Athena was the type of deity that had wild mood swings. One day, she would be cold-hearted enough to turn an innocent rape victim into a hideous monster because the woman had the audacity to be raped in a temple of Athena—poor Medusa. Yet, on other days, Athena could be loving enough to spontaneously give one of her favorite humans a godly makeover. Fortunately for Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, Athena appeared before her on one of her more cheerful days, intending only to amplify her beauty.
Not long after a disguised Odysseus returned to his homeland of Ithaca in Book XVIII of The Odyssey, Athena, almost like a big sister, decided to give Penelope a full-body makeover. Besides Odysseus and Penelope being two of her most favorite humans, Athena also had another motivation for her spur-of-the-moment makeover plans—the goddess was determined to see bloodshed on Ithaca. Making Penelope the epitome of beauty would ensure that none of the suitors that had crowded into her palace during Odysseus’ decades-long absence would leave the island, thereby setting up an inevitable massacre.
When Athena arrived at the palace of Ithaca, she did not wait to see if Penelope would consent to the makeover. Instead, the goddess put Penelope into a deep sleep and then propped her up on a couch in order to get to work. Athena apparently had made a detour to see Aphrodite before arriving on Ithaca, because she brought a few of the love-goddess’ signature beauty products to use in the makeover. For her first step, Athena washed and cleansed Penelope with Aphrodite’s products, especially a face ointment that Aphrodite often saved for special occasions, such as dancing with the muses.
With the beauty products applied, Athena moved on to her other talents. The goddess was something of a magical plastic surgeon. With this skill, Athena accentuated Penelope’s beauty in several ways. For one, the goddess made Penelope taller. She also used her power to turn Penelope’s skin the polished color of freshly sawn ivory. Finally, as a last touch, Athena decided that it would not hurt to make Penelope a little more voluptuous.
With her makeover complete, Athena woke up the sleeping woman and planted in her head an insurmountable desire to speak to all of the suitors in her home. When Penelope stepped out into the open, she did indeed turn heads, including that of her long-lost husband who was in attendance, but disguised. With all of the men’s desires enflamed, the suitors renewed their efforts to marry Penelope, while Odysseus continued to plot their demise.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Painting of Pallas Athena, Attributed to Rembrandt (1606–1669), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.