Penelope revisited

Well known also to the non classicists and most certainly famous to a wider public for her faithfulness and her never ending thread, Penelope is still nowadays used a stereotypical example of the trustworthy and forgiving wife, a patiently loving companion who awaits in anguish and cries aloud for her husband Odysseus to return, pushing away the uncouth attempts of very many (one hundred and eight for the records…) of unappeasable suitors.


These qualities are very well described along the verses of The Odyssey and in several occasions they are reaffirmed and corroborated. First of all Penelope is often reported to be wise and witty:

with a grace divine her soul is blest,
And all Athena breathes within her breast
In wondrous arts than woman more renown’d,
And more than woman with deep wisdom crown’d;
Though Tyro nor Mycene match her name,
Not great Alcmena (the proud boasts of fame);
Yet thus by heaven adorn’d, by heaven’s decree
She shines with fatal excellence, to thee

She is also shrewd, when for instance she devises the famous everlasting thread; as well as when she uses the bed trick to prove her alleged husband’s identity:

The secrets of the bridal bed are known
To thee, to me, to Actoris alone
(My father’s present in the spousal hour,
The sole attendant on our genial bower).
Since what no eye hath seen thy tongue reveal’d
Hard and distrustful as I am, I yield.”

Penelope is also very beautiful and experienced at the loom, two additional fundamental qualities for an ancient Greek house-woman:

Reflecting to the queen the silver sounds.
With grief renew’d the weeping fair descends;
Their sovereign’s step a virgin train attends:
A veil, of richest texture wrought, she wears,
And silent to the joyous hall repairs.
There from the portal, with her mild command,

But most important of all she knows her place as a woman, as for instance when more than once she obeys to her son’s order to retire in her quarters and devote her to the loom and other womanly activities instead of disturbing the men’s feast:

But bold Telemachus assumed the man.
“Instant (he cried) your female discord end,
Ye deedless boasters! and the song attend;
Obey that sweet compulsion, nor profane
With dissonance the smooth melodious strain.
Pacific now prolong the jovial feast

Thus at first sight Penelope embodies all the qualities that a woman was supposed to have in accordance with the archaic – and then even classic – Greek lifestyle, tradition and social customs. Nevertheless there are several instances that reveal a different character, a perspective into which Penelope seems quite shady and to a certain extent more real and womanly than how she has been portrayed. Penelope is self conscious of her beauty and endowments and often uses them to flirt, perhaps just to satisfy her petty vanity, with her suitors:

Thus wailing, slow and sadly she descends,
On either band a damsel train attends:
Full where the dome its shining valves expands,
Radiant before the gazing peers she stands;
A veil translucent o’er her brow display’d,
Her beauty seems, and only seems, to shade:
Sudden she lightens in their dazzled eyes,
And sudden flames in every bosom rise;
They send their eager souls with every look.
Till silence thus the imperial matron broke:

Additionally she does not seem so firm in her decision of waiting for Odysseus to come back instead of marrying and starting a new life, as she simply confesses:

My mind, reflective, in a thorny maze
Devious from care to care incessant strays.
Now, wavering doubt succeeds to long despair;
Shall I my virgin nuptial vow revere;
And, joining to my son’s my menial train,
Partake his counsels, and assist his reign?

And meanwhile she is pondering as whether to get married again or not, she too often seems to manoeuvre and double cross her suitors, probably only out of female narcissism or perhaps purposely, by accepting gifts and exchanging messages with more than one of them, as Antinous says:

δη γρ τρτον στν τος, τχα δ εσι τταρτον,
ξ ο τμβει θυμν ν στθεσσιν χαιν.
πντας μν ῥ᾽ λπει κα πσχεται νδρ κστ
γγελας προϊεσα, νος δ ο λλα μενοιν.
[…this is already the third year and the forth one is coming
that she deceives and makes fun of our hearts
she instills hopes and makes promises to everyone
by sending messages…]

Accordingly also Athena warns Odysseus while he is still away on the disputable behaviour of his alleged loyal wife who is playing along with each of the suitors by sending messages to them all:

πντας μν ῥ᾽ λπει κα πσχεται νδρ κστ,
γγελας προϊεσα, νος δ ο λλα μενοιν

Moreover Penelope shows even some greed, when she solicits riches by lamenting the absolute lack of gifts that the suitors are instead, according to the tradition, supposed to bring since her wedding choice/date is approaching. This witty and soft reproach will induce the suitors to profuse themselves in precious gifts that she will immediately accept and store – instead of refusing with disdain:

