In Greek Mythology, Who Was Penelope?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
The Odyssey was written by Homer.
The Odyssey was written by Homer.

In the Odyssey by the ancient bard Homer, Penelope is the wife of Odysseus, the main character of the epic tale. In the Odyssey, Penelope waits twenty years for her husband to return from the Trojan War. Together, Penelope and Odysseus are the parents of one son, Telemachus. Odysseus’s numerous diversions along his route home make up most of the action in the epic poem. While he is away on these adventures, many of which are quite perilous, Penelope faces troubles of her own at home.

In Homer's "Odyssey," Penelope is the wife of Odysseus.
In Homer's "Odyssey," Penelope is the wife of Odysseus.

While Penelope is left to rule the roost, she must face the amorous advances of many greedy suitors. Although she has no way to prove it, Penelope believes that Odysseus is still alive and will arrive home someday. The suitors believe otherwise. They are interested in marrying Penelope and taking over Odysseus’s kingdom of Ithaca. Penelope, however, remains faithful through a cunning ruse. She agrees that she will select a suitor to be her husband when she finishes weaving a burial shroud for Laertes, Odysseus’s elderly father. She works at her loom every day. But every night she takes out part of the shroud so that it is never finished.

Unfortunately, one of Penelope’s twelve maids discover her trickery and reveal it to the suitors. She then decides to put the suitors to a challenge to choose one of them as her husband. When it is time for the challenge to take place, however, Odysseus has returned. Because he was unsure of the state that Ithaca would be in upon his return, he disguised himself as an beggar. But when he wins the challenge, his true identity is revealed and he is restored to his throne.

Although Penelope is traditionally viewed as a figure of fidelity, recent readings of the Odyssey have shown her to be more complex. It is possible that Penelope considered marrying one of the suitors, and even enjoyed their advances at times. In 2005, Margaret Atwood published the book The Penelopiad, which is a retelling of Penelope’s life. It focuses also on an event at the end of the Odyssey in which Odysseus hangs twelve of the maids who had lived with Penelope in her absence. The Penelopiad begs fascinating questions about Penelope. What was it like to live in a house surrounded by suitors while her husband was off for decades? Was it difficult being a cousin to Helen of Troy, who was of a beauty that could not be surpassed? And what really happened in those twenty years in which she was living as a single woman?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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Discussion Comments

Leonidas226

The image of Odysseus appearing in beggars clothing is an important one in various mythologies. It is related closely to the meme of "don't judge a book by its cover." Even Christ identifies with lowly and homeless people, indicating at the last judgment how he will treat people as the treated "him" in the form of the hungry and poor. The suitors were surprised on the last day, when they suddenly discovered that this humble and dirty old beggar was the godlike Odysseus.

FitzMaurice

Telemachus, or Telemakhos, was fed up with the unworthy suitors at his home and went in search of his father. His tale forms an important part of the Odyssey, and his clear wit and wisdom parallel the wisdom of King Solomon, who was also his father's son.

BigBloom

The misogynistic way in which Odysseus treats his maidservants upon returning home is a strong example of the direction in which patriarchal societies tend to go.

GigaGold

Modern readings into ancient texts tend to enjoy being revisionist in their strongly biased suppositions. I think that Penelope was a strong image of chastity for the strong patriarchal Greek society. She was held up as a paragon of fidelity and queenly loyalty to her departed Lord and husband. It is important to remember that the etymology of the word "husband" is "master of the house."

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    • The Odyssey was written by Homer.
      The Odyssey was written by Homer.
    • In Homer's "Odyssey," Penelope is the wife of Odysseus.
      In Homer's "Odyssey," Penelope is the wife of Odysseus.