Penelope (Πηνελόπη) is a character of the Odyssey, one of the two great epic poems (the other being the Iliad; both are attributed to Homer) of ancient Greek literature. Her name is close to the Greek word for "duck," but is usually understood to be a combination of the greek word for "web" or "woof" (πηνη) and the word for "face" (ωψ), very appropriate for a weaver of cunning whose motivation is hard to decipher.
Role in the Odyssey
Penelope is the wife of the main character, the king of Ithaca Odysseus and daughter of Icarius and his wife Periboea. She waits twenty years for the final return of her husband from the Trojan War, while she has hard times in refusing marriage proposal from several princes (such as Agelaus, Amphinomus, Ctessippus, Demoptolemus, Elatus, Euryades, Eurymachus, Irus and Peisandros, led by Antinous) for four years since the fall of Troy. Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar, sees that Penelope has remained faithful to him. She devises tricks to delay her suitors, one of which is pretending to weave a burial shroud for Odysseus' elderly father Laertes and claiming she will choose one suitor when she has finished. Every night for three years she undoes part of the shroud, until the suitors discover her plot.
Because of her efforts in putting off remarriage, she is often seen as a symbol of connubial fidelity. However, Penelope is getting restless (due, in part, to Athena's meddling) and variously calling out for Artemis to kill her and (apparently) considering marrying one of the suitors. When the disguised Odysseus returns to his home, she announces that whoever can string a particularly rigid bow can have her hand. There is debate over whether or not she is aware that Odysseus is behind the disguise. By Penelope and the suitors' knowledge, Odysseus, were he in fact present, would clearly surpass any of the suitors in any test of masculine skill that could be contrived.
Odysseus watched the suitors drink and take advantage of his family's hospitality, and gets more and more angry. The contest of the bow begins, but none of the suitors can string the bow, and Odysseus wins the contest and proceeds to kill them all with help from his son Telemachus, Athena and a servant, Eumaeus. Odysseus has now shown himself in all his glory, and it is standard (in terms of a recognition scene) for all to recognize him and be happy. Penelope, however, cannot believe her husband has really returned (she fears that perhaps it is some god in disguise as Odysseus, as in the story of Alcmene), and tests him by ordering her servant Euryclea to move the bed in their wedding-chamber. Odysseus protests that this can not be done since he had made the bed himself and knows that one of its legs was a living olive tree, and Penelope finally accepts that he is truly her husband. That moment highlights their homophrosyne (like-mindedness).
In one story, after Odysseus' death, she marries his son by Circe, Telegonus, with whom she was the mother of Italus. Telemachus also marries Circe when Penelope and Telemachus bring Odysseus' body to Circe's island.
Some of Penelope's suitors are:
The 108 suitors' homelands and strength are:
- 52 from Dulichum (with 6 serving-men)
- 24 from Same
- 12 from Ithaca (with Meldon the herald, Phemius the bard, and 2 other servants)
- Homer, Odyssey
- Seth L. Schein, Reading the Odyssey: Selected Interpretive Essays Princeton University Press (1996) ID=0-691-04440-6