Penelope: From Homeric Greece to the Modern Day

Penelope is the Queen of Ithaca from Homer’s Odyssey. She is depicted as a very intelligent and cunning woman. The Odyssey is an epic poem written sometime in the eighth century BC about Odysseus’ return home from the Trojan War. The story takes place ten years after the end of the war, and twenty years after Odysseus has left. Meanwhile, Penelope is at home, and her son, who is now twenty years old, is trying to assert his dominance as the man of the house. It is believed that Odysseus must be dead, and so there are hundreds of suitors trying to convince Penelope to marry them, so they can become the King of Ithaca. Penelope makes up a story that she cannot remarry until she has finished weaving Odysseus’ father’s mourning shroud. However, every night, she sneaks down to her loom and unravels what she had done that day.

The largest primary source regarding Penelope is, not surprisingly, Homer’s Odyssey. It tells of the return home of Odysseus and of Penelope waiting faithfully at home for her husband’s return. While the Odyssey was written down in the eighth century BC, it was an oral poem part of a much longer oral tradition. The Odyssey is based in the heroic past, which is often assimilated with the Bronze Age in Greek thought. Penelope is referenced in other ancient works such as a fragment from a lost play of Eubulus[2], where Penelope is given as an example for the ideal wife, and in a “spell to insure women’s fidelity” from 100 BC to 400 AD in Egypt[3]. Given the idealization of Penelope, it is not surprising to see her appear in other ancient texts.

Unlike Homer, his contemporary, Hesiod, was quite misogynistic. He viewed women as evil and a burden to man. This can be seen in his description of Pandora in Theogony, where he says “Forthwith he made an evil thing for men as the price of fire; for the very famous Limping God formed of earth the likeness of a shy maiden as the son of Cronos willed”[4]. His misogyny can be seen throughout his writing. For example, in his Works and Days, where he says “Also the Guide, the Slayer of Argus, contrived within her lies and crafty words and a deceitful nature at the will of loud thundering Zeus, and the Herald of the gods put speech in her. And he called this woman Pandora, because “all they who dwelt on Olympus gave each a gift, a plague to men who eat bread”[5]. Hesiod’s view represents the larger view of women. We can see this when he says

“Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds. But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils, and the sea is full. Of themselves diseases come upon men continually by day and by night, bringing mischief to mortals silently; for wise Zeus took away speech from them.”[6]

This description Hesiod offers of Pandora in Works and Days is very similar to the lives of women in Greece, thus we can infer that this belief was one that was held across Greece. Women were kept in the house and not allowed to speak. Hesiod claimed that it was for their punishment for Pandora’s evil.

Homer’s depiction of Penelope is a fascinating one, because it is not the typical depiction of Archaic women. Penelope was seen as the ideal wife, devoted to her husband, and submissive. Women could either be good or evil, according to the ancient Greeks. An example of this belief is seen in Euripides’ Hippolytus, which says “they are the best possession one can have. Medea was an evil woman, but Penelope was a good thing… Oh, poor me, I’ve run out of good women, and I still have so many more bad ones to talk about”[1]. This shows Penelope was considered the ideal woman, however highlights that many Ancient Greeks believed there were very few women who met this standard.

 

Penelope and the Mourning Shroud

Penelope is depicted as cunning and highly intelligent. She is left alone by her husband for twenty years as the Queen of Ithaca and has to run her household and raise her son by herself. After the war is over, when Odysseus does not return, she is overrun with suitors, trying to persuade her to marry them so they can become the king of Ithaca. Penelope must then make a decision about what she will do. She comes up with the plan to defer the suitors by saying

‘Young men, my suitors, now my lord is dead
let me finish my weaving before I marry,
or else my thread will have been spun in vain.
It is a shroud I weave for Lord Laertes,
when cold death comes to lay him on his bier.
The country wives would hold me in dishonour
if he, with all his fortune, lay unshrouded’.
We have men’s hearts; she touched them; we agreed.
So every day she wove on the great loom –
but every night by torchlight she unwove it;
and so for three years she deceived the Akhaians. [7]

Here Penelope says she must weave a mourning shroud for her husband’s father and cannot remarry until the shroud was finished. She wove and unwove the shroud for three years, in the hopes that her husband would return. This devotion to her husband is the primary reason Penelope is praised by the Ancient Greeks for being an ideal wife.

