Alt-Penelope 1: The Adulteress

(NB: In case you are coming across this post randomly, PLEASE read the quick introductory material here, because this is part of a longer series aiming at a particular end. Thank you.)

Yes, sad to say, “Penelope the adulteress” is real thing that in ancient times was said, and in our own day is again being said, against the usual portrayal of Penelope. The gist of it is as follows:

  • Whereas, thanks to the children’s story book approach to mythology, “everybody knows” that the god Pan was the son of Hermes and the nymph Dryope, some ancients told the alternative (and quite disgusting) story that Hermes, disguised as a ram, fathered Pan on Penelope.1
  • A second variety of this Pan parentage tale consists in, even more bizarrely, the goat-god resulting from the mating of all of the suitors with Penelope. The factoids on which this Alt-Penelope have been based are:2
    • the fact that in Odyssey 11.180ff, Odysseus’ mother, Anticleia, says not one word to him about the suitors (as if she’s trying to hide Penelope’s unfaithfulness);
    • the incident of 16.394-398, in which Penelope seems to show favoritism to the suitor Amphinomous (as if there’s something going on between them);
    • the Athena-inspired behavior of 18.281-283, in which Penelope engages in lewd tantalizing of the suitors (as if she’s playing up the “sex object” angle for her own gain);
    • the fact that Odysseus simply does not trust Penelope upon arriving home, but puts her to a complicated set of loyalty tests (as if he has actually legitimate reasons to doubt her fidelity).

Whatever one makes of this Alt-Penelope story, the point of both is clear with respect to feminist deconstructions of the classical tradition both generally in terms of Western Culture per se and particularly in terms of Christianity: Penelope was not all an exemplar of proper and healthy femininity, but just another prototype of (in the first story) just another sad victim of male power, or (in the second story) a “liberated women” in charge of her own body and acting just like a dog in heat, like her disloyal handmaidens.

At any rate, both versions strike me as dismissable once they have been properly engaged. The first may be dismissed because it’s obviously just another perverted ancient sexual story to begin with (the sort of crude story the Greeks themselves came to increasingly explain way as they became more philosophically and ethically-minded), and turns out not even to be referencing Odysseus’ wife. The second because all these behaviors can easily be explained in ways other than assuming Penelope was an adulteress.

Thus, regarding Anticleia in Hades (11.180ff), this is simply an argument from silence. That she doesn’t mention the suitors to Odysseus entails nothing definite either way, and certainly cannot be used as a firm foundation to attack the virtuous picture of Penelope presented in the Odyssey as a whole.

The second evidential claim, that Penelope has a soft-spot for the suitor Amphinomous (16.394-398), is equally tenuous. Fagles translates the relevant passage: “[Amphinomous] the man who pleased Penelope the most, thanks to his timely words and good clear sense.”3. Fitzgerald renders it: “He led the group of suitors…and he had a lightness in his talk that pleased Penelope, for he meant no ill.”4) Lattimore’s version runs: “…and pleased Penelope more than the others in talk, for he had good sense and discretion.”5 Cook, in turn, says it this way: “…was leader of the suitors and pleased Penelope the most with his speeches, for he practiced good sense.”6 The point is, I think, clear enough: Penelope likes this suitor, but she likes him in terms of his behavior in her house, which is far less despicable than the others and often issues forth in more temperate speech. To read this as having sexual overtones may very well be one of those instances scholars are famous for – looking into the mirror of a text and seeing only themselves.

The third claim, that Penelope acts lewdly before the suitors on Athena’s inspiration (18.281-283), also need not imply what cynical scholars assume. That is, there is a perfectly reasonable interpretation that has nothing whatever to do with needing Penelope to be a modern “liberated” woman. Consider that the scene of her descent before the gawking eyes of the suitors is literally the mirror-image of the descent of her cousin, Helen, in Book IV, to greet Telemachus: Helen, who condemns her younger self as a depraved pawn of Aphrodite, and whose unfaithfulness was the chief cause of the Trojan War that deprived Penelope of her husband for two decades. Consider also that Athena divinely beautifies Penelope for two stated reasons: to “make her even more esteemed by her husband and son than she had been before” (Fagles, p. 381) and “to make her suitors lose themselves in wonder” (Fagles, p. 382). Moreover, watching the display himself, Odysseus has joy over how Penelope so easily manipulates the sordid crew despoiling his house, using their lusts against them (Fagles, p. 384: “enchanting their hearts with suave seductive words but all the while with something else in mind” – emphasis mine). To those who allow the text to speak in its own words rather than dubbing it with their own, it is clear enough that there is nothing base in Penelope’s displaying of her beauty here.

Lastly, moving forward from his return in Book 13, in which Odysseus makes plain his intent to test his wife’s loyalty, although it is not flattering to him, Odysseus may be seen as a typical Trojan War-era male, operating with a sexual double-standard that makes him easily suspicious of women. We know that Penelope doesn’t deserve this, and it is possible that he should know it, too, but he doesn’t. In part this may be due to the simple historical distance of twenty years, in which husband and wife have had zero dealings with each other. People can change. But back to Odysseus’ himself, his evident trait of suspicion (no doubt related psychologically to his pathological lying tendency), could easily have been exploited by the ghost of Agamemnon lamenting how his wife murdered him as soon as he got home. Again, there’s no obvious reason to read the book as implying that Penelope was really an adulteress.

Infamous “Alt-Penelopes” Index

Main Series Index

  1. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (London: The Folio Society, 1996), pp. 102-104. A crucial qualification appears in Volume II, p. 664, where Graves notes that the story seems originally to have referred to the little-known sex-cult goddess Penelope, not to Odysseus’ wife – but apparently it is not only the ancients who seized upon the rudiments of the story, twisted them up, and imputed the grotesque origin of Pan to the Queen of Ithaca. []
  2. Graves, Volume II, p. 664-665. []
  3. Homer: The Odyssey (New York: Penguin, 1996), p. 351 []
  4. The Odyssey (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998), p. 302 []
  5. The Odyssey of Homer (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 250. []
  6. The Odyssey of Homer: A Norton Critical Edition, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1972), p. 226. []

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