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Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Arts & Letters

No Second Troy: Imagining Helen in Greek Antiquity - Part 1

Homer




Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
– W. B. Yeats, “No Second Troy”

There are many women, but there is only one Helen–a woman so beautiful and desired that the very image of her face “launched a thousand ships,” exciting Achaeans and Trojans to war for an epic-length 10 years. Is this truly the case, however? Was there only one Helen, “daughter descended of Zeus,” “lovely-haired,” “of the white arms,” “shining among women”? (The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore, 3.199, 329, 121; unless otherwise stated, all quotes of the Iliad will be taken from this translation.)

As will become apparent, the answer to this question within a series of post-Homeric tales about Helen is most decidedly no. For each man (Stesichorus, Euripides, Gorgias, and Plato) and for at least one woman (Sappho), there is another Helen, if not two. From this perspective, Helen’s fate is not dissimilar from that of many other mythic characters. Although the name remains the same, the particulars of the character’s story, and sometimes even the story itself, changes through the course of its telling and retelling by poet and philosopher alike. That the story changed was one part of the poet or philosopher’s craft. How the storytellers changed the story was the other part: it was, in fact, how they made an individual life into a work of art. What is notable about the various treatments of Helen is that each attempts to answer the unanswerable questions of who the real Helen was, what she really did or didn’t do, and how she really did or didn’t feel about her actions. Indeed, each narrator treats these questions as if they were important and decisive – which, in fact, they were. For in answering these questions, not only was Helen’s fate decided, but a man’s blindness was cured, the destiny of certain types of passions was traced, and, perhaps most important of all, presumably reasonable accounts were given of the conditions necessary for “Trojans and strong-greaved Achaians/ To suffer long anguish for a woman like that” (Iliad, 3.156-7, translated by Anne Carson, cited in Eros: The Bittersweet, p. 63).

I return momentarily to my original question: Is there only one Helen? If the answer is no, then what is the point to even taking notice of her case? She is, as Euripides claims in his play, Helen, not only like other women but also like men and cities: “I suppose it must be that in the great world a great many/have the same name, men named like other men, cities like cities, women like women. Nothing to wonder at in this” (497-99, translated by Richmond Lattimore). But already I am assuming – counter to the post-Homeric Helen tales – that the name “Helen” refers to the one and only Helen. If then, there is more than one Helen, each as real as the next, what is unique about any of them? Could any of them have caused, or have been imagined to cause, the Trojan War? If it is true, as Anne Carson states in Eros: The Bittersweet, that Helen, “universally desired, universally imaginable” is “perfect,” then it would seem to follow that Helen’s “perfection” lies not in her uniqueness and immutable self-sameness. Rather, it rests in the fact that she is “Everywoman,” easily interchanged and exchanged, multiple, metamorphic, never the same as herself. If this is indeed the case, then what might be found remarkable about Helen, what might even be “perfect” about her, is that no matter how much she is not herself, she is always the subject of desire, herself creating and generating desire. And this turns out to be the case even when Helen is only an image of herself.

In her essay, “Le fantome de la sexualité,” Nicole Loraux has already provided a brilliant analysis of why the very subject of desire is always a central concern of Greek texts on Helen (in Les expériences de Tirésias: Le féminin et l’homme grec, pp. 232-252, to which I am greatly indebted). While the figure of Helen is used by Greek authors explore the dilemma of desire as a complex and conflict-ridden experience of loss and “pothos,” she is also the source of another equally disturbing and interrelated dilemma about human responsibility and agency. Within both Homeric and post-Homeric accounts of Helen, the question of whether Helen herself should be blamed for the Trojan War generates a series of ethical deliberations and reflections on how to conceive of an individual as a responsible agent who can actively and sovereignly make choices about his/her actions, desires, and destiny. As if positing an individual’s agency and autonomy were not already problematic enough endeavors in ancient Greece, the issues became even more debatable and difficult when Helen was the subject of discussion. It is this debate around Helen, the various arguments and strategies used to imagine a solution to the “problem of Helen” as either a responsible or non-responsible “casus belli,” that concerns me in this essay. I am interested, above all, in how each author that I discuss here assumes that he/she must pose, or even settle, the question of whether it is possible to imagine Helen as autonomously shaping her own destiny and deeds.

