lecture

Epic Heroines or Antagonists? Helen.

Identifications
— 
weaving
— matrilocality vs. patrilocality
— Helen
— witchiness

1. Attic red-figure vase (skyphos), c. 490 BCE in the Boston MFA. Side A: Paris leading Helen away. Aphrodite and Eros flank Helen. The personification of persuasion (Peitho) follows behind. Side B: Helen fleeing to Apollo sanctuary during sack of Troy. Menelaus draws his sword to kill her. Aphrodite behind Helen. Priest of Apollo (Chryses) and his daughter (Chryseis) behind Aphrodite. Images: MFA.

mfa helen cup 2 copy

mfa helen cup 1 copy

2. Sarah PomeroyGoddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves (1975: 25): 

“In an atmosphere of fierce competition among men, women were viewed symbolically and literally as properties — the prizes of contests and the spoils of conquest — and domination over them increased the male’s prestige.”

3. Homer, Iliad (8th c. BCE), 3.121-190:

(3.121-138) But Iris went as a messenger to white-armed Helen in the likeness of her husband’s sister, the wife of Antenor’s son, her that lord Helicaon, Antenor’s son, had to wife, Laodice, the fairest of the daughters of Priam. She found Helen in the hall, where she was weaving a great purple web of double fold on which she was embroidering many battles of the horse-taming Trojans and the bronze-clad Achaeans, which for her sake they had endured at the hands of Ares. And swift-footed Iris came up to her, and spoke to her, saying: “Come here, dear sister, so that you may see the wondrous doings of the horse-taming Trojans and the bronze-clad Achaeans. They who formerly were waging tearful war against one another on the plain, their hearts set on deadly battle, they now sit in silence, and the battle has ceased, and they lean on their shields, and beside them their long spears are fixed. But Alexander [=Paris] and Menelaus, dear to Ares, will fight with their long spears for you; and the one who wins, his dear wife will you be called.”

(3.139-145) So spoke the goddess, and put into her heart sweet longing for her former husband and her city and parents; and immediately she veiled herself with shining linen, and started out of her chamber, letting fall round tears, not alone, for with her followed two handmaids as well, Aethra, daughter of Pittheus, and ox-eyed Clymene; and quickly they came to the place where were the Scaean gates.

(3.146-160) And they who were about Priam and Panthous and Thymoetes and Lampus and Clytius and Hicetaon, offshoot of Ares, and Ucalegon and Antenor, men of prudence both, sat as elders of the people at the Scaean gates. Because of old age they had now ceased from battle, but they were good speakers, like cicadas that in a forest sit on a tree and pour out their lily-like voice; such were the leaders of the Trojans who were sitting on the wall. When they saw Helen coming on to the wall, softly they spoke winged words to one another: “Small blame that Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans should for such a woman long suffer woes; she is dreadfully like immortal goddesses to look on. But even so, though she is like them, let her go home on the ships, and not be left here to be a bane to us and to our children after us.”

(3.161-170) So they said, but Priam spoke, and called Helen to him: “Come here, dear child, and sit in front of me, so that you may see your former husband and your kinspeople and those dear to you—you are in no way to blame in my eyes; it is the gods, surely, who are to blame, who roused against me the tearful war of the Achaeans—and so that you may tell me who is this huge warrior, this man of Achaea so powerful and so tall. To be sure there are others who are even taller in stature, but so fair a man have my eyes never yet seen, nor one so royal: for he looks like a kingly man.”

(3.171-180) And Helen, fair among women, answered him, saying: “Respected are you in my eyes, dear father of my husband, and dread. I wish that evil death had been pleasing to me when I followed your son here, and left my bridal chamber and my kinspeople and my daughter, well-beloved, and the lovely companions of my girlhood. But that was not to be; so I pine away with weeping. But this will I tell you, about which you ask and inquire. That man is the son of Atreus, wide-ruling Agamemnon, who is both a noble king and a mighty spearman. And he was husband’s brother to shameless me, if ever there was such a one.”

