The unfaithful Penelope – two variants in Greek myth

Greek mythology was not static.  The stories contained within it could be modified by any poet at their pleasure.  Most of the legends exist in various forms, some of which turn it inside out altogether.  The source of this profusion is probably the need of entertainers to earn a living combined with the Greek fondness for novelty.

In the Odyssey, Penelope is faithful to Odysseus despite being pestered by countless suitors for ten years.  She is a type of chastity.  Yet even this legend has been  ruthlessly tampered with.  I thought that it might be interesting to see how it developed

A couple of sources suggest that Penelope was seduced by one or another of the suitors.  According to Pausanias (book 8, 12.5), her grave was shown in Mantinea, and the locals claimed that Odysseus banished her for infidelity after his return.  In ps.Apollodorus’ epitome (7, 38) we get the names of two of the suitors, and also a version in which she gave birth to Pan, the goat-headed god, at Mantinea.

Pausanias, book 8, 12.5: … and on the right of the road is a high mound of earth. It is said to be the grave of Penelope, but the account of her in the poem called Thesprotis is not in agreement with this saying.  For in it the poet says that when Odysseus returned from Troy he had a son Ptoliporthes by Penelope. But the Mantinean story about Penelope says that Odysseus convicted her of bringing paramours to his home, and being cast out by him she went away at first to Lacedaemon, but afterwards she removed from Sparta to Mantineia, where she died.

Apollodorus, Epitome 7.38:  …. When Telegonus learned from Circe that he was a son of Ulysses, he sailed in search of him. And having come to the island of Ithaca, he drove away some of the cattle, and when Ulysses defended them, Telegonus wounded him with the spear he had in his hands, which was barbed with the spine of a sting-ray, and Ulysses died of the wound. But when Telegonus recognized him, he bitterly lamented, and conveyed the corpse and Penelope to Circe, and there he married Penelope. And Circe sent them both away to the Islands of the Blest.  But some say that Penelope was seduced by Antinous and sent away by Ulysses to her father Icarius, and that when she came to Mantinea in Arcadia she bore Pan to Hermes.  However others say that she met her end at the hands of Ulysses himself on account of Amphinomus, for they allege that she was seduced by him.

The legend about Mantinea perhaps derives from the presence of a grave of Penelope there, recorded by Pausanias in the 2nd century AD.  Visitors would naturally enquire how it comes to be here, and the legend was perhaps manufactured to account for it.

On the other hand the legend that makes Penelope the mother of Pan by Hermes is recorded in Herodotus as common knowledge.  Indeed some rather scrappy bits of scholia suggest that it was probably present already in Pindar, in a hymn to Pan of which the relevant portion is now lost.[1]  After Herodotus it appears in quite a number of sources.[2]  Here are a few:

Herodotus 2.145.4:  Now the Dionysus who was called the son of Semele, daughter of Cadmus, was about sixteen hundred years before my time, and Heracles son of Alcmene about nine hundred years; and Pan the son of Penelope (for according to the Greeks Penelope and Hermes were the parents of Pan) was about eight hundred years before me, and thus of a later date than the Trojan war.

Theocritus, Palatine Anthology book 15, 21.1-2[3]:  21.  The Pipe of Theocritus.  The bed-fellow of nobody and mother of the farfighter [Telemachus] gave birth to the swift director of the nurse [Pan] of him whose place a stone took [Zeus]….

Cicero, De natura deorum 3.56[4]:  The first Mercury has the Sky for father and the Day for mother; he is represented in a state of sexual excitation traditionally said to be due to passion inspired by the sight of Proserpine. Another is the son of Valens and Phoronis; this is the subterranean Mercury identified with Trophonius. The third, the son of the third Jove and of Maia, the legends make the father of Pan by Penelope. The fourth has Nile for father; the Egyptians deem it sinful to pronounce his name. The fifth, worshipped by the people of Pheneus, is said to have killed Argus and consequently to have fled in exile to Egypt, where he gave the Egyptians their laws and letters. His Egyptian name is Theuth, which is also the name in the Egyptian calendar for the first month of year.

Mythographici Vaticani 1, 89[5]: After the death of Ulysses, Hermes lay with his wife Penelope, who gave birth to a son near the town of Tegea, named Pan.  From which he is called “the Tegean”.

Berne Scholia on the Georgics, book 1[6], on verses 17-18:

v. 17. “Pan.” Pindar writes that Pan was born from Apollo and Penelope on Mount Lycaeus, others from Aether and Oenone. … Maenala: a mountain of Arcadia.

v. 18. “O Tegean”, comes from Tegea, a town in Arcadia, because after the death of Ulysses, Mercury lay with his wife Penelope, and she became pregnant, and on Mount Maenalus near the town of Tegea, she gave birth to Pan, and therefore he was called ‘Tegean’. ‘Tegeus’ = three-armed, ‘Tegeaeus’ = the first paean.