The Homeric version

For warlike Menelaus and Alexandros are to fight
With long spears against each other for the sake of the woman.
Let the woman go to the winner, and all the possessions.
Iliad, 3.253-5

It is probable that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are the first tales told about Helen, the “master text” from which variations on the theme derive. These epics are, as it were, Helen’s birthplace, her mythological origins. I will begin briefly with the Homeric figure in order to delineate how the problem of Helen first presented itself in Greek literature. From the start, two essential features are notable. First, Helen’s actual appearance and position in the epics are marginal. To take the most obvious marker: in both epics, she is granted a speaking role in a total of only five of the 44 books, with references made of her, usually short and formulaic, amounting to a mere 24. In the Iliad, the most likely place for Helen’s story to take center stage, she speaks only seven times and is spoken of only 14 times (see Nicole Loraux, Ibid., p.235). When Helen or others do speak about her part in the Trojan War, it is as an inevitable, albeit lamentable, fact of life as they know it. Even if one wants to grant Helen privileged status as a metaphor of poetic speech because she, like Penelope, engages in the art of weaving, the subject of her weaving is not a metaphorical account but a factual one. Like epic, but without words, she chronicles the events of the war: “[Iris] came on Helen in the chamber; she was weaving a great web/a red folding robe, and working into it the numerous struggles/of Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armoured Achaians/struggles that they endured for her sake at the hands of the war god.” (Iliad, 3.121-128)

This fact immediately establishes the first in a series of paradoxes about Helen: the less she says and the less is said about her, the more there is to say about who she is and what she has or has not done. Furthermore, the economy of Helen’s presence in Homer approaches that of the gods when they stage an appearance for mortals: “only the tiniest bit of the splendor of the god’s size, stature, beauty and radiance can be allowed to filter through, and this is already enough to strike the spectator with thambos, stupefaction, to plunge him into a state of reverential fear” (Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Dim Body, Dazzling Body,” in Fragments for a History of the Human Body, I, p. 37). Since Helen herself is not a divine immortal, however, when appearing to mortals, no disguise or ploy is used to dim her dazzling body, to cover up her divine origins. While gods appear in human form to humans, Helen appears as a goddess. This appearance in itself, apart from anything she does or says, is cause enough for men to be done in by her and for her to be done away with by them: “Terrible is the likeness of her face to immortal goddesses/Still, though she be such, let her go away in the ships, lest/she be left behind, a grief [péma] to us and our children” (Iliad, 3.158-160).

  The second salient aspect of Homer’s Helen, less a paradox than a confusing transformation, even conversion, is the character change she undergoes from the Iliad to the Odyssey. Always the evil twin or double of someone else, be it Briseis, Achilles, or Penelope, Homer’s Helen bears this same relationship to herself. She is, or rather becomes, her own other. The most obvious enactment of this self-doubling process arises between the Iliad’s representation of Helen as a faithless and untrustworthy adulteress, responsible for both the personal and political sorrow of Trojans and Achaeans, and the Odyssey’s Helen, who appears as a faithful and devoted servant-spouse whose conjugal happiness allows her the freedom to cheer and tend fellow Spartans and guests (see, especially, Odyssey, IV, 235ff, and XV, 152ff, translated by Robert Fitzgerald, unless otherwise noted). By the time the newly domesticated, good Helen of the Odyssey predicts the safe return home of his wandering father to Telemachus, she has not only become her own better half, but is verging, if correct in her interpretation of the eagle’s flight, on making good the otherworldly part of herself. Rather than resembling a goddess who causes “péma,” she is now invoked as the cause of good news: “May Zeus, the lord of Hera/make it so. In far-off Ithaka, all my life, /I shall invoke you as a goddess, lady” (Odyssey, XV, 223-25).

More subtle but just as strange a doubling and split in Helen’s selves is the field of possibilities open to the “good” and “bad” Helen. The captive and accused Helen of the Iliad spends much of her time in self-reproaches and death-wishing, resigned and submissive to both gods and men, lacking any power of her own. The domesticated Helen of the Odyssey, “a moving grace like Artemis,” actively engages the men around her, behaving like a sorceress and soothsayer when she prepares foreign pharmakoi to numb their pain or interpret mysterious signs and disguises. (This constant doubling of Helen might have something to do with the confusion that always surrounds her familial lineage and kinship relations. Daughter of Zeus, she may have had two mothers, Nemesis and Leda; it is not entirely sure which of her siblings – Clytemnestra, Castor, and Polydeuces – share her parents; throughout the Trojan War, she has two husbands and two sets of relatives to whom she is bound through either blood or affection, regret or loss.)

Finally, in reading Homer’s account of Helen’s history, a paradox emerges around the relationship between divine and human responsibility or, more precisely, on whether the origin and efficient cause of human action stems from the gods or human beings themselves. Stated in the simplest terms: Did Helen herself decide to follow Paris to Troy or did Zeus, even Aphrodite, make this decision for her? Is Helen the author of her own destiny or was her destiny determined in advance, regardless of anything she may or may not have done? One can immediately object that such a formulation misses the fundamental perspective from which the human lives of Homeric epic are organized. In a world where divine will reigns supreme, there is no place for an account of human will, freedom, or responsibility. At most, human beings and their lives are either playthings of the gods or subjects for future songs for bards to sing. Furthermore, to assume that an epic character can herself be the source of such an ethical problem, in which she can imagine herself responsible for her own actions (and thus imagine her actions to have been otherwise) is to attribute to epic what is the proper domain of tragedy, more specifically, what Vernant names “the tragic consciousness of responsibility”:

