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Homer’s Penelope and the myth of the ‘model military wife’

Ostensibly a tale of the adventures of a soldier, Homer’s ancient Greek epic Odyssey also has at its heart the remarkable story of Odysseus’ waiting wife Penelope, who is renowned for her patience and her fidelity. Left behind for 20 years while Odysseus spends ten years fighting in the Trojan War and then a further ten years on his meandering journey home to Ithaca, Penelope is faced with multiple challenges in her husband’s absence. Her story, although it comes from a millennia-old tale set in a mythical past, echoes some of the experiences undergone by military spouses in contemporary society. We can also find in Homer’s Penelope an ancient archetype for the idealised image of the ‘model military wife’ which still persists in the modern world.

In her husband’s absence, the Odyssey’s Penelope is faced with a whole array of emotional and practical struggles, many of which modern-day military spouses might recognise. The poet describes how she has trouble sleeping, worries crowding her mind as she lies in bed at night (Odyssey 19.513-17), and frequently throughout the poem she is to be found weeping, overwhelmed by the grief and stress of her situation. This mythical waiting wife has no idea whether her husband is alive or dead—he is what we might describe today as ‘missing in action’—and if or when he might return home to her. Modern military spouses often talk about the dread of the ‘knock on the door’ bringing bad news while their partner is in a war zone: Penelope too is simultaneously desperate for news of Odysseus but living in constant fear of what that news might reveal. At the same time, she must deal with the day-to-day responsibilities of being home alone: parenting the child, Telemachus, who was a baby when Odysseus left for Troy, and managing the household alone. In this patriarchal ancient society, the absence of the male head of the royal household is felt especially strongly. Nonetheless, there are parallels here with contemporary situations; when a partner is away on active duty, their spouse must often take on domestic responsibilities which would ordinarily be shared.

‘Penelope and the Suitors’ (1912) by John William Waterhouse, via Wikimedia Commons.

Penelope’s already difficult situation is exacerbated by the presence of 108 suitors, who are vying for her hand in marriage—a marriage which would also grant them Odysseus’ kingly power, his possessions, and his estate. It is her response to this situation which cemented her reputation for fidelity in the ancient world; that response also enables her to demonstrate her resourcefulness. In her hope that Odysseus will eventually return, and in order to buy time, Penelope deploys what in the ancient world is a typically feminine stratagem: she tells the suitors that she will choose which of them to marry once she has finished weaving a shroud for her father in law. What her suitors don’t know is that she is unpicking each day’s weaving in secret every night. The shroud trick not only keeps Penelope occupied during much of Odysseus’ absence, but it also represents a life which has been placed on hold while he is away. Both the notion of ‘keeping busy’ as a coping strategy and the feeling of being unable to move forward with their own lives—with career plans or education, for example—while awaiting the return of a serving partner are recurring elements of the first-hand accounts of modern-day waiting wives.

Yet it is not merely some of the day-to-day elements of Penelope’s life that might feel familiar to contemporary military spouses. There is a broader sense in which this ‘myth’ of the model military wife is fundamental to upholding the patriarchal structures which still endure in some military institutions. In modern UK and US contexts, the armed forces still rely heavily on the support of the spouses of personnel. Those spouses are still overwhelmingly female, despite the fact that women and same-sex couples are now eligible for military service. The feminist political theorist Cynthia Enloe, in her 2000 book Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives, set out a lengthy list—which still holds up almost 25 years after first publication—of the ideal characteristics of today’s ‘model military wife.’ This is someone who, among other things, is unfailingly supportive and content for all aspects of her life to be subordinated to her husband’s military role, and who, like Penelope, is both faithful and resourceful in coping alone for long periods of time while her partner is away on deployment.

Moreover, the model military wife is expected to do all of this without complaint. The focus of policy-makers, media reporting, and the military itself, still rests predominantly on combatants themselves. The voices of those whose lives are also profoundly affected by their partners’ career choice are often silenced. Similarly, in the Odyssey Penelope is given little room to share her experiences. Nowhere is this more apparent in the poem than when the couple are finally reunited. Here only four lines (Odyssey 23.302-5) are set aside to summarise Penelope’s story; by comparison, despite the fact that the majority of the poem’s 12,000 lines describe Odysseus’ exploits, 32 lines (Odyssey 23.310-41)—eight times as much space—are devoted to recalling his adventures. If at times the warrior’s wife takes up less space, both in Homer’s poetry and in the minds of the public today, that should merely make us more determined to give her more of our attention.

Featured image: ‘Penelope and the Suitors’ (1912) by John William Waterhouse via Wikimedia Commons

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