Nancy Felson-Rubin suggests that weaving a shroud is a metaphor for weaving her life story[8]. Felson-Rubin argues that Penelope’s character is woven by the opinions of the male characters in the story. These ideas of Penelope include Penelope as a prize to be won, and Penelope as a frigid tease from the perspective of the suitors. From Odysseus’ point of view, Penelope is seen as a possible adulteress who maintained her reputation and that of her husband, by not committing adultery, and is also seen as a loyal and cunning wife[9]. Penelope herself weaves together themes of courtship, marriage, patience, intelligence, dalliance, infidelity, disdain and mourning[10]. This interpretation shows how important the shroud is to the central plot of the story, and also to Penelope herself, which is often overlooked in scholarship. She is moulded by the opinions of the people around her, just as the shroud is created by threads. These interpretations from the suitors, Odysseus and Penelope reflect on the opinions of the Homeric public, and show what they would have thought Penelope should be.

Penelope’s complexity is what makes her an interesting character. In very few other ancient texts do we see a female with such depth of character. Very often women are simply background characters who do not drive the plot as Penelope does. The only exception to this is in other Homeric epics, like the Iliad where Helen of Troy is seen moving the plot through her role in the Trojan War. Women are often passive and submissive and while that side of Penelope can be seen, she is also able to create a plan to defer the suitors and wait until her husband returns home[11].

 

Penelope as the Ideal Wife

Penelope was written to portray the image of the ideal wife. There are many attributes that Penelope displays that make her the ideal wife, such as intelligence, loving, cunning, but most importantly loyalty. This can be seen in a passage from the twenty-fourth book of The Odyssey:

“O fortunate Odysseus, master mariner
and soldier, blessed son of old Laertes!
The girl you brought home made a valiant wife!
True to her husband’s honour and her own,
Penelope, Ikarios’ faithful daughter!
The very gods themselves will sing her story
for men on earth – mistress of her own heart,
Penelope!
Tyndareus’ waited too – how differently!
Klytaimnestra, the adulteress,
waited to stab her lord and king. That song
will be forever hateful. A bad name
she gave to womankind, even the best.”[12]

This passage sings the praises of Penelope for her devotion to her husband, while at the same time comparing her to other female figures in mythology, like Clytemnestra who did not show the same loyalty. This shows how Penelope is held as the gold standard of wives, while other women are seen as adulteresses and untrustworthy. Ancient society was still highly misogynistic and the image of women that survived was largely the one of Clytemnestra the adulteress rather than that of Penelope the loyal wife, which is unfortunate for many ancient women, whose lives likely would have been much better had Penelope’s image of women outlived that of Clytemnestra.

penelope statue vatican
Statue of Penelope dating to 460-450 BC, carved in white marble. Currently at the Vatican Museum, Inventory Number MV_754_0_0.

A statue of Penelope from the Vatican Museum shows Penelope’s devotion and chastity through her body language. She is shown looking down with a look of longing for her husband on her face[13]. Her legs are crossed to represent her chastity, showing she will not compromise herself by sleeping with any of the suitors[14]. This particular statue is a model which dates to 460-450 BC[15]. The original was from 420 BC[16]. The head of the original statue was lost, and Penelope’s head on the later replica was the head of Diadumenos[17]. There are other statues of Penelope, all of which follow the same style, with Penelope looking down longingly, with her legs crossed. For the Ancient Greeks looking at this statues, and others like it, they would understand the significance of her body language, representing chastity and devotion to her husband. Therefore, this statue would serve as a reminder for the women looking at it, of the virtue they should strive to achieve.

The image of Penelope as the model wife is one that has been adopted into many other ancient texts. For example, a “Spell to Insure Women’s Fidelity” from 100 BC to 400 AD in Egypt, says “and let her remain chaste for me, as Penelope did for Odysseus”[18]. Here, the author uses the allegory of Penelope as a way of saying that the speaker hopes that his wife will hold to the same values and be as loyal as Penelope was to Odysseus. This shows the popularity of Odyssey, because references were made to the story centuries after it was written and as well as being referenced in other parts of the Mediterranean. This shows how the belief of Penelope as the ideal wife survived for hundreds of years.

In many instances in The Odyssey, Penelope is seen crying or grieving, whether for her husband, or for her son Telemachus, who says he will go and try to find his father. Richard Heitman suggests that this display of emotion is not showing weakness or fragility, but instead showing her love and devotion to her family[19]. One example of Penelope’s displays of emotion comes when Telemachus tells her he is leaving to find his father:

He left her then, and went down through the house.
And now the pain around her heart benumbed her;
chairs were a step away but far beyond her;
she sank down on the doorsill of the chamber, wailing, …[20]

These displays of emotion show just how much Penelope cares for her family. In Ancient Greece, marriage was for the creation of children, rather than love, therefore the emotion Penelope shows is likely not the reaction that many men would receive from their wives or mothers. This is another example of Penelope’s ideal virtue, because she truly cares for her family, and shows an effective bond that was not common in marriage in the ancient world.

