If I remember the story correctly, Penelope spends over a decade telling her suitors that she will choose one of them as a husband some day, but continues inventing elaborate reasons why she cannot yet make that choice. It seemed clear to the reader that she simply doesn't want to remarry. Which begs the question: Is there a reason why she didn't she just say so?

Did the society of ancient Greece not allow a woman to refuse remarriage? Was she so indecisive she couldn't bring herself to either make a choice or refuse to make a choice? Was she afraid they would revolt and try to take her by force if she refused? Was it considered unfathomably rude to ask guests to leave your house, ever? (I recall hospitality toward guests was a common theme in that story)


3 Answers 3


tl;dr Mob rule.

Penelope didn't have a choice. She may have been Queen of Ithaca, but she had little actual power. All men loyal to Odysseus had followed him to Troy, she simply had no way of forcing the suitors to leave the palace. And of course she feared that antagonizing the suitors in any way would put Telemachus' life in danger.

Nevertheless, Telemachus did try to order the suitors out of the palace, in front of the Ithacan assembly:

Telemachus took this speech as of good omen and rose at once, for he was bursting with what he had to say. He stood in the middle of the assembly and the good herald Pisenor brought him his staff. Then, turning to Aegyptius, "Sir," said he, "it is I, as you will shortly learn, who have convened you, for it is I who am the most aggrieved. I have not got wind of any host approaching about which I would warn you, nor is there any matter of public moment on which I would speak. My grieveance is purely personal, and turns on two great misfortunes which have fallen upon my house. The first of these is the loss of my excellent father, who was chief among all you here present, and was like a father to every one of you; the second is much more serious, and ere long will be the utter ruin of my estate. The sons of all the chief men among you are pestering my mother to marry them against her will. They are afraid to go to her father Icarius, asking him to choose the one he likes best, and to provide marriage gifts for his daughter, but day by day they keep hanging about my father's house, sacrificing our oxen, sheep, and fat goats for their banquets, and never giving so much as a thought to the quantity of wine they drink. No estate can stand such recklessness; we have now no Ulysses to ward off harm from our doors, and I cannot hold my own against them. I shall never all my days be as good a man as he was, still I would indeed defend myself if I had power to do so, for I cannot stand such treatment any longer; my house is being disgraced and ruined. Have respect, therefore, to your own consciences and to public opinion. Fear, too, the wrath of heaven, lest the gods should be displeased and turn upon you. I pray you by Jove and Themis, who is the beginning and the end of councils, [do not] hold back, my friends, and leave me singlehanded- unless it be that my brave father Ulysses did some wrong to the Achaeans which you would now avenge on me, by aiding and abetting these suitors. Moreover, if I am to be eaten out of house and home at all, I had rather you did the eating yourselves, for I could then take action against you to some purpose, and serve you with notices from house to house till I got paid in full, whereas now I have no remedy."

With this Telemachus dashed his staff to the ground and burst into tears. Every one was very sorry for him, but they all sat still and no one ventured to make him an angry answer, save only Antinous, who spoke thus:

"Telemachus, insolent braggart that you are, how dare you try to throw the blame upon us suitors? It is your mother's fault not ours, for she is a very artful woman. This three years past, and close on four, she has been driving us out of our minds, by encouraging each one of us, and sending him messages without meaning one word of what she says. And then there was that other trick she played us. She set up a great tambour frame in her room, and began to work on an enormous piece of fine needlework. 'Sweet hearts,' said she, 'Ulysses is indeed dead, still do not press me to marry again immediately, wait- for I would not have skill in needlework perish unrecorded- till I have completed a pall for the hero Laertes, to be in readiness against the time when death shall take him. He is very rich, and the women of the place will talk if he is laid out without a pall.'

Source: The Odyssey, Book II, translated by Samuel Butler

Telemachus insolence was not only ignored, but it also instigated a plot amongst the suitors to kill him as he returned from his visits to Nestor and Menelaus.


Stalling her suitors for as long as possible was probably her best tactic. If she were to turn them away, or even to make a selection, those rejected could well have turned to violence. More generally speaking, trigger warnings rejecting advances bluntly is not always the safest idea. This commonly manifests in Greek mythology (and medieval history, btw) as abduction.

  1. Abduction of Persephone by Hades
  2. Attempted abduction of Persephone by Theseus and Pirithous
  3. Abduction of Europa
  4. Abduction of Hilaeira
  5. Abduction of Phoebe
  6. Attempted abduction of Deianira by Nessus
  7. Abduction of Helen by Theseus
  8. Abduction of Orithyia by Boreas
  9. Everyone else raped by Zeus
  10. Abduction of Chrysippus

Which isn't to say that the suitors would have abducted Penelope per se, but that this was an environment where people easily resort to violence to get what they want. Given this context delaying tactics was probably the better option than risking a confrontation with oturight rejection.

That Helen's father had to institute the Oath of Tyndareus, binding all suitors against quarrels, is a good illustration of the pitfalls of rejecting suitors in Greek mythology.


The brutality of the times reflected in the writing of the Odyssey gives a reason in itself - women were bound by marriage because of resources. Look how much of the text is devoted simply to the matter of eating. Getting food and other resources requires energy and also going out in the open which was constantly dangerous. Men crossed territories to get the things they needed. Women were left behind to take care of other duties. The plot would have been believable to people of the time because Penelope would not survive forever on the kindness of others. A husband would be needed to provide for her.

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