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
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!
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.