“Love suffereth long….beareth all things, believeth all things,
hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth.”
1 Corinthians 3:4, 7-8 (ASV)
“And then he spoke of a girl of surpassing beauty and faithfulness.
I can only assume he meant you.”
– The Princess Bride
One of my favorite stories of all time is one of the oldest stories of all time. It also happens to be one of the best love stories.
They call it the Odyssey – the story of the Greek hero Odysseus, written about 3,000 years ago by a man named Homer; but tales of the Greek hero had been passed around by word of mouth for many, many years before that.
Odysseus was a king, a soldier, a genius, and easily the most beloved character in all of Greek history. But he is remembered first and foremost as a father and husband because the Odyssey is his struggle to return to the home and family he was forced to leave behind.
Long story short: Odysseus is called to fight in a war that lasts 10 years, and then takes another 10 years on top of that to get home, making it 20 years round-trip. All that time, his beloved wife Penelope waits for her husband’s return – a return which never seems to come for those 2 very long decades.
Teaser: there’s a happy ending to this story, which is one reason why it is so beloved. But let me tell you a bit about Odysseus and Penelope’s story, and why I love them so much.
Boy Meets Girl
When Odysseus was a young king (in the land of Greece), he was called to a council of all the Greek kings and leaders. Their mission: to find the right match for the gorgeous and very eligible princess Helen. She was a beauty unparalleled in her day and quite rich with powerful political connections, so all the men of the land were crawling over one another to marry her.
But not Odysseus. When he arrived, his eyes had settled upon another – Penelope, Helen’s cousin. So while all the other kings are literally beating each other to pieces and threatening war over Helen’s hand, Odysseus had a word with Penelope’s uncle over the matter of marrying her. But the uncle was a shrewd man – he wouldn’t give permission for nothing, so Odysseus made a deal.
“I will get the other Greek lords to stop fighting and agree peacefully on the right match for Helen if you will grant me Penelope’s hand,” he said. The uncle agreed.
So Odysseus made a pact with the Greek Kings – “We must all agree to defend the man who marries Helen, that way we may all avoid a civil war. I personally have no wish to marry Helen, so I will be first to make the oath to protect he who marries her.” Odysseus was no one to trifle with, as they all knew, so the Greeks assented. Menelaus drew the lot and married Helen. Odysseus got Penelope. Everyone went home happy (or not), and that was that.
A couple of years later, Odysseus and Penelope are happily married and have a newborn son. Everything is great!
What is It Good For?
Until some Trojan jerk named Paris abducts/woos Helen onto his boat and takes her back to Troy. Her husband Menelaus gets mad, declares war on Troy, and starts calling on all those kings who promised to protect him.
Except Odysseus really, really doesn’t want to go to war. Why should he? The Trojans have never done anything to him. If Menelaus can’t keep a hold on his own wife, why should that concern him? Besides, he has a kingdom, a loving wife, and a newborn baby to look after.
So he tries to weasel out of his obligation by pretending to be crazy. The envoys from the king arrive, and Penelope apologizes that her husband is indisposed having suffered a “mental breakdown.” She provides proof of his madness by pointing out that Odysseus is sowing salt in the fields (thus rendering the rich farmland sterile. Only a madman would do that).
But the farce is put to a quick end when one of Menelaus’ envoys puts Odysseus’ infant son in the path of the plow. A madman would continue on, not recognizing his child, but Odysseus stops his progress. The jig is up. And so he is forced to bid his wife and young son farewell, muster the troops, and head east to the Trojan war.
The Scenic Route
Unfortunately the war drags on ad infinitum – an entire decade is spent fighting the Trojan enemy, the Greek boats parked outside the city walls.
It only FINALLY comes to an end when Odysseus, in one of his famous tricks, comes up with the idea of the Trojan horse: build a giant horse, hide a giant army inside, let the Trojans take it inside their city and WHAMOO – you got yourself a sacked city!
The plan works, Troy falls, and Odysseus is the hero of the day. Game over – time to go home.
But as he sets out for home, he encounters what I have heard one reader call the “worst traffic jam in human history.”
Only a week or so after embarking, Odysseus lets his hubris get away from him and decides it’s a good idea to talk smack to Poseidon. Bad life choice for a sailor. Now the sea god has his name blacklisted, and as far as he is concerned, Odysseus’ return home is postponed indefinitely.
The Greek hero hops his way across the whole Mediterranean, reaching the shore of nearly every land except his own. Homesick, he keeps pushing his crew to get back to Ithaca. But somehow, he just keeps getting further and further away. He sees all that the marvels the world has to offer and then after having a bad run-in with a dozen or so monsters, Odysseus loses his crew, loses his ship, and loses his way. 10 years come and go and Odysseus languishes, trapped on a literally god-forsaken island. And he pines, unable to stop thinking of home and of his wife.
Luckily, Odysseus does have one friend on Olympus – the Greek goddess of wisdom Athena. Eventually she manages to persuade Poseidon to stop picking on the poor man. A messenger is dispatched, and they get Odysseus off that spit of land and back home to Ithaca.
Except it’s been 20 years since he left, and Odysseus’ kingdom is a very different place.
Meanwhile Back at the Ranch…
For 10 years or so, Penelope waited patiently for the end of the war and the inevitable return of her husband. Then, at the end of those 10 years, the Greek ships start to return from Troy. But Odysseus is not among them.
More years pass – still no sign of Odysseus. Penelope looks everyday to the shores, but he never comes. Eventually, everyone assumes he is dead. But not Penelope and her son. They know he’s alive, somewhere, and so they continue to wait. Penelope will not give up on her love.
