“We know what you’ve done!” one of the suitors cried. “You have to decide now or we will raid this land and take you by force!” he threatened. Penelope had done her best to stave off the wave of suitors. She was clever and always devised a way to put off choosing one or the other. For 17 years she succeeded and then a large group of suitors arrived, refusing to leave. She told them that she first had to complete the burial shroud for Laertes, Odysseus’ ailing father, as this was her job as his daughter in law and Queen of Ithaca. Once she completed it, she would choose someone.
The men complied, feasting and drinking nightly while they waited. She would sit at her loom everyday as evidence that she indeed was doing as she said. Every night, the loom was brought into her bedchamber and there, she undid her work, prolonging her decision. One morning, the men appeared in the courtyard where she would sit and work the loom. Throwing the maid before her feet they said “this one says you’ve been tricking us all this time! It’s been three years now, and we want an answer now or I will make due on my promise!” he stabbed the maid with his sword, killing her instantly. Penelope had no choice.
Penelope stood before all the suitors in the courtyard. “Today I will explain how I will choose who will be my next husband. ” she proclaimed. Then men whooped and cheering. Screaming for her to choose them, they pushed each other out of the way, rushing towards her. Raising a hand she said “Be still and listen to my request! Whosoever can string this bow” she pointed at the bow resting on a chair, “and can shoot an arrow cleanly through the heads of 12 axes will be my new husband. Every day someone will be given a chance until one of you can do it. Those that fail, must leave at the end of the competition without harming me or my people. You must swear this oath before the Gods.
All in agreement, as a show of strength and cunning made for a perfect way to choose a husband and ruler, they all swore the oath. The men lined up receiving a colored cloth indicating their turn. The next morning they all approached the courtyard and watched as each man had a full day to attempt stringing the bow. Everyone that had tried so far had failed. Penelope knew that only Odysseus was ever able to string it, and he may have taught their son Telemachus but she was not sure. All she knew was that most likely no one would be able to do it and they would have to leave.
It had been two weeks and no one was able to string the bow. “By Athena, this bow has never been tampered with. It belonged to my late husband and the man who shall have me , should have the strength and cunning to weild his weapon as well.” she would tell each man, after they could not string it and complained of trickery. A beggar appeared in the courtyard as Erastus tried to string the bow. “Queen Penelope” the man called in a feeble voice. “Please allow me an opportunity to win your hand” he begged.
Then men gathered laughed at him, pushing him down. “You’re a beggar!” One shouted. “Go to the kitchens and ask for some bread, then be on your way!” another suggested. “My Lords” Penelope addressed the crowd. I would oblige this man his request, there is no harm in trying.” she said simply. There were shouts of agreement and others who disagreed with him being allowed. “What if he does it?” shouted another man. “Would we have a beggar as King of Ithaca?” he continued. “If he showed strength and wisdom then why not?” Penelope challenged. “I don’t know any of you, and have no idea of the type of king you might be, let him try” she urged.
The men made a walkway for the beggar to approach. He hobbled up the steps where Erastus held the bow out to him. He twisted his body and strained to pull the bow string. The men laughed, throwing bread and food at him while he struggled. Amidst the laughter, he quickly string the box and shot the arrow, to the horror of all the men there, including Penelope. “Who are you?” she demanded. “Wife,” he said softly “Do you not know your husband?” he asked while taking off the dirty robes. She looked on him and fainted. The maids rushing her to her room.
Odysseus stood before the men who were all shocked. Many offered congratulations on his return, reminding him that it had been 20 years and that they thought he had perished. They hoped he held no ill will towards them as they sought his brides hand for the good of all Ithaca. Odysseus ever the gentleman, said there were no hard feelings and that they should stay and feast on the following day with him in honor of his return, but for now, he had to see about his wife.
She sat up in the bed, “how do I know it’s you?” she said flatly. “Ask me anything” he retorted. “Fine, but first, can you help the maids move the bed closer to the window, I need air and don’t want to move.” she asked. Laughing, he said “ I would, if one of the legs wasn’t an immovable olive tree.” smirking.
