Penelope faithful, but Ulysses afraid to return home poor

Ulysses, also known as Odysseus, had spent ten years in the brutal violence against men of the Trojan War. Many men died fighting for one woman, Helen, who rightly described herself as a “shameless whore.” Ulysses then spent another ten years struggling to return home against hostile seas and sex-starved goddesses.

a rare bird, a black swan

At home, Ulysses’s wife Penelope refused to forsake her husband even as others were claiming he was dead. She yearned for the warmth of being in bed with him:

Your Penelope sends you these words, too-slow Ulysses;
it is of no use to write back to me: come yourself!
Troy has certainly fallen, hated by the daughters of the Greeks;
but Priam and all of Troy were hardly worth so much to me.
Oh would that, when his fleet made for Lacedaemon,
the adulterous lover had been obliterated by raging waters!
I would not have lain, cold, in my lonely bed,
nor deserted, would I now complain of days’ slow passing

{ Haec tua Penelope lento tibi mittit, Ulixe
nil mihi rescribas attinet: ipse veni!
Troia iacet certe, Danais invisa puellis;
vix Priamus tanti totaque Troia fuit.
o utinam tum, cum Lacedaemona classe petebat,
obrutus insanis esset adulter aquis!
non ego deserto iacuissem frigida lecto,
nec quererer tardos ire relicta dies } [1]

Like Dhuoda, Penelope sought to touch her beloved through her written word:

Whoever turns his wandering ship to these shores
is asked many questions about you before he departs,
and he is given a letter written by these fingers
to give to you if he ever sees you anywhere.

{ Quisquis ad haec vertit peregrinam litora puppim,
ille mihi de te multa rogatus abit,
quamque tibi reddat, si te modo viderit usquam,
traditur huic digitis charta notata meis. }

Penelope wasn’t naive or an ideologically benighted woman. She understood many men’s hard position:

It’s the hardest thing of all to defeat your nature;
when you see a girl, to stay pure in mind is torture.
As young men we can’t obey such a harsh injunction,
or ignore the silky-soft female form’s attraction.

{ Res est arduissima vincere naturam,
in aspectu virginis mentem esse puram;
iuvenes non possumus legem sequi duram
leviumque corporum non habere curam. } [2]

With respect to Ulysses, Penelope lamented:

Whatever dangers the ocean has, whatever the land,
these I suspect to be the cause of your long delay.
While I foolishly fear these things, such is your appetite
that you may be captive to a foreign love,
and perhaps you tell what a country wife you have,
that only her wool is not coarse.

My father Icarius drives me to leave my widowed bed,
and rebukes me continuously for my long delay.
Let him rebuke me; I am yours, it is right that I be called yours.
Penelope will always be Ulysses’ wife.

{ quaecumque aequor habet, quaecumque pericula tellus,
tam longae causas suspicor esse morae.
haec ego dum stulte metuo, quae vestra libido est,
esse peregrino captus amore potes.
forsitan et narres, quam sit tibi rustica coniunx,
quae tantum lanas non sinat esse rudes.

Me pater Icarius viduo discedere lecto
cogit et immensas increpat usque moras.
increpet usque licet—tua sum, tua dicar oportet;
Penelope coniunx semper Ulixis ero. }

Men have the enormous gender disadvantage of being subject to cuckolding. Cuckolds, for good evolutionary reasons, have been widely regarded with contempt throughout human history, with the possible exception of the past few decades of intensified gynocentrism. With a perceptive sense of social justice, Penelope was profoundly loyal to Ulysses. He had no reason to regret marrying her. He had good reason to struggle to return home.

