Penelope Unraveling Her Web, by Joseph Wright of Derby (c. 1734 – 1797)

This painting, by the English artist Joseph Wright (c. 1734 – 1797), was inspired by a scene from The Odyssey, an ancient Greek epic poem written by Homer (c. 8th century BCE). In the artwork, Joseph Wright features two of the poetic tale’s key characters, Penelope and Telemachus, the wife and child of Odysseus—the man that the Odyssey was named after. Clever and cunning Odysseus had left his homeland of Ithaca to participate in the Trojan War, where his keen intellect played a significant role in the eventual Greek triumph over the Trojans. Unfortunately for Penelope and Telemachus, Odysseus’ stint in the Trojan War lasted for ten years, and his monster-fraught journey home took just as long. To Penelope’s credit, she never ceased in her hope and belief that Odysseus would one day return, even as her agonizing wait reached its twentieth year. Others in Greece, however, were not so sure that Odysseus would ever come home. Therefore, opportunistic gentlemen callers began to crowd into Penelope’s estate, hoping to win her hand in marriage (along with her wealth and land). Penelope, nevertheless, always managed to find a way to fend these men off, including in the way shown above in Joseph Wright’ painting.

As the story goes, Penelope’s father-in-law, Laertes, was growing quite old while the family was still awaiting Odysseus’ return, and people feared that Laertes was nearing death’s door. Penelope used the morbid prospect of his potential death as an opportunity to delay the marriage proposals of the suitors, claiming that she was duty-bound to weave a burial shroud for Laertes, and that she could not begin to humor the idea of a new marriage until she finished her father-in-law’s shroud. The suitors agreed to her demand, but they soon became wrestless and suspicious as Penelope’s weaving dragged on for years. Homer, narrating from the viewpoint of the suitors, described this clever episode, writing, “On her loom in her house she set up a great web and began weaving a large and delicate piece of work…So by day she used to weave at the great web, but every night had torches set beside it and undid the work. For three years she took us in by this trick” (The Odyssey, Book 2, approximately lines 90-110). Such is the scene that is unraveling (pardon the pun) in the painting above.

Unfortunately for Penelope, one of her servants betrayed the secret of the shroud to the suitors, who then forced the outed woman to complete the sabotaged garment. Yet, just as the suitors were beginning to gain an advantage in their struggle to force Penelope to choose a new husband, Odysseus finally returned to Ithaca. Odysseus, understandably, did not take kindly to the vultures he found circling his family and home. In the end, Odysseus massacred all of the suitors who had been pestering Penelope for so long.

Written by C. Keith Hansley



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