Penelope’s Personality Traits
In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope exhibits the often-contradictory characteristics of two goddesses. Sometimes in the poem Penelope takes of the traits of Artemis, the goddess of virginity, and at other times she behaves like Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual desire. She brings out these traits when she needs to manipulate the suitors to fulfill her particular needs or to help her son. Some people believe that Penelope knows from the moment Odysseus comes back that she recognizes him; if so, then Penelope use these traits to help Odysseus in his plans to kill the suitors and regain his wealth and family. (For more information, see Penelope's Cleverness )
Penelope is the epitome of the respectable woman in Ithaca, and probably Greece. The constant retelling of Agamemnon’s death by the hand of his unfaithful wife, Clytemnestra brings to the readers mind the exact opposite, Penelope (Odyssey XI). Penelope shares her renowned beauty with Aphrodite and Artemis, but she uses it in a manner that is best identified with Aphrodite. Athena enhances her beauty so that the goddess’ plans to help Odysseus regain his household with at least some of his wealth replenished by the suitors’ gifts can be accomplished (Odyssey XVIII).
The virtuous chastity exhibited by Penelope identifies her with Artemis. Just as Artemis stayed secluded in the woods and kept herself hidden from the eyes of men, Penelope kept to her rooms away from the bawdy revelry of the suitors. Other dramatic connections of Penelope to Artemis fill the Odyssey. In book XVII, she calls upon Apollo, Artemis’ brother, to strike down Antinous for hurling a stool at Odysseus in disguise. After Penelope’s dream in book XX, she implores Artemis to end her suffering with a “shaft to pierce [her] breast.” (For more information, see Penelope's Dreams )
Penelope is further connected to Aphrodite by her plan to choose a suitor. She devises a plan to choose a husband that she believes they will all fail. Her plan uses the polished bow, the one given to Odysseus after his first boar hunt, that no one but Odysseus can string and fire. Both the bow and the hunt are vivid associations with Artemis. In Greek Mythology, Artemis once caught a man named Actaeon spying on her while bathing, she used her powers to turn him into a stag so that his dogs would attack him. Artemis is also able to tame wild beasts. After Penelope uses her beauty to tame the wild suitors, she makes them the prey of Odysseus. Thus she punishes them for attempting to compromise her chastity for Odysseus while he was away.
Whenever Penelope uses her natural and god-given beauty she resembles Aphrodite the most. After Athena gives Penelope “immortals’ beauty” by anointing her face with the balm used by Cytherea (Aphrodite) and by giving her whiter skin and making her taller, Penelope entrances the suitors. Her appearance in the banquet hall drives the men wild with lust. They entice her with gifts and compliment her as Eurymachus did when he told her, “among all women, none can find the likes of you in grace, in height, in mind” (Odyssey XVIII). Penelope teases them with her comments denying her beauty, but at the same time gives them hope by seeking their gifts to replace the wealth they had drained from her home.
Another characteristic of love with Aphrodite is that it often causes as much pain as pleasure, such as the case with Adonis. Penelope’s love cause pain for herself – so much that she begs for death from Artemis. The love the suitors hold for Penelope causes much grief to themselves and to others. The lust that the suitors have for Penelope cause Telemachusto beseech the other “kings” of Ithaca to help, but his pleas are to no avail. Also, the suitors’ obsession with Penelope, and her godlike indifference to them, causes much suffering to the faithful servants of Odysseus who are at their beck and call.
The way Penelope’s personality mixes the opposing characteristics of Artemis and Aphrodite make her a unique and puzzling woman. Perhaps this is why she is renowned among the Greeks; she mixes the faithfulness that everyman expects of his wife, but also exudes the sexual desire he wants from a lover.