While Ulysses was still far from Penelope, he learned of her fidelity. The prophet Tiresias told Ulysses what he would find when he finally returned home:

Penelope, your wife, you’ll find is poor and aged by grief.
She lives in poverty because she’s chosen chastity.
If she’d become a whore, she’d have no lack of food in store,
and your son would have horses — who now, since Penelope
despises her suitors, lives on chaff. But better not to eat enough
than to become a dirty prostitute and have food in plenty.
She lost what used to keep the household — herds of cattle and sheep —
to keep her body’s honor protected from the hundred suitors;
with every sheep or ox those lechers grabbed out of her flocks,
her glory gained more ground. If she were willing to be kind,
her enemies would turn to friends, and they’d be kind in turn.
She’d rather be oppressed by want, and lose what she possessed,
than stoop to prostitution; but now she may, courageous woman,
die from cold and thirst and loyal love for you, her husband.
Hurry, put your hand to sail and ensure that justice will prevail.

{ Penelopem cernes inopem vetulamque dolore.
Vivit mendica, quia maluit esse pudica.
Si fieret mecha, non esset inops apotheca,
natus haberet equos. Modo vivit acu, quia mechos
mater contempsit; et malo, quod esuriens sit,
quam foret immunde meretrici victus habunde.
Perdidit armentum pecudesque, domus alimentum,
a mechis centum corpus lucrata redemptum;
perdidit omne pecus, quod sustulit advena mechus,
obtinuitque decus. Set, qui hostis erat, foret equus
et blandus fieret, fieri si blanda valeret.
Paupertate premi, sua malebat quia demi,
quam sua cum scortis sors esset, femina fortis
nunc algore, siti morietur, amore mariti.
Iustitie zelo fuge, redde manum cito velo } [3]

For three years Penelope entertained 108 suitors in her home. They consumed much wine, cattle, sheep, and other food from the stocks she and Ulysses had acquired. They also pressured her to marry one of them. As has been commonly true, men seeking to marry makes no sense. A perceptive scholar observed “the oddly irrational nature of the suitors’ behavior, who simultaneously wish to consume Odysseus’ goods and yet put an end to this activity as quickly as they can.”[4] Homer may have adapted an earlier gynocentric myth of a woman having a harem of 108 men whom she struggled to support in the manner in which they were accustomed. Penelope seems to have flirted with such desire, yet like a man paying eighteen years of “child support” for a one-night stand, she resolutely refused to pursue further heterosexual relations.

Classical scholars today commonly regard Penelope as unrealistic. In reviewing diverse recent representations of Penelope from a common, misandristic perspective, an acclaimed classical scholar declared:

no modern reader can find her emotionally plausible. She is not angry at being abandoned or deprived of more children, sexually frustrated, suspicious of her husband’s fidelity, dissatisfied at being in charge of the household, or resentful of having to relinquish space when Odysseus returns. She does not even complain when, on their first night together, he says that he will leave her again. [5]

Not all women are like that, especially if they haven’t received a modern classical education. The eminent medieval abbess Heloise loved Abelard with a quality of love as high as that of Penelope’s love for Ulysses. The great ninth-century Byzantine poet and hymnographer Kassia didn’t engage in self-absorbed, shrewish complaining. The brilliant twelfth-century author Marie de France showed profound appreciation for time men spend away from their wives. Classical scholars today might regard Penelope as “a rare bird on this earth, exactly like a black swan {rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno}.”[6] But that doesn’t mean that Penelope is unrealistic. More women today could feasibly strive to imitate Penelope.

Her husband Ulysses was overjoyed with Penelope’s fidelity. Within gynocentric culture, women’s strong, independent sexuality is celebrated. Women are encouraged and expected to cuckold their husbands. Ulysses’s son Telemachus himself expressed uncertainty about his father:

Mother has always told me that I’m his son, it’s true,
But I am not so certain. Who, on his own,
has ever really known who gave him life?
Would to god I’d been the son of a happy man
whom old age overtook in the midst of his possessions!
Now, think of the most unlucky mortal ever born —
since you ask me, yes, they say I am his son.