“It is you!” she got out of bed to hug him. “What happened? I was told you were dead a long time ago. I tried to keep hope in my heart that you would return, but it’s been 20 years” she sighed. “I know, and I see all the suitors you have lined up, willing to take my place… really Penelope” he judged. “You just wait a minute now…. They landed here and have been ravaging my lands for food and drink, my maids for their pleasure all the while I have had to implore the use of trickery to keep them at bay! So I suggest you watch how you speak to me, husband.” she glared.
“Wife..” he started. “The laws of Ithaca state that 20 years would be the mourning period for a Queen who did not have evidence of her King’s death with a body. 20 years!!! I have waited all of this time, not to find another husband but to uphold the rest of the law, where I could reign as sole ruler or pass it down to our son. How dare you insinuate I am looking for another man. I’ve waited this long, why would you think I would choose right now to do it!” she hollered. “The nerve of you! Showing up a whole lifetime later and thinking you can do and say as you please because you are King? Well Hades be damned, I am the Queen and have been keeping my people safe all this time while… while you were… Where exactly have you been Odysseus? The Trojan war has been over for 20 years, what took you so long?” she demanded. “Penelope, the tale is long and I am tired.” he groaned. “Pull up a chair, I have time.” she said unwavering. It had been twenty years yet her resolve was the same, she was stubborn and would not take no for an answer. He owed her this much so he sat and began to tell his story.
“Well, the Trojan war came to an end when I devised a way to get in by building a horse. The fools rolled us right in and we beat them!” he said proudly. “All I wanted was to get home to you, my love” he smiled. “Go on” she said, not offering any emotion on her face. “Being the facilitator of this victory, My men and I were cursed by Poseidon the moment we set sail home. He had favored the Trojans and was angry. We were blown way off course. We spent months at sea, battling storms, loosing men, ships and our sanity. Finally we made land on Ismaros. The Land of Cicones afforded us a place to replenish our food sources and water supply.” he stood up and went for get a cup of wine. “Would you like some?” he asked her. She nodded in acceptance and he continued.
“Penny, the men were crazed with war and being lost at sea. They raided the island, stole all the food they could find, water and gold. I could not stop them out of fear of mutiny. We set sail and again the mighty hand of Poseidon pushed us even further. He was angry once again and more lives were lost, ships just disappeared overnight.” shaking his head, he took a sip of wine. Penelope could see the losses weighed heavy on his mind but she wanted to hear his story, she needed to know what happened.
“Again, months at sea. Trying to find land and unable to dock anywhere. Men were jumping off the boats, preferring a swift death at sea than the starvation that was sure to come, though we still had provisions. As our luck was running out, we spotted a small island. Before going ashore, I warned the men not to take advantage. Take only what was needed and leave the land unharmed, anyone who disobeyed would be marooned. Once we reached the shore, half the men were sent to find food.”
“They had been gone for hours so I set out to find them, afraid they met some kind of tragedy. When I found them, they were all on the ground, as if in a dream state. People walking around eating flowers and drinking something that looked like water but wasn’t. The natives were fine but my men were not. I rushed up to croesus and shook him “What ales you?” I asked. “Nothing, Sir. This place is beauty, come, eat and drink with us, don’t look so worried” he said lazily. Realizing we were on the island of lotus eaters, I ran back for the rest of the crew. We hauled the men from the island by force, tying them to the ship as many tried to jump and swim back, not wanting to return home, hardly even remembering what Ithaca meant to them!” closing his eyes, Odysseus sighed. “That’s not even the half of it.”
