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Penelope and Odysseus

Tales beyond belief

The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus
For over twenty years, in the island of Ithaca, Penelope had watched for her husband's return. At first with high hopes and then in doubt and sorrow (when news of the great war came by some traveller), she had waited, eager and constant as a young bride. But now the war was long past; her young son Telemachus had come to manhood; and as for Odysseus, she knew not whether he was alive or dead.

For years there had been trouble in Ithaca. It was left a kingdom without a king, and Penelope was fair and wise. So suitors came from all the islands round about to beg her hand in marriage, since many loved the queen and as many more loved her possessions, and desired to rule over them. Moreover, every one thought or said that King Odysseus must be dead. Neither Penelope nor her aged father-in-law Laertes could rid the place of these troublesome suitors. Some were nobles and some were adventurers, but they all thronged the palace like a pest of crickets, and devoured the wealth of the kingdom with feasts in honor of Penelope and themselves and everybody else; and they besought the queen to choose a husband from their number.

For a long time she would hear none of this; but they grew so clamorous in their suit that she had to put them off with craft. For she saw that there would be danger to her country, and her son, and herself, unless Odysseus came home some day and turned the suitors out of doors. She therefore spoke them fair, and gave them some hope of her marriage, to make peace.

"Ye princely wooers," she said, "now I believe that the king Odysseus, my husband, must long since have perished in a strange land; and I have bethought me once more of marriage. Have patience, therefore, till I shall have finished the web that I am weaving. For it is a royal shroud that I must make against the day that Laertes may die (the father of my lord and husband). This is the way of my people," said she; "and when the web is done, I will choose another king for Ithaca."

She had set up in the hall a great loom, and day by day she wrought there at the web, for she was a marvellous spinner, patient as Arachne, and dear to Athena. All day long she would weave, but every night in secret she would unravel what she had wrought in the daytime, so that the web might never be done. For although she believed her dear husband to be dead, yet her hope would put forth buds again and again, just as spring, that seems to die each year, will come again. So she ever looked to see Odysseus coming.

Three years and more she held off the suitors with this wile, and they never perceived it. For, being men, they knew nothing of women's handicraft. It was all alike a marvel to them, both the beauty of the web and this endless toil in the making! As for Penelope, all day long she wove; but at night she would unravel her work and weep bitterly, because she had another web to weave and another day to watch, all for nothing, since Odysseus never came. In the fourth year, though, a faithless servant betrayed this secret to the wooers, and there came an end to peace and the web, too!

Matters grew worse and worse. Telemachus set out to find his father, and the poor queen was left without husband or son. But the suitors continued to live about the palace like so many princes, and to make merry on the wealth of Odysseus, while he was being driven from land to land and wreck to wreck. So it came true, that prophecy that, if the herds of the Sun were harmed, Odysseus should reach his home alone in evil plight to find Sorrow in his own household. But in the end he was to drive her forth.

Now, when Odysseus woke, he did not know his own country. Gone were the Phaeacians and their ship; only the gifts beside him told him that he had not dreamed. While he looked about, bewildered, Athena, in the guise of a young countryman, came to his aid, and told him where he was. Then, smiling upon his amazement and joy, she shone forth in her own form, and warned him not to hasten home, since the palace was filled with the insolent suitors of Penelope, whose heart waited empty for him as the nest for the bird.

Moreover, Athena changed his shape into that of an aged pilgrim, and led him to the hut of a certain swineherd, Eumaeus, his old and faithful servant. This man received the king kindly, taking him for a travel-worn wayfarer, and told him all the news of the palace, and the suitors and the poor queen, who was ever ready to hear the idle tales of any traveller if he had aught to tell of King Odysseus.

Now who should come to the hut at this time but the prince Telemachus, whom Athena had hastened safely home from his quest! Eumaeus received his young master with great joy, but the heart of Odysseus was nigh to bursting, for he had never seen his son since he left him, an infant, for the Trojan War. When Eumaeus left them together, he made himself known; and for that moment Athena gave him back his kingly looks, so that Telemachus saw him with exultation, and they two wept over each other for joy.

By this time news of her son's return had come to Penelope, and she was almost happy, not knowing that the suitors were plotting to kill Telemachus. Home he came, and he hastened to assure his mother that he had heard good news of Odysseus; though, for the safety of all, he did not tell her that Odysseus was in Ithaca.

Meanwhile Eumaeus and his aged pilgrim came to the city and the palace gates. They were talking to a goatherd there, when an old hound that lay in the dust-heap near by pricked up his ears and stirred his tail feebly as at a well-known voice. He was the faithful Argus, named after a monster of many eyes that once served Juno as a watchman. Indeed, when the creature was slain, Juno had his eyes set in the feathers of her pet peacocks, and there they glisten to this day. But the end of this Argus was very different. Once the pride of the king's heart, he was now so old and infirm that he could barely move; but though his master had come home in the guise of a strange beggar, he knew the voice, and he alone, after twenty years. Odysseus, seeing him, could barely restrain his tears; but the poor old hound, as if he had lived but to welcome his master home, died that very same day.

Into the palace hall went the swineherd and the pilgrim, among the suitors who were feasting there. Now how Odysseus begged a portion of the meat and was shamefully insulted by these men, how he saw his own wife and hid his joy and sorrow, but told her news of himself as any beggar might, all these things are better sung than spoken. It is a long story.

But the end was near. The suitors had demanded the queen's choice, and once more the constant Penelope tried to put it off. She took from her safe treasure-chamber the great bow of Odysseus, and she promised that she would marry that one of the suitors who should send his arrow through twelve rings ranged in a line. All other weapons were taken away by the care of Telemachus; there was nothing but the great bow and quiver. And when all was ready, Penelope went away to her chamber to weep.

But, first of all, no one could string the bow. Suitor after suitor tried and failed. The sturdy wood stood unbent against the strongest. Last of all, Odysseus begged leave to try, and was laughed to scorn. Telemachus, however, as if for courtesy's sake, gave him the bow; and the strange beggar bent it easily, adjusted the cord, and before any could stay his hand he sped the arrow from the string. Singing with triumph, it flew straight through the twelve rings and quivered in the mark!

"Now for another mark!" cried Odysseus in the king's own voice. He turned upon the most evil-hearted suitor. Another arrow hissed and struck, and the man fell pierced.

Telemachus sprang to his father's side, Eumaeus stood by him, and the fighting was short and bitter. One by one they slew those insolent suitors; for the right was theirs, and Athena stood by them, and the time was come. Every one of the false-hearted wooers they laid low, and every corrupt servant in that house; then they made the place clean and fair again.

But the old nurse Eurycleia hastened up to Queen Penelope, where she sat in fear and wonder, crying, "Odysseus is returned! Come and see with thine own eyes!"

After twenty years of false tales, the poor queen could not believe her ears. She came down into the hall bewildered, and looked at the stranger as one walking in a dream. Even when Athena had given him back his youth and kingly looks, she stood in doubt, so that her own son reproached her and Odysseus was grieved in spirit.

But when he drew near and called her by her name, entreating her by all the tokens that she alone knew, her heart woke up and sang like a brook set free in spring! She knew him then for her husband Odysseus, come home at last.

Surely that was happiness enough to last them ever after.

The Legend and Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus
The story of Penelope and Odysseus is featured in the book entitled Old Greek Folk Stories by Josephine Preston Peabody, published in 1907 by Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.

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