{ μήτηρ μέν τέ μέ φησι τοῦ ἔμμεναι, αὐτὰρ ἐγώ γε
οὐκ οἶδ᾽: οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον αὐτὸς ἀνέγνω.
ὡς δὴ ἐγώ γ᾽ ὄφελον μάκαρός νύ τευ ἔμμεναι υἱὸς
ἀνέρος, ὃν κτεάτεσσιν ἑοῖς ἔπι γῆρας ἔτετμε.
νῦν δ᾽ ὃς ἀποτμότατος γένετο θνητῶν ἀνθρώπων,
220τοῦ μ᾽ ἔκ φασι γενέσθαι, ἐπεὶ σύ με τοῦτ᾽ ἐρεείνεις. } [7]

But to Ulysses’s great joy, Penelope wasn’t like other women:

He wept, and yet rejoiced, but dared not openly express
the secret joy he harbored now that he felt so reassured.

A woman who turns down a bribe deserves a precious crown
(so prone to bribery is their sex): then he said inwardly:
“Now cast away your fears, and now stop weeping: dry your tears;
you have a faithful wife, and one who is alive and safe.
Quick, see to the ship’s canvas and make a sacrifice to Pallas!
Your fate is wonderful, not harsh or dreadful after all;
a woman without greed, although she’s poor, is a rare bird.
A woman who rejects the tempting blandishments of sex
and can’t be beaten down by harassment or lured by gain
or sweet-talked into sin is worth more than King Cyrus’s crown.

I wonder at her powers: ignoring all her suitors prayers,
although her sex is frail, alone she managed to prevail.
Resisting all compulsion, by force or by intimidation,
resolutely opposed the wickedness those men proposed,
no flattery or force could move her noble course.
She fought with all her might — more than a man’s — for what is right.

{ Plorat, set gaudet neque vult monstrare nec audit
vir bene precinctus, que gaudia mens habet intus.

res precio prona, preciosa digna corona,
cum precium reicit. Tunc secum talia dicit:
“Iam depone metus, iam desine fundere fletus
et lacrimas sicca, socia vivente pudica!
Vela cito repara, fac fumet Palladis ara!
Sors tua preclara iam nec gravis est nec amara,
dum sit auis rara mulier pauper nec avara.
Spernere iam Venerem nec posse capi mulierem
aut irretiri pretio dampnisve feriri
vel prece molliri prius est dyademate Cyri.

Miror, quod tantum potuit tot ut una precantum
vitarit nexus, monitis levis obvia sexus.
nec commota minis neque vi nec fracta ruinis.
Nec dum vicinis vicium negat, illa rapinis
nec blandimentis ruit alte femina mentis,
iusticie miles, vires transgressa viriles.” }

Women today might complain decades later that they were repeatedly forced to have sex with a man whom they repeatedly visited in his hotel room. In her own way, Penelope was stronger and more independent than them. Like a husband who learns, against outrageous legal obstacles, that his wife’s children are also his own biological children, Ulysses knowing Penelope’s chastity felt joy and comfort that he prudently didn’t express under repressive gynocentrism.

Misunderstanding of his own virtue as a man made Ulysses hesitant about returning home. Ulysses didn’t understand that his masculine being was sufficient for her. He was afraid to return home materially impoverished:

It’s necessary and urgent, since she’s in this predicament,
that I should put to sea. But first, good prophet, answer me:
when, as you recommend, I go back home to join my friends,
what will there be to enjoy if I’m as penniless as they?
Shall I go full of grief to Ithaca, no cow or calf
to my name, and only water to drink? Wearing these rags I’d rather
go off to visit Thrace, Persia, or Britain — any place —
than go home in this state, with neither grain nor fruit nor meat,
nor wine to drink, nor any wool or linen for my family.
As filthy and unshaven as I am, I’m likely to be driven,
my standards notwithstanding, to one who should be honoring
me, and grovel to him, a tenant-farmer who’s become
greater than me; now poor, I’ll ask for scraps at his front door —
I who so fiercely tore the camp’s gates open in the war;
I’ll stand there on the step begging for bread, and dogs will leap
at me, whose armed assault caused Troy’s rebellion to halt
when I attacked its walls. So often that rich city called
it death-doomed men to move against me, when Hector was alive.
Shall I set out once more and sail to that familiar shore
while looking like a bear or like a bristle-covered boar?

how can the things I’ve lost be mine again? Should I go first
to my father, if I myself can’t give my family any help?

