Penelope. 1608: Roman copy of Greek work from 5th century BC. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.
"Wife, one thing is certain—not all our soldiers will return from Troy unhurt … So I cannot say whether the gods will let me come back or whether I shall fall on Trojan soil. But I leave everything here in your charge. Look after my father and mother in the house as you do now … And when you see a beard on our boy's chin, marry whomsoever you fancy and leave your home." (Odysseus to Penelope, Homer, Odyssey 18.260).
"… In that catastrophe no one was dealt a heavier blow than I, who pass my days in mourning for the best of husbands …" (Penelope to the minstrel Phemius 2, Homer, Odyssey 1.340).
"Penelope must beware of trying our young men's patience much further and counting too much on the matchless gifts that she owes to Athena, her skill in fine handicraft, her excellent brain, and that genius she has for getting her way. In that respect, I grant, she has no equal, not even in story." (The Suitor Antinous 2 to Telemachus. Homer, Odyssey 2.115).
"Penelope is meaner to look upon than you in comeliness and in stature, for she is a mortal, while you are immortal and ageless. But even so I wish and long day by day to reach my home, and to see the day of my return." (Odysseus to Calypso 3. Homer, Odyssey 5.215).
Penelope waited two decades for her husband Odysseus to return to
Ithaca from the Trojan
War, not knowing whether he was dead or alive. In this long and painful wait her sole relief was to weep and sigh all day long, and to lie in what she called her "bed of sorrows" which she watered with tears until she fell asleep. In the meantime, she was compelled to promise the scoundrels that called themselves her SUITORS and who
were at the same time the pick of the Ithacan
nobility, that she would wed one of them when the
shroud of Laertes was finished. She wove it for
three years, weaving it by day and undoing it by
night. But her trick was discovered and her life
became even more difficult.
Her husband was one of the SUITORS OF HELEN
Odysseus was among
those who came to Sparta in order to compete for the hand of Helen, that jewel of Hellas who was afterwards called "Lady of Sorrows" because so many a man lost his life fighting for her sake in the plains of Troy . And yet, some say, this was the will of the gods. Helen's beauty was
such that her earthly father Tyndareus (for the
heavenly was Zeus) feared
that war would break up among the many princes who
had come from the whole of Hellas hoping to marry
The Oath of Tyndareus
It was then that Odysseus told King Tyndareus to exact an
oath from all the SUITORS OF HELEN that they would defend the favored bridegroom
against any wrong that might be done against him in
respect of his marriage. Tyndareus did as Odysseus advised, and
having thus united the contenders by forcing them
to leave their honour as a pledge, he, in exchange
invaluable service, helped him to win the hand of Tyndareus' niece
Some consequences of the oath
This is what is called The Oath of Tyndareus. Thanks to
this oath peace was preserved among the SUITORS OF HELEN,
when Helen was given to Menelaus, and thanks to
it Odysseus married
Penelope. But later, on account of the same oath,
all princes of Hellas had to go to war against Troy, where Helen was kept, now
married to the seducer Paris, who had come to Sparta and abducted her.
And the same oath by which Odysseus won his wife,
forced him later to part from his prize for twenty
years, and live, against his will, the life of a
soldier and adventurer.
