Odysseus has often been regarded as the only hero in the famous Homer’s epic Odyssey. It is but natural as the epic goes under the name Odyssey and it focuses on Odysseus’s adventures. Nonetheless, there are many other heroes. It is important to note that males have been ascribed to heroic deeds, e.g.
Odysseus and his men, or Telemachus (Clayton 18). However, women also play an important role in the story. Goddesses, shadows and living women help men in their activities. Of course, Athena, the goddess of warfare and wisdom, helps Odysseus in many affairs. However, the goddess should not be regarded as a heroine as she does not belong to the world of humans.
As far as the heroines pertaining to the world of humans are concerned, one of the main heroines to be admired is Penelope, Odysseus’s wife who is faithful, wise and even as cunning as her husband. In fact, Penelope should be considered a hero as she manages to rule the kingdom (Ithaca), she is ready to sacrifice her entire life for the sake of her son, Telemachus, and she manages to remain faithful to her husband due to her wisdom and cunning.
1. The Wise Ruler
When analyzing the role of the queen in the story, it is crucial to remember about the role of women in the Ancient Greek society. Thus, Clark and Schwiebert point out that Penelope is to fulfill tasks which “must be relatively safe, can easily be interrupted and resumed, and must require minimal movement from home” (164). Penelope being a woman has to comply with these rules.
However, the queen is in quite a specific position. She does not have her husband beside her to run the house and the entire kingdom. It is necessary to note that the epic does not focus on Penelope as a ruler. Nonetheless, it is clear that Penelope plays a very important role in her kingdom even though it is not revealed explicitly. Thus, Odysseus meets his mother and inquires her about Penelope. The woman describes Penelope’s position in the following way:
Still with her child indeed she is, poor heart,
still in your palace hall. Forlorn her nights
and days go by, her life in weeping.
But no man takes your honored place. Telemakhos
has care of all your garden plots and fields,
and holds the public honor of a magistrate,
feasting and being feasted… (Homer 351)
The first part of this speech suggests that Penelope is only weeping and doing some female job in the house. It may seem that Telemachus is the real ruler of the kingdom as he takes care of all public affairs, and he also runs their lands. Nonetheless, it is clear that the young ruler resorts to his mother’s help who gives valuable advice on various matters. The first line of the speech confirms that Penelope is beside her son helping him in any possible way.
Of course, it is impossible to claim that Penelope is as powerful as any other ruler, or Odysseus himself, as she is still just a woman in the Ancient Greek society. Nonetheless, Penelope’s role is somewhere in between (Clayton 19). It is possible to claim that she is the ‘eminence grise’ of Ithaca who manages to keep the wealth and glory of the kingdom.
Vetter claims that weaving is one of the most important symbols in the epic (33). Of course, it is the symbol of memory as Penelope is thinking about Odysseus while weaving. Apart from this, Penelope’s weaving can also be regarded as a symbol of her “status within her household, the city of Ithaka” (Vetter 33). On one hand, she fulfills purely female tasks like weaving. On the other hand, she guides her son and helps him to be a wise ruler. She creates a covert web which covers the entire kingdom and keeps its order.
It is necessary to add that that the woman has to live under a great pressure as she is doomed to hear news about her heroic husband and she still thinks he is dead. She cannot bear listening to songs about her courageous husband: “… But sing no more / this bitter tale that wears my heart away” (Homer 233). Nonetheless, the woman finds strength to think of her son and the entire kingdom. She manages to be thoughtful even in her grief. Admittedly, this is one of the features ascribed to heroes.
2. Penelope’s Self-Sacrifice
Furthermore, she is not only a wise and strong ruler. She is also a loving mother. She is also ready to sacrifice her entire life to secure her son’s future. She has to comply with the necessity to remarry as her son “is suffering as a result of the suitors’ devouring of his resources” (Said 298).
The woman has to think of remarriage as her family as well as her son force her to do this as all think that Odysseus is no more alive: “Odysseus was not the only one at Troy / never to know the day of his homecoming” (Homer 234). Even Odysseus himself forces her to marry as on his departure he claims that she should remarry in case he does not come back when their son is already adult (Vetter 33).
The wretched woman loves her husband and believes he is still alive and she hopes that her husband will come and take revenge:
Ah, if he comes again, no falcon ever
struck more suddenly than he will, with his son,
to avenge this outrage! (Homer 445)
However, she still cannot lament for the rest of her life as she is to take care of her child (Heitman 63). She understands that many people would like to be the rulers of Ithaca. She also understands that she is not able to resist all those suitors who can soon become enemies. These enemies can bring their troops to the gates of Ithaca.
