Thursday, May 5, 2016

TFBT: Helen on Classical Inquires

A flood of articles on Helen flowed out of Classical Inquires lately!   I would highly recommend them and the website.  Of course, I have opinions to share! 

Darah Vann in Helen of Troy: Unwomanly in Her Sexuality scrutinizes Helen's womanliness.  Her promiscuity and lack of maternal instinct do not make her a candidate for ideal wife, mother, and woman.  But is it right to judge her based on the Ancient Greek notion of womanhood?  Modern womanhood? As a woman at all?  Most authors on the recent series of articles on Helen in Classical Inquires have given a nod to Helen's divinity, maybe this is a place to do it again.  From that light Helen makes a great doublet for the mighty Aphrodite.  The goddess of love came ashore and entered the mythic timeline accompanied by two her two sons Love (Eros) and Desire (Himeros).  (Possible sons of an obscure and minor sea-god Nerites.) She had a short, arranged, "unfruitfull" marriage with Hephaestus. (As Helen did in the marriage the gods arranged for her to Paris.) Aphrodite then proceeded to birth armfuls of erotes by various gods primarily Ares, whom she never wed.  As Helen left her mortal daughter Hermione with Menelaus, so Aphrodite left her mortal daughter Harmonia with Electra to raise (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 3. 373 - 4. 292  ) and Aeneas with the "nymphs" (HH to Aphrodite 247)  Demeter never wed and bore children to two of her three brothers and also to the Titanic Iason.  The sisters Eos and Selene had a thing for mortal men.  Artemis, Athena, Hestia, and Persephone never had children.  Hera was a nightmarish wife.  In comparison Helen makes a pretty good divine mother and goddess.

Gary Smoot wrote “Helenus and the Polyphyletic Etymologies of Helen"; a very thorough and readable survey on the topic; with nine variation on the theme.   I’ve spoken to the ones I found most convincing; #1.   Helen ‘shine’, ‘blaze’  ‘torch’, and ‘shines’.  I like his argument for this meaning.  I think in the process he’s convinced me that all the Spartan goddesses descended from Perseus' daughter Gorgophone can claim epithets of Bright and Shining.  I love the notion that the 'Torch" Helen wed "Paris, the firebrand of Hekabe’s dream," #2. Helen as “Seer and Helen’s supernatural ability to see are well documented by Homer.  I think the fact the male version of the name; Helenus "is the seer among the Trojans" really does support this notion.  I love the fact that Helenus' twin sister Miss Alexandra (Cassandra) is a seeress just like their sister-in-law Mrs. Alexander (Helen as Paris' wife). I might point out that Helen's cousin, Lyncheus, brother of Idas, saw real well too.  Etymology 5 ‘seize’,   So, Marpessa wife of Helen's cousin Ida's got seized just like all the other of the women in that family.  Oh let’s not forget that Helen’s brothers were seizers too. Nagy argues that the names of a hero's sons are often seemly epithets of the hero.  Do the names of the children of Helen, Hillarie and the Phoebes support any of your etymological arguments? 

Lenny Muellner wrote  Helens Fatal Attraction and Its Inversion.  What a great piece demonstrating Helen's gifts as poetess, singer, lamenter and chorus leader.  My question is about the comment that his whole story started.  The seer Helenus sent his brother Hector into the city?  Why? To send their mother on a futile mission to Athena? So Hector could say goodbye to his wife and doomed son?  To have an aborted conversation with theoretically the most important of the women Helen? Was Helenus in the process of switching sides and wanted Hector off the battle field for the benefit of the Achaeans?  Is it a plot device by Homer to allow for one of the most moving scenes in history?

“The Homecoming Queen” a guest post by Timothy Banks at Hour 25 considering the character of Helen.  Banks worries about how much choice Helen has in obeying Aphrodite when she sends Helen to bed with Paris, “also her original voyage to Troy”  He concludes Helen was “a reluctant tool of the gods”. He describes a Helen with an “amazing power” of quick perception that can recognize a goddes in disguise, Telemachus’ paternity with just a glance and a Greek hero dressed in the rags of a beggar.  “Helen shows another amazing power, the ability to mimic voices.” And finally compares her to the goddesses Circe and Calypso who “possessed of dangerous sexual allure and mysterious knowledge.” 
Hmm, amazing powers, dangerous feminine sexual allure, and mysterious knowledge; sounds like we are talking about a goddess, not a woman.  I would argue that Helen is not a reluctant tool of the gods, but rather one of the gods, herself.  Too often we think of Helen as merely another mortal woman.  Clearly she is not.  We should not judge her in terms of the laws and limitations of mortals, but rather by the nature of the gods.  Can Ate not tempt men and gods to foolishness?  Can Aphrodite not inspire emotion in men and gods?  She can’t even stop being beautiful in disguise.  Likewise, Helen can not stop being who she is; Epic itself.  She is “the face that launched a thousand ships.” She is the Muse of god-like Homer.  If her words and deeds seem to contradict one another, all the better to maintain Homer’s famous neutrality.  All the better to play Achaean and Trojan against one another.  All the better to attain her destiny in the Isle of the Blest and in the pantheon of Sparta.







  1. It is said that "Hermione" is a derivative of Hermes, but as you are comparing her with Harmonia, I see the same string of sounds, h-r-m-n. These two heroines are occasionally mistaken. There was a 17th century French musical drama titled "Cadmus and Hermione".
    About Hera being a nightmarish wife - at least, she never made extramarital sex. What would you say about Zeus as a husband?

  2. John C. Franklin wrote Lady Come Down: The Eastern Wandering of Helen, Paris, and Menelaus. In a famous scene upon the ramparts of Troy, Priam and Helen admire and discuss the gathered troops below. Helen says;

    "many other glancing-eyed Achaeans whose names I could tell you, but there are two whom I can nowhere find, Castor, breaker of horses, and [Polydeuces the mighty boxer; they are children of my mother, and own brothers to myself. Either they have not left Lacedaemon,or else, though they have brought their ships, they will not show themselves in battle for the shame and disgrace that I have brought upon them." (Iliad 3.235)

    Out of earshot of the heartbroken heroine, Homer answers her question immediately. "both these heroes were already lying under the earth". But it begs the question, why didn't they chase after her as they did when Theseus carried her off as a child? Why didn't Menelaus? Franklin reminds us " Dio Chrysostomus found it absurd that, after Helen’s abduction by Paris, neither the Dioskouroi nor Menelaus, nor anyone else, gave chase (Or. 11.60, 69, 72)." Then tells us the rest of the story of the threesomes travels.