The Odyssey is taught as an early example of epic poetry, recounting the courageous deeds of the hero, Odysseus, who has to find his way home after the Trojan War, but is distracted because he angered the gods. Odysseus is brave, strong and intelligent, appropriate attributes for a noble’s son, but he is also a liar and a cheat that resorts to trickery to get his way, tasks in which he has the support of Athena. His plight reminds me more of a Jobian story, except that Odysseus is easier to appreciate as a classic anti-hero. As a woman, however, I am more attracted to Penelope’s story than I am to all of Odysseus’ deeds and travels. She is the one left behind to raise her son and to protect Odysseus’ home, duties that designate her as a good wife. Her success as a wife is based on two scenes in the epic: one involving Aphrodite and her lover, and the other surrounding Odysseus’ return.
In Book Eight lines 265-366, Demodocos sings to the court of the Phaeacians the marital conflicts between Hephaistos and Aphrodite. By her very nature, she is unable to maintain fidelity to her marriage, and takes advantage of Hephaistos’ long work-days to take a lover in Ares. Helios reveals her infidelity to Hephaistos, who
Went to his bronze works plotting evil in his mind
And put a great anvil on the anvil block and hammered bonds
Unbreakable and indissoluble, that would hold them there fast. (Od. 8. 273-275)
Once the two were ensnared he invites the gods to observe the dishonor done to him. The contrast between Hephaistos and Ares is meant as a foreshadowing to Odysseus’ return. The implication is that while he is away, his wife, like Aphrodite, will take another lover. Indeed, Odysseus is aware of the suitors vying for her hand. Furthermore, the implication is that Odysseus will return home broken from his travels, weary and exhausted, whereas Penelope will have taken a young, strong man as her husband.
While it is true that Odysseus returns to Ithaca a broken, weary man, this is entirely due to Athena’s magic as opposed to a genuine travel fatigue. The disguise is to help him infiltrate his home and assess the situation before he takes action. He learns that Penelope refuses to take another, leaving the suitors to consume his estate. Her intentions are made clear to him during a late night conversation while he is still disguised as the old beggar. In Book Nineteen, lines 130-156, she relates to him her unwillingness to be wooed by the suitors, and of her task of weaving and unweaving a burial sheet for Laertes to detract them. When her plan was revealed, she came under duress as she was urged to marry. Later, after Odysseus is revealed, she tests his identity in Book Twenty-Three, ordering the nurse Eurycleia to pull the bed out of the room for Odysseus to sleep upon (Od. 23. 177-180). Because he gets angry at the suggestion, knowing that the bed was built around a tree and thus immoveable, he reveals himself to her.
Both the chains of Hephaistos and the immoveable bed symbolize the bonds of love. In binding Ares and Aphrodite, Hephaistos is reinforcing their bond, forged by the unbreakable chains. Similarly, Odysseus’ bed symbolizes the steadfastness of the love between Penelope and him. Just as the bed cannot be removed from the chamber, so Penelope refuses to leave her husband’s house.
That said, I do not agree with Penelope’s position. She was left at home, a single mother, while her husband went to go fight a war in Troy, a similar, modern scenario to the wives and mothers left at home while their husbands go fight a war in Iraq. Whereas these soldiers are gone for two to eight years in some cases, Odysseus is gone for almost twenty. In that time, he had at least two divine lovers in Circe and Calypso, while Penelope had to fend off all those suitors jeopardizing her position. She took the symbolism of her marriage bed seriously, while Odysseus played about. Had she made the decision to remarry, she at least would be with someone who could take care of her, rather than people who ravage Odysseus’ home and resources. Her delay is not in the best interest of her husband nor of her son, Telemachos, who would inherit the estate. At the very least, she could have returned to her father and given the property over the Laertes to steward until Telemachos came of age.
Meanwhile, Aphrodite is not only taking a lover, but she is doing it right under the nose of her lame husband. Why would the Greeks establish this conflicting scenario in the society? They go to all the trouble of giving the gods similar attributes as the people, only to make them above any sense of fidelity. Their behavior cannot be simplified to metaphorical archetypes. The stories and attributes had to come from somewhere localized and not the collective. It is more as though they were attempting to give the gods attributes that embodied more of how not to behave rather than how to behave. So maybe Penelope behaves according to her station, but her actions are just as selfish as Odysseus’ divine infidelities. Give me a break.
- Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Albert Cook. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.