Thus, Penelope understands that only women, her young son and her old wretched father-in-law cannot resist an army of trained warriors. She understands that any resistance will lead to the fall of her homeland: “spurn them she dare not, though she hates that marriage” (Homer 231). Her son reveals the graveness of their position:
We have no strong Odysseus to defend us,
and as to putting up a fight ourselves –
we’d only show our incompetence in arms. (Homer 237)
She has to find the way out. The only way out for her is another marriage. She has to marry one of the suitors. Admittedly, this deed can be seen as incompatible to heroic deeds. However, in this case Penelope does perform a heroic deed. She sacrifices her feelings, and even her life to save her son and her land from destruction. Of course, she does not lead an army and she does not defeat her enemies. However, her submission should be considered heroic.
Furthermore, sacrifice is often regarded as a heroic deed, no matter what kind of sacrifice it is. Therefore, Penelope is one of those heroes who sacrifice something for the good. She is not concerned with her own destiny as she strives to save her land and her son. This courage is inspiring. More so, even some men depicted in the epic do not reveal the same courage and self-sacrifice. Admittedly, Penelope should be considered as one of the heroes of the epic.
3. Penelope’s Faithfulness
3.1 She Tries the Suitors
Apart from her readiness to sacrifice everything, Penelope has the courage and wits to remain faithful to her husband. In the first place, she tries to postpone the day she should make her decision. She is as cunning as her husband. She manages to deceive her suitors for three years weaving and unweaving (Heitman 63). At the same time she never stops inquiring about her husband:
Every time some traveller comes ashore
he has to tell my mistress his pretty tale,
and she receives him kindly, questions him,
remembering her prince, while the tears run
down her cheeks… (Homer 391)
Penelope is unwilling to betray her husband or even his memory. Even when her secret is revealed and she is forced to make her decision, she still manages to postpone the day of her marriage. Penelope makes her suitors compete. Even when the wise woman understands that she has no choice and she has to choose a new husband, she makes a wise choice. She invents another trial for the suitors. She makes the suitors understand that she can marry only the most deserving man who could be as strong as Odysseus (Steinruck 113).
3.2 She Tries Her Own Husband
Apart from trials for her suitors, she wants to make sure that the man who claims to be her husband is really her beloved. Her faithfulness does not allow her to accept the man unless she is perfectly sure that the man is her husband. The woman feels that the beggar is her husband, but she wants to make sure (Steinruck 114).
Steinruck suggests that Penelope understands that the beggar is Odysseus but still keeps asking and trying him “for the playful revenge she takes on Odysseus because he misled her” (114). Nonetheless, her reluctance is more likely to be a sign of her great faith. She makes everyone understand that there is only one man who can be beside her.
It goes without saying that Penelope’s faithfulness is one of the features ascribed to heroes. Only real heroes can be that faithful to their beloved (or to some ideas). Penelope is faithful to both her husband and her idea of marriage.
She believes she can belong to one man only and she remains faithful to this idea no matter what. It is also important to note that her faith makes her that courageous and wise. Like any other hero, Penelope is guided by her faith. She performs heroic deeds in the name of her ideas. This makes her one of the main heroes of the epic.
It is important to remember that Penelope is one of the main heroes of the epic. This courageous woman has all features of a great hero. She manages to keep the kingdom prosperous. It is necessary to note that she manages to rule even though women in Ancient Greece were to fulfill female tasks only. She does not exercise her power overtly. However, Penelope is a wise advisor who helps the young Telemachus to rule the kingdom.
Apart from being a wise ruler (like any other hero), she is also ready to sacrifice everything. Thus, the kingdom as well as her own son is in danger, so she does not care about her well-being. Penelope is ready to remarry (which means death for her) in order to save her homeland. Finally, the wise woman is faithful. She never betrays her husband, her love and her principles. Admittedly, this faithfulness can be regarded as a heroic feature.
It is also important to note that Penelope should be considered a hero as she performs heroic deeds and she can be characterized by major heroic features. At the same time, she is a woman who has to comply with conventions of the patriarchal world.
More so, she can be regarded as one of the major heroes as she reveals great courage to save the entire kingdom when her royal husband is away. Admittedly, Odysseus himself in many situations is not as courageous as his wise wife as the former often flees from dangerous situations whereas Penelope has to remain in the place where she can be destroyed. Penelope has the courage to face her enemies, which makes her a great hero.
Clark, Susan H., and Valerie L. Schwiebert. “Penelope’s Loom: A Metaphor of Women’s Development at Midlife.” Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development 40.2 (2001): 161-171. Print.
Clayton, Barbara. A Penelopean Poetics: Reweaving the Feminine in Homer’s Odyssey. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004. Print.
Heitman, Richard. Taking Her Seriously: Penelope & the Plot of Homer’s Odyssey. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Print.
Homer. “Odyssey.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Ed. Sarah Lawall et al. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. 225-516. Print.
Said, Suzanne. Homer and the Odyssey. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
Steinruck, Martin. The Suitors in the Odyssey: The Clash between Homer and Archilochus. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2008. Print.
Vetter, Lisa Pace. “Women’s Work” as Political Art: Weaving and Dialectical Politics in Homer, Aristophanes, and Plato. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005. Print.