{ Taliter oppresse foret huic opus atque necesse
nos intrare rates. Sed dic prius, optime vates:
credo, quod, ut dicis, redeo reddendus amicis;
set quis erit ludus, cum nudos videro nudus?
Ibo dolens Ithacam, nec habens vitulam neque vacam
et bibiturus aquam? Set mallem visere Tracam
hos gestans pannos aut Persas sive Britannos,
quam miser ire domum, cui nec seges est neque pomum
nec caro nec vinum nec lana meis neque linum.
Nec mea me virtus redimit, quin turpis et hirtus
quemlibet implorem, michi qui deberet honorem.
et me maiorem villanum vilis adorem.
cum pro morsello miserabilis hostia pello,
qui ferus in bello castrorum claustra revello,
assiliuntque canes, dum quero per hostia panes.
cuius ad assultum tollebat Troia tumultum.
dum quaterem muros. Totiens in me perituros
excivit cives urbs Hectore sospite dives!
Incipiam rursus ad cognita littora cursus,
esse volens ursus vel qui setis tegitur sus?

perdita restaurem. Quid enim? Citius properarem
patris adire larem, nisi meque meosque iuvarem. }

Penelope thought that Ulysses appreciated her fine wool, while Ulysses misunderstood his wife’s wool as a good that he needed to provide. Like a woman-server, he thought he had to rush home to relieve his wife’s material poverty. He was infected with pride and corresponding shame. His pride depended on his possessions, his appearance, his social status, and his prowess in killing other men. The Homeric hero Ulysses learned nothing from Diogenes’s subsequent, prominent example of embracing poverty.

Christians regarded Ulysses’s pride as a great sin. The fourth-century scholar and church leader Gregory of Nyssa taught Christians:

The Lord became poor, so be not afraid of poverty. The one who for us became poor reigns over all creation. If therefore you share poverty with the impoverished, you will surely also share his kingdom when he reigns.

{ Ἐπτώχευσεν ὁ Κύριος, μὴ φοβηθῇς μηδὲ σὺ τὴν πτωχείαν. Ἀλλὰ βασιλεύει πάσης τῆς κτίσεως ὁ δι’ ἡμᾶς πτωχεύσας. Οὐκοῦν ἐὰν πτωχεύσαντι συμπτω χεύσῃς, καὶ βασιλεύοντι συμβασιλεύσεις. } [8]

In twelfth-century Europe, sermons commonly exhorted Christians “to follow naked the naked Christ {nudus nudum Christum sequi}.” That saying was central to the credo of the Franciscan order of monks.[9] The Homeric hero Ulysses was oblivious to popular Christian teaching in twelfth-century Europe.

Men today should aspire to be greater than Ulysses, and women should support them in that aspiration. Under the dominant, oppressive gender ideology prevalent throughout history, a man’s worth is measured in this ability to provide material goods to women and children. “Child support” under law today literally means court-mandated, monthly payments that men vastly disproportionately are forced to make to women. This grotesque misrepresentation of child support re-enforces entrenched gender ideology that’s oppressive and demeaning to men.[10] Enlightened men should understand their own intrinsic masculine being as a virtuous treasure — one that they possess and that they can share. Enlightened women should work long and hard hours to provide money and material resources to men and children.[11]

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[1] Ovid, Heroides, “Penelope to Ulysses {Penelope Ulixi},” ll. 1-8, Latin text from the online Latin Library, English translation by James M. Hunter. Hunter translated lento as “truant.” That seems to me to inject moral disparagement that jars with the context of Penelope’s longing. I’ve used instead “too-slow.” As is conventional under the gynocentric excusing of women, Penelope blamed the Trojan War on the adulterous lover Paris rather than on the whorish Helen.