Does not wish to leave kingdom and queen
Now, Odysseus, who
was the king of beautiful isles and the husband of
a loving queen, not wishing to waste his life in
wars and fights, decided to feign madness instead
of honouring The Oath of Tyndareus, and thereby
join the alliance that was determined to sail
against Troy in order to
demand, either by persuasion or by force, the
restoration of Helen and
Palamedes destroys Odysseus' home life
And so, playing the fool, Odysseus put on a cap
and yoked a horse and an ox to the plow. But Palamedes, who had
come to Ithaca with Nestor and Menelaus in order to
remind the king of his oath, snatched little Telemachus from
Penelope's bosom, or as others say, from the
cradle, and put him in front of the plow, forcing Odysseus to give up his
pretense. Others have said that Palamedes threatened
the child with his own sword, but in any case Odysseus was outwitted
and had to join the alliance. However, clever Palamedes later paid
with his own death for having spoiled Odysseus' sweet home
Penelope in a foot-race
Others affirm that Odysseus won Penelope in a foot-race for her wooers, organized by Icarius 1. And they say that when he gave his daughter in marriage to Odysseus,
he tried to make him settle in Lacedaemon. However, Odysseus refused, and
he could not persuade Penelope either. So when the
newly-weds set forth to Ithaca, the king followed
the chariot begging her to stay. After some time,
they say, Odysseus, not
being able to endure any longer this expression of
fatherly love and devotion, bade Penelope either to
come with him willingly, or else go back with her
father to Lacedaemon, if she preferred to do so.
They say that Penelope did not reply, but instead
covered her face with a veil, and by that sign they
both understood that she wished to depart with her
Queen of Ithaca, Cephallenia and other islands
This is how Penelope came to Ithaca where she became queen of that island as well as others that are in the Ionian Sea off the coast of Acarnania, among which is the larger island Cephallenia, called after Cephalus 1, father by Procris 2 of Arcisius,
father of Laertes, father of Odysseus. Cephalus 1 was an Athenian, but he came to that region when he assisted Amphitryon in his campaign against the islands that were ruled
The SUITORS OF
Penelope and Odysseus had spent
together about a decade when the Trojan War broke up
and Odysseus left. The
war itself lasted ten years, but when it was over
and nothing was known of him, a group of scoundrels
known as the SUITORS
OF PENELOPE came to the palace wishing to marry
The Shroud of Laertes (Penelope's web)
Penelope fooled them several years, declaring
that she would marry one of them once she had
completed the shroud of Laertes, for as she said:
succumbs to the dread hand of Death that stretches all men out at
last, I must not risk the scandal there would be
among my countrywomen here if one who had amassed
such wealth were put to rest without a
shroud." (Penelope to the SUITORS. Homer, Odyssey 2.100).
However, Penelope had no intention of ever
finishing her work, and so what she wove during the
day, she unravelled by night.
But when one of Penelope's maids gave her
mistress away, the SUITORS, having
caught the queen destroying her work, forced her to
complete it. And so, realising that they had been
fooled by her in the course of several years, the SUITORS decided
that for as long as she maintained her attitude,
they would continue to feast in the palace at the
palace's expenses. Otherwise they used to amuse
themselves in a free and easy way outside the
palace with quoits and javelin-throwing, a nice and
entertaining activity which they could consent to
interrupt when supper was ready. Their banquets
were prepared by slaughtering sheep, goats, hogs,
and heifers from Odysseus' herd. And
since banquets and music go together, there was
always someone playing the lyre. Such was the
pleasant life, free of charge, that the SUITORS led at Odysseus' palace.
Plot against Penelope's son
Penelope. 4910: Jens Adolph Jerichaü 1816-1883: Penelope 1843. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.
This was the situation when Penelope's son Telemachus sailed to Pylos and Sparta in order to meet Nestor and Menelaus, with the hope
of having news of his father. But when the SUITORS learned
that the lad had determination enough to launch a
ship and choose the best men in the land for the
crew without saying a word to them, they, fearing
that Telemachus would
become their bane, planned to slay him on his
Herald overhears the SUITORS
When Penelope learned about the conspiracy through the herald Medon 5, who overheard the SUITORS, she
could not stop lamenting, seeing that the loss of
her child was about to be added to the loss of her
husband. And so she lay in her chamber, touching no
food, and pondering whether her son would escape
death, or be slain by the SUITORS.
Penelope's sister appears in her dreams
And nothing could soothe her but Sleep. For sometimes gods
talk to mortals during sleep, clear visions coming
in the darkness of Night,
and Sleep himself being a
god. So Athena fashioned a phantom of Penelope's sister Iphthime 1, and sent it to talk to her at the gates of dreams, and bid her cease from weeping and lamentation; for Telemachus, said the
phantom, was led by Athena herself. Penelope's sister Iphthime 1 married Eumelus 1, who led the Pheraeans against Troy and was the son of Admetus 1 and Alcestis,
the woman who died for love in her husband's place.
