Long as the day in the summer time
Deep as the wine dark sea
I’ll keep your heart with mine.
Till you come to me
- Loreena McKennitt, “Penelope’s Song”
I’ve had romance and myth on the brain for the past few days, the former because I’ve been busy devouring regency romance novels, and the latter because I’ve been watching documentaries about Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey.
Somewhere in the bubbling cauldron that is my brain, romance and myth merged together, and I started thinking about my favorite love stories from Greek and Roman mythology. The ancients are a passionate bunch; hatred and death tango side-by-side with love and romance.
As a child, I found that classical mythology challenged my notion of happily-ever-after, honed and sharpened from too many Disney films (I was actually slightly horrified after I watched Disney’s Hercules and then read the *real* myth. So much death!). After a while, however, I came to appreciate this world where gods meddled and interfered (see: every myth ever written), and mortals were driven by their base instincts and egos.
All of this leads me to Homer’s Odyssey, one of my favorite epic poems. Unlike poor Echo and Narcissus above, Odysseus and his wife Penelope do experience a happy ending.
The storyline is simple: Odysseus has spent 20 years trying to return to his home in Ithaka after the end of the Trojan War. Along the way he manages to offend both gods and mortals (including Poseidon, who is enraged at the way Odysseus taunts and provokes the Cyclops), but through his wily intelligence, and the guidance of “grey-eyed Athena,” he manages to finally return home.
There he discovers that his home has been overrun by 108 (!) men attempting to win Penelope’s hand in marriage, as they believe him to be dead. Odysseus and his son, Telemachus, slay the suitors, and finally, the wandering warrior can be reunited with his wife.
It’s the reunion that makes my poor little heart stutter and my eyes mist up. Penelope is shrewd, and she challenges Odysseus to prove his identity. In response he describes how he built their marriage bed with his own hands, fashioning it around an ancient olive tree:
An old trunk of olive
grew like a pillar on the building plot,
and I laid out our bedroom round that tree,
lined up the stone walls, built the walls and roof,
gave it a doorway and smooth-fitting doors.
Then I lopped off the silvery leaves and branches,
hewed and shaped that stump from the roots up
into a bedpost, drilled it, let it serve
as a model for the rest. I planed them all,
inlaid them all with silver, gold and ivory,
and stretched a bed between — a pliant web
of oxhide thongs dyed crimson.
There’s our sign!
I know no more. Could someone else’s hand
Have sawn that trunk and dragged the frame away?
Homer tells us that Penelope kisses Odysseus at last when he offers this sign, and in response, he weeps:
Now from his breast into his eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms,
as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea…
she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband,
her white arms round him pressed as though forever.
Swoon. It’s just so romantic.
I admit, I have a crush on Odysseus. It doesn’t help that I read The Odyssey after watching Troy, where Odysseus was portrayed by Sean Bean (imagining Sean Bean building a marriage bed for his beloved with his own hands = hot). But I digress.
The more I think about it, the more I come to appreciate Penelope’s fortitude, intelligence, and strength. Loreena McKennitt, one of my favorite singers, articulates these very qualities in “Penelope’s Song,” described as “a paean to steadfast love.”
Although Penelope didn’t have to brave the retribution of gods and men for twenty years, she had to wait for twenty years, rearing a son, evading the suitors, and holding onto the belief that Odysseus lived. I’m reminded of a passage from Jane Austen’s Persuasion, where Anne Elliot argues that women “love longest, when existence or when hope is gone.” She continues,
We certainly do not forget you so soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey on us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions.
While Penelope might have been confined, she isn’t completely helpless. She uses her own techniques to thwart the suitors and to undermine their advances. For example, she promises to choose a husband from among them only after she weaves a burial shroud for her father-in-law; however, she secretly undoes part of the shroud every few nights in an attempt to delay her decision and to buy herself more time.
Penelope a remarkable character and the perfect mate for a hero like Odysseus. They are lovers and partners; Homer (at least from my reading) makes it clear that they relate with one another as equals, and by the end, they are left in marital bliss — or so I like to imagine!
What are your favorite romantic couples from myth and legend? Do you prefer star-crossed and tragic lovers, or ones who manage to weather the odds and achieve a happy ending?