The Odyssey’s Penelope

“…In that catastrophe no one was dealt a heavier blow than I, who pass my days in mourning for the best of husbands…” ~Penelope to the minstrel Phemius in Homer’s The Odyssey

Penelope, in Homer’s The Odyssey, suffers the harsh punishment of waiting twenty years for her husband, Odysseus, to return to Ithaca after the Trojan War. After numerous suitors pressure Penelope to remarry, she reluctantly promises that she will remarry once she finishes weaving a burial shroud for Laertes, Odysseus’s father.  Penelope mourns in sorrow, weaving a burial shroud by day, but unraveling part of the shroud by night, so that she never finishes. Because of her situation in The Odyssey and her reaction to it, Penelope has become a symbol of fidelity and loyalty.

PenelopePenelope is artful and clever, and these characteristics make her an intriguing character in The Odyssey.  She never explicitly refuses to remarry, but rather tricks her suitors to believe that she might give up waiting for her husband.  When Odysseus returns to Ithaca, he disguises himself as a decrepit beggar.  Although there is debate about whether Penelope knows at first sight that the beggar is indeed Odysseus in disguise, she devises a series of tests that only Odysseus would be able to solve.

The first test, stringing Odysseus’s bow, which is very rigid, and then shooting an arrow through a dozen axe shafts, eliminates all of the suitors.  Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, then slaughters the suitors and reveals himself to Penelope.  Penelope, however, continues to test Odysseus, asking him to interpret a dream that only he would know how to explain. After Odysseus explains the dream correctly to Penelope, revealing a story about winning his own wife back from jealous men upon his own absence, Penelope asks her servant to move their bed into their wedding chamber.  It is only after Odysseus protests, arguing that their bed cannot be moved because one of its legs is a living olive tree, that Penelope accepts Odysseus as her true husband.

Despite the debate about whether Penelope recognized Odysseus at first sight, these tests reveal the deepness of their love.  In the words of Homer, Penelope “knew that the stranger was the king when she saw herself reflected in his eyes, when she felt that her love encountered Odysseus’s love.”

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