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Ethical Love in the Story of Odysseus and Penelope

Ancient Greek

Ethical Love in the Story of Odysseus and Penelope

Odysseus and Penelope by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751–1829)


By Susi Ferrarello, Ph.D.


Let’s start wth a simple question:

Would you like to be betrayed, abandoned, and forgotten by the one you love for other younger and divine lovers?

Hell, no!

Then, I ask you: Do you consider the story of Penelope and Odysseus to be a romantic one?

Wait, did you say yes!?

Penelope and Odysseus have been depicted over the centuries as an example of love. Our couple appears in Book XXVI of the Inferno (79-142), where Dante praises their love quite highly. Yet the romantic essence of this story eludes me. I find the ethics of their love to be so heartbreaking that I feel compelled to investigate it in this short (maybe too short) article.

Can love be ethical?

Obviously, we fall in love not because it’s the right thing to do but because it feels right.

Romantic feelings and emotions arise in an uncontrolled manner. Still, we do have a certain control over them—we can choose whether we want to let them grow or to push them back. Nevertheless, we cannot choose to feel.

In that sense, love itself seems to me to constitute another form of ethics. In both morality and love a radical freedom is required. As Kant said, if we were obliged to behave properly, no actual choice would be left to us, and without choice no moral action actually exists. It would have to be defined as imitation or obedience. Similarly, in love, if I were obliged to love someone, then that love couldn’t be real.

In both cases, fear seems to be the main thing that keeps us from living that kind of freedom. We decide to stick to a set of rules because we hope that then others will do the same with us, making coexistence much easier.

What would happen, though, if we got past that fear and were able to be completely free, what compass would guide us? How would we manage the tides of feeling and desire that at times can overwhelm us?

The story of Odysseus and Penelope may help us find an answer.

The Story

After twenty years of war and adventure, Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) is ready to return home. For the first ten years he fought in the Trojan War, and for the second ten he did his best (more or less) to resist the charms of a series of highly enchanting women and to defeat frightening giants. But now he’s made it back at last, standing before the gates of his kingdom. Athena, his protector, has guided him back to his home island of Ithaca (Book XIII), but his problems aren’t over yet.

In fact, while he may be back, he’s disguised as a beggar with a ragged beard and torn clothes, no longer lord of his own kingdom. He needs to find his way to the palace where his enemies have taken his place as the new lords.

Eumaeus, his old counselor, and Telemachus, his son, who at first didn’t recognize him, help Odysseus find his way to the palace. Their plan is to amuse the suitors with a fight between beggars (Book XV). The winner gains the privilege of being the only beggar allowed inside the palace. Needless to say, Odysseus, a tremendous athlete and fighter, wins in the end (Book XVI).

Inside the palace Odysseus must confront his own nightmare: his enemies are everywhere, consuming his possessions and disrespecting him and his family—mocking his son and, even more unbearable, harassing his wife, whom he has not seen, smelled, or looked at for twenty years. (Book XVII)

She doesn’t look a day older, her beauty no less striking, than the day he left for the war. She doesn’t recognize him under his disguise, though both Argo (his dog) and Eurycles (his nurse) do. Still, this is by design since it’s not yet the right time to reveal his identity to Penelope. (Book XVIII)

The Story within the story

A short aside on Odysseus’ decision not to reveal himself upon his arrival in Ithaka. The Italian writer Luigi Malerba wrote a novel, Itaca per sempre (Ithaca Forever), in which he imagined Penelope angry with Odysseus for making this choice. In the novel she recognizes him but keeps it to herself. Remaining resentful, she resists his attempts to convince her of who he is—even Athena’s effort to make him more attractive do not break Penelope’s will (XXIII, vv.166-172)!

Back to the story

At any rate, wily (“polymethis”) Odysseus, with his son’s help, slaughters Penelope’s suitors. He reveals his identity to Penelope, but despite the general joy, Penelope remains cautious. For 20 years she had kept the suitors at bay with the stratagem of the loom. She had promised to marry one of them once she finished the shroud she was weaving for her father-in-law’s eventual burial. But while every day she worked hard weaving the shroud, and each night she would unravel nearly all of her day’s work. One might say that these suitors were a little slow and simple-minded, but eventually they discovered the ruse, putting Penelope now in serious trouble; still, without her knowing, the solution to her problems is standing in front of her, in the form of an old beggar, the man she has been waiting for for twenty years. When she calls Eurycleia to bathe the guest, she tells the nurse to “come and wash your master’s . . . equal in years” (19.407). While Euryclea doesn’t need any more proof to recognize him, Penelope does. Telemachus even accuses her of having a heart of stone (XXIII, vv.96-103; II, vv. 356-359). Perhaps she’s unwilling to hand over her own power to a stranger king or, as Malerba suspects, she’s offended by Odysseus’ silence and is keen to take her revenge.

In any case, Odysseus turns to a secret that was theirs alone to convince her of his identity. He recalls how he had made their bed out of olive wood and that it could not be moved because one of its posts had been carved from a living olive tree that had grown up from the patch of ground where the bedroom now was (Book XXIII, vv.177-179). With this proof, Penelope is his again. He has regained her absolute trust.

Might this be the answer?

Is the bed that prooves Odysseus’ identity the answer we’re looking for? Is this the compass that keeps love simultaneously free and ethical? Does the bed represent a lucky connection that persists despite the years, a place to which they return again and again?

Odysseus, Penelope, and the rest of the house “went to bed themselves throughout the shadowy hall. When the two had had their full enjoyment of lovely love, they took delight in stories, telling them to one another.” (Book XXIII, 299-301)

Despite the years, the distance, the pain, with an act of absolute freedom they come to their bed, their hidden secret, and share their stories with each other.

This might be the simple essence of love—their finding each other in absolute freedom and independence.

Odysseus betrayed and abandoned Penelope; if I were Penelope, I wouldn’t be as interested in that kind of love, yet this love still seems ethical to me because it exists in a space of absolute freedom and autonomy. They’ve made free choices about their lives and in that context have found each other again.


Like ethics, love isn’t limited to a specific category. Whether it’s mono/poly-amorous, peaceful, passionate, reassuring, it’s what partners choose to do with their love throughout their relationship that makes that love both true and ethical. Love is defined by the partners’ willingness to choose. Of course, their ability to find each other remains, as it was with Odysseus and Penelope, a matter of good luck.


Susi Ferrarello
Dr. Susi Ferrarello is a native of Italy who received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Sorbonne in Paris, France. She is currently teaching courses at the University of San Francisco, Saybrook University, and California State University: East Bay. She teaches Latin, Ancient Greek, Italian, Philosophy, and History for Carmenta Online PhD Tutors.

Click here to see Dr. Ferrarello’s full profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.



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