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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