The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships…and Helen of Troy

by E.J. Lawrence

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.

Abduction_of_Helen_of_Troy_by_John_Cheere,_1700s,_loosely_based_on_an_original_by_Phillipe_Bertrand_-_Wrest_Park_-_Bedfordshire,_England_-_DSC08322
Abduction of Helen of Troy (John Cheere, c. 1700s)

Misconception #1: Helen went with Paris willingly

In truth…

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.

Gaston_Brussiere21
Helen of Troy (Gaston Brussiere, 1895)

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.

Frederic_Leighton_-_Helen_On_The_Walls_Of_Troy
Helen on the Walls of Troy (Frederic Leighton, 1865) *I love how evident Helen’s pain is in this painting*

Misconception #3: The Ten-Year Trojan War was Fought over Helen

Actually…

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.

Ouch.

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.

 

Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Helen_of_Troy
Helen of Troy (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863)

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?

 

Sources:

http://www.theoi.com/Text/HomerIliad1.html

http://www.theoi.com/Text/Colluthus.html

http://shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/full.html

 

 

 

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Deceived: Clytemnestra’s Revenge

By: E.J. Lawrence

True Crime shows are my guilty pleasure. I love a good detective mystery…the “who done it” and the reveal scenes and trying to figure out how it all happened…it’s exciting to try and put all of the pieces together to solve the mystery along with the detective. But for me, the why is always more important than the how. I find myself constantly drawn to the motive, and am most often let down when the detective looks at the camera and says, “He won’t talk, so I guess we’ll never know why he did what he did.”

In most murder mysteries, at least on the true crime shows I watch, we often get the how (Col. Mustard hit him over the head with a candlestick as he entered the ballroom), but are so often left without the why (they seemed like such good friends…what could ever drive him to murder?). That’s the beauty of fiction–it can satisfy our need to know both the how and the why. To wrap up our “women who murder” theme, I would like to turn to one of my personal favorite stories: The Oresteia by Aeschylus. This trilogy contains one of the most famous murderesses in mythology–Clytemnestra, who murders her husband Agamemnon and tries to kill her own son Orestes. But unlike those True Crime shows, we are never in the dark about why she kills…She wants revenge.

To be completely fair, Agamemnon’s entire household is cursed. His father, Atreus, murdered his own nieces and nephews then (*gag alert*) fed them in a stew to his twin brother. Cannibalism in Ancient Greece was definitely in the top “deadly sins,” so the gods put a curse on the house of Atreus, and–due to Fate–Agamemnon never stood a chance in the first place.House_of_Atreus_family_tree

But Clytemnestra’s story begins a bit later, right before the Trojan War (as all great Greek myths do). Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus has just had his wife kidnapped by some Trojan idiot named Paris, and Menelaus launches the famous thousand ships after her (we’ll definitely cover Helen another time). The problem, however, is that Agamemnon has somehow offended Artemis, and without her blessing, their ship will never make it to Troy. Her demand? The sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia.

This poses some problems in Greek mythology. After all, the Olympian gods aren’t really the human sacrifice types, and so this story generally puzzles mythologists. It also opens the door for a wide variety of interpretations of exactly what happened to Iphigenia. Perhaps she was sacrificed. Perhaps Agamemnon began the sacrifice, but Artemis swooped in at the last moment and saved her. In either case, the stories all agree on one thing: Agamemnon lied to his wife, Clytemnestra, telling her that Iphigenia was to be married off to Achilles (or some soldier), then took her daughter away where Clytemnestra never saw her again.

The winds were lifted, and Agamemnon’s ship sailed on to Troy…but Clytemnestra was left only with the rumors that her husband had sacrificed their eldest daughter just to go fight a war he had no business meddling with in the first place.

So it’s easy to understand why, with her husband gone for ten years, Clytemnestra had time to move on, find a new man, and of course, plot her revenge. The new man was Aegisthus, a cousin of Agamemnon’s, and here’s where the story gets a bit fuzzy, depending on which version of the myth you’re reading. Since I started out by mentioning The Oresteia, I’ll give you Aeschylus’s version…but it’s not entirely complete. In Ancient Greek theatre, all violence took place offstage, which means that even in Aeschylus, we don’t see anything; we only hear about it after the fact.

What we know is that when Agamemnon arrives home, he’s greeted warmly by his wife and invited inside. Then there’s some screaming, Agamemnon’s new slave-girl runs in, there’s more screaming…the guess is left to the audience. The play makes it clear that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus had planned this murder for a long time–possibly ever since Clytemnestra lost Iphigenia those ten years ago.

