A week or so ago Paul O’Mahony pulled together a few people from the Center for Hellenic Studies (Lanah Koelle and Keith DeStone) with me and several members of the Kosmos Society (including Janet Ozsolak, Helene Emeriaud, Sarah Scott) with an idea: bringing together Hellenists and actors in isolation to do readings and discussions of Greek Tragedy during these strange times. We talked about how important it is to retain human contact and communication to stay sane, how the arts help us reflect on being human and how in these frightening times the humanities have no less a purchase on our imaginations and our needs than at any other.
We sketched out a basic plan to read a play a week and invite professional actors to read scenes together. And then we tried it out the next day. We recorded it rather than performing it live because we had no idea how well it would go. Here it is:
Designed by Paul O’Mahony with consultation from the Kosmos Society and Joel Christensen (me!)
Scenes include: Helen’s opening speech Helen and Teucer (l. 68-164) Menelaos speech (l.386-438) Menelaos and Old Woman (l.437-484) Menelaos and Helen meet (l.528-661) Menelaos and Helen plotting (l.1031-1093)
I hope you take some time to watch this and read along (we use this text). The conversation was unscripted and mostly unplanned–some of the comments about seeming and being and living at the edge of things or through mediated experiences struck me pretty hard.
We plan to do this on a weekly basis and are looking for experts in tragedy and actors who would like to participate. Please reach out! We hope to give people a chance to spend time thinking about Greek tragedy, engaging with one another, and meeting new people, learning new things.
For next week, we will be running the show live and opening it up to the public:
The sacrifice of Iphigenia is a pivotal moment in the tale of the House of Atreus—it motivates Agamemnon’s murder and in turn the matricide of Orestes—and the Trojan War, functioning as it does as a strange sacrifice of a virgin daughter of Klytemnestra in exchange for passage for a fleet to regain the adulteress Helen, Iphigeneia’s aunt by both her father and mother. The account is famous in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and the plays Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia among the Taurians by Euripides. Its earliest accounts, however, provide some interesting variations:
Hes. Fr. 23.13-30
“Agamemnon, lord of men, because of her beauty,
Married the dark-eyed daughter of Tyndareus, Klytemnestra.
She gave birth to fair-ankled Iphimede in her home
And Elektra who rivaled the goddesses in beauty.
But the well-greaved Achaeans butchered Iphimede
on the altar of thundering, golden-arrowed Artemis
on that day when they sailed with ships to Ilium
in order to exact payment for fair-ankled Argive woman—
they butchered a ghost. But the deer-shooting arrow-mistress
easily rescued her and anointed her head
with lovely ambrosia so that her flesh would be enduring—
She made her immortal and ageless for all days.
Now the races of men upon the earth call her
Artemis of the roads, the servant of the famous arrow-mistress.
Last in her home, dark-eyed Klytemnestra gave birth
after being impregnated by Agamemnon to Orestes,
who, once he reached maturity, paid back the murderer of his father
and killed his mother as well with pitiless bronze.”
This fragment presents what is possibly the earliest account of the tale of Iphigenia and contains the major elements: the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter is tied to vengeance against Helen; the daughter is rescued by Artemis, made immortal and made her servant. [In some traditions she is either made immortal or made into a priestess of Artemis at Tauris]. Orestes kills the murderer of his father and his mother. Continue reading “The Names of Agamemnon’s Daughters and the Death of Iphigenia”→
Ever wondered why Helen left Menelaos or why her sister cheated on Agamemnon (other than the obvious)? Ancient poetry traced it back to a sin of their father
Schol. Ad Euripides’ Orestes 249
“Stesichorus says that when Tyndareus was sacrificing to the gods he overlooked Aphrodite. For this reason, the angry goddess made his daughters thrice and twice married deserters of husbands. The segment reads like this:
“Because when Tyndareus was sacrificing to all the gods
He neglected only the gentle-giving Kyprian
She was enraged and she made the daughters of Tyndareus
Twice and thrice married deserters of husbands.”
