Last month, I promised to cover Helen of Troy eventually. Since this month’s theme is “We Thought We Knew Her,” I thought it would be a good opportunity to do just that.
I certainly had an “I thought I knew her” moment with Helen of Troy when I read Homer’s Iliad for the first time. The plot of The Iliad was one my teachers had explained before, but somehow I got through school without ever having to read it. So it was an adult discovery, and boy, was I ever shocked!
Especially about Helen.
You see, I’d always heard the story of the Trojan War. The beauty contest between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. How Paris chose Aphrodite because…well…love (*ahem* lust). How Aphrodite arranged for Paris to meet Helen. How Paris and Helen went back to his house in Troy…but Helen was already married, and her husband came after her. She was “the face that launched a thousand ships.” And, gosh, kind of a tart for leaving her husband.
And then I read The Iliad. While there were many things that surprised me in that text, I would like to focus on three misconceptions I had about Helen that were reversed in reading this text. Please keep in mind that Homer’s version of the story isn’t the only one, and thus these statements may be true in other versions. Still, Homer’s is a more holistic version, including perspectives from many of the main players in this drama which is why I find it a more “true-to-meaning” version.
Misconception #1: Helen went with Paris willingly
Helen was tricked into leaving Menelaus, and Homer makes it clear she’s unhappy and torn in Troy. She blames herself for the war, but it doesn’t mean she’s worthy of blame.
She tells Priam, her new father-in-law:
“Would that evil death had been my pleasure when I followed thy son hither, and left my bridal chamber and my kinfolk and my daughter, well-beloved, and the lovely companions of my girlhood. But that was not to be; wherefore I pine away with weeping” (Book III.171).
He replies that she is not to blame for the war, but that doesn’t mean Helen becomes any happier. Though Priam is sincere, she doesn’t really seem to believe him.
In Colluthus’ The Rape of Helen, Paris is disguised as Eros, the god of love (most know him as Cupid, his Romanized name). Helen follows Eros, who reveals himself to Helen as the prince of Troy and “judge of goddesses” (because he’s super humble). Helen agrees to go, saying that she does “not fear Menelaus when Troy shall have known me” (305).
This does seem to suggest that she goes willingly, doesn’t it?…
Perhaps. Until one notices the name of the poem, The Rape of Helen. The word “rape” in its earliest usage could mean an unwanted sexual advance, but it actually meant more than that. Its more common meaning was to be taken by force, i.e. kidnapped. This shows that, if it were not for the interference of the gods (and Paris), Helen would not have gone of her own free will.
In Homer, Helen blames herself for the war, but Priam is there to remind her that “thou art nowise to blame in my eyes; it is the gods, methinks, that are to blame, who roused against me the tearful war of the Achaeans” (Book III).
Whether by Paris or the gods (or both), Helen was kidnapped and is not in Troy voluntarily.
Misconception #2: Helen’s face “launched a thousand ships.”
A truer way to say this may be…
Menelaus launched a thousand ships.
A lot is made of Helen’s beauty and the fact that the war was fought over her (which I’ll address below), but the fact is that many of the men fighting under Menelaus thought the war was pointless and didn’t even want to go. In The Iliad, for instance, Achilles doesn’t want to be there. He actually spends half of the book sitting in his tent refusing to fight because Agamemnon stole his slave girl (did I mention these guys were *super* petulant?). When he does fight, it’s only because Hector killed his BFF Patroclus; definitely not because he cared about getting Helen back.
Even without Homer, though, the other myths about Achilles tell us that he hid among a harem of women just to avoid being dragged into Menelaus’ war in the first place.
Odysseus pretended to be insane to get out of fighting.
For the Trojan side, Hector calls his own brother “evil” and a player (to use the modern term), and he pities Helen. In Book VI, he tells, Paris, “Thy people are perishing about the town and the steep wall in battle, and it is because of thee that the battle-cry and the war are ablaze about this city” (bolding mine), but he is always kind to Helen, and she even remarks that he and Priam alone have shown her such kindness.
Thus, it seems those closest to Paris and Menelaus know Helen is an excuse for the ships, not a reason.
Misconception #3: The Ten-Year Trojan War was Fought over Helen
Helen was incidental in the war.
In the poem, people often say, “we’re doing this for Helen” or “this war is for Helen,” but as the old saying goes, there are always two reasons for war: the stated reason, and the actual reason. The stated reason is Helen. The actual reason is…stupidity.
