Re-post for #MythMonth: Helen’s Ghost

Homer, Iliad 3.3.146-160

 

The men who were near Priam, Panthoos, Thymoites
Lampos, Klutios, and Hiketaôn, the descendent of Ares,
Were Oukalegôn and Antênôr, two intelligent men.
The council of elders sat there on the Skaian gates
Slowed by old age, but still fine public speakers
Something like cicadas who sit on the leaf
Of a tree trailing along their lily-thin voices.
When they saw Helen approaching the wall,
They addressed each other with winged words:
“There’s no reason to criticize the Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans
For suffering pain for so long for this woman.
She has the terrible appearance of the immortal goddesses.
But, even though she is like this, let her return in the ships,
To prevent more pain from being left for our children.”
Οἳ δ’ ἀμφὶ Πρίαμον καὶ Πάνθοον ἠδὲ Θυμοίτην
Λάμπόν τε Κλυτίον θ’ ῾Ικετάονά τ’ ὄζον ῎Αρηος
Οὐκαλέγων τε καὶ ᾿Αντήνωρ πεπνυμένω ἄμφω
ἥατο δημογέροντες ἐπὶ Σκαιῇσι πύλῃσι,
γήραϊ δὴ πολέμοιο πεπαυμένοι, ἀλλ’ ἀγορηταὶ
ἐσθλοί, τεττίγεσσιν ἐοικότες οἵ τε καθ’ ὕλην
δενδρέῳ ἐφεζόμενοι ὄπα λειριόεσσαν ἱεῖσι·
τοῖοι ἄρα Τρώων ἡγήτορες ἧντ’ ἐπὶ πύργῳ.
οἳ δ’ ὡς οὖν εἴδονθ’ ῾Ελένην ἐπὶ πύργον ἰοῦσαν,
ἦκα πρὸς ἀλλήλους ἔπεα πτερόεντ’ ἀγόρευον·
οὐ νέμεσις Τρῶας καὶ ἐϋκνήμιδας ᾿Αχαιοὺς
τοιῇδ’ ἀμφὶ γυναικὶ πολὺν χρόνον ἄλγεα πάσχειν·
αἰνῶς ἀθανάτῃσι θεῇς εἰς ὦπα ἔοικεν·
ἀλλὰ καὶ ὧς τοίη περ ἐοῦσ’ ἐν νηυσὶ νεέσθω,
μηδ’ ἡμῖν τεκέεσσί τ’ ὀπίσσω πῆμα λίποιτο.

This passage is famous for showing the marginalization of the Trojan elders and for acting as a preface to the famous (and sometimes thought illogical) “viewing from the walls” (Teikhoskopia) when Helen names the Greek warriors for Priam (even though they’ve been fighting before Troy for 9 years). The elders essentially say, yeah, we get it, she’s hot. But, in the wisdom brought by old age, they insist she isn’t worth it.

Perhaps the Trojan elders understand better the insanity of lust than Herodotus (2.110):

“If Helen really were in Ilium, they would have given her back to the Greeks whether Paris wanted them to or not. Priam was not so out of his mind, nor were his other subjects, that they would want to risk their own bodies and children and the city itself just so that Paris could sleep with Helen.”

εἰ ἦν Ἑλένη ἐν Ἰλίῳ, ἀποδοθῆναι ἂν αὐτὴν τοῖσι Ἕλλησι ἤτοι ἑκόντος γε ἢ ἀέκοντοςἈλεξάνδρου. οὐ γὰρ δὴ οὕτω γε φρενοβλαβὴς ἦν ὁ Πρίαμος οὐδὲ οἱ ἄλλοι οἱ προσήκοντες αὐτῷ, ὥστε τοῖσι σφετέροισι σώμασι καὶ τοῖσι τέκνοισι καὶ τῇ πόλι κινδυνεύειν ἐβούλοντο, ὅκως Ἀλέξανδρος Ἑλένῃ συνοικέῃ.

Of course, arguing about Helen was a central part of early Greek responses to myth. Helen received a great deal of blame for the Trojan War,even though from the beginning it is clear that the gods were using her for their own plans. (Her father was blamed by some for her infidelity.) In the Classical period, debating Helen’s fault was an established rhetorical practice. But one of the earlier and more creative responses about the whole affair was a “Shaggy” defense: it wasn’t her! It was someone who looked like her:

“This is not the true tale:
You never went in the well-benched ships
You did not go to the towers of Troy…
[It is a fault in Homer that
He put Helen in Troy
And not her image only;
It is a fault in Hesiod
In another: there are two, differing
Recantations and this is the beginning.
Come here, dance loving goddess;
Golden-winged, maiden,
As Khamaileôn put it.
Stesichorus himself says that
an image [eidolon] went to troy
and that Helen stayed back
with Prôteus…”

οὐκ ἔστ’ ἔτυμος λόγος οὗτος,
οὐδ’ ἔβας ἐν νηυσὶν ἐυσσέλμοις
οὐδ’ ἵκεο πέργαμα Τροίας,
[ μέμ-
φεται τὸν ῞Ομηρο[ν ὅτι ῾Ε-
λέ]νην ἐποίησεν ἐν Τ[ροίαι
καὶ οὐ τὸ εἴδωλον αὐτῆ[ς, ἔν
τε τ[ῆι] ἑτέραι τὸν ῾Ησίοδ[ον
μέμ[φετ]αι· διτταὶ γάρ εἰσι πα-
λινωιδλλάττουσαι, καὶ ἔ-
στιν ἡ μὲν ἀρχή· δεῦρ’ αὖ-
τε θεὰ φιλόμολπε, τῆς δέ·
χρυσόπτερε παρθένε, ὡς
ἀνέγραψε Χαμαιλέων· αὐ-
τὸ[ς δ]έ φησ[ιν ὁ] Στησίχορο[ς
τὸ μὲν ε[ἴδωλο]ν ἐλθεῖ[ν ἐς
Τροίαν τὴν δ’ ῾Ελένην π[αρὰ
τῶι Πρωτεῖ καταμεῖν[αι· …

Herodotus tells this story too. But Hesiod blames the whole thing on Helen’s father’s infidelity.

 

 

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s