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Title: Penelope  
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Subject: Odysseus, Ulysses (novel), W. Somerset Maugham, Classical civilisation, Circe
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Penelope, Bronze, by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle

In Homer's Odyssey, Penelope ( ; Greek: Πηνελόπεια, Pēnelópeia, or Πηνελόπη, Pēnelópē) is the faithful wife of Odysseus, who keeps her suitors at bay in his long absence and is eventually reunited with him.

Her name has traditionally been associated with marital faithfulness,[1] and so it was with the Greeks and Romans, but some recent feminist readings offer a more ambiguous interpretation.[2]


The origin of her name is believed by Robert S. P. Beekes to be Pre-Greek and related to pēnelops (πηνέλοψ)[3] or pēnelōps (πηνέλωψ), glossed by Hesychius as "some kind of bird"[4] (today arbitrarily identified with the Eurasian Wigeon, to which Linnaeus gave the binomial Anas penelope), where -elōps (-έλωψ) is a common Pre-Greek suffix for predatory animals;[5] however, the semantic relation between the proper name and the gloss is not clear. In folk etymology. Pēnelopē (Πηνελόπη) is usually understood to combine the Greek word pēnē (πήνη), "weft", and ōps (ὤψ), "face", which is considered the most appropriate for a cunning weaver whose motivation is hard to decipher.[6]

Role in the Odyssey

Yea, Verily, thou art Odysseus

Penelope is the wife of the main character, the king of Ithaca, Odysseus (Ulysses in Roman mythology), and daughter of Icarius and his wife Periboea. She only has one son by Odysseus, Telemachus, who was born just before Odysseus was called to fight in the Trojan War. She waits twenty years for the final return of her husband,[7] during which she devises various strategies to delay marrying one of the 108[8] suitors (led by Antinous and including Agelaus, Amphinomus, Ctessippus, Demoptolemus, Elatus, Euryades, Eurymachus and Peisandros).

On Odysseus's return, disguised as an old beggar, he finds that Penelope has remained faithful. She has devised tricks to delay her suitors, one of which is to pretend to be weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus's elderly father Laertes and claiming that she will choose a suitor when she has finished. Every night for three years, she undoes part of the shroud, until Melantho, one of twelve unfaithful serving women, discovers her chicanery and reveals it to the suitors.

Because of her efforts to put off remarriage, Penelope is often seen as a symbol of connubial fidelity and we are reminded several times of her fidelity. But due to Athena's meddling, who wants her "to show herself to the wooers, that she might set their hearts a-flutter and win greater honor from her husband and her son than heretofore", Penelope does appear before the suitors (xviii.160–162). As Irene de Jong comments:

As so often, it is Athena who takes the initiative in giving the story a new direction ... Usually the motives of mortal and god coincide, here they do not: Athena wants Penelope to fan the Suitor's desire for her and (thereby) make her more esteemed by her husband and son; Penelope has no real motive ... she simply feels an unprecedented impulse to meet the men she so loathes ... adding that she might take this opportunity to talk to Telemachus (which she will indeed do).[9]

She is ambivalent, variously asking Artemis to kill her and, apparently, considering marrying one of the suitors. When the disguised Odysseus returns, she announces in her long interview with the disguised hero that whoever can string Odysseus's rigid bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe heads may have her hand. "For the plot of the Odyssey, of course, her decision is the turning point, the move that makes possible the long-predicted triumph of the returning hero".[10]

There are debate as to whether she is aware that Odysseus is behind the disguise. Penelope and the suitors know that Odysseus (were he in fact present) would easily surpass all in any test of masculine skill. Since Odysseus seems to be the only person (perhaps excepting Telemachus) who can actually use the bow, it could merely have been another delaying tactic of Penelope's.