In many ways, The Iliad is an anti-war text. It certainly doesn’t shy away from showing the evils of war, as well as the impact war has on the innocent. Take, for instance, one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the poem (**SPOILER ALERT**): While Hector is being slaughtered by Achilles and his body is being desecrated, Hector’s wife is upstairs in the palace, drawing him a bath (Book XXII). The contrast of Hector–arguably the most admirable warrior in the entire text–being killed in an “unfair” manner while his wife prepares for his return from battle sends a clear message that war destroys lives and families.
The other thing to consider is how much of a moron Paris is. He’s the one who starts the whole mess by selecting Aphrodite in the first place. What Hera and Athena promise him are far more lasting investments. What Aphrodite offers is a temporary investment–Helen won’t remain beautiful forever. Even the start of the war has nothing to do with Helen, not really. Rather, it’s about Paris’ sexual gratification because Helen is never anything more than an object to Paris.
Then, once Paris gets Helen, it becomes about Menelaus’ pride. Helen almost becomes collateral damage, which is the true tragedy of the story.
One might think this is a “modern interpretation.” That perhaps the ancient readers would be able to accept Helen as the “plot device” for starting the war and her fading into the background is just a part of it.
But if that were the case, I would not be writing this post and certainly not for this blog, which aims to show the prevalence of women in ancient literature.
Because even Homer himself acknowledges on multiple occasions that it is not for the sake of Helen the person, but Helen as object that they fight. This, according to Homer, is pointless and unfair, not only Helen and the Trojan women, but to the warriors forced to fight (and die). And since she’s an object, she becomes a point of lust (for Paris) and pride (for Menelaus), and for that, many, many good warriors lose their lives–not for her sake; but for the sake of Paris and Menelaus. Who are both pretty awful. (Paris is probably more awful than Menelaus, but that’s a much longer discussion…)
Hector calls out his own brother for starting the war by being selfish: “But Hector saw [Paris], and chid him with words of shame: ‘Evil Paris, most fair to look upon, thou that art mad after women, thou beguiler, would that thou hadst ne’er been born and hadst died unwed’” (Book III).
He goes on to tell his brother that Menelaus is a better warrior, and almost insinuates that he hopes Menelaus takes him in the fight because he’s a better man than Paris ever will be.
It’s not only Hector who sees through to the real reason for the war, but also his father when he reminds Helen the gods are the ones who started this war. Priam avoids directly blaming his son who chose Helen, but he acknowledges the gods have stirred up this war–which does, in fact, make sense, given that it was Eris, the goddess of discord, who started the whole apple beauty contest thing.
So is Helen the femme fatale I’d always been told she was? After all, I remember learning about the femme fatale archetype, and Helen being listed as a “good example” of such a woman–a woman who seduces men to their deaths.
Yet, when digging into the story, I just cannot come to that conclusion. Helen did not lead men to their deaths. Aphrodite did. Athena did. Paris did. Menelaus did. But Helen? Helen, like most people in these Ancient Greek dramas, was merely a pawn of the gods to use in their war. The Iliad is a good representation, not just for Ancient Greece, but also the modern-day world, of how wars often begin. Not over beautiful women…but over greed and pride.
But Helen is also a reminder that, when people are treated as objects, they do not become objects. Though to Paris, Helen was a commodity to which he thought he had a “right” (since Aphrodite “gave” her to him), Helen was a person who took on pain and blame, feeling that the world was on fire because she set it.
That, of course, was not the reality. But it was her perception that no one, no matter how any times they told her it wasn’t her fault, could change. In the story of Helen and the Trojan War, everyone loses–The Trojans, the Greeks, the heroes and the kings on both sides, the wives on both sides. No one escapes this war without injury.
But perhaps Helen loses most because she feels the weight of the responsibility. She understands the yoke to which Paris has tied her, even though he does not. Though one might take some comfort in knowing that Paris dies in the war he created because his first wife–whom he cast off for Helen–refuses to heal him, no amount of pain caused to Paris can take away the pain he caused Helen. As Lady Macbeth would say, “What’s done cannot be undone” (Shakespeare V.1)…so perhaps it’s best to consider the consequences before doing something that cannot be undone.
Though history has tried to make her an archetype, a pawn, a McGuffin in the tale of the Trojan War, Homer in both The Iliad and The Odyssey gives us a fuller picture of her story and her pain. Which is why it’s so important to read the original sources rather than rely on someone else’s summary–for in summary, Helen can be flat. A femme fatale. A reason so many died.
But in reading Homer, Helen ceased being an object to me and became a person. And isn’t that the purpose of literature?