Back on the ships we were finally heading in the right direction, home was so close I could feel it. Needing provisions we ended up on another island searching for food and water. We happened to stumble upon a cyclops that was herding ewes and rams. He pushed a slab aside and ushered them into his cave, so we ran in, hiding in the shadows. Unfortunately, he grabbed two of my men and instantly devoured them.” Odysseus took a breath. “I jumped out and tried to tell him we meant no harm but he grabbed two more and ate them as well. The men scattered, hiding as best they could. He told me his name was Polyphemus and boasted that he would eat us all before we got back to our ships. While he slept we came up with a plan, tied him up and stabbed him in the eye. A few more men were lost but it was necessary. The next morning, we tied ourselves to the bottom of his ewes. He touched the tops of each one on the way to make sure it wasn’t a human, this is how we escaped. So glad to be free, I made the mistake of calling out to him and telling him my name. Of course he was the son of Poseidon.” “Of course!” Penelope chimed in. “Once again, we were cursed and blown off course. “
Landing on the Island of Aeolia, we couldn’t have asked for better favor, it felt like the Gods were finally smiling down on us again after 10 years at sea. We had landed on the Island of Aeolus the God of wind and we couldn’t have been happier, he would get us home. Aeolus gave me a bag that had the west winds bundled up tightly, making the way home exponentially faster. He warned not to open the bag until we got to Ithaca, so once I got on board the ship, I hid it. The crew thought it was gold I had stashed away and before we docked on land again they opened it, unleashing the winds that pushed us back yet again. This caused a riot on board and more lives were lost. The hopelessness really settling in. I never expected to see you again.” Odysseus looked at his wife with longing. She could feel the sincerity coming off of him. “Perhaps you should finish telling me tomorrow?” she offered. “It’s alright, best to deal with it all now.” he said.
“Those western winds blew us to Telepylos, an island full of cannibals. When we went ashore they quickly attacked. The men fought bravely yet once they saw the natives ripping into people with their bare teeth, we all lost our resolve and swam back to the boat. We agreed it would be better to face dehydration than die as someone’s meal. Fortunately, not much farther was the Island of Aeaea.”
“Fearing what had happened the last time, we split up and half the men went to find food. Gone for hours again, I sent dadalys to search for them. He came running back, screaming that an sorceress had turned everyone into pigs! He also mentioned that she had several other strange animals with large paws and teeth roaming the island, docile as a house cat. We needed to leave but I would not let the men stay behind so I went to reason with her.” “was she beautiful?” Penelope interjected. “Penny..” “Answer me” she demanded. “Yes, she was beautiful” he muttered. “She also turned me crew to pigs!” he reminded.
“On my way there, I met Hermes. Athena had sent him to aid me in this endeavour. He gave me a flower that negated all of her spells and potions so when I arrived I was able to eat and drink yet nothing happened to me! He also gave me some advice but that’s later in the story. So… we spent three years on her island and then she let us go, releasing the men and we were off again, so, yea..” “You slept with her didn’t you?” she accused. Odysseus looked his wife in the face and could not lie. “You spent three years there, don’t tell me you didn’t lay with her you, you coward!” she roared. “I will not lie. It was part of the agreement and the only way she would free the men.” “Oooh… of course, you were coerced. Now I understand completely…” sarcastically waving at nothing around the room. “Penelope, you wouldn’t understand-” “don’t you dare. I have lived here, held hostage by a bunch of men who wanted to bed me , some even good looking and here I remained, chaste and faithful!” the color continuing to rise in her cheeks. “Tell me the rest” she said through gritted teeth.
Sighing, he continued. “ I was lonely and hopeless. She fed us, gave us shelter, and new hope. I am sorry for what I did, I know I broke my vows but I also never expected to survive, please forgive me.” he pleaded. “Continue” said.
“Circe said the only way I would be able to get home was to go to the Underworld and speak with Tiresias. SHe supplied us with enough food and water to get us there and hopefully reach Ithaca, finally. In the underworld, I was charged to go alone. Carrying a lamb and ewe, I fought off the bloodthirsty spirits who tried to take the animals from me. I made my sacrifice and he appeared with a map that would guide us home.”
“I left the underworld and we set sail for home. Circe had warned us of the Island of Sirens. Beautiful mermaids who’s song caused men to lose their mind and wreck their ships on the rocks. The sirens would eat the men who perished so to avoid this, the oarsmen applied beeswax in their ears to drown out the song. Unable to even steer, I was tied to the mast. Penny… the magic of their voices. The pull of it was irresistible. A calling towards something you cant even see. I begged the men to let me go, so that I could go to them. Thank the Gods I was bound or else I would have thrown myself into the ocean after them..” Wow…..” Penelope remarked. “More beautiful women to deter you from coming home…” she snorted in disgust.
