Atwood’s novel, which Penelope narrates from the afterlife of the ancient Greek underworld, actively engages with spiritual and religious subject matter, imagining the relationships between lofty concepts like death, fate, and repentance. From her postmortem perspective, Penelope spends a significant amount of time describing the conditions of the afterlife, which Atwood bases on Greek mythology. In the afterlife, Penelope walks through fields of asphodel (the section of the afterlife for the virtuous, heroic, and god-favored), occasionally running into other dead people from her time in Ithaca. Below the fields of asphodel are other layers of the underworld, with grottoes for the less morally good (the “pickpocket…stockbroker… and small-time pimp”). The lowest layers feature mental torture for the most “villainous”— i.e. the people who have disobeyed and displeased the gods.
In describing the afterlife, Penelope often focuses on the strangeness of being physically disembodied. She describes how the gods cannot physically punish the dead because of their bodilessness, and emphasizes her own state of “bonelessness, liplessness, breastlessness.” Christian concepts, meanwhile, seem to have been added to supplement Greek religion, despite their often contrasting ideals. In modern times, Penelope notes, the Greek gods are much less present than they were in her times. This is perhaps because Christianity is much more prevalent, and the Greek gods have to share time with the Christian one. Penelope also states that a new establishment to take in dead people has opened near the fields of asphodel, with “fiery pits, wailing and gnashing of teeth, gnawing worms, demons with pitchforks.” Presumably, this is meant to be Christian Hell. In contrast to the fields of asphodel, Christian Hell is an embodied state where people endure physical torture, so physical bodies must be preserved during burial. Atwood does not discuss Christian Heaven at all in the book, presumably because, unlike Hell, which Penelope says is next door, Heaven would not be located underground, near the Greek underworld.
While Christian religion seems to have been seamlessly added adjacent to the old Greek one, Penelope still insists on the existence of certain Greek concepts such as fate, bringing the two religions into contrast. In Greek mythology, as Penelope notes, fate is controlled by three sisters, the Fates. These three women, who are spinners, measure out the length of people’s lives with thread and cut it when they are to die. This idea obviously does not afford for much will power or personal choice, although, notably, Penelope does imply that there are ways to trick the Fates. For example, Penelope describes Odysseus using his wits to circumvent the fate that the Fates had prescribed him. Still, Odysseus’s ability to do so is an exception, and most mortals live and die by the whims and the wills of the Fates. Notably, the concept of the Fates places women, and women’s work like spinning, in the most important religious roles, giving them the power to end and begin life itself. The Fates are, in fact, considered to be even more powerful than the gods, including Zeus. This undercuts the otherwise male-dominated structure of the Greek god system, in which Zeus, a male god, is the most powerful. The concept of the Fates also contrasts starkly with the Christian faith, which puts a male god in total control of the lifespan of humans.
The idea of the Fates and fate more generally also differs starkly from the modern Christian concepts of sin, repentance, and redemption. The ideas of sin, repentance, and redemption rely on the belief that each individual makes personal choices and does not have a prescribed destiny, fundamentally contradicting the idea of fate. In Christianity, if a person makes an immoral choice, God holds them responsible for it, punishing them in the afterlife. A person can also repent through a series of rituals and be forgiven in the eyes of God. Unlike Christianity, ancient Greek religion offers no recourse for people who have acted immorally. In Greek religion, righteousness has more to do with flattering the gods, who have individual quirks and who themselves are fallible and often behave in ways that contradict modern morality. As a result, morality and goodness are fairly separated from religious practice. This is a problem for Odysseus and Penelope, who have no way of redeeming themselves and making up for the murder of the Maids. Instead, the Maids taunt Odysseus and Penelope, following them around the fields of asphodel and performing skits and songs to remind them of their culpability forever.
Through her descriptions of Christianity and Greek religion, Atwood gives the reader a portrait of these two distinct and contradictory but coexisting religious systems, each with different relationships to blame, destiny, freewill, punishment, and the afterlife.
Christianity vs. Greek Religion ThemeTracker
Christianity vs. Greek Religion Quotes in The Penelopiad
Then after hundred, possibly thousands of years…customs changed. No living people went to the underworld much any more, and our own abode was upstaged by a much more spectacular establishment down the road—fiery pits, wailing and gnashing of teeth, gnawing worms, demons with pitchforks—a great many special effects.
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!
Nine months he sailed the wine-red seas of his mother’s blood…
In his frail dark boat, the boat of himself,
Through the dangerous ocean of his vast mother he sailed
From the distant cave where the threads of men’s lives are spun,
Then measured, and then cut short
By the Three Fatal Sisters, intent on their gruesome handicrafts,
And the lives of women also are twisted into the strand…
The more outrageous versions have it that I slept with all of the Suitors, one after another—over a hundred of them—and then gave birth to the Great God Pan. Who could believe such a monstrous tale? Some songs aren’t worth the breath expended on them.
Let us just say: There is another story.
Or several, as befits the goddess Rumour…
Word has it that Penelope the Prissy
Was—when it came to sex— no shrinking sissy!
Some said…that each and every brisk contender
By turns did have the fortune to upend her,
By which promiscuous acts the goat-god Pan
Was then conceived, or so the fable ran.
The truth, dear auditors, is seldom certain—
But let us take a peek behind the curtain!
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.
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.