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Odysseus and Penelope

Quick Facts

Him: Odysseus, King of Ithaca

Her: Penelope, the faithful wife and queen to Odysseus

Setting: Greece, early in the 11th century BC


Background

Having left to fight the Trojan War, Odysseus is blown off course on his return from battle. His story, told in Homer’s Odyssey, involves a twenty-year-long journey home to reunite with his beautiful and intelligent wife, Penelope.
 

Story

After the Spartan queen Helena is taken to Troy by Paris, Odysseus fulfills his oath to Menelaus, the King of Sparta, and joins the war party crossing the sea.

 

After a decade-long battle, the Trojans are vanquished and Odysseus sets sail for Ithaca. Driven far away from his destination by unfavorable winds (and conspiring gods), he spends another ten years finding his way home to Penelope.



The queen, in the meantime, is not without work of her own to do. Over the course of twenty years without her husband, she has developed quite a following of potential suitors attempting to take Odysseus’ place on the throne.

Believing her husband will return, yet unable to ward off those pursuing her, she devises several schemes in order to keep them at bay as long as possible.



Determined to die before remarrying – asking the goddess of the hunt, Artemis, to kill her at one point – Penelope first tells her suitors she will accept a new husband after making a burial shroud for Odysseus’ father, Laertes. Over the course of three years, she weaves during the day and undoes some of her work at night. The plan works until a disloyal servant girl, Melantho, reveals the ruse to the suitors.



Eventually, Odysseus lands in his homeland and disguises himself in order to determine the heart of his queen – she has been the object of desire for many men in his absence, after all. He finds Penelope surrounded by potential husbands, yet arrives just in time for her new challenge: any man who might string Odysseus’ bow and fire an arrow through the shafts of twelve axes will join her on the throne.


It is unclear whether or not she is aware her husband is among the group of suitors now, but she is very pleased when the masked Odysseus, having completed the task, reveals his true identity. Though she is confused at first, wondering if it is actually a god pretending to be her husband until he proves his intimate knowledge of their bed by highlighting one leg is a living olive tree.


Reputation

The portrait of Odysseus and Penelope is what famous love stories are all about: abiding love and intense devotion. In both cases, the hero on his winding and difficult travel home and his wife as sly deceiver of Odysseus’ weak would-be replacements, we are given examples of the lengths which one will go to when true love is at stake.

Further, you could ably argue that Penelope’s bow test and Odysseus proof of his identity by describing their bed’s unique characteristics are hints at the kind of close connection a couple develops: she chose a task she knew only her husband could perform and he convinced her he had returned by saying something only the two of them would be aware of.



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