The Conflicting Views of Helen
Most Greek mythic characters seem to have enduring personality traits, which can be observed by reading their accounts in works recorded by several different authors. However, anyone reading about Helen does not obtain this unified perspective by various writers. The more one reads about Helen, the more conflict one feels as to her true nature. According to some authors, Helen is an inspirational female, transcending the strict boundaries imposed on Greek women. According to others, she is a deceitful and shameful women, the sole cause of the deaths of thousands of brave Geek and Trojan men. These extremely contradictory views of Helen can be seen in lyric poetry, art, and in epic tradition. Some writers take on entirely negative views of Helen, such as Homer and Alkaios, while some have clearly positive attitudes to her, such as Sappho. Other authors are unclear as to their view of this complex woman, and vacillate between positive and negative opinions, which can be noted in works by Stesichorus and Euripides. Even in art, we see many contrary sentiments regarding this complex character.
Alkaios, a lyric poet from Mytilene in Lesbos, does not waver in his feelings towards this controversial woman. In one of his poems, Alkaios holds Helen responsible for the destruction of Troy, "...and excited the heart of Argive Helen; maddened by the Trojan man, a traitorous guest, she followed him in a ship on the sea, leaving at home her child and her husband... The Trojan plain holds conquered because of that woman" . Alkaios blames Helen for violating her sole role in Greek society, which is to be responsible for the domestic sphere of life. He believes that Helen fell in love with Paris and abandoned her husband and child. Alkaois goes on to insist that Helen was the cause for the devastating war at Troy. We can see that Alkaois has no mixed emotions towards Helen, he sees her as an evil woman who decided to forsake her feminine duty, and in so doing, caused a war which devastated both Greece and Troy.
Another lyric poet, also held Helen responsible for her acts, but did not condemn her. Sappho, a contemporary of Alkaois who also came from Lesbos, looks upon Helen with the most approval out of all of the Greek writers. Most writers who favored Helen devised a way to take away the shame associated with a woman who would desert her husband for another. They accomplished this by retelling the story of Helen so that she never in fact went to Troy. Only Sappho maintains that she did in fact leave her husband, Menelaus, but she celebrates the way in which Helen exorcised her individual judgement in complete disregard for social consequences.
Sappho composed songs of desire for relationships and for individuals. In an ode to a woman named Anaktoria, Sappho uses Helen as an example of the idea that whatever one loves appears most desirable, "...the fairest thing on the dark earth: I say it is whatever one loves...Helen, far surpassing the beauty of mortals, leaving behind the best man of all, sailed away to Troy...Reminding me now of Anaktoria being gone" . Sappho connects Helen's desire for Paris with the poet's desire for Anaktoria. Sappho refuses to replicate stories of feminine object status, as was the role of women in antiquity. She subverts the common interpretation of Helen's passivity in her journey to Troy, and sees Helen as an actant in her own life, moving toward what she believed to be the most beautiful thing. For this reason, Sappho used her example as part of her praise to Anaktoria. This poem demonstrates an instant in which women became more than the object of men's desires.
Homer, one of the most celebrated authors of epic literature, has a slightly more complex view of Helen's character. The Iliad is filled with negative references toward Helen from every character who mentions her name. Whenever Helen is present in the story, she displays self consciousness about the scandal of her behavior, in leaving her husband for a foreigner and causing the war at Troy. Shame is her distinction, for this author who holds the virtue of honor above all others. Not only does Helen disgrace herself by choosing a foreigner over her own husband, but she disgraces all of Hellas who goes to war for ten years over such an unvirtuous woman.
Helen is not only treated as the cause of the Trojan war, but she is also a helpless captive. She became the type of all women who bring woe to men. However, this entirely negative view of Helen is made more complicated by the fact that Helen is marked by undecidability . It is unclear whether the war is over Helen or for her numerous possessions, and it is ambiguous as to whether Aphrodite forced Helen to leave Menelaus for Paris. But if Aphrodite is seen as an abstract embodiment of passion, Helen's act was motivated by lust. Her undecidability as a trait can also be seen in her crossing over the boundary between the male and the female spheres; Helen presides over combat scenes, and does not merely stay at home. It is uncertain whether Homer views Helen as a completely base character when he uses her as a scapegoat who allows the warriors to affirm their community with each other. It seems that Homer questions the idea that the war could be due only to Helen, and underscores her inadequacy as a symbol of war by combining her abstraction in the minds of the Greeks to the concreteness of their wives, children, and the home they left behind.