terracotta plaque
“Terracotta Plaque” of Penelope and her family, currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Credited to the Fletcher Fund, 1925, Accession number 25.78.26

A terracotta plaque found in Greece ca. 450 BC, shows Penelope with her husband, son, and Eurykleia, her husband’s nurse[21]. This plaque depicts the scene where Eurykleia washes Odysseus’ feet, before Penelope recognizes him. In this, Penelope is again shown as the ideal woman, as she treats who she believes is her guest with respect. She does this by having one of her nurses attend to the stranger, by washing his feet, which was a Greek custom[22], while staying nearby and making sure nothing inappropriate happens. This plaque comes from a time near to the creation of the story, and thus tells us how it impacted the people who heard it. They clearly thought that this scene was important to Greek culture and celebrated it in this plaque. Penelope’s presence in the plaque tells us that the Greeks believed that she acted properly to the situation and wanted to represent that in a plaque that would remind other women to follow in her footsteps.

 

Penelope in Modern Representations

Penelope has been continually recreated in art and literature for centuries. From Pinturicchio’s Penelope and the Suitors[23], to Fauré’s Pénélope, to Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Homer’s ideal wife has been represented. In all of these more modern representations, Penelope is praised for her intelligence and loyalty to her husband.

Penelope and the Suitors Pinturiccho
Pinturicchio’s “Penelope and the Suitors”, currently at the National Gallery in London, Inventory Number NG911.

Pinturicchio’s Penelope and the Suitors was commissioned by Pandolfo Petrucci for his wedding in 1509[24]. Petrucci later became the ruler of Siena and the painting was a form of propaganda promoting the brutality of maintaining the Italian state, relating it to how Odysseus killed the suitors to reclaim his wife and throne[25]. Penelope was used to represent the maintenance of the brutality of the Italian state, because in the Odyssey, Penelope is a character who represents stability.  When her husband returns home, there is a bloodbath in the fight that ensues, which is a parallel to the war that would happen if there was an uprising against the state. Thus, Penelope would be used to represent the maintenance of the state, because she represents the horror of the fight when trying to change something that is established.

There is debate regarding the central figure of Pinturicchio’s painting. Some say it is Odysseus when he returns home while Penelope questions him to make sure that it really is her husband, while others say the man in the center of the painting is one of the suitors and it is when Penelope tricks the suitors with her scheme of weaving the mourning shroud at her loom[26]. In either of the arguments regarding the scene of the painting, Penelope is seen as an active character. If the first argument is correct, and it is Penelope questioning her husband to make sure it is really him, she is showing her intelligent nature to know better than to believe just anyone claiming to be Odysseus. After twenty years appearances may change, so Penelope knew she had to question him about their past together to ensure the man she saw was really her husband. If it is the second scenario, where the man is a suitor and Penelope is weaving the mourning shroud, she is showing that she could outsmart the suitors for over three years. In either case, Penelope is shown to be a highly intelligent woman.

A more modern representation of Penelope can be seen in Fauré’s opera, Pénélope. The opera is in three acts and was created in 1913[27]. The story follows that of the Odyssey, beginning with Penelope waiting for her husband’s return home from war. According to a 1987 review by Calum MacDonald, the opera has a sense of serenity, which grows from the character of Penelope[28]. This is another representation of Penelope, this time as a gentle and serene character. This representation is one that survived thousands of years, and is a reflection of the ideal woman, even in the twentieth century. This ideal woman is someone who is gentle, serene, and intelligent, however not someone who will start trouble. This shows how the patriarchy was enforced, through the idea of women being submissive to men.

Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is the most recent representation of Penelope. The Penelopiad was written in 2006 and puts a more modern spin on the character of Penelope. This interpretation of Penelope is told from her point of view, which we do not see in any other representation. In The Penelopiad, Penelope has much more agency than she does in any other version of the story. In response to weaving the mourning shroud she says “No one could oppose my task, it was so extremely pious. All day I worked away at my loom weaving diligently, and saying melancholy things … But at night I would undo what I had accomplished, so the shroud would never get any bigger”[29]. This takes a new spin on Penelope weaving the shroud. It shows her playing an active role not only because she is speaking directly to the reader, but also because she says when she told the story later, she would say that Pallas Athene had given her the idea, but she seems uncertain that this was the case[30]. This implies that Penelope was intelligent enough to come up with the plan on her own, however leaves it open to the beliefs of the reader. Of all the representations, this one gives the most credit to Penelope as a character, and not only makes her out to be an ideal wife, because through the patriarchy, even today men would still rather women be subordinate to men, rather than thinking and acting for themselves,  but also a character who is relatable so that the reader feels they can connect with her and follow in her footsteps. This connection is what was missing from many other versions of the character, specifically in Ancient Greece, because rather than empowering women to be like Penelope, the character was used to show women their shortcomings.