ς φατ ντνοος, τοσιν δ πινδανε μθος·
δρα δ ρ οσμεναι πρεσαν κρυκα καστος.
ντινόῳ μν νεικε μγαν περικαλλα ππλον,
ποικλον· ν δ ρ σαν περναι δυοκαδεκα πσαι
χρσειαι, κλησιν ϋγνμπτοις ραρυαι.
ρμον δ Ερυμχ πολυδαδαλον ατκ νεικε.
χρσεον, λκτροισιν ερμνον ἠέλιον ς.
ρματα δ Ερυδμαντι δω θερποντες νεικαν,
τργληνα μορεντα· χρις δ πελμπετο πολλ.
κ δ ρα Πεισνδροιο Πολυκτορδαο νακτος
σθμιον νεικεν θερπων, περικαλλς γαλμα.
λλο δ ρ λλος δρον χαιν καλν νεικεν.
μν πειτ νβαιν περϊα δα γυναικν,
τ δ ρ μ μφπολοι φερον περικαλλα δρα
ο δ ες ρχηστν τε κα μερεσσαν οιδν
τρεψμενοι τρποντο, μνον δ π σπερον λθεν

I guess that perhaps to better understand this rather ambiguous character it should be taken in consideration the strong educational and moral weight and importance that Homer’s poems had to have on entire generations of ancient Greeks. This would probably explain in a cultural perspective that even a positive character as the multi-quality Penelope is nevertheless always a woman, and therefore someone to be sceptic about “by principle” according to Greek moral, experience and ethic. And in fact even Odysseus, the shrewdest man known, will reveal his own identity to his wife only at the very last: she will eventually know that her husband is back only after his father, his son, his swineherd and his wet-nurse have… and when he finally unveils she justifies her coldness and scepticism by saying:

Against the fondness of my heart I strove:
’Twas caution, O my lord! not want of love.

Should we believe her?

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14 comments on “Penelope revisited

  1. Emily says:

    Very cleverly written! As Felson-Rubin wrote “ambiguous Penelope climaxes with her presentation of the suitors”. For although on the denotative level of meaning Penelope’s kleos is identical with her faithfulness, Penelope’s kleos understood connotatively and from within an explicitly interpretive framework is itself a problematic concept, and that it is also one in which some of the poem’s central narrative features are inscribed. Furthermore many are the ambiguities and incongruities within the poem when dealing with Penelope: Wilamowitz (1927) wrote: “I have no reservations that this stupidity cannot belong to the poet of Book 13,” and with him also Vester (1968): “Odysseus who in five speeches attempts to lead his wife to recognition and yet does not accomplish this goal … is rather a bungler”.
    On this intriguing topic I would also like to recommend you to look at Katz, Penelope’s Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey: the author is much indebted to the German analytic and neo-analytic schools which have identified so many contradictions, inconsistencies, and awkwardness in the narrative.
    Lovely post indeed, Emily.

  2. stoa says:

    Dear Emily,
    thank you for your knowledgeable comment and also for your email, extensive and insightful as always.
    Actually also the ancient scholars were puzzled about our issue: you will surely recall that even a literary critic as Aristarchus could not accept lines 218-224 of the XXIII Book of the Odyssey because he considered them incongruous. And as you surely know, more recently Rouse omitted these same lines from his bright English translation of the Odyssey.
    The truth is that when it comes to Penelope, I believe that we have to consider the numerous and frequent occasions Homer uses to implicitly or explicitly mention several deep anthropological or sociological insights into archaic Greek culture. Additionally we must assume that he also had the archaic “original” audience in his mind when composing.
    Plus I guess Homer somehow tried to build up a character that could compensate the “bad” example of Helen and even the “worse” example of Clytemnestra, but perhaps he afterwards realised Penelope was too perfect, too good to be true… and therefore a dangerously misleading portrait of a woman…
    Ultimately, regardless the evident contradictions, I think that we should try to “read” Penelope under a different and more complex perspective than she is always brought out to the greater audience: she cannot be considered just a “human version” of poor loyal Argus, as she cannot be simply and unrealistically regarded as just waiting for her beloved husband to come home and then finally die…

    Thank you very much indeed for your compliment and especially your scholarly advice.

  3. Karen says:

    Thank you! I thought you had forgotten me! I was always fascinated by this character, and now I like trying to see her under this new light, Karen

  4. Jacqueline says:

    Tres interestant. Tres bien ecrite. Un texte subtile et léger que j’ai eu grand plaisir à lire! Surtout ne t’arrête pas de publier tes écrits! Gros bisous. Jacqueline

  5. stoa says:

    Dear Karen,
    a promise is a promise…! Thank you for reading me.

  6. stoa says:

    Dear Jacqueline,
    thank you very much for your kind compliment. I am happy you enjoyed my article and hope that you will keep reading me. Naturally I will try to keep researching, meditating and writing.
    Should there be any topic or character you are interested into, please let me know, as it will be a pleasure for me to write again something appealing and exciting.