The tragic consciousness of responsibility appears when the human and divine levels are sufficiently distinct for them to be opposed while still appearing to be inseparable. [It] emerges when human actions become the object of reflection and debate while still not being regarded as sufficiently autonomous to be fully self-sufficient. The particular domain of tragedy lies in this border zone where human actions hinge on divine powers and where their true meaning, unsuspected by even those who initiated them and take responsibility for them, is only revealed when it becomes a part of an order that is beyond man and escapes him. (Jean-Pierre Vernant, “The Historical Moment of Tragedy in Greece,” in Myth and Tragedy, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, p. 27.)

What I hope will become evident in my reading of the passages of the Iliad to follow is that Homer’s Helen causes the same types of problems and questions about human responsibility and action that are later elaborated and centralized in the conflicts and dilemmas experienced by tragic figures. Helen, on such a reading, can be interpreted as prototragic, although she lacks the context and vocabulary necessary for deliberating and determining whether or not she is responsible for doing what she did (for another reading of Helen as prototragic, see Loraux, “Le fantome,” op.cit., esp. p.238).

When Iris explains to Helen that the public war between Trojans and Achaeans is to become a private contest between Menelaus and Paris, and that Helen herself shall become the victor’s “possession” and “beloved wife,” Helen’s heart becomes full with “sweet longing [glukun himeron] for her former lord and her city and parents” (Iliad, III, 139-40). This longing brings forth a “light tear,” the first tangible sign of her own grief, as opposed to the grief she has brought and brings to others. Expressions of grief and longing, regret and loss, follow Helen whenever she appears in this epic poem. Such grief in turn is intermingled with the harshest words uttered against this queen: Helen’s own self-debasement and judgment – “slut that I am” (kunópidos) or “nasty bitch evil-intriguing” (kunos kakom’chanou okruoessés) (Ibid., 180, and VI, 344). Between her longing and self-slandering, Helen announces her desire for death as the only way possible to stop her present tears and reverse her “vile destiny”:

...I wish bitter death had been what I wanted, when I came hither following your son, forsaking my chamber, my kinsman, my grown child, and the loveliness of girls my own age. It did not happen that way: and now I am worn with weeping. (III, 173-76)

...how I wish that on that day when my mother first bore me the foul whirlwind of the storm had caught me away and swept me to the mountain, or into the wash of the sea deep-thundering where the waves would have swept me away before all these things had happened. (VI, 345-49)

...my husband is Alexandros, like an immortal, who brought me here to Troy: and I should have died before I came with him. (XXIV, 763-64)

  In no way does Helen have any illusion that she could have done otherwise than she did by following Paris, or that things could have been other than they had been or are. (Although she poses another alternative to her own death – that of Paris – or, barring this, his transformation into a better man: “Oh, how I wish you had died there/beaten down by the stronger man who was once my husband” [III, 428-429]; “I wish I had been the wife of a better man than this is/one who knew modesty and all things of shame that men say” [VI, 350-351].) She recognizes, even mourns, her “ill luck” and more than once invokes the impossibility of resisting or changing the gods’ choice of her destiny. And yet there is another image, albeit one that only comes through the thought of death, of having acted other than she did, of having desired a different course of action than the one willed for her by the gods: “I wish bitter death had been what I wanted” or “how I wish that on that day when my mother first bore me/the foul whirlwind of the storm had caught me away and swept me/to the mountain, or into the wash of the sea deep-thundering/where the waves would have swept me away before all these things had/happened.” Only in the realm of death, in the wish to have not been and therefore to be other than she is, can Helen imagine herself free of blame, acting outside and independently of divine powers.

Given the impossibility of realizing this wish, however, Helen is left, despite her knowledge of the gods’ ultimate responsibility for her destiny, to blame herself for following Paris. Torn between her knowledge of divine power (daimon) and self-knowledge of her character (ethos) and desires, Helen herself locates the origin of her action within herself. Blaming herself for what she has done, she appears to herself to be “aitios,” the cause responsible for her own actions. This assumption of individual agency, of a personal freedom that defies divine intervention and necessity, stands, for example, in sharp contrast to Priam’s judgment of Helen: “I am not blaming you: to me the gods are blameworthy/who drove upon me this sorrowful war against Achaians” (Iliad, 64-65). It is also, as we shall see in the next two parts of this essay, directly opposed to how Helen’s choices are imagined in the post-Homeric tradition.

Next: Helen and Sappho

Ramona Naddaff is an assistant professor in the rhetoric department at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also co-director of Zone Books in New York and author of Exiling the Poets: The Production of Censorship in Plato’s Republic.
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