Helen of Argos
Christina Cole, Selina Stewart, April Vigil
The Many Faces of HelenLet us begin with the abduction of Helen by Paris. There are two different versions of the route Paris took, one says that Hera sped him on his way by sending a storm, while the other says Paris simply encountered favorable winds. The second point of view is found in Homer's Iliad, and it occurs to us that Hera would not have assisted Paris when for all intents and purposes, she opposes him and advocates his death for the rest of the book. But anyway, there are also versions in which she runs away with Paris willingly, which taking time to gather retainers would imply, or unwillingly where she is kidnapped from her faithful lord and family. Here are a few authors with differing views on such subjects.
Stesichorus: the first author to suggest that Paris stole only a copy of Helen, while the real one was taken to Egypt. Apparently he also insinuated that the entire war might have been her fault, for which Helen struck him blind until he recanted. (Incidentally, she heard the libelous remark while enjoying eternity at Achilles' side.)
Euripedes: sprung from Stesichorus' idea of the copy, it explores the follies of war. The entire Trojan War is fought for a phantom, for nothing. It marked the beginnings of a new comedy, misadventures are happily resolved and everyone goes home dead or happy. Menelaus wanted to kill her upon their return to Sparta, but on Zeus' command, Apollo whisks her away to become immortal.
Pausanias: regales a Rhodian legend in which Helen is banished shortly after Menelaus' death. She then took refuge in Rhodes with Polyxo whose husband had been killed in the Trojan War. Polyxo pretended to be friendly, but took her revenge for her husband's death by having the servants scare her and torment her until she hanged herself.
Herodotus: out of anger that Paris would choose Aphrodite over herself, Hera decided to deprive Paris of Helen's love by manufacturing a cloud that resembled her. The true Helen was carried off to Egypt and locked in the dungeon of Proteus who kept her prisoner until the day that Menelaus came to rescue her.
Helen's ambiguous character has been represented in several seemingly contradictory methods over time. Many of these equivocal qualities are evident in Homer's Iliad alone. Homer's Helen is depicted as a pure and moral wife who is incidentally an adulteress. She repeatedly claims to miss her husband, Menelaus, but she doesn't even attempt to exert the effort necessary to escape to him. At times she blames herself for the predicament she finds herself in, yet also arbitrarily blames outside forces that she cannot control. Helen loathes her abductor, Paris, but she somehow can't resist an intimate physical relationship with him.
These are characteristics that lead one to believe that Helen has difficulty distinguishing her desire to be taken care of and pampered from good common sense. She wants to be a good wife to Menelaus, but the overwhelming desire to couple with other men gets the better half of her. Paris's beauty has captured not only her, but also a deep desire within her loins. If escaping means giving up the security she has accumulated over twenty years spent living with her Trojan captors, then maybe freedom is too much of a price to pay. If blaming herself for her situation means having to take responsibility for it, then she'll blame someone else for her own reassurance, just to balance it all out. And if need be she must spend the next twenty years with her captor, Paris, then she will make those years more tolerable by surrendering herself to his charms.
After Homer's interpretation of Helen's persona, an author by the name of Stesichorus became the first to suggest that the Helen of Troy was a mere copy of the actual Helen who was being imprisoned in Egypt. This general idea became the basis for the plot of Euripides' Helen. This play dealt with the foolishness and inanity involved in war. For ten years the Achaens had fought a long bloody war in which many young men on either side died, all for an imitation of Helen, made of clouds. The entire war therefore was fought in vain thus showing that all war is in effect senseless and pointless.
The idea that a copy made of clouds was sent to Troy in place of the real Helen is not found in all accounts. Yet again, Helen is a contradictory character. Perhaps when the cloud copy of Helen is mentioned, it should be viewed, as a variety of Helen's many faces. Because arete, for women at least, is often equated with beauty, it is hard to believe that someone so beautiful could do anything so wrong, so another version of Helen was introduced. After all, women made of dust, smoke and steam suspended in the atmosphere don't have any moral obligations. The real Helen was still a victim, held prisoner in Egypt. She could hardly be to blame.
In conclusion, it can be argued that though Helen's tendencies remained relatively constant throughout tradition, her behavior was consistently unreliable. Her character could not be considered steady in many respects, excluding her physical appeal to men and her desire to be cared for by them. Throughout the various tales, we see a woman confused who searches for an escape from everything she encounters, including herself. She longs to drift away like the cloud she has been presented as.
Grimal, Pierre. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Blackwell, 1986
Bell, Robert. Women of Classical Mythology. ABC-Clio, 1991
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