The subsequent two quotes from Heroides, “Penelope to Ulysses,” are similarly sourced. They are ll. 59-62 (Whoever turns his wandering ship…) and ll. 73-8, 81-4 (Whatever dangers…).

[2] Archpoet, “Estuans intrinsecus ira vehementi {Deep inside me I’m ablaze with an angry passion}” (Poem 10), Stanza 7, Latin text and English translation from Adcock (1994) pp. 114-5. The poem has survived as Poem 191 in the Carmina Burana. Here’s the full Latin text and A.Z. Foreman’s English translation, and here similarly with the English translation of A. S. Kline. The Archpoet was a Goliardic poet writing in Europe in the twelfth century. This poem is thought to have been writing in Germany in the 1160s.

The Archpoet’s reference to “pure in mind” echoes Matthew 5:8. The last two lines of stanza 6 of his poem are:

Female beauty wounds my breast; but if I can’t win her
I commit adultery in my heart upon her.

{ meum pectus sauciat puellarum decor,
et quas tactu nequeo, saltem corde mechor. }

Trans. Adcock (1994) p. 115. Cf. Matthew 5:28. Compared to the Archpoet’s cavalier attitude toward these biblical injunctions, many men today live in fear and trembling of having engaged in the “male gaze.” A vast academic literature exists on that mortal offense.

[3] Hugh Primas, “Post rabiem rixe redeunt bilustris Ulixe {After ten years of ragging struggle, Ulysseus returns}” (Poem 10), ll. 31-45, Latin text and English translation (with a few minor adaptations) from Adcock (1994), with the Latin corrected with the text of McDonough (2010). Adcock’s Latin text is based on that of Meyer (1906), which draws from both Berlin theol. lat. Oct. 94 (B) and Oxford Bodleian MS Rawlinson G 109 (R). McDonough’s Latin text is exclusively from the Rawlinson manuscript R. Compared to B, R lacks verses 1-8, 63-5, and 96-101 (the end of the poem). Here’s a reasonable good Latin text of the poem online.

The subsequent two quotes above from this poem are similarly sourced. Those quotes are from ll. 51-2, 56-65, 69-74 (He wept…) and 77-96, 100-1 (Shall I go…).

[4] Konstan (2015) p. 10.

[5] Hall (2008) p. 120. The text literally states, “satisfied at being in charge of the household.” In context, that seems clearly to be a typographical mistake. On that assumption, I’ve corrected it above to read “dissatisfied….”

Hall’s discussion of the episode with Circe in the Odyssey provides good insight into modern classical scholarship. Perhaps echoing Anne Porter’s A Defense of Circe (1954), Hall characterized Circe’s drugging of Odysseus’s men and their directly subsequent transformation into pigs:

Nor did she {Circe} turn any man into a pig: her drugs simply cause men to reveal their true natures.

Id. p. 21. Comparing Chapter 8 (“Rites of Man”) and Chapter 9 (“Women’s Work”) in Hall’s book shows the extent to which men’s gendered concerns have been silenced in the reception of classical literature. Along with that silencing of men’s gendered voices, misandristic voices have been given prominence in the most prestigious organs of broad intellectual life.

Hall’s book was selected by Choice as the “2009 Outstanding Academic Title.” In a review of Hall’s book in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, editor Steve Coates declared:

Is there anything in the Western literary canon with more abundant, potent or frolicsome offspring than Homer’s “Odyssey”? Clearly not, to judge by “The Return of Ulysses,” Edith Hall’s enlightening and entertaining cultural history. … Hall, a research professor of classics and drama at Royal Holloway, University of London, fills her pages with sharp and often surprising observations about the “Odyssey” and its spiritual children. … Reading her good-­humored and accessible book is like conversing across the ages.

This seems to me more like intellectual life in Moscow under Brezhnev and reading Izvestiya.

[6] Juvenal, Satires 6.165.

