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  • Penelope Polutropos:The Crux at Odyssey 23.218–24
  • Hardy C. Fredricksmeyer

For my father, dear friend, and mentor,

E. A. Fredricksmeyer

Since Aristarchus, scholars have considered Penelope's comparison of herself with Helen and apparent exoneration of her for adultery, at Odyssey 23.218–24, both illogical and inappropriate. Consequently, most previous scholarship has either rejected these lines, or emended them, or explained them in terms of psychological realism.1 I believe that a better understanding can be gained by focusing on the unifying theme of knowledge throughout Penelope's speech, rather than on adultery, as scholars have previously done, and by taking into consideration the typically Homeric concept of "double motivation."2 By this approach Penelope's self–comparison with Helen appears entirely logical. At the [End Page 487] same time, previous scholars are right that Penelope's self–comparison with the world's most notorious adulteress retains a tone of inappropriateness. I account for this apparent inconcinnity, however, by distinguishing between two different levels in Penelope's speech, in accordance with modern narratological approaches.3 On one level Penelope's speech serves her own rhetorical goals, on another those of Homer. Together these two levels suggest for Penelope alternate and mutually exclusive scenarios of loyalty and adultery. Previous scholars have misinterpreted Penelope's speech in part, I believe, because they have failed to appreciate the interplay between these two narrative levels.

After treating Penelope's self–comparison with Helen in its immediate context, as outlined above, I consider how it echoes the themes of Odyssey 4.235–89, which also work on two narrative levels and offer for Penelope conflicting scenarios of behavior by linking her with Helen. Both passages, in turn, fit into a larger pattern in the Odyssey which marks Penelope's potential to behave negatively toward Odysseus. This pattern most likely alludes to an Arcadian tradition which makes Penelope and Helen cognate mythological types. Yet in the end Homer confirms that in actuality Penelope remains loyal. I suggest that the poet thus alludes to and denies an epichoric tradition that blames Penelope above all in order to stress that she had real alternatives.

Penelope's Speech

Penelope's homecoming speech to Odysseus, in which she explains to him why she did not immediately welcome him, and why she tricked him into revealing intimate knowledge of their bedroom, can be divided into three sections. In the first (23.209–17), Penelope asks Odysseus not to be angry at her delay in welcoming him, "for always I feared that some mortal would come and deceive me with words" (215–17).4 The term "always" (), at the beginning of this statement, is then picked up not by Penelope's self–comparison with Helen in the middle section (218–24), but rather by the terms at 225, which introduce the third and concluding section of Penelope's speech (225–30): "But [End Page 488] now, since you have indicated to me the clear signs of our bed . . . you have convinced my mind, though it is unbending." The first and third sections of Penelope's speech thus address Penelope's insistence on correct knowledge: 215–17 concern a fear of deception which induces her to have particularly rigorous standards of proof—her "unbending mind"—standards that are satisfied by the conditions outlined in 225–30.

It is between these grammatically coordinated statements concerning her fear of deception () and her certainty about Odysseus' identity () that Penelope says:

"Not even Zeus' daughter, Helen of Argos,would have made love with a stranger,had she known that the warlike sons of the Achaeanswere going to bring her home again to her dear fatherland."

(Od. 23.218–21)

Scholars have objected to these lines above all because Helen was not deceived into betraying her husband, as Penelope feared that she herself would be. But insofar as knowledge is central to the first and third sections of this speech, the contrast between Penelope and Helen becomes the very point of her illustration rather than an inconsistency. The point of comparison is that the fidelity or infidelity of both women depends on their possession of an essential knowledge, that of Odysseus' true identity in...


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