A still more extreme version of the story discards Hermes / Mercury, and says that Penelope slept with all the suitors (πᾶν), and Pan (Πάν) was the result.  This appears in two unconnected sources.

Lycophon, Alexandra, 722:  For he [Odysseus] shall come, he shall come to Rheithron’s sheltering haven and the cliffs of Neriton. And he shall behold all his house utterly overthrown from its foundation by lewd wife-stealers. And the vixen, primly coquetting, will make empty his halls, pouring forth the pour wight’s wealth in banqueting. And he himself, poor parasite, shall see trouble beyond what he endured at the Scaean gates; he shall endure to bear with submissive back sullen threats from his own slaves and to be punished with jeers; shall endure, too, to submit to buffeting of fists and hurling of potsherds.

John Tzetzes in his Scholia on Lycophron 722:  “Kassoreuousa” means prostituting. “Bassara” is the bacchant, the prostitute, and “koilanei” means to empty, to spend. “Bassara” primarily signifies the bacchant – from this, the contemptible and prostitute woman is called “bassara”. “Bassara” is the bulb, the swelling, a kind of fox, and the bacchant, now “bassara” is the prostitute. He is referring to Penelope.

772 “Semnos” is an adverb meaning disgracefully.

772 And Duris in his work about Agathokles says that Penelope was gluttonous and had intercourse with all the suitors and gave birth to the goat-legged Pan, whom they consider a god (FHG II 479 42). He speaks nonsense about Pan; for Pan is the son of Hermes and another Penelope. And another Pan is the son of Zeus and Hybris.

Servius, Commentary on the Aeneid book 2 v. 44[7]:   Homer made his wanderings after the Trojan war known to all. Another story is told about this too. For when he had returned to Ithaca after his wanderings, it is said that he found Pan in his house, who is said to have been born of Penelope and all her suitors, as the very name Pan seems to make clear: although others say that he was born of Mercury, who, changed into a goat, had lain with Penelope. But Ulysses, after seeing the misshapen boy, is said to have gone back to wandering.

The first of these attributes this story to Duris of Samos, who wrote a history ending in 281 BC, and was apparently noted for jazzing up his narrative rather than strict accuracy.

It’s a useful reminder that legendary material is not fixed.  No doubt every single reader of these variant versions knew full well that Penelope was the famously chaste wife of Odysseus.  The other versions are derivative, no doubt in the interest of seeking notoriety or commercial interest.

It is rather delightful to find that so much of this material is online, if you look, and available in English translation.  In particular who would have imagined that Tzetzes’ scholia on Lycophron would be online in English!  Truly we are fortunate.

  1. [1]J. A. Haldane, “Pindar and Pan: frs. 95–100 Snell,” Phoenix 22 (1968), 18–31.
  2. [2]Haldane note 20 gives a list.
  3. [3]Loeb ed., “Greek Anthology” vol.5, p.125.
  4. [4]Mercurius unus Caelo patre Die matre natus, cuius obscenius excitata natura traditur quod aspectu Proserpinae commotus sit, alter Valentis et Phoronidis filius is qui sub terris habetur idem Trophonius, tertius Iove tertio natus et Maia, ex quo et Penelopa Pana natum ferunt, quartus Nilo patre, quem Aegyptii nefas habent nominare, quintus quem colunt Pheneatae, qui Argum dicitur interemisse ob eamque causam Aegyptum profugisse atque Aegyptiis leges et litteras tradidisse: hunc Aegyptii Theyt appellant, eodemque nomine anni primus mensis apud eos vocatur.
  5. [5]George Bode, Scriptores Rerum Mythicarum Latini Tres Romae Nuper Reperti, 2 vols. (Celle, 1834), p.30: Post mortem Ulixis Mercurius cum uxore eius Penelope concubuit. quae sibi juxta oppidum Tegeam peperit filium, Pan nomine.  Unde et Tegeeus dicitur.
  6. [6]Translation by me. v. 17. Pan. Pana Pindarus ex Apolline et Penelopa in Lycaeo monte editum scribit, alii ex Aether et Oenone. Si, siquidem. Maenala, mons Arcadiae.  v. 18. O Tegeaee, dirivativum a Tegeo oppido Arcadiae, quia post mortem Ulixis Mercurius cum uxore eius concubuit Penelopa et gravidam fecit et in monte Maenalo iuxta oppidum Tegeum parturiit Pana ideoque dixit ‘Tegeaeum’.  ‘Tegeum’ tribrachus, ‘Tegeaeus’ paeon primus. 
  7. [7]Translation by me.  Huius post Iliense bellum errores Homerus notos omnibus fecit. De hoc quoque alia fabula narratur. Nam cum Ithacam post errores fuisset reversus, invenisse Pana fertur in penatibus suis, qui dicitur ex Penelope et procis omnibus natus, sicut ipsum nomen Pan videtur declarare: quamquam alii hunc de Mercurio, qui in hircum mutatus cum Penelope concubuerat, natum ferunt. Sed Ulixes posteaquam deformem puerum vidit, fugisse dicitur in errores.

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