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Definition: Penelope from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

In Greek mythology, the wife of Odysseus, king of Ithaca; their son was Telemachus. She represented wifely faithfulness. While Odysseus was absent at the siege of Troy, she kept her many suitors at bay by asking them to wait while she completed a shroud for Laertes, her father-in-law; every night she unravelled her weaving. When Odysseus returned after 20 years, he and Telemachus killed her suitors.

Summary Article: PENELOPE
From Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology

Penelope was the wife of the Greek hero Odysseus. Even though her husband took 10 years to return home from the Trojan War, Penelope never gave up hope that he might come back. She thus came to be seen as the epitome of fidelity.

Penelope was the daughter of the Spartan prince Icarius and the nymph Periboea. Icarius's brother Tyndareos arranged Penelope's marriage to Odysseus in return for Odysseus's advice on the selection of a husband for his daughter Helen.

Following the wedding, Icarius pleaded with Penelope to stay. However, by drawing her veil over her face, Penelope signaled that her new life was with Odysseus. Icarius dedicated a statue to Modesty on the spot where she stood, and the newlyweds began their life together on the island of Ithaca.

Odysseus and Penelope had not been married long before the Trojan prince Paris's abduction of Helen incited the Greeks to go to war with Troy. The conflict lasted 10 years and only ended when the Greeks used trickery to breach the Trojans' walls. After their victory, the various Greek leaders sailed back to their respective cities. However, Odysseus's journey home was long and arduous—it was only after 10 more years and numerous adventures that he finally arrived back in Ithaca.

Penelope and the suitors

Penelope never gave up hope that her husband would return safely. However, most people assumed that he was dead and expected Penelope to remarry. In the months following the end of the Trojan War, more than 100 suitors from all over Greece traveled to Ithaca to seek Penelope's hand in marriage, setting up camp at Penelope's home. Try as she might, Penelope could not persuade them to leave. After six or seven years of being put off by Penelope, the suitors finally demanded that she select a husband. She announced that she must first complete a burial blanket for Odysseus's father. For three years Penelope wove her blanket during the day and secretly unwove her progress at night so that the work would never be completed. Finally, however, one of her handmaidens betrayed her to the suitors.

This fresco by Italian artist Pinturicchio (1454–1531) depicts Penelope being harassed by suitors while weaving at her loom. In the background a ship returns Odysseus to his home island.

At this point Odysseus arrived back in Ithaca. When the goddess Athena warned him of the situation at his palace, Odysseus disguised himself as a beggar and visited Penelope, who did not recognize her husband. However, his assertion that he had met Odysseus on his travels filled her with new hope. Penelope told the beggar of her next diversionary tactic. She would announce that the suitor who could stretch Odysseus's bow and shoot an arrow through 12 ax handles set in a row would become her new husband. Penelope knew that no one but Odysseus himself could accomplish this feat.

All the suitors tried in vain. Odysseus, however, completed the task with ease. He then threw off his disguise and, with the help of his son Telemachus and some faithful servants, slaughtered all of the suitors. Odysseus then sent for Penelope. Still not believing that her husband had really returned, Penelope demanded that their bed be moved out of their bedroom. Odysseus protested that the bed, built with a living tree as one of the bedposts, could not be moved. Thus Odysseus passed Penelope's final test to prove his identity and the pair were happily reunited.

Penelope in art and literature

Penelope has been a popular subject in various artistic media. Vases and relief sculptures have borne her image since the fifth century BCE, and artists have painted scenes of her, Odysseus, and Telemachus since the 1500s. In the 20th century she appeared in the opera Pénélope by Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924) and the ballet Odyssey by George Couroupos (b. 1942).

The story of Penelope and Odysseus is told at greatest length by Greek poet Homer (c. ninth–eighth century BCE) in the Odyssey, an account of Odysseus's travels after the Trojan War. Historians are divided about the extent to which Homer's stories are based on real events and people. Pausanias, a Greek geographer living in the second century CE, claims to have visited the site of the statue to Modesty and the site of Penelope's tomb on his travels. It is more likely, however, that Penelope was created by Homer as the representation of a model Greek wife. No matter what the truth, Penelope's character is echoed throughout literature in portrayals of women whose faithfulness cannot be shaken.


Further reading
  • Homer, and Robert Fagles, trans. The Odyssey. New York: Penguin, 2009.
  • Howatson, M. C. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Copyright © 2012 Marshall Cavendish Corporation

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