Harsh rebuke against the suitor Antinous 2
In fact Telemachus escaped the SUITORS' plot, and when Penelope learned what had happened, she harshly rebuked the main instigator Antinous 2:
you for the double-dealing ruffian that you are.
Madman! How dare you plot against Telemachus' life." (Penelope to Antinous 2. Homer, Odyssey 16.419).
Penelope then reproached Antinous 2, reminding him how his father had been once saved from an angry mob by Odysseus,
at whose expense he was now living free of charge,
whose wife he was courting, and whose son he
proposed to kill, disregarding the grief he may
cause to herself.
Condemns their style
And on a later occasion, she told the SUITORS that
even if the day approached when she would have to
remarry, she nevertheless condemned the way in
which they conducted their suit, saying:
"Surely it is
usual for the SUITORS to bring in their own cattle and
sheep to make a banquet for the lady's friends, and
also to give her valuable presents, but not to
enjoy free meals at someone else's expense." (Penelope to the SUITORS. Homer, Odyssey 18.275).
But the SUITORS, not
trusting her words after what had happened with the
shroud of Laertes, would not leave the palace nor
abstain from conducting the suit with such a
For, as Penelope herself pointed out, there was
no chieftain from the surrounding islands and from
Ithaca itself that was not forcing himself into her
house, plundering it. And that is why Penelope
could not feel but despair and neglect, passing her
days in sobs and tears for having lost her husband
and the protection of the household.
The Cat and the Mice
This invasion of Odysseus' home, which,
like a revolution, tended to seize all instruments
for the control of riches and power, came to an end
when the master of the house returned. For, as even
children know, the mice can only play while the cat
is away. On his arrival to Ithaca, Athena disguised Odysseus as a stranger
and a beggar, withering his limbs, robbing his head
of hair, and covering his body with the wrinkles of Old Age. He then came to Eumaeus 1, his former
servant and swineherd, and learned from him the
state of affairs in his home. And having met Telemachus in the hut
of Eumaeus 1, he made a
plan together with him.
Odysseus in the
Still looking as a distressful beggar, limping
along with the aid of his staff, Odysseus came to the palace, where only his old dog recognized him, dying immediately after having seen his master in the twentieth year. There he came into conflict with Antinous 2, who was irritated at the beggar, and dealt him a blow.
Penelope talks to the stranger
But Penelope sent for the beggar; for such a
stranger who seemed to have traveled far, she
thought, might have heard of her husband. And not
but being impressed by the stranger, she told him
the whole story of her misery, how she had fooled
the SUITORS with
the web, how they loaded her with reproaches on
discovering her trick, and how now she would be
forced by time and circumstances to take the sad
step of marrying one of the scoundrels.
The stranger's prophecy
When the turn came to Odysseus-the-beggar to
tell his own story to the lady of the house, he,
not wishing her to know his identity yet,
fabricated a tale about how he had met Odysseus, giving proof,
through many details, of his truthfulness. For he
could describe Odysseus' cloak and the
golden broch that it displayed along with other
details. But seeing that his descriptions made
Penelope even more disposed to weep, he said:
"… Dry your tears now and hear what I have to say … I have news of Odysseus' return, that he is alive and near …" (Odysseus to Penelope. Homer, Odyssey 19.269).
And after inventing other details which made the
story credible he finally declared:
"So you see that he is safe and will soon be back. Indeed he is very close … I swear first by Zeus, the best and greatest of the
gods, and then by the good Odysseus' hearth which I have come to, that
everything will happen as I foretell. This very
year Odysseus will be here, between the waning
of the old moon and the waxing of the new." (Odysseus to Penelope.