Odysseus and Penelope by Francesco Primaticcio (1563)

When the contest of the bow begins, none of the suitors are able to string the bow, but Odysseus does, and wins the contest. Having done so, he proceeds to slaughter the suitors—beginning with Antinous whom he finds drinking from Odysseus' cup—with help from Telemachus, Athena and two servants, Eumaeus the swineherd and Philoetius the cowherd. Odysseus has now revealed himself in all his glory (with a little makeover by Athena); yet Penelope cannot believe that her husband has really returned—she fears that it is perhaps some god in disguise, as in the story of Alcmene—and tests him by ordering her servant Euryclea to move the bed in their bridal-chamber. Odysseus protests that this cannot be done since he made the bed himself and knows that one of its legs is a living olive tree. Penelope finally accepts that he truly is her husband, a moment that highlights their homophrosýnē (ὁμοφροσύνη, "like-mindedness").[11] Homer implies, that from then on, Odysseus would live a long and happy life together with Penelope and Telemachus, wisely ruling his kingdom and enjoying wide respect and much success.[12]


Gold intaglio ring, Syria, last quarter of the 5th century BCE (Louvre Museum)

Penelope is recognizable in Greek and Roman works, from Attic vase-paintings—the Penelope Painter is recognized by his representations of her—to Roman sculpture copying or improvising upon classical Greek models, by her seated pose, by her reflective gesture of leaning her cheek on her hand, and by her protectively crossed knees, reflecting her long chastity in Odysseus' absence, an unusual pose in any other figure.[13]

Latin tradition

Latin references to Penelope revolved around the sexual loyalty to her absent husband. It suited the martial aspect of Roman society representing the tranquility of the worthy family.[14] She is mentioned by various classical authors including Plautus,[15] Propertius,[16] Horace, Ovid, Martial and Statius. The use of Penelope in Latin texts provided a basis for her ongoing use in the Middle Ages and Renaissance as a representation of the chaste wife. This was reinforced by her being named by St Jerome among pagan women famed for their chastity.


  1. ^ J.W. Mackail, with Penelope in the Odyssey (Cambridge University Press, 1916), epitomizes the traditional view of the dutiful Penelope.
  2. ^ Marylin A. Katz, Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey (Princeton University Press, 1991)
  3. ^ R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 1186.
  4. ^ Γλῶσσαι.
  5. ^ lemma relating πηνέλωψ (gen. πηνέλοπος) and <χην(ά)λοπες>· ὄρνεα (predators) ποιά. ὅπερ ἔνιοι <χηναλώπεκες>.
  6. ^ For the mythology of weaving, see Weaving (mythology).
  7. ^ Odysseus spends ten years in the Trojan War and ten years travelling home.
  8. ^ Homer. The Odyssey, Book XVI, in The Iliad & The Odyssey. Trans. Samuel Butler. p. 628. ISBN 978-1-4351-1043-4
  9. ^ , Irene de Jong. (2001). A Narratological commentary on the Odyssey, p. 445. Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-46844-2
  10. ^ Bernard Knox. (1996). Introduction to Robert Fagles's translation of The Odyssey p. 55.
  11. ^ Austin, Norman (1975). Archery at the Dark of the Moon: Poetic Problems in Homer's Odyssey. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 231. 
  12. ^ Lawall, Thalman, Patterson, James, Spacks. "The Norton Anthology: Western Literature."The Odyssey". New York, London. 1984.
  13. ^ But compare, for an unusual exception, the seated aulos player on the "Ludovisi Throne.
  14. ^ Mactoux, Marie-Madeleine (1975). Pénélope: Légende et Mythe. Paris: Annales Litteraires de L'Universite de Basancon. pp. 129–30. 
  15. ^ Nixon, Paul (1968). Plautus. London: William Heinemann Ltd.  She is mentioned in the opening lines of the play Stychus
  16. ^ Propertius (2004). Complete Elegies of Propertius. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. see Elegies 2.6; 2.9 and 3.12. Propertius was one of the few Latin authors to mention Penelope's weaving ruse.

Ancient sources

Secondary sources

External links

  • in English on the Perseus ProjectOdyssey
  • Penelope Unravelling Her Web - a painting of Penelope by Joseph Wright of Derby (from the Getty Museum)
  • 'Penelope and the Suitors', a painting by John William Waterhouse; explore other paintings depicting Penelope
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