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  • Helen's Hands:Weaving for Kleos in the Odyssey
  • Melissa Mueller (bio)

When Helen offers Telemachus a robe she herself has made in book 15 of the Odyssey, she bestows her gift with the hope that it will act as "a monument to the hands of Helen" (, 15.126). Helen's peplos attests to the potential for handcrafted objects to immortalize those who have made them. It also serves as a useful reminder that even within Homeric epic, which in itself is an outstanding example of male kleos, various technologies exist for men and women to craft their own kleos.1 Helen's is the only garment in either epic to have its commemorative function expressly articulated, but other woven textiles are intricately bound up with scenes of recognition and reciprocity, where they implicitly refer to their makers' hands. The connection between aural and material sources of kleos is suggestively drawn by a scholiast to the Iliad who comments that, in representing Helen weaving the Trojan War (Il. 3.125-8), "the poet has crafted a worthy model for his own poetic enterprise" ().2 Helen as a model for Homer? Weaving, as the scholiast's words suggest, is an apt metaphor for the production of epic verse. But insofar as textile makers in the Homeric poems are all female, weaving and its associated products provide what appears to be a unique opportunity for women to circulate their kleos in de pen dently of men.

In this essay, I will examine woven objects as coded acts of communication between women and as sources for the production of female kleos in the Odyssey.3 Gifts given by women have tended to be cast as 'dangerous' or subversive in recent studies of reciprocity in Greek poetry and drama. It is impossible to deny the often destructive role of female gifts in tragedy. But Homeric epic constructs the relationship between gender, objects, and commemoration rather differently, and therefore it is worth studying women's gifts in Homer on their own terms.4 Moreover, the recent scholarly interest in how objects shape both the historical record and individual memories has for the most part ignored the specifically gendered element of those memories, upon which I will focus here.5 In what follows, I first review scenes of weaving and women's participation [End Page 1] in xenia relations in the Odyssey, highlighting their semi-autonomous status within the Homeric gift-exchange economy. I then consider the technologies of commemoration available to Homeric heroes and, in light of these, Helen's appropriation of the female sphere of textile production to immortalize her own skill through a woven mnêma.

I. Women, Weaving, and Xenia in the Odyssey

Travelers in the Odyssey depend on the hospitality (xenia) of the hosts they visit. Such hospitality consists of a range of ser vices, including the offer of food, drink, bath, clothing, and shelter for the duration of the guest's visit, as well as guest-gifts and transportation at the time of departure. But the gift of a cloak and a tunic becomes a convenient shorthand for the whole range of xenia transactions. In Odyssey 14, for instance, Eumaeus reacts skeptically to his visitor's optimistic prediction that Odysseus will soon return: "And I'm sure you yourself, old man, would be quick to fashion a story, if someone might give you a cloak and tunic and clothing" (131-2). The disguised Odysseus does in fact give a detailed summary of the travels that have brought him to Ithaca, punctuating his narrative with references to where he has won, and in turn lost, his precious clothes.6 He even tells a tale about getting a cloak in order to solicit one from his host (14.460ff.).7 Eumaeus promises his guest a cloak, tunic, clothing, and conveyance upon Odysseus's return (14.516-7). While the offer of "cloak and tunic" satisfies a basic need on the part of the guest, it also implies a broader range of social obligations. Clothing functions as a metonym—and physical embodiment—of the relationship of hospitality between the host and his guest, and symbolizes their commitment to house and protect one another...


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