Tuesday, 12 August 2014


Angelica Kauffmann, 1772, Penelope is Woken by Euryclea 

Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, remains one of the most interesting female figures in Greek Mythology. She is most widely famed and idealised for her long and determined wait for her husband, Odysseus, to return from the battlefield of Troy despite claims he had certainly perished.

However, those who identify her purely as a paragon of chaste, wifely virtue are quite mistaken – she does indeed possess a vast number of feminine virtues respected by the society of her time, but so too is she in possession of other qualities which demarcate her as the equal of Odysseus, renowned for his cunning and the devisor of the ever-famed Trojan Horse ploy.

Penelope at various points through Homer’s famous poem is herself dubbed as “exceedingly cunning” and praised for her supreme intelligence rare even amongst the great queens.

"She is so dowered with the wisdom bestowed by Athene, 
to be expert in beautiful work, to have good character
and cleverness, such as we are not told of, even of the ancient
queens, the fair-tressed Achaian women of times before us, 
Tyro and Aklmene and Mykene, wearer of garlands;
for none of these knew thoughts so wise as those Penelope knew..."


Pressured into marriage by the Suitors who wish to gain control of the kingdom she as Queen retains rule over in Odysseus’ absence, she devises endless stratagems to delay their efforts to subjugate her. The most well-known is her promise she will re-marry only when the burial shroud of her father-in-law is complete. Secretly, she sneaks out of her room every night to unpick what she had woven the day before so the task has no end.

Angelica Kauffmann, 1764, Penelope at her Loom

The question that will always plague scholars, is if and when Penelope knew the beggar that came to ask for her kindness, and later participated in the contest to win her hand, was Odysseus in disguise. Was she, at last, giving in to the pressure to marry – and called in a state of defeat for a contest to determine who would win her hand? Or did she suspect Odysseus’ presence and design the quest knowing with his proficiency with a bow he was the only man who might win it?

The relationship of Penelope and Odysseus is marked by ‘like-mindedness’ (homophrosyne). They are united, says Lombardo, in their similar cast of mind, wiliness, congruence of interests and cautiousness. De Jong further comments on Penelope and Odyssey’s similarities, concluding “Their capacity to control their emotions and remain silent, or to say something other than what they feel, marks Penelope and especially Odysseus as the typical heroes of the Odyssey, a poem of disguise and dissimulation”.

Yet even when faced with Penelope’s at last unrestrained anguish, as he stands concealed by her side as in his beggar-disguise, Odysseus’ self-control and “protective hardness of heart” (Lombardo 1994) remains in place.

“So her lovely cheeks coursed with tears as she wept
For her husband, who was sitting before her.
Odysseus pitied her tears in his heart,
But his eyes were as steady between their lids
As if they were made of horn or iron
As he concealed his own tears through guile.


Odysseus homecoming and final revelation of his identity is carefully plotted and controlled. It is both surprising and frustrating to such a man that Penelope at the last refuses to accept his true identity by openly doubting he is who he claims to be. It is not until he has given up hope, and asks that a bed at least be made up somewhere in the house, so he might rest at last, Penelope slyly commands for her marriage bed be moved for the stranger out into the hall. Odysseus bursts out – it is impossible, as he fashioned the bed himself, and one leg is composed of the trunk of a living oak tree. “By withholding her acknowledgement, Penelope shows that she is as self-controlled as Odysseus and exercises her control over Odysseus’ homecoming just at the point when he through it was assured, in a response that reminds is how much his success has depended on her all along” (Lombardo 1994).

Francesco Primaticcio, 1563, Odiseo y Penelope

Yet when they are together once more, barriers down between them, their reunion is one of happiness and relief expressed by Homer thus:

“He wept as he held his lovely wife, who thoughts were virtuous. 
As when the land appears is welcome to men who are swimming, 
after Poseidon has smashed their strong-built ship on the open
water, pounding it with the weight of the wind and the heavy
seas, and only a few escape the gray water landward
by swimming, with a thick scurf of salt coated upon them, 
and gladly they set for on the shore, escaping the evil;
so welcome was her husband to her as she looked upon him, 
and she could not let him go from the embrace of her white arms." 


Monday, 4 August 2014


Frank Cadogan Cowper, 1926,  'La Belle Dame Sans Merci', Private Collection.

As a flame-tressed maiden myself, I may say without bias redheads make the best-looking women. 

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