Penelope waited twenty years for the return of Ulysses

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth on Tuesday, 5 March 2013

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This edited article about Penelope originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 174 published on 10 May 1965.

Penelope and Ulysses, picture, image, illustration

Penelope greets Ulysses by John Flaxman (after)

Penelope was the wife of Ulysses – that hero whose ten years of wandering after the Trojan war has been recorded for us by the poet Homer in his Odyssey.

Was there a Trojan war, a Ulysses, a Penelope – and all the other heroes and heroines about whom Homer wrote? Well: modern research has shown that Troy could have been destroyed by the Greeks in a long war.

And if it is possible that there was at that time a King of the Greek province of Ithaca called Ulysses, then it is reasonable to assume that his Queen was named Penelope.

This is what Homer tells us about Penelope. . . .

For ten years Ulysses, her husband, had been away from home at the siege of Troy. When that city at last fell to the Greeks, Ulysses set off home, but a host of subsequent adventures kept him wandering from country to country, exposed to constant peril and unable to regain his province for another ten years.

Throughout the years of Ulysses’s wanderings, suitors for the hand of Penelope poured into her palace. For with the hand of the fair Queen went the kingdom of Ithaca – a prize that excited the greed of men all over Greece.

“Your Majesty, you must by now be a widow,” they implored Penelope. “Ulysses must surely have been killed in battle or in shipwreck. He will never return home. Marry one of us, so that your kingdom will have the sovereign it needs and so that your son Telemachus will have a father.”

Penelope refused to believe them. Indeed, for centuries poets made her their heroine for her prudence, dignity and faithfulness during those twenty long years of separation.

But the suitors exerted pressure on her, so that she had to think of a plan to stall them. “Now, when I have finished spinning this shroud I am making for my father-in-law, I will make a choice of one of you,” she said.

Each day Penelope spun diligently at the shroud. And each night she diligently unravelled all the work she had done during the day!

For three years Penelope kept up this subterfuge, until one of her servants revealed it to the angry suitors.

They, meanwhile, had moved into the palace and were having the time of their lives draining the royal coffers with their riotous living.

Penelope, dreading the decision she would have to make sooner or later and not knowing the causes of Ulysses’s delay, even supposing that he were still alive, wrote eloquently to Troy entreating her husband to return.

Every day more and more suitors joined the unruly mob in the palace asking for her hand. Soon there were 108 of these aspirants to Penelope’s favour.

The gods looked down from their Council meeting on Mount Olympus and decided that it was time to hurry Ulysses homewards. Soon, guided by Minerva, Ulysses set foot on the coast of Ithaca, dressed in the rags and tatters of a man made worn and weary by wandering.

First the hero king revealed himself to his astonished son Telemachus. But instant action against the suitors could not be contemplated because of the sheer strength of their numbers.

So that he could see what was happening at his palace Ulysses wandered into the dining room and begged food from his unwelcome and unsuspecting guests while they feasted at his expense. During the meal Penelope appeared and rebuked them for their ill-behaviour in her palace; they in turn clamoured for her to make her choice from one of them.

Forced at last to make her decision, Penelope took Ulysses’s massive bow from the case where it had lain for twenty years and announced that she would marry any of the suitors who could bend the bow and send its arrow winging through twelve ringlets of metal.

The suitors fell upon the bow. One hundred and five of them tried the test and failed; one did not bother and then only two were left. When these last two made various preparations which they felt would bring them success, Ulysses, who had been standing by, casually picked up the bow, fixed an arrow and sent it speeding through the twelve ringlets that had been arranged in front of them.

Ulysses’s second and third arrows pierced the hearts of the last two suitors. The others were then dealt with and despatched by Ulysses, Telemachus and a faithful servant in a great battle.

Penelope all this time had been sleeping; now one of her attendants awoke her with the news that Ulysses was home. And the Poet tells us that she fell upon his neck and wept. . . .

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