Faithful Penelope

The epic hero of classic myths (like Odysseus) manages to find his way back on the big screen every couple years, reminding viewers to respect their roots and those who offer advice, learn from near-death experiences, and, if necessary, reconcile their differences with estranged fathers.  With such staying power, I have nothing but respect for old, blind Greeks who recited their stories by memory for hours on end.  However, after teaching The Odyssey for seven years, I am awaiting a postcard, hand-delivered by Hermes from my old pal Zeus with three simple words:  release her already.

Seven years is a long time for anyone and still not half as long as Odysseus’s total hiatus from Ithaca.  My scorn for him increases with every year.  One of these days I’m going to write a wicked bad poem about him.  That arrogant, back-stabbing, lying, sneaky, no-good cheating husband.  He wasn’t even that great of a leader.  Twelve ships full of men, and he came home alone?  And had the nerve to question his wife’s faithfulness when she had no hope he would ever return?  When he was unfaithful with pretty much every female he encountered?  And don’t even get me started about his son—the son he bonded with over slaying a hundred men after being gone from his life for twenty years??

Confession:  I know my interpretation of this is all wrong.  My modern slightly-jaded married female perspective wouldn’t amount to anything in the ancient Greek world, but one thing I understand better than my students is that I likely wouldn’t have questioned it then.  So many times I hear, “Well, if I was there, I would have rebelled in some way…”  But women were portrayed as indifferent, nefarious, beautiful, and ignored.  Those who didn’t accept their lots were turned into monsters, forced to go into hiding, crazy and vengeful, or killed.

Homer reminded his audience several times of the iniquity of Clytemnestra, the unfaithful wife of Agamemnon, who, with the help of her lover Aegisthus, murdered her husband and his war prize Cassandra when they returned home from the Trojan War.  Homer repeated this story as a warning for Odysseus:  would his wife—a relative of Clytemnestra—also be disloyal and slaughter him at his return?  (Must be a genuine concern since there is a monogamy gene, apparently.)  Honestly, he probably suspected it.  Although he revealed his true identity to his son, Telemachus, Odysseus warned him not to tell Penelope of his return until after he had conquered all of her suitors.  But back to Clytemnestra:  did no one question her motive?  After lying to his wife, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia to ensure safe, easy travel to Troy.  He brought home Cassandra with full intent to keep her as a concubine in his house.  Some myths also mention that Agamemnon had forced Clytemnestra to marry him after he murdered her first husband.

But Penelope wasn’t vengeful or murderous.  She was committed.  During her twenty-year wait, she dealt with 108 suitors, often questioning her ability to stay true—not because she longed for the suitors—but because of the inevitability of time.  She managed to stall them for several years until finally, Odysseus returned home in rags to question her fidelity.  While he was gone, he fathered several children by Calypso and Circe, and after defeating the suitors, he went on another voyage and took a second wife, stayed away for several years, and fathered a son.

I can only imagine their late-night conversations.

O:  “Hi, honey.”
P:  “Are you at the hotel?”
O:  “Yes, still here.”
P:  “How was your business meeting?”
O:  “Business-y as usual.  Listen, honey.  Now’s not a very good time.”
P:  “Is that a baby crying in the background?”
O:  “Yes, it’s the tv.  How’s Telemachus?”
P:  “He misses you.  Wants to know when you’ll be home.”
O:  “Tell him we’ll go fishing when I get there.”
P:  “I’m sure you will.”
O:  “Don’t patronize me.”
P:  “Give it up, Odysseus.  You may think your tricks work on everyone else.  Not me.”
O:  “What are you talking about?!”
P:  “I’ve got GPS on your phone, moron.”

In my mind, I need Penelope to feel vindicated.  I need her to walk away from that horrible relationship which stole the best twenty years from her life.  I need her to pick out the most handsome suitor and start new.  I need her to not feel guilty for leaving an unfaithful man.  But every year that I teach The Odyssey, she endures the same heartache, the same frustrations, and the same lousy denouement.  And The Odyssey continues to be named after its epic hero, the cunning, crafty, versatile, much-suffering Odysseus.

And I just received that long-awaited postcard from Zeus.  My schedule has changed:  I will not teach The Odyssey next year.  But it’s a possibility I will teach The Iliad.  But I’ll save Achilles’ story for a later day.


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