Penelope is a fascinating character who influenced women throughout the ages. From Homeric Greece to the modern day, she has been reinterpreted. At first, she was seen as the ideal wife, which women should strive to be like, but was often used to bring up their shortcomings. She was intensely loyal, which is what a wife in Ancient Greece was supposed to be, as there was a fear of female sexuality. Penelope was also viewed as highly intelligent and cunning, which was unusual at the time, as women were generally seen as inferior and unable to think for themselves, always requiring a male supervisor. This intelligence can be seen through her weaving of the shroud. She is a character who has been continually reimagined through the centuries in the form of paintings, operas and novels. Penelope is a fascinating character from Ancient Greece and continues to fascinate scholars today.

 

Bibliography

Atwood, Margaret Eleanor. The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus. New York, NY: Canongate Books, 2006.

Felson-Rubin, Nancy. Regarding Penelope: From Character to Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Gallery, London The National. “Penelope with the Suitors.” The National Gallery. Accessed October 13, 2018. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/pintoricchio-penelope-with-the-suitors.

Heitman, Richard. Taking Her Seriously: Penelope & the Plot of Homer’s Odyssey. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.

“Hesiod, Theogony.” Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Α α,. Accessed November 15, 2018. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0130:card=545.

“Hesiod, Works and Days.” Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Α α,. Accessed November 15, 2018. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0132:card=83.

Homer. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Garden City, New York: International Collectors Library, 1961.

La Revue Administrative 35, no. 205 (1982): 111-12. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40769013.

Lefkowitz, Mary R., and Maureen B. Fant. Womens Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

MacDonald, Calum. Tempo, no. 137 (1981): 52-53. http://www.jstor.org/stable/945658.

Morford, Mark P. O., Robert J. Lenardon, and Michael Sham. Classical Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

“Terracotta Plaque.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Accessed November 15, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/251812.

“Vatican Museums Catalogue.” Catalogo.museivaticani.va. Accessed November 16, 2018. https://catalogo.museivaticani.va/opere/.

 

 

[1] Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant, Womens Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 29-30.

[2] Lefkowitz and Fant, Womens Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation, 29-30.

[3] Lefkowitz and Fant, Womens Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation, 389.

[4] Hes. Th. 570

[5] Hes. WD 79-80

[6] Hes. WD 96-105

[7] Hom. Od. 2.97-107

[8] Nancy Felson-Rubin, Regarding Penelope: From Character to Poetics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 17.

[9] Felson-Rubin, Regarding Penelope: From Character to Poetics, 17.

[10] Felson-Rubin, Regarding Penelope: From Character to Poetics, 17.

[11] Richard Heitman, Taking Her Seriously: Penelope & the Plot of Homers Odyssey (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), 35.

[12] Hom. Od. 24.193-205

[13] “Vatican Museums Catalogue,” Catalogo.museivaticani.va, accessed November 16, 2018, https://catalogo.museivaticani.va/opere/.

[14] Vatican Museums Catalogue,” Catalogo.museivaticani.va

[15] Vatican Museums Catalogue,” Catalogo.museivaticani.va

[16] Vatican Museums Catalogue,” Catalogo.museivaticani.va

[17] Vatican Museums Catalogue,” Catalogo.museivaticani.va

[18] Lefkowitz and Fant, Womens Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation, 389.

[19] Heitman, Taking Her Seriously: Penelope & the Plot of Homers Odyssey, 35.

[20] Hom. Od. 4.716-20

[21] ‘Terracotta Plaque, Greek, Melian, Classical, The Met’.

[22] ‘Terracotta Plaque, The Met’.

[23] London The National Gallery, “Penelope with the Suitors,” The National Gallery, accessed October 13, 2018, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/pintoricchio-penelope-with-the-suitors.

[24] Mark P. O. Morford, Robert J. Lenardon, and Michael Sham, Classical Mythology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 536-7.

[25] Morford, Lenardon, and Sham, Classical Mythology, 536-7.

[26]Morford, Lenardon, and Sham, Classical Mythology, 536-7.

[27] La Revue Administrative 35, no. 205 (1982) http://www.jstor.org/stable/40769013.: 111-12.

[28] MacDonald, Calum. Tempo, no. 137 (1981) http://www.jstor.org/stable/945658.: 52-53.

[29] Margaret Eleanor Atwood, The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (New York, NY: Canongate Books, 2006), 113.

[30] Atwood, The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus, 112.


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