
200 years after the destruction of the Mycenaean civilization (around 1000 BCE), the Spartan area
began to again show signs of settlement. Surprisingly perhaps, early Sparta was known more for its
poetry and pottery than anything else.
A turning point for Sparta came during the 8th–7th cent. BCE, when Sparta conquered the nearby
region of Messina and enslaved its inhabitants. This increase in Sparta’s slave population allowed Sparta
to expand its military, since Spartan males now had the option to serve in the Spartan army rather than
perform manual labor. From the 7th through 4th cent. BCE, Sparta became the dominant military land
power in ancient Greece. The state developed a rigorous military training program for its young male
citizens that lasted from age 7–20. The Spartan state eventually developed a dual hereditary kingship
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and multi-council system of governing. A common legend explained that the dual kingship system
started when a king had twin firstborn sons, who agreed to share the throne. Scholars theorize that the
system came to be in order to combat absolutism, or perhaps as a compromise between competing
factions for the throne.
Spartan women
Although Spartan women were not allowed in the military, they were still expected to train in
physical fitness, and would engage in contests of strength including running, chariot and horse
racing, wrestling, and javelin/discus throwing. Although a Spartan wife’s prime function was still
to raise and bear children, she was often in charge of everything in her home, since her husband
was frequently involved in military duties. Side note: Spartan parents were known to commit
infanticide on sickly children or, especially, on daughters if they wanted sons instead.
Ithaca was one of many small islands in the Ionian Sea of Greece. In the Odyssey, Ithaca was ruled by
Odysseus, and was home to other noble lords. The surrounding islands were also ruled and inhabited by
noblemen. The balance of power was more like a system of warlords vying for power rather than a
system of inherited royalty and power. Odysseus’s Ithaca had orchards and domesticated animals,
including cattle, sheep, pigs, and, of course, goats.
There is debate over the location of Homer’s Ithaca; textual evidence in the Odyssey (Book 9) suggests
that Homer may not have been referencing the island of modern-day Ithaca. Homer could have been
referring to an entirely different island, or he could have simply been incorrect about the location of
Ithaca (geography wasn’t Homer’s strong suit).
The Trojan War
The myths
According to mythology, the ten-year Trojan War was waged between the Anatolian city of Troy and the
Achaeans (a term used by Homer to refer to the Greeks as a united whole). The war was caused by the
goddess of strife and discord, Eris. Eris sent what has been aptly called the “Apple of Discord” to Hera,
Athena, and Aphrodite, a golden apple marked “for the fairest.” Of course, the three goddesses argued
over for whom the apple was intended. The goddesses took the matter to Zeus, who prudently decided
to not get involved. Instead, he took the apple to the young and handsome Paris, son of King Priam of
Troy. Paris couldn’t decide who the apple should go to, so the goddesses chose another tactic: bribery.
Hera offered power over all of Eurasia, while Athena offered wisdom and glory in battle—but Aphrodite
offered the most beautiful woman in the world for a wife. Surprising no one, Paris decided the golden
apple should go to Aphrodite. In return, the goddess made the beautiful Helen (already wife of the
Spartan king Menelaus) fall in love with Paris and run away with him to Troy, earning him the enmity of
Hera, Athena, and all the Achaeans. (Whether Helen was seduced, abducted, or left of her own will
varies from story to story. Another variant is whether Aphrodite specifically told Paris that she would
give him Helen.)
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Karin Hendricks as Helen, Elizabeth Stuart* as Penelope, Polly Firestone Walker as Odysseus
Before Helen was married to Menelaus, she had been avidly pursued by many powerful princes, kings,
and great warriors (around ten to thirty suitors, depending on the story). Helen’s mortal father, the
Spartan king Tyndareus, feared that once a suitor was chosen, the unchosen suitors would take offense
and perhaps even resort to violence. One of Helen’s suitors, Odysseus, came up with a solution for
Tyndareus and brokered a deal among Helen’s suitors: the men would swear to uphold the honor of
whomever won Helen’s hand.
