Neon Codex

Where digital meets classical.

Odysseus to Penelope: An Undelivered Letter Swallowed by the Sea

Note: This piece was inspired in large part by a series of poems called Heroides by Ovid, a word which translates from Latin as Heroines. The poems took a route that was deeply unusual at the time,  even anticipating feminism in many ways, in that they were concerned with the female lovers of the Greek heroes rather than the heroes themselves. Each poem was presented as a letter, an epistolary poem, written to the heroine's beloved, giving voice for the first time to characters who had been variously abandoned and mistreated by their lovers, much less in literature, up to that point. So that's where the idea comes from. What I wanted to do was write two undelivered love letters, one by Odysseus, the other by Penelope, written during the time Odysseus was adrift in the Aegean Sea following the Trojan War. Neither of them knowing if the letters would ever be read, let alone if they'd ever see each other again. 


Wrath of the Sea God by Herbert James Draper (1863-1920). Oil on Canvas. 

Wrath of the Sea God by Herbert James Draper (1863-1920). Oil on Canvas. 


My Love, 

It has been over eighteen long years, so long that our son is a man now, since I last saw your face or looked into your eyes. Your eyes, wherein I see contained all of the chirping birds, and all of the crystal blue beaches, and all of the rustling branches of Apollo's laurels and Athena's olive trees and the light which casts through them when first the heavenly chariot pulls the sun, blazing, over the horizon to fall on all of Ithaca. My kingdom, my home. I see all of these miracles, all of these wonderful scenes from my country, reflected entire in your eyes. You are my world, you are my true home. As I suffer Poseidon's horrible wrath for my slights against him, his crashing waves and deceitful currents, I think only of reaching you once more. You are my sole definition in this world, everything I do is done so only that I may see you again, all of my struggle, all of my efforts. 

And my son, my boy, brave and tenacious as his mother, with my wit, my soldier's guile, which I saw flickering even in his infant's eyes. I wonder sometimes if he will recognize his father's face, how different must it look from the man who held him on his knee and regaled him with tales of Zeus, of Hercules, brave Perseus and Theseus. He was far too young to understand my words, though his eyes lit up all the same, as I told tales of bravery, of heroes, of battle and strife. And for that I am glad. I told him ever of the fury of great Achilles, who fought with the grace of a gazelle and the swiftness of a lion, the invulnerable warrior who's father was a King and mother a Goddess. My friend, who fell dead before my eyes. Dead as so many others, Greeks and Trojans, friend and foe, all joined as brothers mutually in their shared oblivion. 

I am no hero, my love. I want with all of my heart to look in your eyes and tell you that I am, but that would not be the truth and I cannot lie to you. As I have still the hope of seeing you, and you I,  which was more than I left the many, many men who fell before the edge of my sword with, who were lanced unmercifully on charging Greek spears. Trojans whose wives, and sons, and mothers, will never see them again, but as shades in the undergloom. And while my Kingdom stands intact, their's was burned to the ground, their men slain, their wives, daughters, and sons made slaves for that fierce appetite of Agamemnon. For the rest of their lives ensnared  under his influence, shackled to his cruel pride. 

I write these words to you, in part, I admit, because you may never see them. No, I am no hero. I am but a man, a fearful mortal creature, swept up in the randomness of war. The scattershot game of Gods, dictated by passions inhuman and wholly unpredictable in mortal terms. 

Perhaps my years faced with these endless waters, and the fearful intermissions on their myriad islands, has embittered me, caused me to ponder fruitlessly. Perhaps yet my pride has finally fallen in on itself, such grand weight of all these years, all of my skill, cunning, and accomplishment, caving inward. Great Odysseus. 

But take heart my love, I think of you endlessly. At times I can still feel your touch, your lips pressed against mine, the warmth of your breath on my skin. Endlessly I reach towards you, extending my hand some nights over the deck of the ship, to the distant horizon, hoping beyond it is kind Ithaca, and I close my eyes. I wish at those moments that I would feel your hand, reaching across the seas to take my own. Pulling me towards you, towards home. That is my compass, my heart in as much as it is bound to yours. 

You see it is not Apollo who represents my truth, it is you. Without you his temple, and that of all divinities, would mean nothing. Without you, the blaze of your eyes, the soft tones of your voice, the sight of your smile, all essence and spirit would be robbed from the earth. Such as when Hades takes Persephone with him on his chariot and steals away into the Lower Worlds in the cold seasons, the dead seasons. But even while The King of Death has his Persephone, and the earth is barren, I do not despair, as I have always my Penelope. 

You are my beloved, and have been since first I saw you, captivated, stunned by the strike of Eros's shot. And shall be forever more, into the fields of Elysium, long after we both part from this world, where I will walk with you hand-in-hand, at peace. 

But before then, I must reach you. I must see and touch you again with my own eyes and hands. I must see my son, and the man he has become, though I have missed watching him grow, missed so much of his life. He has been all of this time without a father, to raise him up and guide him. And then there is you my love, forced to go every night to a cold bed, to live as a wife in a household without a husband, a kingdom without it's King. I fear at times that, after all of these years without me, you may lose heart, you may think me dead and forever lost. And that I will return to Ithaca to find myself a stranger in my own home; my son raised by another father, my lands ruled by another King, and my wife sleeping in the marital bed of another man. 

But these fears do not bear thinking about, not while there is hope, however small. I am coming to you. I have braved the den of the Cyclops son of Poseidon,  heard the maddening song of the Sirens while fastened to the ship's mast, and been to The Land of the Dead and back. I have been cursed, beaten, and enslaved. I have fought an entire war, that lasted ten long years. And this hope sustains me, this drive immortal to reach you. 

Though broken I am, though agonized, though exhausted, you are the essence that animates my weary shell into life, into action. You my love are the spirit that runs through all of this world, and blesses it with meaning, every blade of grass, every passing breeze, and shaft of sunlight. It is all your beautiful face, your heavenly eyes. Your love. 

Yours, always and ever,