The_Murder_Of_Agamemnon_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_14994
The Murder of Agamemnon

There’s something satisfying to me in this story that is often missed in those True Crime documentaries–we actually get the why and the how all at the same time. Clytemnestra feels justified in her actions, and gladly tells the details of how she murdered her husband and his slave-girl. When the Chorus rebukes her for being so “shameless,” she replies:

I am no shallow woman, whom ye mock.

With unconfounded heart, albeit ye know,

I speak; and whether thou wilt praise or blame,

‘Tis one to me. Lo, my right arm hath wrought

The handiwork of justice : he is dead,

My husband, Agamemnon. He is dead!1

By calling her murder “the handiwork of justice,” she makes her position as judge and jury plain. She then goes on to tell the Chorus that she didn’t recall any of them speaking out against the injustice her husband wrought when he sacrificed their daughter. Where there was no justice, she would take it for herself. She then goes back even further, stating that she did it even for the children Agamemnon’s father slew,2 arguing her case to the Chorus, who represents the interest of the audience.

The Chorus does not buy her reasoning.

Her son Orestes, eventually comes home and learns from his sister Electra what has happened. According to the custom, Orestes as the eldest son is responsible for avenging his father’s death. However, killing a blood relative was a mortal sin…it’s what got his house cursed in the first place. So, the question for the rest of the play becomes primarily one of logic: Given those two premises, what action should Orestes take? Avenge his father by killing his mother and angering the gods? Or anger the gods by not avenging his father’s death?

(Ancient Greek writers certainly took the whole “be cruel to your characters” advice to heart.)

Clytemnestra_by_John_Collier,_1882
Clytemnestra by John Collier (1882)

Orestes takes the first option, but Clytemnestra does not let him take her without a fight. Rather, as Orestes storms his mother’s room, Clytemnestra is there to meet him. Again, no onstage battle ensues except for an exchange of words and arguments, then they exit…and only Orestes returns, his mother’s blood on his hands. In some versions of the story, it’s clear she would rather fight to the death, willing to kill her own son rather than be killed–so she meets him at the door with a battle axe (I’m almost ashamed to say how awesome I find this image–her son is coming at her with a sword, and she meets him with a battle axe. Gutsy.). This was likely meant to show how cold-hearted she was, but I think it gives us another insight, as well…it shows how strongly she believed in her “cause.”

 

In any version of the tale, but perhaps especially Aeschylus’s version, Clytemnestra is intelligent and fierce. She argues with sound logic and makes a strong case that her murder is justice, rather than revenge. She is patient, waiting over ten years to exact her revenge (or justice, depending on how one looks at it), and she does not go down without a fight.

However, in spite of all of this, Clytemnestra’s tragedy is that she’s still just a pawn in the great game of Fate. Agamemnon’s house was cursed before she got there, and the only way to lift the curse was through her son, Orestes, being tormented by the Furies in retaliation for her own murder. And that only came after a lengthy (a whole play’s length, actually) courtroom scene where Orestes pleads his case before Athena. Was it justice? Or revenge? And how thin is the line between them?

And if the difference between the two is motive, then what had been Clytemnestra’s true motive? Or Agamemnon’s? Or Atreus’? No one in this family (except perhaps Iphigenia) is innocent of another family member’s blood, after all.

In those True Crime documentaries I love so well, there’s a similar theme–when a motive is discerned, it’s seldom unique. The motives of jealousy and revenge have withstood the test of time. But no one pleads that to the judge. Rather, everyone justifies themselves in their own mind. After all, justice is “an eye for an eye,” and if one feels their eye has been taken, don’t they deserve the right to enact the same on the offender? Yet, as the tragedy of the House of Atreus so well illustrates, perhaps an eye for an eye really does make the whole world blind…

-0440_Orestes_Killing_Klytaimnestra_Altes_Museum_anagoria
Orestes Killing Clytemnestra by Anagoria

 

  1. The Oresteia, https://archive.org/stream/oresteiaofaeschy00aesciala/oresteiaofaeschy00aesciala_djvu.txt, 38.
  2. Ibid, 44.

 

Wondrous Odyssey Weaver

by Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg

The ancient Greeks credited their goddess, Athena, with several inventions of civilization including the ship, the harness, and the loom. According to myth, the first mortal weaver became so proud of her skills that she challenged Athena to a weaving contest. Of course 330px-Velazquez-las_hilanderasthe goddess won, but rather than depriving young Arachne of life or talent, she merely turned her into a spider. Athena actually knew many a weaver, and in Homeric legend, she encountered several when she mentored the hero Odysseus on his long voyage home from the Trojan War.

Circe was a weaver who was also a witch. Odysseus men approached her house:

Presently they reached the gates of the goddess’s house, and as they stood there, they could hear Circe within, singing most beautifully as she worked at her loom, making a web so fine, so soft, and of such dazzling colours as no one but a goddess could weave (Odyssey book X).

Athena sent a potion to keep Odysseus immune to Circe’s charms, but his men were turned into pigs. Maybe they were already pigs, and Circe returned them to their true nature? In any event, Odysseus was not adverse to Circe’s hospitality—enjoying her bed by night and only weeping for his men at dawn. Once Circe noticed Odysseus’ grief, she took her wand and returned the pigs to humanity. Odysseus and his men enjoyed Circe’s food and drink for another twelve months, proving her a most merciful, generous, and resilient witch.

Like Circe, Calypso was a weaver:

There was a large fire burning on the hearth, and one could smell from far the fragrant reek of burning cedar and sandal wood. As for herself, she was busy at her loom, shooting her golden shuttle through the warp and singing beautifully (book V).

Despite missing Penelope, Odysseus stayed with Calypso for seven years, until Athena e4ae508b0322e4a50a54b60a23ada622convinced Zeus to fetch him home. Calypso trembled with rage: “You gods, she exclaimed, ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You are always jealous and hate seeing a goddess take a fancy to a mortal man, and live with him in open matrimony” (V).

Despite her anger, Calypso released Odysseus once she realized his sorrow:

His eyes [were] ever filled with tears, and dying of sheer home-sickness; for he had got tired of Calypso, and though he was forced to sleep with her in the cave by night, it was she, not he, that would have it so. As for the day time, he spent it on the rocks and on the sea-shore, weeping, crying aloud for his despair, and always looking out upon the sea” (V).

Calypso bade Odysseus leave her:

My poor fellow, you shall not stay here grieving and fretting your life out any longer. I am going to send you of my own free will; so go, cut some beams of wood, and make yourself a large raft with an upper deck that it may carry you safely over the sea. I will put bread, wine, and water on board to save you from starving. I will also give you clothes, and will send you a fair wind to take you home, if the gods in heaven so will it, for they know more about these things, and can settle them better than I can (V).

Even if Zeus was responsible for Odysseus’ departure, no hard feelings spoiled Calypso’sWeb most generous farewell.

Eventually, Odysseus returned to the spider-like Penelope who had saved his kingdom by moving her shuttle back and forth. She was as sharp witted as her husband, and knew that as soon as the suitors began to fill Odysseus’ hall, they wanted far more than her hand in marriage. The suitors complained to her son:

…there was that other trick she played us. She set up a great tambour frame in her room, and began to work on an enormous piece of fine needlework. ‘Sweet hearts,’ said she, ‘Odysseus is indeed dead, still do not press me to marry again immediately; wait, for I would not have skill in needlework perish unrecorded until I have completed a pall for the hero Laertes, to be in readiness against the time when death shall take him’ (XIX).

The suitors granted the favor and watched her “working on her great web all day long, but at night she would unpick the stitches again by torchlight…using the accomplishments Athena taught her” (XIX). Athena was so proud of Penelope that she cast a spell making the queen look as young as she had twenty years earlier when Odysseus first left for Troy. We don’t know if she did this to reward the hero or his wife, but it was a nice gesture.

Silk from spiders has always been one of the most resilient materials on earth; no wonder the women of the Odyssey were wondrous weavers. Their skill and patience equaled that of spiders, but their wisdom reflected another of Athena’s mascots.

 

Her Resilience

The bird in my house

Is not trapped—

Is not always a

Bad luck omen orpenelope_weaving

Magic crow on the

Witch’s shoulder –

Sometimes she is

My sister the owl

Medicine woman

Her Belly full of

Eggs and bones

Spreading her wings

Rising like Phoebus—

Rising like Phoenix

Like Shiva—

Nesting, nesting

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Work Cited

Odyssey. Compiled c. 800 B.C.E. Trans. Samuel Butler. Internet Classics Archive. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1994. April 2017.Online.