Warning: some readers may not find this tale tasteful.
With amazement akin to that I feel when watching tricks of the court magician, I listen to the tales of the bards and the chants of the singers and realize that all the legends about the gods and heroes may spring only from the tellers' imagination because I know the same bards and singers have twisted stories about those now alive, men and women I have known, leaving only a small element of truth. Hear my words and know the true tale as told by Telemachus, son of the adventurer and braggart Odysseus, raised by fair Penelope, daughter of Icarius and Polycaste, who was awarded to my father along with her queenly lands while she was still a girl of thirteen.
No word from Penelope's lips attempted to turn me away from my father as I grew up, and only as a man have I learned from her that her suitor brought nothing to their marriage except his infant son, who was I, Telemachus, ripped from the nursing breast of his mother on one of the isles where Odysseus tarried before his arrival at our island of Ithaca. I never knew my mother and came to Ithaca in the care of a slave woman who provided amusement for my father when Aphrodite didn't smile on his quests for other charms. The bards' tales make much of the devotion to Penelope of her new husband, her acknowledged king, but palace gossip to which I listened in my youth provides a different version, saying that he continued with the slave woman and dallied with princesses and great ladies in the courts of other lands when he visited abroad. Not until some three years after their marriage when Penelope moved from timid girlhood to become a resourceful woman did this cease and then only because she informed him that royal women of Ithaca did not accept insults lightly and that the next woman whose bed he shared would be the last because she would destroy his manhood, not an idle threat because, although it is true that Odysseus was a great warrior and fierce battler, one man, totally devoted to Penelope, was a better man than he in all ways. Mentor, my great friend and teacher and, earlier, the teacher of Penelope in all worthy matters, was then in the prime of his life and master of all the martial arts. Ten men could not have stood against Mentor.
Though I can but hope it is true, it may be that the fear instilled in my father by her promised revenge took away a portion of his manhood because, although I am sure such a passionate woman afforded him many opportunities during the ten years he was her mate, he never gave her daughters to continue the regal line or more sons to love.
Although Penelope has told me that she resented me at first, I remember her as always being kind and caring, and, indeed, I know she came to give me all the care and love one could ask of a mother and raised me as she would have raised her own. The poets would have me be the fruit of Penelope's womb and only a babe when Odysseus was given the opportunity to abandon us for the joy of battle against the Trojans; however, I was really a strong lad of twelve at that time, and, as any boy would, I wanted to voyage with my father to that distant shore for what promised to be a great adventure; however, Penelope's entreaties persuaded me to stay by her side and, in my fertile imagination at least, to be her strong protector. We stood together on the shore and watched my father sail away with his small army.
Although the most-widespread of the tales of the war with the Trojans portrays Odysseus as a man so reluctant to leave his beloved wife and child that he faked insanity to stay at her side, let me assure any wishing to believe that tale that the bard concocting such untruth didn't look upon the adventurer's face as did a lad who watched his father turn from the wife and the boy in his eagerness to be away for a rowdy adventure. I can swear that Odysseus was fervently eager to join the band of men who vowed to gain glory by subduing the Trojans and winning back the fair Helen, another for whom my youthful memories and present knowledge are at variance with the legends, although they speak truly of her beauty. Intuition makes me believe that she was and is a decent but weak woman and would have been much happier had she been less beautiful and had only the love of a couple of lowly shepherds to whom she could devote herself with no restraint. My belief and one in accord with that of Penelope is that she would have returned from her handsome lover Paris to home and hearth when she saw that he had little to offer except the thrill of a new partner for visiting the temple of Aphrodite, but, in order to show superiority to the Trojans, our Greek heroes had to waste precious treasures and sacrifice men who would have gladly stayed home to be loved by good women and to have raised sons and daughters. Left to himself, Helen's husband Menelaus, who is not an awful man, would probably have accepted offers of comfort from others and waited for her to return because he knew her well, but, in spite of what is sung or chanted, the war was prompted by his brother Agamemnon, who was spurred on by my father Odysseus. This I know well because I was often hidden nearby and listening when royal messengers were dispatched and received.
One should be aware that Helen's and Menlaus's home, Lacedaemon, like Ithaca, is ruled by a king, but the king has power only because his wife, the queen, grants him the right to rule. It has been many years since a ruling king was put aside by a queen, but it has occurred and would be upheld by the queen's subjects if it should occur again. In fact, although the king of Ithaca or Lacedaemon appears to have absolute power, unworthy kings of both realms have been deposed and slaughtered by those ruled, and, when it has happened, the queen who failed to control her king suffered the same fate. While it is true that Menelaus could not have remained king in Lacedaemon without Helen as queen, the monarchy would have descended to his and Helen's daughter Hermione, who would have, without doubt, kept her father to rule for her until she married and conveyed the kingdom to her mate.
