Chapter 5 returns to Penelope’s narrative as she describes what life is like in the underworld. She notes that it is very dark, but that this can come in handy when she pretends not to recognize people she doesn’t want to talk to. There are also, Penelope says, the fields of asphodel to walk around in. Penelope thinks the fields of white flowers are “pretty enough” but boring and monotonous. She notes that the only thing to eat in the underworld is this same asphodel.
As Penelope describes the underworld, it is clear to readers familiar with Christianity that the Ancient Greek afterlife is extremely different from the Christian one. Penelope’s afterlife in the fields of asphodel, the most honorable part of the underworld, lacks the pleasures of Christian Heaven.
Penelope finds the dark grottos of the lower levels, where the minor criminals go, to be much more interesting (she also admits to being attracted to the bad boys who frequent them). However, Penelope does not often go to the really deep levels, where the gods punish the “truly villainous” with mental torture. Penelope does like to go down there sometimes to remember what it was like to be hungry and tired when she was alive.
As Penelope discusses the punishments that villains endure in the lower levels of the Ancient Greek underworld, her descriptions show how different this underworld is than Christian Hell. Unlike Hell, where punishment is physical, punishment in the Greek afterlife is purely psychological torture.
Sometimes, Penelope says, the people of the underworld can see into the world of the living, or can even go there when summoned. In the old days, this happened with an animal sacrifice, when a hero was looking for advice or prophecy from one particular spirit. Penelope admits that they make the prophecies hard to understand on purpose, so that they get called back to feast on the animal’s blood, which makes them feel alive again. Other times the spirits would appear in dreams, but Penelope finds this less satisfactory. Also, Penelope says, some spirits never make it to the underworld because they are never given a proper burial.
As Penelope continues to describe Ancient Greek religious beliefs, it becomes even more obvious how vastly different Ancient Greek religion is from modern-day Christianity. Unlike mainstream Christianity, Ancient Greek religion featured conversation with the dead and animal sacrifice. Meanwhile, human spirits frequently visit the earth, showing how much more flexible the concept of death is in Ancient Greece.
Now, though, customs have changed. Living people do not visit the underworld, and new spirits go to a “much more spectacular establishment down the road” with “fiery pits, wailing and gnashing of teeth… demons with pitchforks,” etc. Still, though, the spirits in the underworld are sometimes called up to the world of the living by magicians and mediums. Penelope finds this kind of summoning demeaning, but admits that it does help her stay up to date on what is going on among the living. She was interested to learn about the light bulb, and notes that some of the spirits have infiltrated the television signals.
Penelope explicitly resolves the question of the role of Christianity in the modern world when she describes what is clearly Christian Hell, with “demons with pitchforks” (devils) and characteristic fire. Through this description of Christian Hell, Atwood shows how, as she rather playfully imagines it in this novel, Christianity has not replaced earlier religions or revealed them to be false, but has simply been added alongside them.
Penelope is not often summoned by magicians, but her cousin Helen is in high demand. Penelope finds this unfair, because Helen’s reputation is so much worse than hers. Of course, Penelope thinks, Helen is very beautiful and is also supposedly the daughter of Zeus, who raped Helen’s mother. Penelope remarks that the gods could not keep their hands off of mortal women and “were always raping someone or other.”
This section introduces Penelope’s rivalry with Helen. Meanwhile, Penelope’s casual remarks about how some god is “always raping someone or other” shows how rape is so normalized and common in Penelope’s culture that she has become offhand and casual about it. It also shows how the Greek gods were not paragons of virtue, but were often even less moral than the humans they ruled.
Helen likes being summoned by the magicians because she can have many men admire her again during the sessions. She sometimes appears in Trojan clothes that Penelope finds over-the-top, and spins around. Or she appears like she did when she tried to win over her husband, Menelaus, after he won the Trojan War.
Penelope’s frustration with Helen quickly becomes clear as Penelope criticizes the clothes that Helen chooses to wear. Penelope’s superficial criticisms reveal her petty side as Penelope actively competes with her cousin. These two famous women of myth clearly have no special bond, but only a sense of competition.
Penelope notes that people used to tell her that she was beautiful because she was a princess, but in fact she was fairly plain. She was, however, known for being smart, discrete, and devoted to her husband. Penelope thinks that her intelligence and faithfulness are a lot less appealing to a summoning magician than Helen’s sex appeal.
Helen’s beauty and easy ability to get male attention clearly makes Penelope feel insecure, as evidenced by Penelope’s discussion of her own plainness. Penelope’s good qualities (brains, devotion) are less valued than Helen’s looks. Notably, Penelope is still concerned with gaining male attention, rather than describing hers and Helen’s qualities as inherently good or valuable.
Penelope notes that Helen was never punished for all the harm and suffering she caused to people (presumably Penelope means during the Trojan War). Penelope insists, though, that she does not mind, and tell the reader that next she is going to discuss her marriage.
Penelope seems to feel that Helen has avoided atoning for the Trojan War, showing how the Ancient Greek afterlife has no real mechanisms for assigning guilt and atoning for evil deeds.