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Penelope’s Monsters: Waiting as an Epic Journey


Penelope’s wait is the other perspective of the hero’s journey, full of imaginary demons and dangers.

It should not surprise us that there is now a psychological expression called “The Penelope Complex” to portray the existential state of waiting as described by Homer in his Odyssey. A state that many of us are familiar with and that involves ghosts, demons and almost-vanished images of what we could once see. This diagnosis, which is somewhat forced perhaps to counter the famous ‘Ulysses complex,’ omits the really mind bending part that a long wait can imply. “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,’ the painter Goya wrote on one of his drawings.

Penelope exists in the epic genre with a clear exemplary function, fundamentally of faithfulness, beauty, prudence and concern for her husband’s interests. And the focus on the adventures of her husband, Ulysses, is so strong that it undermines the very odyssey of Penelope. Yet, in his beautiful book The Heroides, Ovid highlighted that side of the story; of the women left behind by their mariner husbands, which backcombs the story of The Odyssey. In it he imagines the letters that each of the heroines wrote to her absent lover in the war of Troy. And there is no melancholy so classic, or hell so complete as that in which, according to Ovid, Penelope lives during her anxious wait. However, there is something in her character with which all those who have had to endure a wait can identify, and perhaps feel comprehension and accompaniment, and even encouragement… which is one of the magics of literature.

It is enough to read some of the “dreads” of Penelope to admire the mechanisms of the human mind when it has too much time to spend on speculation.

“When have I not feared dangers worse than all realities?” Penelope writes to Ulysses in her letter. There is probably no paradigm of the imagination that is more powerful than the fear of that which is more serious than the authentic, the real. In this representation by Ovid we see how Penelope suffered, just as Medieval melancholics, an excess of imagination and a tendency to irrational obsession.

Love is a passion full of anxiety and fear. I often fancied you to myself assaulted by furious Trojans; and on hearing the name of Hector always turned pale. If any one informed me that Antilochus had been slain by that hero, the fate of Antilochus proved the cause of fresh disquiet to me.


Penelope's Complex painting

The involuntary task of whoever waits is to exhaust all and each one of the possibilities that delay the arrival of the awaited person (secretly knowing that none of those is certain) in order to occupy and fill their time. Penelope knew of certain feats involving her husband thanks to messengers that came to Ithaca, and she knew a little of his old location. That was enough for her to dedicate herself to the exhausting task of imagining all his possible destinations, the majority of them fateful, and some of them of betrayal. Her suffering is the worst of all; one without references and full of uncertainty. The fear is not of something specific, but of everything.

Now I know not what to fear most. I am apt to fancy you exposed to every kind of hazard, and find myself bewildered in a wide field of care. Whatever dangers arise either from sea or land, these I suspect may be the causes of so long a delay. While I thus fondly revolve these things within myself, you, it is possible, are the slave of some foreign beauty.

Of course, Penelope’s chimerical imagination was in tone with Ulysses’ odyssey, in which he experienced, perhaps, “all the dangers of the sea and all those of the earth” before reaching Ithaca. But we know there is no hell like the one in the mind. Imagining, as she did, all the dangers of the sea, is enough to make anybody pale. Furthermore, Penelope suspects an amorous betrayal (which was not entirely false). I bother myself, fickle with my own desires, she tells him.

Perhaps the most tragic feature of those who wait is the imperfection of their tragedy. Nothing happens. They receive no news and therefore the fears become more serious than what is probable. The courage of the Homerian heroes is comparable to that of their women – as Ovid knew so well – only that the women undertake an imaginary journey, and the Cyclops and Laestrygonians that they fight are the product of their imagination; they carry them inside. The monsters of the imagination are more powerful than real ones precisely because their unreal nature makes them immortal. Those who have known how to wait are, without a doubt, courageous.

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