[7] Homer, Odyssey 1.215-20, Greek text from A.T. Murray, Loeb Classical Library (1919), via Perseus; English translation from Fagles (1996) p. 84. Hall dismisses this poignant passage as “a standard complaint of men in the days before genetic testing.” Hall (2008) p. 108. Undue influence, misrepresentation and wrong administrative service are acute injustices in paternity establishment today. Even with genetic paternity testing, courts have often preferred to uphold a long history of legal fiction about paternity. Following the political tradition of the four seas law of paternity, the U.K. and France have outlawed men seeking genetic paternity testing without the consent of the mother. Mothers who cuckold men are unlikely to volunteer such consent.

[8] Gregory of Nyssa, Homily 1, On the Beatitudes, Greek text from Patrologia Graeca 0330-0395, via Thesaurus Linguae Graecae and Cooperatorum Veritatis Societas; English translation from Hall (2000) p. 31.

[9] The expression nudus nudum Christum sequi appears in Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus (Jerome), Letter 125. On that expression more generally, Constable (1979). Hugh Primas’s poem, l. 80, alludes ironically to that saying with Ulysses’s phrase “what will there be to enjoy if I’m as penniless as they? {set quis erit ludus, cum nudos videro nudus?}.” McDonough (2010) p. 257, note to l. 69.

[10] Gynocentrism greatly impedes men’s development of an independent, masculinity-affirming identity. Hall rightly observed:

Masculinity and the male initiation rites that signify its maturation are in every culture defined by being Not Feminine.

Hall (2009) p. 108. Under gynocentrism, “feminine” is the dominant, default cultural value. Masculinity and male initiation rites must be given room of their own to develop a strong, independent, affirmative masculine identity.

McDonough read Hugh’s poem to provide a positive portrayal of Ulysses:

The medieval poem …. portrays a kind of heroism that acts to correct the negative evaluation of Ulysses as the deceitful character offered by Horace, Virgil, and Austustine (De civitate dei 5.12).

McDonough (2010) p. xxiii. That interpretation seems to me to reflect the culturally entrenched gender ideal of men as providers to women and children. Taking a critical perspective on that gender structure is difficulty for many, particularly older men.

[11] Reforming gross anti-men bias in family courts and providing men with reproductive rights / choice would also be useful actions for developing a society that effectively upholds men’s human dignity and that encourages men to value their intrinsic being rather than merely what material and status goods they can provide to women.

[image] a black swan, a rare bird. Created by Port Jackson Painter between 1788 and 1792. Painting held in the First Fleet Artwork Collection at The Natural History Museum, London. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Adcock, Fleur, trans. 1994. Hugh Primas and the Archpoet. Cambridge Medieval Classics 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Constable, Giles. 1979. “Nudus nudum Christum sequi and parallel formulas in the twelfth century.” Pp. 83-91 in Williams, George Huntston, F. Forrester Church, and Timothy George, eds. Continuity and discontinuity in church history: essays presented to George Huntston Williams on the occasion of his 65th birthday. Leiden: Brill.

Fagles, Robert, trans. 1996. Homer. The Odyssey. New York: Viking Penguin.

Hall, Edith. 2008. The return of Ulysses: a cultural history of Homer’s Odyssey. London: I.B. Tauris.

Hall, Stuart George, trans. 2000. “Gregory of Nyssa, On the Beatitudes.” Part I (pp. 3-92) in Hubertus R. Drobner and Alberto Viciano, eds. Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Beatitudes; an English version with Commentary supporting studies. Proceedings of the Eighth International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa (Paderborn, 14-18 September 1998). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Konstan, David. 2015. “In defense of the Suitors: A Reading of Homer’s Odyssey.” Paper presented at I Colóquio Internacional sobre Poesia Grega Arcaica do NEAM/UFMG: Homero e Hesíodo, Belo Horizonte, Faculdade de Letras da UFMG. October 28, Minais Gerais, Brazil.

McDonough, Christopher J., ed. and trans. 2010. The Arundel lyrics; The poems of Hugh Primas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 2. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Meyer, Wilhelm. 1906. Studies: medieval Latin. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

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