Penelope in the Odyssey


Some notes on Penelope.

Her name is Πηυελόπεια — Penelope — ‘spindle loosener’ from Indo-European ‘(s)pen(-d)-‘, ‘to pull, spin’; ‘el- ‘to destroy’; and op- ‘to work, perform, bring about’. This name was given her because of the trick she pulled on the suitors.

She occurs in Books 1, 5 (215-221), 11, 17, 18, 19, 21, 23

See also p105-108 OCR book.

Spark notes:


Cliff notes:

Ways Penelope and Odysseus are alike and well matched

·       Having lots of suitors increases her kleos.  As a woman, this is how she can achieve glory to match her husband’s.  This makes them a good match

·       Her cunning ruse with the shroud as a delaying tactic, shows she is clever, like Odysseus.  She also comes up with the contest with the bow

·       Guile: her testing of Odysseus regarding the bed is similar to his testing of her when he pretends to be a beggar

·       She asks the suitors for gifts – like Odysseus on his travels (kleos, again)

·       They like to deliberate before acting in tricky situations


The ideal wife?

Is Penelope the embodiment of the ideal wife? 

·       Chaste (stays loyal to the absent Odysseus, even in the face of lots of temptation)

·       Modest (keeps to the upper rooms most of the time)

·       Beautiful

·       Loving mother (she has produced a strong, intelligent son, not a daughter: kleos)

·       Good hostess (even though this is reluctantly forced upon her) -everyone is well fed

·       Good housekeeper - everything is cleaned up afterwards; clothes are stored in scented herbs in chests (book 21); she has 50 slave women to help her.

·       Great at weaving (again, how a woman achieves kleos)

·       Does not kill him on his return home! (compare Clytaemnestra)

Is Odysseus an ideal husband?

How to describe Penelope:


One important role is that she anchors the kingship of
Ithaca. At the time of the Trojan war kings were determined by a
matrilineal scheme. Penelope was the queen and Odysseus became
king by marrying Penelope. If Penelope were to give up on
Odysseus then the man she married would become king of Ithaca.

Penelope could have chosen a husband from one of the wooers.
Her new husband would be king. He would then take care of her and
kill Odysseus if he returned. Odysseus could have stayed with
Calypso forever. But since Penelope and Odysseus shared a
familial love for one another, she confounded the wooers, and he
came home with gifts, but no women prizes (unlike Agamemnon).

By asking the suitors to vie in bringing her gifts she effectively stops their plotting and working together and makes them work against each other, thereby preserving Telemachus’ safety.

She repeatedly maintains that all beauty left her when Odysseus went away.



‘Perfect Penelope.’ How far does Penelope deserve this


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