Infamous “Alt-Penelopes”

Probably few female characters from the classical Western heritage are better known as models of feminine virtue than Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. For space’s sake, I will not indulge in a recitation of the facts of this reading of Penelope, as it is well-known and adhered to in classical Christian education circles.

As noted in the Introduction to this series, my purpose in all posts contained in it is resolutely to engage with darkly cynical alternate visions of Penelope that, if not quite dominant in secular academia, yet play far too powerful a role in reflecting (and so in an ongoing way, shaping) the general post-Christian intellectual milieu in which we ourselves live and are attempting to carry out the difficult task of classical Christian education.

The sorts of vicious attacks regularly made on Penelope’s character by radically feminist scholars constitute not only attempts to batter down what little is left of the once great cathedral of classical Christian learning, but also a devilish strategy of poisoning the hearts and minds of young women against men.1 And since a great many Christian young women these days live and learn about the world in the corrosive milieu of public schools, the danger to our sisters is greater than we might be comfortable imagining.2

For those of us who only read and teach the narrow range of materials found on typical “Great Books” lists (and who, moreover, do all our teaching from within the intellectually-safe confines of a narrowly construed “biblical worldview”) it can come as a shock to learn that speaking casually of “the classical tradition” can function, as do all generalities, as an unconscious filter on both our knowledge and our expectations. That is, we became so used to the accepted way of telling the stories drawn from the canonical books that we fail (not by deliberate vice) to realize that canonical implies extra-canonical, and that for our secularist neighbors, this is the great and holy Day and Age of Finding and Advancing The Marginalized.

It’s done with Scripture all the time, of course – we’ve all heard of the Gnostic Gospels and other such works which inform a bloated realm of sub-scholarship devoted to using them to deconstruct Christianity itself. This is the day when it is ever so fashionable to say, “But who’s to say which Christianity is the real one? After all, ancient conservatives conspired to suppress alternate versions. The whole thing was and is just a vicious power game.”

The inestimable Penelope, daughter of Icarius, wife of Odysseus, and mother of Telemachus, has, alas, also become a victim of this sort of bitter crusade, and that by the fact that various skeptics and cynics have mined from the detritus of the classical world a variety of what I will call “Alt-Penelopes.”

Without further ado, let me jump into the cesspool of academic attacks on the virtue of Penelope by recounting some not widely-known “Alt-Penelopes” found, ironically enough, in classical sources themselves. Below is a list of the posts in this particular sub-series:

I. Penelope the Adulteress (?)

II. Penelope the Passive Pretty Object

III. Penelope the Silent Victim

  1. This is not merely rhetorical embellishment: I have personally engaged with bitter young women in classrooms – which is the biggest reason I became seriously interested in analyzing attacks on Penelope and defending her image. []
  2. Meaning, our sisters in classical schools and homeschools are not necessarily safe from this malignant distortion of femininity: if they aren’t getting it from popular culture, they will certainly encounter it outside the home when they leave it. []

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