Penelope is one of the most compelling characters from ancient Greek mythology. And yet her intelligence and agency in Homer's Odyssey is seldom appreciated. Towards the end of the epic, Penelope comes face-to-face with Odysseus, who has finally returned home disguised as a beggar. After they exchange a few stories (with Odysseus still maintaining his disguise), Penelope sets in motion a chain of events that seals the fate of all the major characters in the story.
Since antiquity people have debated whether Penelope realizes who this beggar is or not. Obviously, how you come down on that question is going to profoundly affect how you see her as a character. Is she naive and passive or is she discerning and cunning?
Homeric scholar Olga Levaniouk has a unique take on this question and other aspects of Penelope's role. She joins us to illuminate the complexities of Penelope's character and mythological background. Levaniouk is Professor of Classics at the University of Washington in Seattle, and author of the book Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19.
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Scholarly works mentioned during the conversation:
Elizabeth Barber, Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean, Princeton University Press, 1991. (discusses the shroud/tapestry Penelope weaves on pp. 258-9)
Louise Pratt, “Odyssey 19.535-50: On the Interpretation of Dreams and Signs in Homer,” Classical Philology 89 (1994): 150-52. (argues that the 20 geese in Penelope's dream symbolize the twenty years she has waited for Odysseus)