Penelope (with a web over her face, striped duck) In Greek mythology, the faithful wife of Odysseus, daughter of Icarius and Periboea or Asterodia. Penelope was mother of Telemachus. When Odysseus sailed for the Trojan War, Penelope was left to manage the household affairs in Ithaca. In a short time she was hounded by local suitors to remarry. She kept them at bay by saying she first had to finish weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. Each day she would weave, but at night she would undo the work. Finally, after three years, she was betrayed by one of her maids and forced to finish the piece. Athena, who protected Penelope and her husband, told her to offer herself to the suitor who could string the great bow of Odysseus and shoot through a row of doubleheaded axes. By this time Odysseus, who had been gone some 20 years, had returned and was disguised as a beggar in the hall. He not only strung the bow but also killed the suitors. The couple were then reunited. In Homer’s Odyssey (books 16, 17) Penelope is characterized as a model of feminine virtue and chastity, being called “wise” and “prudent.” In later, postHomeric legend, she maintained that characterization, except in Peloponnesus, where it was believed she had committed adultery.

There was a cult to Penelope associated with a duck or other species of bird in eastern Arcadia, supposedly the site of her death. Ovid’s Heroides (1) and Ars amatoria (3.15) deal with her love for Odysseus. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (1.3.92), Spenser’s “Sonnet XXIII,” and W. S. Landor’s Penelope and Pheido all cite or deal with Penelope. In opera the myth of Penelope has been treated by Cimarosa, Fauré, Galuppi, Piccinni, Jommelli, and Libermann.


Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow– Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante