move the sturdy bedstead out of our bridal chamber—
that room the master built with his own hands.
Take it out now, sturdy bed that it is,
and spread it deep with fleece,
blankets and lustrous throws to keep him warm. (Book 23, lines 198–202)
When Odysseus reveals himself to Penelope, she needs to be certain of his identity, so she tests him by making this statement about moving the bed they shared, which her true husband would know is an impossible thing to do. Penelope’s use of the wedding bed for a test symbolizes her cunning. She has been forced to rely on her wits to stave off the suitors for all these years, aptly demonstrated by the shroud she wove (and undid each night) for Laertes. Now, just because a man claiming to be her husband has emerged, she will not blindly accept his words but must ensure for herself that he is not deceiving her. Penelope’s trick about the wedding bed is yet more evidence that she is a worthy match for Odysseus.
Woman—your words, they cut me to the core!
Who could move my bed? Impossible task,
even for some skilled craftsman—unless a god
came down in person, quick to lend a hand,
lifted it out with ease and moved it elsewhere.
Not a man on earth, not even at peak strength,
would find it easy to prise it up and shift it, no,
a great sign, a hallmark lies in its construction. (Book 23, lines 205–212)
With these words, Odysseus expresses exactly why no one would be able to move the wedding bed. This bed, which is unmovable and unchangeable, represents the constancy of the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope. Despite twenty years apart, their love remains firm and unimpeachable, just like the bed they occupied upon their union. When Odysseus says that only a god could move their bed, he communicates the idea that only a superhuman power could tear him and Penelope apart. However, as seen in his journey homeward, even the god Poseidon could not come between them.
There was a branching olive-tree inside our court,
grown to its full prime, the bole like a column, thickset.
Around it I built my bedroom, finished off the walls . . .
Then I lopped the leafy crown of the olive,
clean-cutting the stump bare from roots up,
planing it round with a bronze smoothing-adze—
I had the skill—I shaped it plumb to the line to make
my bedpost, bored the holes it needed with an auger.
Working from there I built my bed, start to finish[.] (Book 23, lines 214–223)
Here, Odysseus explains his outrage over Penelope’s suggestion that she move their bed: He built the bed around an olive tree that was growing where the bedroom was situated, and he even incorporated the tree into the bed; thus, moving the bed is an impossible feat. The bed is a permanent piece of furniture, representing the stability of the marriage between Odysseus and Penelope. Like a tree, solid and long-lasting, Odysseus and Penelope refuse to uproot themselves and join with another partner to create a new family. Their lives are intertwined like the roots of a tree, and they remain committed to one another despite the time and distance they spent apart. Odysseus’s outrage serves another purpose: His knowledge of how the bed was constructed proves his identity, for only Odysseus himself could know how the wedding bed was built.
So husband and wife confided in each other,
while nurse and Eurynome, under the flaring brands,
were making up the bed with coverings deep and soft. . . .
as Eurynome, their attendant, torch in hand,
lighted the royal couple’s way to bed and,
leading them to their chamber, slipped away.
Rejoicing in each other, they returned to their bed,
the old familiar place they loved so well. (Book 23, lines 329–338)
Once Penelope recognizes the man standing before her as her husband, Odysseus, the couple retreats to their bed to exchange all the confidences they have stored up for the past twenty years. The bed represents a safe, secure place for the couple to reacquaint themselves, rebuild their lives, and express their love for one another—both physically and emotionally. Just as the bed played a key role in ascertaining Odysseus’s identity, now the bed is crucial for reestablishing the unified unit of husband and wife. With its strong connection to their shared past, the wedding bed allows Odysseus and Penelope to quickly and seamlessly re-inhabit their former roles.
But now that we’ve arrived at our bed together—
the reunion that we yearned for all those years—
look after the things still left me in our house. . . .
And you, dear woman, sensible as you are,
I would advise you, still . . .
quick as the rising sun the news will spread
of the suitors that I killed inside the house.
So climb to your lofty chamber with your women.
Sit tight there. See no one. Question no one. (Book 23, lines 399–414)
After Odysseus’s and Penelope’s reunion, Odysseus speaks of potential trouble ahead as people learn the news of the suitors he’s killed, and he warns Penelope to wait at home in the safety of their bedroom. With these words, Odysseus shifts what the bed symbolizes. The bed first symbolizes a place of love and loyalty, a place for the couple to share, but now the bed represents a safe place existing in the female sphere, the place where Penelope and her female attendants spend most of their time, left alone by the men in the household.