A fragment of Hesiod agrees with this (fr. 176):
Was enraged when she saw them: then she hung bad fame upon them.
After that, Timandra abandoned Ekhemos and left;
She went to Phyleus who was dear to the holy gods.
And so Klytemnestra abandoned shining Agamemnon
To lie alongside Aigisthos as she chose a lesser husband;
In the same way, Helen shamed the marriage-bed of fair Menelaos…”
This passage provides an explanation for why the daughters of Tyndareus—Helen and Klytemnestra—were unfaithful: it was Aphrodite’s game from the beginning because their father did not worship her correctly. A few interesting aspects here: first, Helen is “thrice-married” because after Paris dies, she marries Deiphobus (although some accounts associate her with Theseus too). Second, Hesiod’s fragmentary poems seems to be in the process of cataloging women who leave their husbands.
The first woman in the tale is Timandra, who, according to only this passage, was a third daughter of Tyndareus who left her husband Ekhemos, a king of Arcadia. They had a son together, named Leodocus before she eloped with Phyleus. In another fragment from Hesiod (fr. 23) we learn more about the family of Tyndareus and Leda:
“After climbing into the lush bed of Tyndareus
Well-tressed Leda, as fair as the rays of the moon,
Gave birth to Timandra, cow-eyed Klytemnestra,
And Phylonoe whose body was most like the immortal goddesses.
Her…the arrow bearing goddess
Made immortal and ageless for all days.”
Later on in the same fragment –after hearing about the marriage and children of Klytemnestra—we learn about Timandra:
“Ekhemos made Timandra his blooming wife,
The man who was the lord of all Tegea and Arcadia, wealthy in sheep,
A rich man who was dear to the gods.
She bore to him Laodakos, the horse-taming shepherd of the host,
After she was subdued by golden Aphrodite.”
This section of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women seems to be mentioning only Leda’s children with Tyndareus and not those possibly fathered by Zeus (Helen, Kastor, Polydeukes). But we hear nothing of the future of Leda’s attractive daughter Phylonoe (also spelled Philonoe) other than that Artemis made her immortal. The ancient sources? Nothing at all to explain this.
A few years ago I was looking up some odd word or another in the work of the lexicographer Hesychius (ok, to be honest, I was looking up words for feces and was looking at κοκκιλόνδις· παιδὸς ἀφόδευμα; kokkilondis: “a child’s excrement”). I found the following words which are pretty much absent from all modern lexica.
Kikkasos: the sweat flowing from between the thighs
κίκκασος· ὁ ἐκ τῶν παραμηρίων ἱδρὼς ῥέων.
Kikkê: Sex. Or the bad smell [that comes] from genitals
κίκκη· συνουσία. ἡ ἀπὸ τῶν αἰδοίων δυσοσμία
Obviously, the specificity of these two lexical items is amusing. But their very existence perplexed me a bit. Where did they come from? How were they used? (They don’t actually appear anywhere but in Hesychius.) After some contemplation and a little restraint, I can only conclude that the words emerge from a generally misogynistic context which also considered sex in some way unclean.
The story that I kept thinking of was that of the Lemnian women—it is one of the few connections I could make between sex and bad smells. It is also one of my least favorite myths because it echoes modern misogynistic taboos which marginalize and alienate female bodies. So, I almost didn’t write this post. But I do think that it is worth making these connections, however uncomfortable they are.
Here are two versions of the Lemnian women tale.
“Jason was the captain of the ship as they disembarked and neared Lemnos. The island then happened to be bereft of men and was ruled by Hypsipyle, Thoas’ daughter, for the following reason. The Lemnian women used not to honor Aphrodite. She cast a terrible smell upon them and, for this reason, their husbands acquired spear-won women from Thrace and slept with them.
Because they were dishonored, the Lemnian women slaughtered their fathers and husbands. Hypsipyle alone spared her father Thoas by hiding him. After they landed on the women-controlled island, they slept with the women. Hypsipyle gave birth to sons after sleeping with Jason: Eunêos and Nebrophonos.”
