Penelope Revised

By Judith Brown


The mythological figure of Penelope, based on Homer’s Odyssey, has long served as a paradigm of female devotion. Poets and writers, including Margaret Atwood and Carol Ann Duffy, have been keen to expand on an enigmatic streak within her character and to illuminate the unique position that she occupies within the narrative. A myriad of visual representations, including paintings and sculpture, enables us to extract key parts of her persona.


Vatican Penelope (6th C BC)


There is an interesting legend to the birth of Penelope. As her father, Icarius of Sparta, had wanted a son, Penelope was hidden when she was born. When her father found her, she was thrown into the ocean. However, she was rescued by ducks and the meaning of her name is, in fact, ‘duck’. This was given to her by Icarius, seeing his wrong doing and recognising this omen.


In the text of the Odyssey, characters are often introduced by epithets, a key feature of epic poetry. These describing words denote a fundamental quality of the figure in question. Athena, for example, is ‘bright eyed Athena’ and Penelope is ‘wise Penelope’ and sometimes more than one epithet is used for the same character. It is also not uncommon for characters in the Odyssey to show contradictory patterns in behaviour. For example, Penelope might be considered helpless due to circumstances in which she finds herself, but behind the scenes she is actively deceiving others.


In summary, the story of Penelope starts whilst her husband Odysseus had been absent for many years, fighting in the Trojan War. Penelope faced daily bombardment by the presence of many suitors seeking to marry her. These suitors were violent, trespassing on her home and presenting a fatal threat to the future return of Odysseus. To protect herself from the dreaded eventuality of marriage to one them, she created a trick whereby she spends all her time weaving a shroud, informing the suitors that it is intended for her father in law, Laertes (father of Odysseus). But in secret, every night she unravels her weaving she did during the day, so that the task can continue for longer, representing her hope for Odysseus’ return. Eventually, her secret is revealed to the suitors by a female servant. This has been noted in several commentaries, as if to show that only another female was able to work this out.


At last, when Penelope had to choose one of the suitors, Odysseus had returned from war. However, he was disguised as a beggar to avoid attack. Penelope once again used her cleverness to devise a second trick; she will only marry the man who can fire Odysseus’ bow correctly in an archery contest. She knew that since this bow descended from the grandson of Apollo, it would be unlikely that anyone except Odysseus could.


As the majority of the Odyssey is focussed on the protagonist and his adventures, Penelope’s world became a matter of fascination for artists. Furthermore, just as the ‘homecoming scene’ becomes the dramatic high point in the text, it is also an extremely emotional moment for Penelope. In many paintings, as in the sculpture above, she is shown to be holding her head thoughtfully, usually seated.


Some paintings tried to capture the inner life of Penelope. Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) was a Swiss artist, one of the most popular of her day, who painted Ancient Greek and Roman women. Kauffman’s Penelope appears woeful and contemplative. The dog, Argos, ever faithful to Penelope and Argos, is mourning too.


Penelope at her Loom (1764) by Angelica Kauffman


Her loom is both a source of sorrow and the means of her intelligence. Like the sculpture, the painting evokes a sombre mood. It is also a static pose, a moment caught in time with no distractions. Being that the sorrowful expression on her face is so paramount, the viewer is forced to read her story. Therefore, throughout history, representations of Penelope came to depict not only her personal narrative but more general themes. For example, she has been a metaphor for faithfulness, patience and ultimately, long awaited reconciliation. In many ways, her gender is secondary to her virtues, which can be understood on a human level, despite her mythological status.


Yet Kauffman’s portrayal adhered to a traditional, serious style of painting, in which women were shown to be waiting for a man to return from war. Penelope was situated in the stereotypical idea of a woman’s rightful place, waiting for her husband at home. This image ensures that the viewer regards her as an identifiable upright heroine and the painting would have presented Penelope as an inspiration for women from the eighteenth century who found themselves in similar circumstances.


Penelope Awaiting Odysseus (1900) by Heva Coomans


Penelope Awaiting Odysseus was created by Heva Coomans (1860 – 1939) and was notedly more modern than Kauffman’s, which has a distinct Pre Raphaelite style. Immediately I noticed the beautiful colours and luscious Greek landscape, hinted at with the blue sea in the background. Penelope looks a lot less sorrowful. She is serene and appears at total ease within her surroundings. Everything, including her clothing and hair, is bright and luminous.


Coomans’ painting re-established Penelope as the agent of the plot, as opposed to being a mere secondary part of it. She is not the woman waiting at home sorrowfully, but the queen who will decide whether she should recognise Odysseus and restore him to his kingdom. Up until this point in time, a pivotal attraction for viewers would have been whether or not Odysseus will return and if Penelope’s longing will be rewarded in the end. However, here this storyline is portrayed as far less important. Coomans paved the way for newer interpretations of Penelope’s story, including more modern commentaries that interpret Odysseus’ journey as one of spiritual wisdom, whereby Penelope represents his homecoming. Her world is removed from violence and war and this implication shapes the conventional, gender-based narrative into a more philosophical reading.


It is made explicit, by active contrast in the text, that Penelope is no Helen of Troy, who was responsible for the Trojan War. But Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2005) and Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Penelope, from her anthology The World’s Wife (1999), gave the character of Penelope more agency than was previously envisaged. Duffy presented the act of weaving as a joyful pursuit. Dorothy Parker’s poem (1928), by the same name, also critiques the stereotypical representation of Penelope.


Regardless of how one may choose to interpret her character, the mythology remains a timeless and influential story. Nevertheless, these revisionist approaches, while not seeking to impose any fixed interpretations, enable us to give her a more contemporary voice.