The Penelopiad

The Maids’ Deaths Symbol Analysis

The Maids’ Deaths  Symbol Icon

During the chapter entitled “An Anthropology Lecture,” the Twelve Maids give an explicit, symbolic reading of their own death and invite the reader to adopt it. In this reading, details of the Maids’ deaths as described in The Odyssey and reproduced in The Penelopiad carry symbolic meanings that, in aggregate, make them a metaphor for the overthrow of female-focused goddess cults by male-dominated, father-god-focused religion. The number of Maids plus Penelope (who the Maids see as the Priestess of this cult) equals thirteen, or the number of lunar months in a year. The Maids and Penelope, therefore, represent a cult of the moon goddess according to this reading, and the slaying of the Suitors stands for an annual ritual to renew their virginity. However, Odysseus’s arrival and his killing of the Maids and marriage to Penelope symbolize how male-centric religion hijacked the rituals of this female-focused religion and eventually eclipsed it. According to the Maids, there is archeological evidence for this same kind of religious upheaval in the ancient world.

There is a further complication to this symbol as well, however. Although the Maids themselves offer this reading, they also suggest it as a means to avoid facing the fact that they were real girls who suffered pain and violence. This symbolic reading of the Maids’ Deaths, then, may actually be a warning against symbolism of this kind—a condemnation of turning violence against women into an abstract concept divorced from real people’s live experiences.

The Maids’ Deaths Quotes in The Penelopiad

The The Penelopiad quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Maids’ Deaths . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Canongate Books edition of The Penelopiad published in 2006.
Chapter 8 Quotes

Oh gods and oh prophets, please alter my life,
And let a young hero take me for his wife!
But no hero comes to me, early or late—
Hard work is my destiny, death is my fate!

Related Characters: The Twelve Maids (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 19 Quotes

I then related a dream of mine. It concerned my flock of lovely white geese, geese of which I was very fond. I dreamt that they were happily pecking around the yard when a huge eagle with a crooked beak swooped down and killed them all, whereupon I wept and wept.

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), Odysseus, The Suitors, The Twelve Maids
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 23 Quotes

‘Only twelve,’ she faltered. ‘The impertinent ones. The ones who’d been rude… They were notorious whores.’
‘The ones who’d been raped,’ I said. ‘The youngest. The most beautiful.’ My eyes and ears among the Suitors, I did not add. My helpers during the long nights of the shroud. My snow-white geese. My thrushes, my doves.

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), Eurycleia (speaker), The Twelve Maids
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths , Water
Page Number: 159-160
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 24 Quotes

No, Sir, we deny that this theory is merely unfounded feminist claptrap. We can understand your reluctance to have such things brought out into the open—rapes and murders are not pleasant subjects—but such overthrows most certainly took place all around the Mediterranean Sea, as excavations at prehistoric sites have demonstrated over and over.

Related Characters: The Twelve Maids (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:
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Point being that you don’t have to get too worked up about us, dear educated minds. You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more real than money.

Related Characters: The Twelve Maids (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 26 Quotes

Your client’s times were not our times. Standards of behaviour were different then. It would be unfortunate if this regrettable but minor incident were allowed to stand as a blot on an otherwise exceedingly distinguished career. Also I do not wish to be guilty of an anachronism. Therefore I must dismiss the case.

Related Characters: Odysseus, The Twelve Maids
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Maids’ Deaths Symbol Timeline in The Penelopiad