Homer, Odyssey 19.300).
Even if Penelope, having deep despair in her
soul, could not believe in such prophecies, she was
enchanted by the stranger, and ordered the maids to
wash the visitor's feet, spread a bed for him, and
the next morning give him a bath and rub him with
oil, so that he would be ready to eat breakfast
with Telemachus in
the palace's hall.
Eumaeus, Odysseus and the dog Argos | od339gen: "A hound that lay there raised his head and pricked up his ears, Argos, the hound of Odysseus, of the steadfast heart, whom of old he had himself bred." (Hom.Od.17.290). Bonaventura Genelli (1798 – 1868).
Euryclia recognizes Odysseus
It was then that Euryclia, the servant whom
Laertes had procured for the price of twenty oxen,
and who had been the nurse of both Odysseus and Telemachus, was
appointed to wash the visitor's feet. Now Odysseus had an old
scar just above the knee, and when the old woman
passed her hands over the scar, she recognized the
feel of it at once, and knew that this stranger was
However, he ordered her to keep silent.
Aspects of recognition
After Odysseus bathed his feet, Penelope addressed him once more,
still without recognizing him, which may seem an
amazing circumstance. For, despite the fact that Athena had changed his appearance, some may ask why it should be easier to identify a scar rather than a face, or the eyes in that face, or a familiar voice. But these things, being matter of opinion, may cause endless debate, as if one were to wonder why Penelope, being herself what is called "a myth," quotes freely from other "myths" in her conversation.
Tells her dream to the stranger
Penelope then, addressed Odysseus once more
after Euryclia had bathed his feet. And as if she
wished to make intimate acquaintance with him, she
asked him to interpret a dream of hers in which she
had seen herself keeping a flock of twenty geese.
And while she was with the geese, she saw an eagle
swoop down from the hills and break their necks.
Then, Penelope said, she wept and cried aloud. But
the eagle came back calling itself Penelope's
husband; and comparing the geese to the SUITORS, the
eagle told her to take heart, for they would be
punished at Odysseus'
What Penelope knows about dreams
And here again some could ask what need did
Penelope have of hearing the stranger's
interpretation of such an obvious dream, on which,
as Odysseus himself
points out, no other meaning could be forced
different from the one expressed by the eagle in
the dream itself. But Penelope knew better. For she
explained to Odysseus the true nature of dreams, and how there are two
gates through which dreams reach mortals; and one,
she said, is made of horn and the other of ivory.
And the dreams that come through the ivory gate
cheat us with empty promises, whereas those that
pass through the gate of horn tell the dreamer the
truth of what will happen. Yet she could not tell
from which source her dream took wing.
Penelope comments practical issues
Having shared with the stranger these ideas, showing to him her open dispositionfor dreams are not usually told to those who do not seem to deserve confidencePenelope commented practical issues. She said that her son Telemachus actually
desired her to remarry, for otherwise the SUITORS would
eat up his estate, and that she now was about to
propose a trial of strength, and that she was
prepared to marry whichever among the SUITORS proved
the best at stringing the bow and shooting an
The SUITORS suddenly shot
So it was done. Penelope delivered to her SUITORS the bow
of Odysseus, saying
that she would marry him who bent the bow. And when
none of them could bend it, Odysseus took it and
shot down the SUITORS during a
great battle in the hall of the palace. This is how
the husband, who had been absent nineteen years,
won his wife for a second time while she slept in
her chamber upstairs.
Penelope wakes up to a new world
When the massacre was completed, Euryclia,
instructions, woke up Penelope with incredible
Penelope, dear child, and see a sight you have
longed for all these many days. Odysseus has come home … and he has killed the rogues who turned his whole house inside out, ate up his wealth, and oppressed his son." (Euryclia to Penelope. Homer, Odyssey 23.5).
