The word “suitor” today has a very archaic aura to it, rather like the “gentleman caller” of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1945), old-fashioned even then. It recalls a time of ritualized dating behaviors when young ladies received young gentlemen who came to press their suits (no doubt in pressed suits) with hopes that they would receive the lady’s hand in marriage. The entire process would be overseen by the young lady’s parents who spent their time sizing up the young man’s prospects and intentions. As a way of choosing a spouse, this ritual has fallen by the wayside, and it makes it rather hard to relate to the “suitors” or “wooers” who are pursuing Penelope’s hand in marriage. But if we look at the allegorical function of suitors, their function becomes clearer.
In line 106 of the Odyssey we meet the suitors for the first time. The word Homer uses for them is μνηστῆρας, mnesteras, which has a secondary connotation in the Middle Liddell dictionary of calling to mind, mindful of, derived from the root *mne. This is of course the same root found in mnemonic (an aid to memory) or anamnesis (Plato’s term for “not not remembering”). So they can be seen allegorically as thoughts, as “mind-stuff” and as I’ve written before as “that raucous internal monologue that provides a running commentary to our lives–making judgments, feeling superior, feeling inferior, criticizing, gossiping, nursing grudges, becoming angry and jealous, always looking for an advantage.” This would be forgivable frat boy kind of behavior except that, as Telemachus states, “they with feasting consume my substance: ere long they will bring me, too, to ruin.” (Od. 1:251) So these thoughts are not benign, as they would have us believe, but eat away at our substance, our consciousness, and keep us from realizing who we really are.
When we first meet Telemachus in line 112, he is “sitting among them,” while trying to imagine his father coming home and reclaiming his kingdom. I know the feeling.