This meant that when Helen ran off with Paris, all of her old suitors were now honor-bound to go to
war against Troy for Menelaus’s sake. (Side note: Odysseus tried to get out of his own oath by feigning
madness/idiocy to the messenger that brought the news of war; he hitched a donkey and an ox to a plow
and sowed his fields with salt. The clever messenger decided to test him by placing his infant son,
Telemachus, in front of the plow. Odysseus swerved to avoid hitting his son, thus ousting him as a
mentally sound man. Off to war he went.)
The Trojan War lasted ten years. Major figures in the tale included Hector (the heroic warrior-prince of
Troy), Agamemnon (the king of Mycenae, brother of Menelaus, and leader of the united Achaean
army), Ajax (a fearfully strong Achaean warrior), Achilles (the superhumanly strong Achaean warrior
centrally featured in the Iliad), and cunning Odysseus (who got a sequel all to himself). The Achaeans
were finally able to breach the city with Odysseus’s Trojan horse idea: the Achaeans pretended to give up
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and sail away, leaving behind a large wooden horse ostensibly as an offering for Athena, but actually
filled with a select group of Achaean soldiers. The ploy worked—the Trojans (whose symbol just so
happened to be a horse) cheerfully brought the horse into the city as a trophy and celebrated their
victory. When night fell, the Achaeans snuck through the city to open the gates and let in the rest of
their army. The Achaeans destroyed the city, killing all the Trojan males and keeping or selling the
females and children as slaves. Some of the casualties of the war included the great heroes Hector,
Achilles, and Ajax. Many Achaean heroes experienced hardships on their journeys home—there were
gods on both sides of the fight, and the losing gods were angry with the winning side. The Achaeans’
brutality in the sacking of Troy only angered these gods further. Odysseus and Menelaus both had very
long and difficult journeys home. Agamemnon was killed upon his return by the treacherous Aegisthus,
who was in collaboration with Agamemnon’s adulterous wife Clytemnestra (this information serves as an
ominous warning for Odysseus’s return to Ithaca in the Odyssey).
The history
The Trojan War was one of the most important events in Greek mythology, and many of their legends
involved different aspects of it. The vast majority of the ancient Greek population believed that
Homer’s epics described actual historical events. Even the vast majority of classic Greek scholars
believed these events to be true, though some doubted the finer details (e.g., ‘Did the Achaeans really
muster a thousand ships?’). The facts vs. fiction debates of the Trojan War are still inconclusive today,
with no definitive evidence either way (though clearly Homer made many embellishments on the tale).
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Odyssey excerpt
Book 22: The death of the twelve maids
[Eurycleia] left the cloister to tell the women, and make them come to [Odysseus]; in the
meantime he called Telemachus, the stockman, and the swineherd. "Begin," said he, "to
remove the dead, and make the women help you. Then, get sponges and clean water to
swill down the tables and seats. When you have thoroughly cleansed the whole cloisters,
take the women into the space between the domed room and the wall of the outer court,
and run them through with your swords till they are quite dead, and have forgotten all
about love and the way in which they used to lie in secret with the suitors."
On this the women came down in a body, weeping and wailing bitterly. First they carried
the dead bodies out, and propped them up against one another in the gatehouse.
[Odysseus] ordered them about and made them do their work quickly, so they had to
carry the bodies out. When they had done this, they cleaned all the tables and seats with
sponges and water, while Telemachus and the two others shovelled up the blood and dirt
from the ground, and the women carried it all away and put it out of doors. Then when
they had made the whole place quite clean and orderly, they took the women out and
hemmed them in the narrow space between the wall of the domed room and that of the
yard, so that they could not get away: and Telemachus said to the other two, "I shall not
let these women die a clean death, for they were insolent to me and my mother, and used
to sleep with the suitors."
So saying he made a ship's cable fast to one of the bearing-posts that supported the roof
of the domed room, and secured it all around the building, at a good height, lest any of
the women's feet should touch the ground; and as thrushes or doves beat against a net
that has been set for them in a thicket just as they were getting to their nest, and a terrible
fate awaits them, even so did the women have to put their heads in nooses one after the
other and die most miserably. Their feet moved convulsively for a while, but not for very
Source: Homer, Odyssey, tr. Samuel Butler, 1900. Public domain.