Unraveling Penelope’s Knitting

Lydia Haile

Pandora’s jar, as Dora and Erwin Panofsky showed, became a box in the sixteenth century.   Similarly, Penelope's famous weaving is being replaced, in popular culture, with knitting. In fact, it is impossible for Penelope to have been knitting; the craft simply did not exist in Homer’s time. There is no word for it in Ancient Greek, and the earliest samples of actual knitting or depictions of knitting date from millennia later. Moreover, this anachronism destroys the symbolism in her weaving.

            The idea that Penelope was knitting can be traced to 1831, when Gravenor Henson claimed that Homeric weaving was actually knitting done on a pegged frame.  This erroneous idea appears to have stuck in popular misconceptions; as frame knitting became less and less familiar to the general public, it was replaced by the even less plausible hand knitting.  As the idea that Penelope was knitting became more widespread, other details of the Odyssey were interpreted to support the idea that she was knitting.  Knitting, after all, is much easier to unravel than weaving is, and Telemachus’s advice to Penelope (1.356-359) has been summarized at least once in the phrase ‘stick to your knitting.’ 

            Knitting may be more familiar than weaving to the average reader.  Because of this, we readily understand when, in Tidewater Tales, John Barth says that, throughout the Trojan War, Helen never dropped a stitch in her knitting.  Nevertheless, the anachronistic substitution of knitting for weaving should not be tolerated despite its familiarity to modern readers.  Additionally, this misperception has crept into reference works on knitting; some authors misdate the invention of knitting by millennia because of the idea that Penelope was knitting. 

            Saying that Penelope was knitting, however, does more than introduce an anachronism.  It also destroys the symbolism of what she is doing; weaving locks multiple threads together into one piece of fabric, while knitting, in its simplest form, just turns the yarn back on itself. 

Knitting likewise now brings to mind an image of something that can easily be tossed into a bag and taken anywhere, not an activity that kept Penelope tied to the same spot, walking back and forth in front of her loom, for the four years of her dolos.  Finally, changing what Penelope is doing from weaving, which is hard to unravel, to knitting, which unravels almost of its own volition, gives a very different view of Penelope’s character; she becomes much less dedicated to her scheme if her nightly unraveling is a few minutes’ nearly effortless work rather than the intricate and demanding effort to unravel something woven. 

            The idea that Penelope is knitting instead of weaving, even though it may temporarily make the story seem more vivid, introduces an anachronism and destroys the symbolism of her weaving.  Finally, the anachronistic use of knitting removes from Penelope’s delaying tactics the rich Greek association of weaving with metis and dolos, unraveling her ties to her wily husband. 

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