Helen of Troy- Whore or Heroine?

Published in Hastings Independent Press Issue 91 8/12/17
Beautiful Helen of Troy – seduced by Paris into leaving her daughter and husband, Menelaus. It’s often said about women in Ancient Greece that they were second class citizens without power or freedom, so was she just an object to be manipulated and fought over? Generalisations made about the Greeks are as misleading and as inclined towards banality as in any other context. What might the Greeks themselves have thought of her?

She first appears in the Iliad when Iris, the goddess who brings the dawn, tells her that Paris and Menelaus are to fight a duel for her. Iris finds Helen weaving. This is where we must beware of imposing our own ideas about worth and gender. This is no homely activity of a ‘I’ve been polishing the grate, did you have a good day in the office, darling?’ kind.

weaving copyAll women wove, from prostitutes to aristocrats. Linens could be gossamer fine and were one of the main vehicles for creating imagery. Helen is sewing a cloth (dyed purple, for which many shellfish had to die) in which she has depicted the war between the Trojans and Achaeans. This is exactly what Homer says he will do in the first few lines of the epic, and weaving as a metaphor for poetry is a constant throughout both the Iliad and the Odyssey. This feels like an equality of status.

Iris’ news unlocks a deep longing in Helen for her husband, parents and city, but not fears for Paris’ safety. She is immediately revealed as deeply ambivalent and plagued by regret. There follows a fascinating exchange, marked by mutual respect, between Helen and Priam, king of Troy. Astonishingly, he forgives her, and this at a moment when his son risks death in a duel for her:

‘Come here dear child and sit beside me…..it is the gods whom I blame for this wretched war they have inflicted on me’. He then asks her to name one of the warriors he can see from the city walls. She replies: ‘dear father-in-law, with all my heart I revere you. If only death had come to me when I followed your son here, leaving my home and my marriage bed and my precious daughter and my beloved friends. But death didn’t come and I melt away in weeping.’ She names the warrior: Agamemnon…he was my brother-in-law once, bitch that I am – if the life I seem to have lived then was ever real.’*

Her grief is poignant; especially touching is the sense of loss expressed in a feeling of reality slipping away, but it is her assumption of total responsibility which is extraordinary. It’s real psychological maturity. She is a goddess, daughter of Zeus and Leda, but not all goddesses behave so well. The conversation is subtle psychologically; it’s interesting philosophically, because the concept of the gods and fate is not presented as incompatible with personal responsibility, and it’s beautiful from a literary point of view for its immediacy and authenticity.

 

‘bitch that I am.’

Since writing this I have had second thoughts about this translation of ‘kunopis’. The word literally means ‘with the look of a dog’, but when similar words are used, for example ‘glaukopis’ as used of Athena, it’s a two way concept – active and passive: it can mean that when you see her, her eyes look at you as an owl’s would and it can mean having the appearance of an owl. Applying this to the way ‘kunopis’ is used here by Helen presents a problem I haven’t yet resolved.

* Translation by Stephen Mitchell.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s