Penelope was the daughter of Icarius of Sparta and his wife Periboea. Although she is the cousin of Helen of Sparta/Troy her lineage is not what she is famous for, Penelope is famous for being the wife of the Greek hero Odysseus, together they were king and queen of Ithaca, they also had one son together – Telemachus.
In the ancient world, particularly Greece, women were ‘seen and not heard’. Men would marry women specifically for the purpose of having children, preferably a boy. Women could not attend assemblies or be a council member, they could not have an education, they did not have jobs or even the right to marry who they wanted, arranged marriage was what would be expected in the ancient Greek world. The women’s main jobs were to provide male heirs and to look after the household (the household being the slaves, cooks and farm hands).
The story of Penelope is mainly told in Homers – The Odyssey where straight away we get the epithet for Penelope as ‘loyal Penelope’ and ‘wise Penelope’. Being a queen, it is easy to assume Penelope lived an easy, comfortable life but this was not the case. Penelope’s husband Odysseus went away to the Trojan War for ten years. Penelope spent ten years worrying day in, day out about the fate of her husband, not knowing if he was dead or alive, the emotional torture she endured was excruciating. To worsen the struggles of poor Penelope it then took Odysseus ten years to get home from Troy, in which time Penelope heard nothing of his journey or if he was alive. By this time the son of Odysseus and Penelope, Telemachus, was around the age of 20; Penelope had brought Telemachus up on her own.
Penelope was still a queen, and always described as very beautiful so therefore could easily remarry. Whilst this is true, in fact Penelope had 108 suitors who would spend everyday in the palace, eating all their food and making use of all the facilities; much to the disgust of queen Penelope. But how could she remarry? After all was Odysseus even dead?
My personal opinion is that Penelope is a hero (shero) in her own right. She spent twenty years remaining loyal to Odysseus, despite 108 suitors bringing her gifts and begging for her attention, she never strays. Homer even mentions in the Odyssey that each night Penelope sleeps with thoughts of Odysseus in her mind. It was uncommon for women to be loyal, Penelope’s own cousin Clytemnestra, had an affair when her husband Agamemnon was away at the Trojan war and helped her lover murder Agamemnon on his return.
Considering Greek women were not educated, Penelope was cunning. She created a ‘shroud trick’ in which she told the suitors once she had created this shroud she would marry one of them. Every night before she slept, Penelope would slowly unpick every hand-sewn stitch she’d created throughout the day, therefore never finishing the shroud and never picking a new husband.
Penelope also came up with the idea of ‘stringing the great bow’ – A bow owned by Odysseus that only he could string (which of course Penelope knew) so one by one each suitor tried and failed to string the bow.
In conclusion, I think Penelope is a shero because she defies all the stereotypes of what an ancient woman should be. She is educated in her own right, a brilliant queen and mother and she remains always loyal to Odysseus.
Written for Sheroes of History by Breagh Mcnamara
Find out more…
The Odyssey is an epic poem, where the full story of Penelope is told. You can read it for free online here, or get yourself a copy of the book. (If you don’t want to read the whole thing, but want a summary you can look here.)
There is a much more detailed account of Penelope’s story here and a useful timeline of Penelope’s tale here.
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One thought on “Penelope Queen of Ithaca”
I agree. I’ve always considered Penelope to be the greatest heroine in literature until the modern age. It was very clear to me that unlike nearly all such arranged marriages that these two genuinely loved and respected each other. One might suppose that Athene herself had arranged the marriage, knowing the trials both would face.