Venus and Penelope; the Scandalous and the Faithful

Venus and Penelope; an exploration of two different representations of the woman in classical literature.

 Penelope symbolizes the faithful and loyal wife in Homer’s Odyssey, while Venus symbolizes the sexual desire in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story about Venus / Afrodite, is told in both Ovid and Homer, where the authors refer to an extramarital affair with the god Mars / Ares. Penelope, on the other hand, is represented as a lovingly good wife and a good mother.

 Homer communicates high morals and conservatism with his literary character Penelope, while Ovid jokingly portrays the less moral actions of Venus. Homer's Odyssey was written around the 8th century BC. and is an epic poem with 24 books. The Metamorphoses were written around the 8th century AD by the Roman poet Ovid and consist of 15 books and over 250 myths.

 In book 4 of Ovid's Metamorphoses you can read the poem about Mars and Venus. Venus, the Roman goddess, corresponds to the Greek goddess Afrodite. She was the goddess of love and beauty. She was known from mythology for being the most beautiful of all the goddesses and had the power to make others fall in love. She was known as the patron goddess of lovers, married couples and prostitutes. Venus had many abilities beyond the Greek Afrodite. Venus was also the goddess of victory and fertility.

 Compared to Penelope, who was a symbol of virtue, a patient and good wife, Venus was a scandalous wife. In mythology, Venus was known to be a goddess who had many different lovers and children with several of her lovers.

 Venus started a love affair with Mars while she was married, but this event was discovered by the sun god Helios. «Even the Sun who sways the world with his brilliant star has fallen in love. My story’s title is “Lovers of the Sun” This god is supposed to have been the first to spy the affair between Mars and Venus; This god is the first, in fact, to spy everything » The sun God reported the love affair between Venus and Mars to her husband, Vulcan.

 Smart as he was and vengeful, Vulcan created a net so light that the naked eye could not see it, it was as thin as a spider's web, but made of bronze. He laid the net on the bed so that the next time Venus and Mars met to make love, they were caught in the invisible net, and all the gods stormed into the room to look at the naked, and sinful, who had just been caught in the act. The way this story is presented in Ovid is humorous. One of the gods who witnessed the incident, exclaimed; "If only I could be shamed liked that".

Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, Alexandre Charles Guillemot, 1827, Indianapolis Museum of Art.


 In the poem that follows, Leucothoe and Clytie, Ovid writes "Venus took her revenge on the Sun for informing against her: he had frustrated her secret affair and would soon be frustrated". Ovid does not portray Venus as a woman who neither regrets nor feels ashamed, but as a passionate, strong, sensual and vengeful woman.

 In book 8 of the Odyssey, the poet / singer Demodokos tells the story of how Afrodite and Ares secretly met to "make love" in the bed of her husband, Hephaestus (Vulcan). The story is the same as told later by Ovid, but with some small differences.

 The Odyssey tells the story of King Odysseus, and his journey home to Ithaca after the Greek war against Troy. Odysseus is away from his homeland for many years, first the long years during the war, then his long and strenuous journey home. Odysseus was a heroic and intelligent man, for whom the gods eventually took pity. The gods decided to help the Odyssey return to his kingdom. An important character in the epic poem is Odysseus' loyal and intelligent wife Penelope. Penelope faithfully waits for her husband and raises their only son Telemachus.


Penelope Awakened by Eurycleia (Odysseus’ nurse), Angelica Kauffman, 18th-19th century, Private collection.


 While Odysseus is gone, Penelope had to deal with a number of suitors who came to her door and asked for her hand in marriage, but Penelope always refused. As it became harder and harder for Penelope to fight off all her suitors, she insisted that they wait until she had woven a blanket for Laertes, the father of Odysseus. With the blanket as an excuse, Penelope ruined the crochet she had been doing during the day every night for three years. Penelope wisely managed to keep the suitors away until the day her husband finally returned. When Odysseus returned, he had to prove to her that it was really him, and not another man who was trying to trick her into marriage.

 Homer's story of Penelope introduces the reader to the ideal faithful woman, who in all kinds of trials stays true to her husband, waits for him and longs for him. Homer's poems allow the reader to enter into a story with a very masculine heroic man and a stereotypically ideal female role. Penelope was praised for her faithfulness, patience and feminine virtue. During the 20 years her husband was away, Penelope remained faithful to him and helped prevent his kingdom from falling into other hands.

 Venus and Penelope are examples of opposite female representations in the literature. In these two texts the contrasts between the two female roles are great, and as usually in literature the characters are either good or bad, female ideal or completely scandalous, hero’s or villains. In life we know that its more complex, can a woman be both Penelope and Venus?




Malin Benneche Gulsrud

Malin Benneche Gulsrud, 28, Milan. Founder of Afrodite by MG. Luxury Brand Manager, with a BA in culture, art, and language. Malin is passionate about art history, aesthetics, and Latin culture. She has the last years been based in various Italian cities to absorb their cultural heritage and the Mediterranean way of life.