(3.181-190) So she spoke, and the old man was seized with wonder, and said: “Ah, happy son of Atreus, child of fortune, blest by the gods; many youths of the Achaeans have been made subject to you I see. Before now I have journeyed to the land of Phrygia, rich in vines, and there I saw in multitudes the Phrygian warriors, masters of glancing steeds, the men of Otreus and godlike Mygdon, who were then encamped along the banks of Sangarius. For I, too, being their ally, was numbered among them on the day when the Amazons came, the peers of men. But not even they were as many as are the bright-eyed Achaeans.”

4. Homer, Iliad (8th c. BCE), 3.380-420:

(3.380-394) But him [=Paris] Aphrodite snatched up, very easily as a goddess can, and shrouded him in thick mist, and set him down in his fragrant, vaulted chamber, and then herself went to summon Helen. Her she found on the high wall, and round about her in throngs were the women of Troy. Then with her hand the goddess laid hold of her fragrant robe, and plucked it, and spoke to her in the likeness of an old woman, a wool-comber, who used to card the fair wool for her when she lived in Lacedaemon, and whom she especially loved; in her likeness fair Aphrodite spoke: “Come here; Alexander calls you to go home. There he is in his chamber and on his inlaid bed, gleaming with beauty and garments. You would not say that he had come there from fighting with a foe, but rather that he was going to the dance, or was sitting there having just recently ceased from the dance.”

(3.395-398) So she spoke, and stirred Helen’s heart in her breast; and when she caught sight of the beauteous neck of the goddess, her lovely bosom, and her flashing eyes, she was struck with wonder, and she spoke, and addressed her, saying:

(3.399-412) “Strange goddess, why is your heart set on deceiving me in this way? Will you lead me still further on to one of the well-peopled cities of Phrygia or lovely Maeonia, if there too there is some one of mortal men who is dear to you, because now Menelaus has defeated noble Alexander and is minded to lead hateful me to his home? It is for this reason that you have now come here with guileful thought. Go, sit by his side, and abandon the way of the gods, and turn not your feet back to Olympus; but ever be anxious for him, and guard him, until he makes you his wife, or maybe even his slave. There I will not go—it would be shameful—to share that man’s bed; all the women of Troy will blame me afterwards; and I have measureless griefs at heart.”

(3.413-417) Angered, fair Aphrodite spoke to her: “Provoke me not, hard woman, lest I desert you in anger, and hate you, just as now I love you exceedingly, and lest I devise grievous hatred of you from both sides, Trojans and Danaans alike; then would you perish of an evil fate.”

(3.418-420) So she spoke, and Helen, sprung from Zeus, was seized with fear; and she went, wrapping herself in her bright shining mantle, in silence; and she escaped the notice of the Trojan women; and the goddess led the way.

5. Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 4.119-136: 

As he [=Menelaus] was hesitating, Helen
emerged from her high-ceilinged, fragrant bedroom,
like Artemis, who carries golden arrows.
Adraste set a special chair for her,
Alcippe spread upon it soft wool blankets,
and Phylo brought her a silver sewing basket,
given to her by Alcandre, the wife
of Polybus, who lived in Thebes, in Egypt,
where people have extraordinary wealth.
He gave two silver tubs to Menelaus,
a pair of tripods and ten pounds of gold.
His wife gave other lovely gifts for Helen:
a golden spindle and this silver basket
on wheels; the rims were finished off with gold.
Phylo, her girl, brought out that basket now,
packed full of yarn she had already spun.
A spindle wound around with purple wool
was laid across it.

6. Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 4.219-234:

… Then the child of Zeus,
Helen, decided she would mix the wine
with drugs to take all pain and rage away,
to bring forgetfulness of every evil.
Whoever drinks this mixture from the bowl
will shed no tears that day, not even if
her mother or her father die, nor even
if soldiers kill her brother or her darling
son with bronze spears before her very eyes.
Helen had these powerful magic drugs
from Polydamna, wife of Thon, from Egypt,
where fertile fields produce the most narcotics:
some good, some dangerous. The people there
are skillful doctors. They are the Healer’s people.
She mixed the wine and told the slave to pour it,
and then she spoke again.

English translations: Homer’s Iliad, A. T. Murray, revised by W. F. Wyatt. Loeb Classical Library, 1924. Homer’s Odyssey, Emily Wilson (2018). 

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