Homer represents Helen in The Iliad who scorns her second husband, Paris, and longs for what she left behind. She must passively live out the effects of her fatal act. Most of the characters in the story blame Helen for the war, however Menelaus thinks of Helen as a victim, and Priam, the king of Troy, exonerates her by blaming the gods . Helen blames herself, and wishes that she had never betrayed her husband, "...if only death had pleased me then, grim death, the day I followed your son to Troy, forsaking my marriage bed, my kinsmen, and my child" (Homer) In this passage, Helen expresses remorse and self- hatred. The question of her responsibility for the war is left unanswered. Helen's vile nature is left somewhat ambiguous, because she is given the depth to analyze her own actions.
In The Odyssey, Helen's scandal is softened. It is almost a thing of the past, but not forgotten. Helen is no longer seen as the wild mistress, she is now only a wife. In The Iliad, Helen is connected with Aphrodite. Here, she is connected with Artemis, the goddess of chastity .This seems to signal Helen's transformation from woman of passion to chaste wife.
However, Helen still remains a symbol for doubleness. During the course of the Trojan war, Helen is married to Paris, a Trojan citizen, and is protected and cared for by his family. Therefore, her loyalty to the Greeks entails a betrayal of the Trojans. When Helen is speaking with Telemachus, Odysseus' son, she tries to illustrate her loyalty towards the Greeks by explaining that she did not give away Odysseus' identity when he was disguised. She goes on to explain how she rejoiced over the deaths of the Trojan men while the Trojan women were grieving. This casts a malevolent light on Helen's loyalty, which is the very quality she had intended to illustrate to Telamachus.
In this story, Helen is a constant comparison to Penelope, who has remained faithful to her husband. Like Helen before her marriage to Menelaus, Penelope is beset by many suitors. Unlike Helen who yielded to Paris in her husband's shorter absence, Penelope fends off her suitors. Penelope successfully defends against becoming an object of exchange . The Odyssey reevaluates gender roles determined in The Iliad so that Penelope is recognized by Odysseus as his equal counterpart. On the other hand, Helen's victemage serves as a pretext and a scapegoat for the war. She is delegated to live in the shadow of her unfaithful deed, and passes her time in needless acts. Homer makes Helen duplicitous and disloyal, as well as inconsequential.
Stesichorus, a seventh century Sicilian lyric poet, changed his opinion of Helen drastically throughout his poems. At first, Stesichorus wrote poetry about how Tyndarius, Helen's father, sacrificed to the gods but forgot about Aphrodite, "and she, in anger, made the daughters of Tyndarius twice wed and thrice wed and husband deserters" . According to Socrates, after writing this abuse of her, Stesichorus was struck blind by Helen, who was worshiped by Spartans as a goddess. He then came to understand the truth and constructed a new poem called the Palinode, meaning "song reversed". The intention of the Palinode was to restore Helen to her dignity as a goddess of a Spartan cult. In this poem, Stesichorus calls Homer's authority into question by asserting that an imaginary Helen was sent to Troy as a false and dishonorable sign for which the Greeks and Trojans brought down their civilizations, and the real Helen never deserted her husband. She was sent to Egypt where the noble pharaoh, Proteus, looked after her. After writing the Palinode, Helen was mollified, and Stesichorus' sight was restored.
Stesichorus at first agreed with the Homeric version of the wicked Helen who caused shame to herself and all of Greek society by her unfaithful act. However, in the Palinode, Stesichorus attempts to resolve Helen's ambiguities. He declares Helen of Troy, with her demonic and deadly ways, imaginary while he maintains that the real Helen remains pure. He tries to erase Helen's distinguishing mark of doubleness by reducing her to a single character. With Helen removed from Troy, Greek womanhood was vindicated , and by removing her from Paris' lover, men's honor was saved.
No one has a more complex version of the nature of an already enigmatic character as does Euripides. In his early plays on the Trojan theme he insists that Helen was the villain of the Trojan war. In Trojan Women, Helen is detested by men and women, as well as by Greeks and Trojans. In one scene of the play, a Trojan woman, Cassandra, is talking to her mother after the fall of Troy. She not only maintains that Helen went with Paris willingly, but also claims that she was the sole reason for the downfall of Troy.
In another of Euripides' plays, Andromache, the title character Andromache says that it was Helen's fault that the Greeks and Trojans fought, and that because of this woman, her husband is now dead. Although the Trojan women seem to blame Helen for their misery, the man who Helen left for a foreigner still claims her to be innocent. Menelaus says that Helen did not go to Troy of her own will, but the gods forced her to go. He goes on to explain that it was in fact a service to the Greeks that they had to go to war, because it forced them to progress in weapon use, battle tactics, and courage. It is unclear which side of the argument Euripides comes out on, although it seems he is unsure himself.