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Maids’ Deaths appears in The Penelopiad. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2: The Chorus Line: A Rope-Jumping Rhyme
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Class, Womanhood, and Violence Theme Icon
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women Theme Icon
...their hanging, dwelling on their feet twitching in the air and the injustice of their death. They accuse Odysseus of “scratching his itch” with many women, and assert that what they... (full context)
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
...Maids say that they cleaned the blood of their dead lovers (the Suitors) before being hanged. They reiterate that their deaths were not fair and accuse Odysseus of taking pleasure in... (full context)
Chapter 10: The Chorus Line: The Birth of Telemachus, An Idyll
Christianity vs. Greek Religion Theme Icon
...as they played together as children, they did not know that Telemachus would one day kill them . They wonder if they would have drowned him back then had they known. Since... (full context)
Chapter 21: The Chorus Line: The Perils of Penelope, A Drama
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Class, Womanhood, and Violence Theme Icon
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women Theme Icon
...honor. She tells Eurycleia to tell him that the Maids are disloyal so he will kill them before they can talk. Eurycleia agrees. Penelope prepares herself to look like a model wife... (full context)
Chapter 23: Odysseus and Telemachus Snuff the Maids
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Class, Womanhood, and Violence Theme Icon
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women Theme Icon
Odysseus then told Telemachus to hack the Maids up. However, Telemachus decided instead to hang the Maids from a ship’s rope. Then Telemachus and Odysseus hacked up a goatherd who had betrayed... (full context)
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Class, Womanhood, and Violence Theme Icon
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women Theme Icon
Penelope corrected her, saying that Odysseus had hung the rape victims, the youngest, and the most beautiful Maids. Penelope did not reveal that... (full context)
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Class, Womanhood, and Violence Theme Icon
...if another explanation might be that Eurycleia knew of her Maids’ assignments and wanted to kill the Maids to maintain her privileged position with Odysseus. Penelope still has not been able to confront... (full context)
Chapter 24: The Chorus Line: An Anthropology Lecture
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Class, Womanhood, and Violence Theme Icon
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women Theme Icon
Christianity vs. Greek Religion Theme Icon
...sex with the Suitors and then purification in their blood to renew their virginity. Their deaths, then, would be a willing self-sacrifice to satisfy Artemis. The Maids tie this reading of... (full context)
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Class, Womanhood, and Violence Theme Icon
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women Theme Icon
Christianity vs. Greek Religion Theme Icon
...“High Priestess” Penelope. According to the Maids, all together this reading shows that the Maids’ deaths are a metaphor for the overthrow of a matriarchal cult of the moon by a... (full context)
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Class, Womanhood, and Violence Theme Icon
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women Theme Icon
Christianity vs. Greek Religion Theme Icon
...contest that Penelope initiated would have become King for a year and then would be hanged and have his genitals torn off to ensure a good harvest. However, Odysseus did not... (full context)
Chapter 25: Heart of Flint
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Class, Womanhood, and Violence Theme Icon
...Penelope’s first-person narrative as she describes her feelings after the Suitors and the Maids were murdered. Penelope had pretended not to believe that it was Odysseus who had killed the Suitors,... (full context)
Chapter 26: The Chorus Line: The Trial of Odysseus, as Videotaped by the Maids
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women Theme Icon
...trial for Odysseus. The chapter opens with Odysseus’s defense attorney asserting Odysseus’s innocence in the murders of the Suitors and the Maids. The Attorney suggests that it was justified for Odysseus... (full context)
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Class, Womanhood, and Violence Theme Icon
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women Theme Icon
...ropes around their necks, yell and cause a commotion in the courthouse, alleging that Odysseus hanged them as well. The judge says that this allegation is new, and asks to hear... (full context)
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Class, Womanhood, and Violence Theme Icon
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women Theme Icon
The judge, unsatisfied, asks what they did to be hanged. The defense attorney states that they, the “best-looking” and “most beddable” Maids, had sex without... (full context)
Chapter 27: Home Life in Hades
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Class, Womanhood, and Violence Theme Icon
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women Theme Icon
Christianity vs. Greek Religion Theme Icon
...him. In response, they only glide away with their feet twitching like they did in death, not touching the floor. (full context)
Chapter 28: The Chorus Like: We’re Walking Behind You, A Love Song
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Class, Womanhood, and Violence Theme Icon
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women Theme Icon
Christianity vs. Greek Religion Theme Icon
...bed, laughed at his jokes, etc. They then comment on how righteous he felt after hanging them . (full context)
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
Class, Womanhood, and Violence Theme Icon
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women Theme Icon
Christianity vs. Greek Religion Theme Icon
...wherever he goes, tailing him and appearing accusatorily as corpses. They ask again why he murdered them, and then state that it was an “honour killing.” The Maids tease Odysseus, telling... (full context)