While that account was unnecessary to the tale, it may help in understanding events after my father left us and sailed away to Troy. Although Penelope could have, at any time, declared the kingship vacant and taken another man as king or could have, after one year, replaced Odysseus temporarily with another man as her mate and temporary ruler, she remained the faithful wife through the ten years that the war dragged on and for more than two years while other men came back to their homes one by one or in small groups. Whether her faithfulness kept her from having another man join her to praise Aphrodite is not known by me, nor do I care; however, it would be surprising if she did not receive some comfort in all those years. For part of the war's duration, I was absent because I spent my years from eighteen to twenty-one at the courts of other kingdoms, sometimes joining with the princesses or young noble ladies at Aphrodite's temple but never feeling that I wished to tie my life to one of them, even one who could place a crown on my head. I returned home because all I desired was on that isle, and, although I had no hope of wearing a crown there, I could lend my help to Penelope, who had borne the burden of ruling alone for many years. After my return, she began seeking my advice more and more, and I enjoyed being treated by her as an adult and as her partner. The war ended, and, as warriors returned to our shores or nearby lands, our agents questioned them about Odysseus's fate, and all who spoke of him told of his perishing on the journey home or of his settling with another woman on some remote island. Three years after the war's end, Penelope declared him dead.
Although princes and men of noble birth had courted her from the days soon after the war began, their numbers increased ten-fold after she declared the kingship vacant. Most of the men were much younger than her thirty-six years, but I knew and she knew that they were courting an ancient kingdom and not a middle-aged queen, although none could deny she was still beautiful and still desirable as a woman. I thought she and I were doing well in ruling the country, and, as I sometimes wandered about the land dressed as a peasant and listened to those who would speak with me, I found little disagreement with my judgment. It was more than my wish to continue ruling by her side that gave me pangs of jealousy when, as time went by, she invited a few of her suitors, perhaps only one or two, to help her worship the goddess of love, but I was pleased that she didn't immediately choose one of them as her mate to rule the kingdom. Her decision could not be delayed forever with all her suitors pressing her to chose one and with her subjects awaiting a decision, and, with this in mind, she promised that she would chose her husband and the new king within ten fortnights.
As in all matters she asked me to be her adviser in making the choice, and, deciding bold honesty was best for the country, for me, and for her, with my heart in my throat, I informed her that no man among the suitors was acceptable and that I should be her choice because I had helped her rule for several years and that I loved her in every way a man could love a woman and, although I was the son of her former husband, would be honored to help her worship at Aphrodite's temple. My heart beat rapidly at my boldness as I awaited her answer, but she accepted my counsel without hesitation as if her wish was the same as mine, and I'm pleased to say we began our worship immediately. We were married, and I was crowned before the moon completed two cycles, but, although I was now completely in control, I had no desire to change our custom of making decisions jointly after getting advice from our most-learned counselors. Nearly all the people of the land and even most of her suitors accepted her choice and welcomed me as king; however, a sizeable group of the former suitors began conspiring together to bring down the kingdom. Although we could have had them executed, with or without trials, we let them live and only watched them, interfering with their venture each time it seemed they posed a danger to the people, and, usually, afterward, one, two, or three of the group died at the hands of the others.
The bards' tales say that Odysseus returned to our isle ten years after the end of the war, and, in this they are correct. We had adequate warning from our agents even before he reached our shores, and I would not have interfered with him had he not boasted that he would slay Penelope for what he termed her betrayal of him. Although his proud threat included my death also, I did not fear him and would have fought him to the death openly; however, although our countrymen would have found nothing amiss, I would have been labeled a patricide in the royal courts of a few other kingdoms. We let him live and did naught to confound his efforts except to apply the gentle force that caused him to cross paths with the dissident ex-suitors with whom he thought he could ally himself to his advantage. Not long after he joined and attempted to take over their group, it was no surprise to me nor to Penelope, I suspect, that he and more than a dozen of the ex-suitors and their followers slew each other after their attempt at mischief went awry. The bards relate that Odysseus killed the entire band of Penelope's suitors, and, while such claims are utter nonsense, one is probably not wrong in concluding that he killed most of those slain in that event. Never let it be said that Odysseus wasn't bold!
Penelope mourned Odysseus not a moment because any sorrow over him had been expressed long ago, and, as for me, any grief I had for him was only for the father I remembered from early childhood, not for the man who abandoned his son, his queen, and his kingdom and who returned only to take from me the woman I loved and from the two of us the kingdom we served loyally and with dedication.
Though I have said naught but what is true, I doubt that reality will replace fable, and it may well be that, if Penelope and I have any part in the tale of Odysseus as it is told many years hence, she will have rejoined him after his return, although, in some of the tales told today, she was killed by a vengeful Odysseus, notwithstanding that all can see she stands alive here at my side to refute those stories. I may even come to be confounded with him, and all I have done will be ascribed to him. That bothers me little except when I think that no one will know of dear Penelope's and my great love for each other and that, to history, Acusilaus and Poliporthes, the son and daughter I sired with her, will belong to Odysseus. Although all can see that Poliporthes, who will name the next ruler of our kingdom, looks exactly like her mother, one has only to visit taverns in ports around the great sea to hear tales that already confuse her with one of Odysseus's sons sired during his wanderings after Troy. Such are the bards' tales.
There should be no wonder that, while I thank the gods heartily, Zeus for bringing me and Penelope together, Aphrodite for giving us a full measure of love, and Hera for letting her bear my children even though she was old for childbearing, the lack of truth in other legends gives me reason to doubt the reality of Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, and all the other gods and goddesses.
You have heard the true tale of Penelope from Telemachus, her husband and lover and, by her grace, ruler of the island kingdom of Ithaca and father of her daughter and her son. Table of Contents