Penelope in the Odyssey – Storytelling for Everyone

Greek Myth & Legend

Artist, Dora Wheeler, “Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night”

Penelope in the Odyssey, the epic poem by Homer, is the faithful wife of Odysseus (or Ulysses for the Romans). Odysseus is the King of Ithaca, and he is the main protagonist in Homer’s poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Odysseus is a warrior in the Trojan War, and the Odyssey covers his return home after many long years.

In the first poem, the Iliad, Odysseus is away at war, fighting against the Trojans for ten long years. However, when he begins his journey home, many odd challenges come upon him, which take him another ten years to finally get back to his home.

The Faithful Wife

Odysseus leaves his wife Penelope of Ithaca and his son, Telemachus on their own and initiates the journey, during which he loses all his crewmates, and arrives on his own. Penelope waited faithfully for his return, as Telemachus had to help her fight against the many suitors who wanted her hand. During the twenty years of her husband being away, a total of 108 suitors came to try and get her to marry them.

Odysseus’ Trials and Fidelity

On his way back from the Trojan War, Odysseus ran into many troubles because of angering Poseidon, the god of the sea. He struggles through storms, capture, and magic. For seven years, he got stuck on an island with Calypso, where she fell in love with him and begged him to make love to her, promising that she would make him her husband.

Some stories say that he gave in, while others say that he remained faithful just as his wife had done. Athena helped him by asking Zeus, the sky god, to stop Poseidon’s anger and letting Odysseus get on his way.

Odysseus found himself with the Phoenicians who eventually delivered him to Ithaca, after he told them his story. While he was away, goddess Athena and his son came looking for him, but the suitors pining for Penelope planned to kill Telemachus on his ship as he returned.

Keeping Those Suitors at Bay

While Odysseus was away, Penelope had 108 suitors clamoring for her hand. However, due to the love she had for her husband, Penelope chose to remain faithful, strongly believing that Odysseus would return home one day.

For this reason, to avoid remarriage, she devised a few tricks keeping the marriages from taking place and from even meeting her suitors.

One of these tactics was to announce that she would marry if only she completed weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus’ father. For three years, she claimed she was weaving it, and so she couldn’t marry. At night, she tore the weaving apart so it had to be woven again.

However, with Athena’s help together with his son, Odysseus makes his escape from the island where he was kept with Calypso. He finally returns home, revealing himself to his recently returned son, and joins one of Penelope’s final competitions for her hand.

Fighting for Love and Finding Proof

Athena disguises Odysseus as a beggar so that Penelope can’t recognize him, as he joins the competition to marry her. The competition is as follows: The man who can string an arrow to Odysseus’ bow and shoot an arrow through twelve ax heads may have her as their wife.

She creates this competition on purpose, knowing it’s impossible for anyone to win except for her husband. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus is able to see how things are in his household before his full return.

He wants to know if his wife has been faithful to him. He confirms that she has indeed been, and hence he joins the competition, easily stringing the bow and shooting through twelve ax heads.

Once he completes this task, he throws off his disguises, and with the help of his son, kills all 108 suitors. Telemachus even hangs twelve of the housemaids who had betrayed Penelope or had made love to the suitors themselves.

Odysseus reveals himself to Penelope; fearing that it is some type of a scam, she tries out one more trick on him. She tells her lady’s maid to move the bed that she and Odysseus had shared.

Odysseus had carpentered the bed himself, having the knowledge into the matter, he answered that it could not be moved, because one leg was a living olive tree. Penelope is convinced that her husband has finally returned, and they are reunited in happiness at long last.



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