After 20 years, Odysseus returns home to his wife, Penelope, who is besieged by suitors. This scene, the climax of the Odyssey, is rendered below in a fifth-century B.C. terracotta relief now in the Louvre. Odysseus, his appearance beggarlike after two decades of wars and wanderings, humbly approaches his wife. But Penelope is not to be won over easily: Before she embraces him she feels she must test him, to be certain who he is. What follows, in Robert Fagles’s recent translation (Viking, 1996, pp. 461–462), is a dialogue between husband and wife that proves Penelope to be as clever as Odysseus.

“Strange woman! So hard—the gods of Olympus made you harder than any other woman in the world! What other wife could have a spirit so unbending? Holding back from her husband, home at last for her after bearing twenty years of brutal struggle. Come, nurse, make me a bed, I’ll sleep alone. She has a heart of iron in her breast.”

“Strange man” wary Penelope said. “I’m not so proud, so scornful, nor am I overwhelmed by your quick change…

Come, Eurycleia, move the sturdy bedstead out of our bridal chamber—that room the master built with his own hands…”

Putting her husband to the proof—but Odysseus blazed up in fury, lashing out at his loyal wife: “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. I know, I built it myself—no one else…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 with good tight stonework, roofed it over soundly and added doors, hung well and snugly wedged. 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, I gave it ivory inlays, gold and silver fittings, wove the straps across it, oxhide gleaming red. There’s our secret sign, I tell you, our life story! Does the bed, my lady, still stand planted firm?— I don’t know—or has someone chopped away that olive-trunk and hauled our bedstead off?”

Living proof— Penelope felt her knees go slack, her heart surrender, recognizing the strong clear signs Odysseus offered. She dissolved in tears, rushed to Odysseus, flung her arms around his neck and kissed his head and cried out, “Odysseus—don’t flare up at me now…you’ve conquered my heart, my hard heart, at last!”