Penelope: A Paragon of Marital Fidelity

         Penelope would probably get the vote as the most admirable woman in mythology. Penelope was most likely born in Sparta to parents Icarius and Periboea. When Penelope grew up, Icarius promised his beautiful and sought-after daughter to anyone who could conquer him in a footrace. Odysseus won the race and thus won Penelope. After the footrace, Penelope and Odysseus moved to Ithaca, where Odysseus became a much-esteemed ruler. It is interesting to note that Penelope had only one child by Odysseus. The name of the child was Telemachus. Shortly after Telemachus was born, Odysseus was forced to participate in the Trojan War. As a result, Penelope was left to deal with running the kingdom of Ithaca. Her father-in-law was too old, and those left in charge were completely ineffective. Nevertheless, Penelope managed, and during the war the problem of state and the rearing of Telemachus, helped keep her busy enough to endure the absence of her beloved husband.So too, Dido held a powerful position in Carthage, and managed found a great city on her own.

         It was after the war ended and most of the surviving Greeks returned home that Penelope's real troubles began. She, like Dido,  was still exceedingly beautiful at the age of 35 or so. Her beauty was enhanced by the kingdom she held, and when rumor began to spread that Odysseus had left Troy and had not been heard of since, over a hundred suitors started arriving from Dulichium, Same, Zacynthus, and Ithaca itself. As the prospects of Odysseus's return grew slimmer and slimmer, the suitors moved into Penelope's palace and "wined and dined" on Penelope's dwindling resources. Penelope creatively invented a scheme to forestall the suitors. She could not plead with the least degree of certainty that Odysseus would return, so she had to use another tactic. She said that she was weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, and when it was completed, she would make a choice from among the impatient suitors. Therefore, by day she wove, and at night she unraveled what she had done. Throughout this whole period, Penelope was completely unaware of Odysseus's fate. She must have assumed that her husband was either dead or had abandoned her for another woman. Of course, neither option was desired. To bring the despondent wife comfort, Athena once appeared to Penelope in her dreams, disguised as her sister Iphthime. Unfortunately, Athena did not take this opportunity to reveal to Penelope Odysseus's destiny. Not long after Athena's visit, a vengeful man named Nauplius spread a vicious rumor that Odysseus had been killed at Troy. According to some versions on the Penelope myth, Penelope was so saddened by the rumor that Odysseus had been killed and so devoted to her husband that it is believed she attempted suicide but was miraculously saved from an untimely death by ducks. Thus, Penelope's suicide attempt could be read as parallel to Dido in that neither woman could bear the thought of living without the men they love.

         When Odysseus was finally allowed to return to Ithaca, he did not immediately reveal himself to his wife. With the help of his son, Telemachus, and the goddess, Athena, Odysseus slaughtered all of Penelope's suitors. Afterward, Odysseus exposed himself and reunited with Penelope. Over the years, Penelope has come to symbolize the virtuous wife, prevailing over the wicked forces that would seek to corrupt loyalty to husband, home, and family. So in many ways, Penelope is quite a different woman than Dido. The first symbolizes the epitome of the faithful and subservient wife. Whereas, the second was not only not Aeneas' wife, but worse than that, acted as a hindrance to Aeneas' destiny.

For sonnets by Glen Levin Swigget on Penelope, Dido and other famous women of antiquity, click here

For relevant biographies of women of the Trojan War, including Dido and Penelope, click here