Penelope, thus taken out of her sleep, thought
that her old servant had lost her brains, or that
some god had performed the killing. But Euryclia
told her about the scar, and nothing else could
Penelope do but go downstairs and see with her own
eyes what had happened by meeting her son Telemachus, the dead SUITORS, and the man who had killed them. Now she wondered: Should she remain aloof while talking to the
stranger, said to be her husband, or should she go
straight up to him and kiss him? Instead she came
and sat silent on the opposite side to Odysseus, not knowing
whether to rest her eyes on his face, or to look at
the stranger's ragged clothes.
This was not what Telemachus had
expected. For he had imagined that his mother would
sit at his father's side, asking questions and
talking. For after all, he reasoned, here was the
absent husband back, and there was so much to say
and to know. And that is why he reproached his
mother, telling her that her heart was harder than
flint. But Penelope replied:
"My child, the heart in my breast is lost in wonder … I cannot find a word to say to him; I cannot ask him anything at all; I cannot even look him in the face. But if it really is Odysseus home again, we two shall surely
recognize each other, and in an even better way;
for there are tokens between us which only we two
know and no one else has heard of." (Penelope to Telemachus. Homer, Odyssey 23.105).
Such a token was their own bed, which Odysseus himself had
constructed, a detail only known by them. And now
he described how he had built it, bringing to
memory the olive tree, thick as a pillar, which
grew inside the court. For round this tree he built
the room, and lopping all the twigs off, he trimmed
the stem and used it as a basis for the bed itself.
Then he finished it off with an inlay of gold,
silver and ivory, and fixed a set of purple ox-hide
straps across the frame.
3627: Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1751-1829: Odysseus und Penelope, 1802. Landesmuseum Oldenburg, Das Schloß.
The common secret
When Odysseus had
described all these details for Penelope, he said:
"There is our
secret, and I have shown you that I know it." (Odysseus to
Penelope. Homer, Odyssey 23.202).
It was then that Penelope, seeing the complete
fidelity of the description, burst into tears, and
running up to Odysseus,
threw her arms round his neck and kissed him.
Recognition of love
This is how Penelope and Odysseus met and recognized each other after two decades of separation. Now there may be those that again will find it
strange that such a recognition does not occur
directly, but instead must pass through an
extraordinary bed. And having these people in mind,
some have said that the only true recognition
between Odysseus and
Penelope is the recognition of love. For it is
plain that neither beds, nor clothes, nor bows, nor
tokens of whatever kind would have any meaning
without love, no matter how true they might be:
knew that the stranger was the king when she saw
herself reflected in his eyes, when she felt that
her love encountered Odysseus' love." (J. L. Borges, Un escolio).
Others have thought differently
But either because this story was found to pour sentimentality in excess, or because there have been those who never believed in Penelope's fidelity, or for other reasons, it has also been said that Penelope was seduced by Antinous 2, the greatest scoundrel among the SUITORS. However, there have also been those who have affirmed that Penelope was not seduced by Antinous 2, but instead by the more gentle suitor Amphinomus 2, who was known to enjoy Penelope's special approval for being an intelligent man and behaving correctly. In fact Odysseus himself
singled him out:
"Amphinomus, you seem to me to be a thoroughly decent fellow …" (Odysseus to Amphinomus 2. Homer, Odyssey 18.125).
With this gentle suitor, they say, Penelope had a love affair, and for that reason, they add, she was killed by her own husband. Yet others have said that Odysseus, having learned that Penelope had slept with the great scoundrel Antinous 2, sent her back to her father Icarius 1 in Lacedaemon. Later, they affirm, she came to Mantinea in Arcadia, and there she
bore Pan to Hermes, which is even
more incredible. And as things became more and more
entangled, some have asserted, fearing that things
would fall out of proportion, that this Pan is not Pan the god, but a man called after the god. Odysseus, some say,
died of old age as Tiresias had told him, but others have insisted in saying that he was accidentally killed by Telegonus 3, his own son by the witch Circe. They also
affirm that after Odysseus' death,
Penelope was made immortal by Circe and sent to the Islands of the Blest together with Telegonus 3.