Euripides again displays the ambiguity as to whether Helen was responsible for her infidelity, and thus the Trojan war, or whether she was forced against her will to leave her husband in the play Electra. In one scene, Clytemnestra says to her daughter, Electra, that it was Helen's lust that caused the Greek men to sail to Troy, and inadvertently caused the death of her daughter. But, later in the play, Helen's brothers claim that it was a phantom who went to Troy, and Helen never did anything wrong.
However, Euripides drastically changes his portrait of Helen in his play, Helen. This play is Euripides's own Palinode, in which he has Helen remain pure, while her phantom is sent to Troy. Helen is set in Egypt, where we find Helen seventeen years after the Greeks sailed to Troy. Like Penelope in The Odyssey, Helen is another faithful wife story. In this version, Hermes has exiled Helen to Egypt after Aphrodite gave Paris a phantom Helen to take with him as a prize. Euripides tells a slightly different account than Stesichorus, when he declares that the good Pharaoh Proteus has died, and his evil son, Theokymeinos, has taken over. Helen schemes with Menalaus, and using her charm and cleverness, she outwits Theokymeinos who wants to marry her, and the two lovers make it safely home to Sparta.
This play attempts to blend the many different Helen's into one. Contrary to the many other accounts of Helen, self-restraint is her fame.In warding off Theokymeinos for seventeen years, she has dissipated the shame, and saved the beauty of the old Helen. She is now the clever wife with a good heart and the patience of Penelope. Helen is made a tragic character in this play because she is divorced from her name, but blamed for everything associated with it. She laments the terrible dishonor, which is no fault of her own, but has been forced upon her because of her beauty. A messenger later backs up Helen's story and explains to Menelaus that, in fact, it was only a phantom Helen who had committed the shameful acts which the real Helen had been blamed for. Euripides has us feel sorry for Helen, who must have felt sorrow and alienation, in being confined to silence and idleness for the many long years during and after the Trojan war.
It is not only literature which gives us these drastically differing views of Helen, but the art work at the time shows equally conflicting opinions of this controversial woman. According to the art work on some of the vases, Helen is seen as a shameful woman, who has willingly abandoned her family for the dishonorable Paris. In others she is seen as an innocent victim, who can do nothing to avoid her capture, whether it be Paris or a god. In one vase, which makes it clear that Helen's desertion of her husband was not of her own free will, Paris is seen leading Helen away by her wrists, while her sister is futilely trying to help her. Another vase depicts a similar scene in which Paris has come holding a spear to abduct Helen. Aphrodite is seen standing behind Helen, who is following Paris reluctantly. Behind Aphrodite is the goddess Peitho, who is a symbol of persuasion.
Although these vases portray an innocent Helen who is helpless victim in her abduction, the majority of the vases illustrate the shameless woman who willfully abandoned her family and her country. In one vase, Helen is seen fleeing from her rightful husband Menelaus. In another vase, which captures two connecting scenes in separate pieces, Paris and Helen first meet each other. He is seen lowering his head, while she is looking up at him from under her eyelashes. This flirtatious scene seems to imply that Helen went with Paris willingly. In a different vase, Paris is seen judging a beauty contest. The picture does not tell us much, but the description explains that one women in the vase is unclear, but it is not Peitho because persuasion was not needed for Helen. Finally, another vase depicts the scene of Helen seated on Aphrodite's lap, with Peitho behind her, and the goddess Nemesis pointing an accusing finger at Helen.
We can clearly see in art, literature, and poetry, that Helen is one of the most ambiguous characters of antiquity. She has been portrayed in different sources, and even by the same authors in opposite extremes. According to some, Helen is an innocent victim who was abducted and slandered, according to others she was a good Spartan goddess, while others believed that she was an evil source of shame who caused much death and suffering to Greeks and Trojans alike.We can only guess at the reasons for these authors contradictory perceptions of this woman.
Perhaps Sappho respected Helen, who she did not even attempt to exonerate by rewriting her history so that she never left her husband. Maybe because Sappho was also a female, she could respect Helen as a woman who surpassed the narrowly circumscribed sphere that a woman was allowed, and celebrated Helen for acting of her own will. Homer, on the other hand, wrote epics in a time when virtue and honor were the most important values, and women only played the part of object in the men's world of exchange. Alkaois subscribed to this ideal, and saw Helen as a scandalous woman in a time when women had a narrowly defined role, and insubordination was unheard of. At first Euripides agreed with the Homeric account of Helen, but may have changed his mind and rewrote her history to take away from the shame to Hellas for fighting a war for such a disgraceful woman. Stesichorus also agreed with Homer's version of Helen, but since he was from Sparta, he may have decided to take away the impurity from the goddesses name, who was worshiped in Sparta. It is not surprising that the vases and art work of the time reflected the ambiguities and lack of consensus on this controversial female figure...
Written by Katie Olesker