Penelope is known today probably most for her loyalty as depicted in Homer's Odyssey.
She was the daughter of Icarius and Polycaste.
According to one story, Icarius promised his beautiful daughter to the man who could beat him in a footrace. Odysseus defeated Icarius and took Penelope as his bride.
Icarius wanted the young couple to stay by him, but Odysseus insisted on leaving. Icarius asked Penelope what she wanted, and, Robert Bell states, "she did not answer but merely dropped her veil over her face; this signified that she would follow her husband" (Bell, 348). Icarius was then inspired to build a statue of Modesty.
Penelope and Odysseus journeyed to Ithaca and Penelope bore Odysseus a son, Telemachus.
Odysseus was happily married and when Greeks came to enlist his support in the Trojan War, he at first feigned madness. Palamedes, however, tricked Odysseus into betraying his deceit (some accounts say he placed young Telemachus in front of a plow) and Odysseus was forced to enter the war.
When the war was over and there was no sign of Odysseus, many suitors came to seek Penelope's hand in marriage. Homer reports 108 suitors, while Apollodorus reports 136 (Bell, 349).
As time went on and the chance that Odysseus would return became smaller, the suitors got more and more badly behaved and began to take over control of the palace.
In Heroides I, Ovid writes a letter from Penelope to Odysseus. In the letter, Penelope tells Odysseus (though she does not know where he is, or if he is still alive) of the suitors and the pressure she is under. At the same time, Penelope states that she will remain faithful although Odysseus is "disgracefully" absent.
(81) Me pater Icarius viduo
Dulichii Samiique et quos
tulit alta Zacynthos
Irus egens pecorisque Melanthius
My father Icarius compels me to leave my widowed couch and he continuously protests my unending delay. It is permitted that he scold [me] - I am yours, it is proper that I be said yours; Penelope, wife of Odysseus, I will always be. Nevertheless that one [Icarius] is disheartened by my piety and my chaste prayers and he himself tempers his own demands.
Those of Dulichium and Samos and those whom lofty Zacynthus bore, an extravagant mob of nobles presses on me, and in your own palace they play the part of king with none prohibiting; our body and your wealth are being torn [from you]. Why report to you of Pisander, and of Polybus, and of dreadful Medon, and the greedy hands of Eurymachus and Antinous, and of others, you yourself being disgracefully absent are sharing other things with all of them by means of your own blood?
Needy Irus and Melanthius, driver of the eating of the flock, are the ultimate disgrace against your ruination.
In order to avoid choosing a husband, Penelope came up with a plan. She announced that she was weaving a shroud for Laertes, her father-in-law. She said that, once she had finished, she would choose from among the many suitors.
Penelope wove during the day, and unloosened the weaving at night, therefore buying time.
Propertius, in Book II.9A, poem IXA, of the Elegies, commends this "nocturnal trick" as a sign of loyalty which should be emulated.
(1) Iste quod est, ego saepe
fui: sed fors et in hora
Penelope poterat bis denos
salva per annos
Nec non exanimen amplectens
Tunc igitur, verus gaudebat
What that one is, I often have been: but perhaps in time after, this one will have been removed and another will be more dear.
Penelope was able to live pure through twice ten years, such a woman worthy of many suitors; the false weaving was able to postpone a marriage, loosening the woven cloth of the day in nocturnal trick; and although she never hoped that she would see Odysseus, she remained, having become an old woman by waiting.
Nor did Briseis, clinging to lifeless Achilles, not beat her white cheeck [with] impassioned hand; and the grieving captive washed the bleeding master positioned in the golden shoals by Simois, and she darkened her hair and she lifted the body of great Achilles and the very large bones in her small hand; who then Peleus had not aided nor his mother of the blue sea, nor Deidamia, on a destitute bed in Scyros.
Then, in short, Greece rejoiced [in] honorable wives, then also propriety [lived] amongst bloodshed and arms.
Odysseus returned after a long journey, and killed all of the suitors.
Penelope and Odysseus lived out a happy life until he was killed by Telegonus, his son by Circe. Telegonus had not meant to kill Odysseus, and he took Penelope and Telemachus to Circe's home where they buried Odysseus.
Penelope then married Telegonus, and Telemachus married Circe. Circe made both Penelope and Telemachus immortal (Tripp, 460).
Penelope represented the idealic wife: she remained faithful to her husband, and remained civil to the unwanted suitors. Even today she is often thought of as a symbol of virtue.
Of course there are those who seek to destroy such a standing. Edward Tripp writes of the story that the Mantineians of Arcadia tell. Tripp states that "they claim that Odysseus, finding that his wife had been unfaithful with either Antinous or Amphinomus [both suitors], divorced her. Penelope went home to Sparta, and thence to Mantineia, where she gave birth to the god Pan, having lain at some point with Hermes. She died and was buried in Arcadia" (Tripp, 460).
Interesting as this alternative ending may be, Penelope's virtue remains largely uncontested in the eyes of the public today, and her loyalty has found its way into numerous poems, prose, and paintings. Propertius, in Book III.13 of his Elegies writes:
(23) Hoc genus infidum nuptarum,
hic nulla puella
nec fida Evadne nec pia Penelope.
|The present time [has an] untrustworthy race of brides, now no girl will neither be faithful Evadne nor pious Penelope.|
Return to top