  7. Ana de La Robla says:

    Bello texto, ut semper. Como bien lees entre líneas, las mujeres de la literatura clásica -a diferencia del ideal “político”, que por otra parte tan bien se evidencia en la epigrafía, en especial en la funeraria- siempre muestran doble fondo. En todo caso, en apoyo de la célebre teoría de los dos autores para la Ilíada y la Odisea, cabe subrayar la mejor definición de los personajes -o más específicamente, su carácter “más fieramente humano”- en la Odisea. Penélope no podía ser una excepción. Las ocasiones en que se la increpa -por ejemplo, Telémaco- y se la incita a volver a sus labores domésticas, están en realidad poniendo de manifiesto que Penélope está dejando de lado las que son sus ocupaciones más propias para asumir otras que al varón no le interesa que asuma. Hay un aspecto, en todo caso, que me parece singularmente interesante: la labor de tejedoras de muchas de las mujeres más emblemáticas del mundo clásico. Es obvio que la rueca y el telar constituyen la definición espacial por antonomasia de la mujer en el mundo antiguo, pero al tiempo el telar es la excusa -a veces hasta el instrumento- con que la mujer transgrede su supuesta situación de sumisión. Ello ocurre en Penélope, en Clitemnestra y en otras muchas. Todas son mujeres “con carácter” y todas se valen del telar para obtener sus deseos. Sobre esto escribí un artículo para un congreso que no sé si conoces: “El maleficio del telar” ( Así que no: no debemos creer a Penélope. Pero tampoco a Ulises…

  8. stoa says:

    Dear Ana, thank you for your compliment.
    I’ve read your article on Maleficio del Telar. Poderes alternativos de la mujer en la Grecia Antigua. I’ve found it very much detailed and interesting; above all your writing is very rich of hints, reflections and quotations that are stimulating more and more reading.
    I consider it, besides an excellent “state of the art” summary, also a real precious source to deepen the analysis of the role of women – as well as the nature and developmnet of the strongly rooted misogyny – in antiquity from several diverse perspectives: social, psychological and literary.

  9. Lucy says:


    thank you for your text. I was wondering if you could tell us more about the image you have included. Who has painted it and where does it come from?

    Thank you dearly, Lucy.

  10. […] Här ett annat resonemang om Penelopes karaktär. […]

  11. […] Här ett annat resonemang om Penelopes karaktär. […]

  12. lustigkulle says:

    ”Should we believe her?” – Yes, we should. I don’t think that any woman and mother can feel affection for men who have tried to murder her son. She has, Homer tells us, waited anxiously for her son to come back from his journey, knowing that there is a plot set up to kill him. She is so relived when he comes back safe and sound, that she weeps.

    Her speech to the suitors is, I think, also partly due to her worries about her son. She realizes that she has come to the end of the way – she must make a decision to solve the situation and save her son from further assaults. That is what Homer writes and it is quite plausible.

    20 years is a very long time and Penelope is a woman of flesh and blood. We can imagine (as Homer’s audience in his time could), that there have been ups and downs – times when she lost her hope of getting her husband back, times when she needed someone. But Homer doesn’t write anything about that, not even a hint. When Antinous makes his remark about “promises to everyone” he speaks in his own interest. It is vital to him to justify his and the other suitors’ behaviour to the men of Ithaca. He is not the first nor the last man to blame a woman for his own villainous behaviour.

    Telemachos’ doubts about his mother tells us something about him – he is playing tough, trying to be a man amongst men, not his mothers little pet. It tells us nothing about Penelope.

    Penelope is, as you write in your post, an interesting character. I think Homer wanted to give Odysseus a wife that matches him: talented and intelligent, but also self confident and with a mind of her own. Before song 17 she doesn’t play an active part, she is mostly spoken of and is described, as you say, as an icon, to perfect to be true. But in the last songs we get to know her as a real, complex person. Homer describes her meetings with Odysseus in 19th and 23d song with compassion and great psychological insight.

    At what point does she recognize him? We don’t know. It’s like a “pas de deux” – they circle around each other. Penelope thinks “maybe …” but isn’t sure and Odysseus tries to find out where she stands. Then when she finally knows, she is a bit annoyed “Why didn’t he say something, why let me wait …”. She says that she wants to test him and he smiles (!). She delivers her little lie about the bed, Odysseus looses his self-control, she’s afraid that she has gone too far and – there they are, embracing each other.
    Excellent writing! So beautiful.

  13. Denise says:

    I loved your post, and am also wondering where you got the image. Do you have a citation?

  14. […] την εικόνα της Πηνελόπης-υφαίνουσας βρήκα εδώ […]

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