Others are not so patient. Turns out that when your husband doesn’t come home after a war has been finished, you are suddenly shot back onto the eligible bachelorette list. Every male within a 50 mile radius and above the age of 12 shows up at the palace and begins to petition for Penelope’s hand.
The ancient laws of hospitality dictated that Penelope could not kick them out, so these marriage-hungry parasites linger for years and years, eating and drinking Odysseus’ once prosperous kingdom into a hole. Not only that, they force the maidservants of the house to sleep with them, steal off the goods of the surrounding villages, and even conspire to kill Odysseus (should he ever appear) and his son (now a young man and due to inherit). And every day there’s the unanswerable question asked by every man in the house: “Penelope, when are you going to marry me?” The douchebags!
There’s simply no way Penelope is going to give in when she knows her husband has to be on his way home. Luckily, Penelope is just as smart and cunning as her husband and finds a myriad of ways to stall them.
My personal favorite is her excuse that she has to stitch a burial shroud for her father-in-law before she can marry – they see her diligently working at it every day…but they don’t see her undoing that very work every night. This scheme holds them off for years, but they eventually catch on and she comes up with a new plan.
The Mighty Contest
“Fine, I will marry one of you” she announces one day. “But I want to make sure I marry the man that is worthy. So I have devised a test to determine who shall be my husband.”
The test is deceptively simple –
- String Odysseus’ great long bow by hand.
- Fire an arrow through the holes of 12 axes.
Whoever could do this the most easily would marry her.
The men laugh at the contest, each of them thinking themselves more than up to the challenge. But not a single one of them can even string the bow!
Meanwhile, Odysseus watches the pitiful contest in his hall. He had finally made it back, and in secret. But with 20 years and a household of suitors between him and his wife, Odysseus doesn’t know for sure if he can trust Penelope or not. Other Greek kings returned from the war to be murdered by their wives. A lot could change in 20 years. Had she?
So he disguises himself as a decrepit old man in order to assess the situation at his home. It doesn’t look promising. No one except a faithful servant and his son (now a strapping young man) knows that he is even alive, let alone on the island. And before he will reunite with his wife, he will rid himself of these dastardly suitors.
Finally he has enough of the suitors’ really lame attempts at the challenge, and he steps forward to try his hand. The suitors laugh at the old man they see before them, but they quickly choke on their laughter when Odysseus easily strings the bow and fires the shot perfectly. In a flash, his disguise is lifted and he is transformed before their eyes into his awesome manly glory. To their horror, they recognize their king Odysseus who is now armed and very angry. With a signal, Odysseus and his men dispatch the suitors. All are dead within a couple of minutes.
He orders the hall to be cleaned and heads upstairs to have a word with Penelope.
The Great Rooted Bed
Penelope heard the ruckus in the great hall when Odysseus took out all the suitors. She knows something is coming – something big – so she waits in the chamber next to her bedroom. And then Odysseus walks in.
She sees him, but hardly reacts. The gods have played tricks on her before, and she is a canny woman. She has no idea if the man standing before her is a vision or another man in disguise. He certainly looks real.
Odysseus of course is a little put off by the lack of response.
“Strange woman!…What other wife could have a spirit so unbending? Holding back from her husband, home at last for her after bearing twenty years of brutal struggle.” (Odysseus, Book 23, Line 186-190)
And then he commands the maidservant to make him a separate bed to sleep alone.
And with that Penelope sees her chance to test Odysseus’s identity.
You see, back when he was a young king, Odysseus had built his bedroom around a great, magnificent olive tree that grew in his palace. He built the grand room to opulent perfection, then lopped off the very top of the tree, smoothed the trunk out and made it into one of the bedposts of his bed. This was the bed – literally rooted to the ground – that he shared with his wife during their time together. It was their special secret – no one but a single maidservant knew of it.
And now Penelope was going to test Odysseus by baiting him with it. Knowing full well the bed can’t move, she tells the maidservant to carry the royal bed into another chamber for him to sleep on.
Odysseus freaks out.
“Woman – your words, they cut me to the core! Who could move my bed? Impossible task….I know, I built it myself.” (Odyssey, XXIII, Lines 205-206, 213)
Then, describing the bed in detail and why it can’t be budged and catching on to his wife’s shrewd trick, Odysseus says,
“There’s our secret sign, I tell you, our life story! Does the bed, my lady, still stand planted firm?” (Odyssey, XXIII, Lines 226-227)
And with the proof of their secret, Penelope knows that it truly is him, the man she waited 20 years to see again. She bursts into tears, throws her arms around him and kisses him, explaining why she was reserved. And he knows her sincerity.
“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,
longed for 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.”
(Odyssey, XXIII, Lines 259-267)
The Moral of the Story: Love & Loyalty
What’s so remarkable to me about Penelope and Odysseus’ love story is their perseverance despite all odds. Sure, Odysseus gets plenty sidetracked, but his end goal is always to get back home to Penelope. He never even for a moment forgets his love for her. In fact, his love for Penelope is the one thing that keeps him going when all other matters seem darkest.
As for Penelope – well, I think it’s no secret that she’s the real hero of the story. She gives up 20 years of her life to wait for the man she loves. She could have cut her losses, remarried, had more kids – no one would have blamed her. But she felt in her bones that Odysseus would one day return. It wasn’t a guarantee. She could never really know for certain. And everyone else already believed he was dead. But Penelope had decided long before she would be there for him, no matter how long, no matter the consequence. And so she waited.
A wise man once said that “the crowning characteristic of love is always loyalty.” That’s why I love Penelope and Odysseus so much – their’s was a love that endured, that bound them together, no matter how much time passed, no matter how much water under the bridge.
That’s why they get the happy ending. That’s why when they finally embraced one another after two decades being apart, all the time lost was just like a day for all it mattered.
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