“This was magic” he said. “No, this is the swelling of your loins” she cut in. “Anyway, there was more danger up ahead. We had to sail through two cliffs. Each was inhabited by a monster. Scylla on one side and Charybdis on the other. Scylla would take 6 men, one for each of her heads, off of every ship. Charybdis would come up out of the ocean , to take all the men and the ship. I didn’t tell the men but I steered us towards Scylla. With just one sip left, the casualties would only be six, but we would survive this, we just had to. When we approached, I told the men to throw a lamb overboard. Confused, they obeyed the order and everyone was saved. Scylla going after the animal and not the men.” Standing to refill his cup he motioned to Penelope but she shook her head no.
“Just barely escaping with our lives, we ended up on the shores of Helios the Sun God. Here Hermes had also warned should we come across this island, no cattle should be harmed in any way or everyone would die. We spent a month on the island, there was no wind to fill our sails and the food was running out. The men wanted to make a sacrifice to the Gods, but there were no animals save the cattle. I warned them again but they were desperate. They slaughtered a bull and the winds picked up. I knew this would only lead to more problems but we boarded the ship. Zeus in his rage spared no time and struck the boat, killing almost everyone . The ship pieces hurtled towards Charybdis who swallowed up what was rest of the ship and the men, leaving none alive save me. I held on to the roots of a fig tree while she devoured everything. Spitting up the mast and a few other pieces I was able to tie them together and float past her. My raft took me to Ogygia, the Island inhabited by Calypso.” he put his head down and Penelope quickly realized. “How long were you there Odysseus?” she queried. “Let me explain..” “How long?” she said again “Penny, please let me continue, I” “how long?” she growled. “7 years” he said sheepishly.
“I’m done. I don’t want to hear anymore.” she got up off the bed and went towards the door. He grabbed her arm “Please, let me finish.” he pleaded. “For what? So you can tell me about your love affair with another Goddess? How seven years had passed with you blissfully thriving forgetting that I was here, raising your son. Not to mention again how I was faithful and chaste. Seven years is longer than we have had together. Why did you even come back?” she spat.
“Ithaca is my home, and-” “Ah!” she screamed. “There it is! Finally. You finally said it. All this time you’ve tried to make this about returning to me when in fact all you were worried about was your kingdom. You are a selfish man who only worried about his needs and his right to rule. I’m sure I was never even a second thought to you! Seven years Odysseus, you have got to be kidding me? The stones on you?” She continued her onslaught, insulting him at every opportunity. She was screaming and everyone could hear her but she didn’t care. He deserved her wrath and took it quietly, without objection.
“You know what?” she said, “Tell me the rest, now I need to really know.” she sat across from him now, listening. “ I spent those seven years with her yes. To be fair, I was happy, but I was not whole. Athena once again intervened and ask Zeus to release me from Calypso’s hold. She sent Hermes to my aid, he ordered her to release me though she did try to trick me into staying but I said I had a wife, which she knew, and that my vow was to be with you Penelope… I wanted to go home.” Penelope rolled her eyes at him, clearly not convinced.
“Calypso gave me a boat to reach Scheria, the Island of Phaeaians. Athena for the last time intervened, transforming into the best friend of Nausica convincing her to wash her clothes by the sea. There she found me and rushed me to her home. I met her father who immediately wanted to me to marry his daughter. He had a feast prepared, and while he asked about who I was, there was a bard, singing of the Trojan war. At that moment, I felt so defeated, and broke down. I told him who I was, and that all I wanted was to go home. The next morning, he gave me the ship that I arrived in.”
“I was so happy to be home, but when I saw all these men, I didn’t know what to think. I found a beggar who did not recognize me and he told me of all you had done for the kingdom and how these usurpers refused to leave. He said that you had been a cunning woman, keeping them at bay but the time had finally come that they threatened you with violence, and I understood your position. It brought me a sense of pride that you used my bow as the test, knowing that they would never be successful and I fell in love with you all over again.”
“So here we are” she said, tapping her foot. “Husband and wife reunited again! Oh the tales the bards will sing of Odysseus , his arduous journey home and the ever faithful Penelope” she said, pounding her chest with her fist. What a load of bull dung!” “You are home, and you are King. I am Queen, only in name now. Don’t you dare ever touch me again.” seething, she got up and left him alone.
He still had these unwanted guests to deal with. He rested that night and the following evening during the feast, he slaughtered all the men who tried to take over his kingdom and his wife. He was Odysseus, King of Ithaca. True to her word, she did her part as a Queen and mother, but never shared a bed with him ever again.