1. Education

Odyssey II: Wily Penelope


Odysseus Disguised as a Beggar and Penelope. Terracotta relief. c. 450 B.C. Louvre.

Odysseus Disguised as a Beggar and Penelope. Terracotta relief. c. 450 B.C. Louvre.

Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

How wise was Penelope? Was she merely a pawn among men in the Ithacan power play? While Book II advances the plot of the Odyssey by creating the means and opportunity for Telemachus to air his grievances and acquire a ship and crew, Penelope's is the story told.

In Book I, Athena/Mentes told Telemachus the suitors' behavior was intolerable. In Book II, Penelope's suitors defend their actions before the Ithacan assembly through countercharges.

Summoned by a herald, the men gather on an equal footing where a speaking staff confers the right to speak. Since it has been twenty years since the last convocation, the men expect important news, either of Odysseus' return or imminent attack. Instead, Telemachus says he has called the assembly because of a personal grievance.

Since his speech doesn't move the assembly, the gods send a pair of eagles. But not even the ominous, fighting birds change the alliances. On Telemachus' side are two old men, Halitherses and Mentor. Ranged against him are the suitors and their fathers. No blows are thrown, nor even resentment harbored: After the assembly, one of the suitors, Antinous, invites Telemachus to join him in the festivities.

While the assembly doesn't resolve Telemachus' problem, it lets us in on social conditions, the suitors' perspective, and the character of Penelope. Whereas Telemachus and Athena believe the suitors are entirely at fault, the suitors blame Penelope for the depletion of Odysseus' estate. If Penelope would choose one, the others would be able to leave and tend to their own long-neglected affairs. It's not worth it for them to leave prematurely, though, since whoever wins Penelope will become very rich. So although a life of feasting and debauchery may seem pleasant, Telemachus is not alone in wishing an end to it.

In addition to not choosing, Penelope has deceived the men. Impatient, they tried to force her to choose. She told them she would do so as soon as she finished weaving a funeral pall for her father-in-law. The suitors agreed, but after three years of weaving with no end in sight, they grew suspicious. A compliant servant revealed her mistress' secret ploy: Each night she undid the day's weaving. Caught in the act, she could no longer postpone finishing the weaving.

The suitors also tell Telemachus that if his situation is really so intolerable, he should send his mother back to her father, Icarius. Women at this time were legally controlled by one man or another -- usually father or husband. All Telemachus would have to do for Icarius to resume responsibility for Penelope is pay back her expensive dowry. Otherwise, as long as Penelope remains on Odysseus' estate in Ithaca, the suitors will continue to try to force a decision and remain where they are, eating and drinking Odysseus' family out of house and home.

We'll share his meat, no thanks or fee to him,
as long as she delays and maddens us.

The suitors suggest that Penelope has over used her cunning:

She may rely too long on Athena's gifts --
talent in handicraft and a clever mind;
so cunning -- history cannot show the like

Dene Grigar and Mindi Corwin, in The Loom and the Weaver: Hypertext and Homer's Odyssey, point out that the suitors refer to Penelope's kerdea, a Greek word that usually refers to cunning intelligence and is associated with a fox or skilled thief. The wily Odysseus married a woman of equal skill. In the Fitzgerald translation, the first passage to mention this kerdea is translated:

"{I}t is your own dear, incomparably cunning mother."*

The very fact that she has managed to stay the head of a household and keep it solvent for twenty years shows how shrewd she is. Obviously there is still plenty of food and drink for the suitors to commandeer and Penelope has even managed to keep safe a special store of the best vintage, as we learn when Telemachus asks Eurykleia for twelve travel amphorae of the second best wine.

In Penelope and Alcestis: Are they Sophron?, Laura Slapikoff points out that Penelope was originally entrusted by Odysseus with the running of the household until Telemachus grew a beard, but now, twenty years later, she is putting off the time when she must return the power to a man. She is more than Semonides' meek bee-woman:

She [the bee-woman] is a good housekeeper, a nurturer of her husband, a child-bearer. She is chaste, graceful and does not like to talk about sex with other women.

In the usual order, the Greek woman would be given by one man to another, but in this case, Penelope will make the selection. Penelope, however, prefers to remain unmarried and in charge. Being chaste and waiting for Odysseus is usually viewed as a sign of her fidelity which contrasts with Odysseus' many affairs, but it may be that Penelope's chastity empowers her. If she weren't so chaste, she'd have a harder time keeping the suitors at bay. Now that Telemachus has come of age, Penelope's power will be curtailed one way or another.

Telemachus prepares to leave at the end of Book II. Until he or his father returns, Penelope will be able to maintain her control of the household.

* In contrast, the 1900 Butler translation available on the Internet renders this:
"It is your mother's fault, not ours, for she is a very artful woman."
Suggesting that Penelope is only clever with respect to other women ("very artful woman") misses the point.

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This feature is copyright 10/31/2000 N.S. Gill.

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