“The story goes like this: Because the Lemnian women had carried out the honors for Aphrodite improperly, the goddess inflicted a bad smell upon them: for this reason, men turned them away. They all worked together and killed their husbands in a plot. Then the Argonauts, as they were travelling to Skythia, arrived in in Lemnos; when they found that the island was bereft of men, they slept with the women and then left. The sons who were born from them went to Sparta in search of their fathers and, once they were accepted among the Lakonians, they became citizens there and settled in Sparta.
This tale seems to combine with a larger treatment of Lemnos as clear from the proverb above and this one:
A proverb from Zenobius (4.91)
“A Lemnian evil”: A proverb which they say comes from the lawless acts committed against husbands by the women of Lemnos. Or it derives from the story of the women who were abducted from Attica by the Pelasgians and settled in Lemnos. Once they gave birth, they taught their sons the ways and the language of the Athenians. They honored each other and ruled over those who descended from Thracians. Then the Pelasgians, because they were angry over this, killed them and their mothers. Or the proverb derives from the bad smell of the Lemnian women.”
The story of the Lemnian crimes (Lêmnia Erga) is told by Herodotus (6.137-138): the Pelasgians were driven out of Attic and took Lemnos; then they got their revenge by abducting Athenian women during a festival. When the sons of these women grew up, they frightened the native Pelasgians and they were all killed.
In the major tales, it is clear that the women are not completely at fault, but they are the ones who seem to suffer the most. Within the broader narrative of the Argonaut tale, especially, we can see how women are defined by their bodies as loci of sexual interest or disinterest, the ability to produce children, and anxiety that they might not remain subordinate to male desire. The casual detail of the Pelasgian tale is especially harrowing.
Last year twitter friend asked me about the appearance of Helen recently:
@sentantiq Can you do a post on Helen of Troy's appearance? Her hair is Xanthos in Sappho and Ibycus. Eyes are kyanopis in Pseudo-Hesiod. People still debate these issues on Reddit, and I'm crazy curious about it.
As @spannycat notes, Greek poetry describes Helen as xanthê and kuanopis. An insensitive and simplistic reading of these facts might claim that she was “blonde” with “blue eyes” (and I am not at all implying that @spannycat is doig this). Not only is the situation far more interesting and complicated than this, but I am pretty sure that even if we accept these two words as applying to Helen they would not be equivalent to the appearance these two terms denote in modern English.
Let’s start with the barest fact. What Helen actually looks like is never stated in Homer. When the Trojans look at her, they say she has the “terrible appearance of goddesses” (αἰνῶς ἀθανάτῃσι θεῇς εἰς ὦπα ἔοικεν). This, of course, is not terribly specific.
Elsewhere, she is “argive Helen, for whom many Achaeans [struggled]” (᾿Αργείην ῾Ελένην, ἧς εἵνεκα πολλοὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν, Il. 2.161) she has “smooth” or “pale/white” arms (῏Ιρις δ’ αὖθ’ ῾Ελένῃ λευκωλένῳ ἄγγελος ἦλθεν, 3.121), but this likely has to do with a typical depiction of women in Archaic Greece (they are lighter in tone than men because they don’t work outside) or because of women’s clothing (arms may have been visible). Beyond that? In the Odyssey, She has “beautiful hair” (῾Ελένης πάρα καλλικόμοιο, 15.58) and a long robe (τανύπεπλος, 4.305).
If anyone is looking for a hint of the ideal of beauty from the legend who launched a thousand ships, they will be sorely disappointed. Why? I think the answer to this partly has to do with the nature of Homeric poetry and with good art in general. Homeric poetry developed over a long duration of time and appealed to many different peoples. To over-determine Helen’s beauty by describing it would necessarily adhere to some standards of beauty while alienating others.
In addition, why describe her beauty at all when the audience members themselves can craft an ideal in their mind. As a student of mine said while I mused over this, Helen “Cannot have descriptors because she is a floating signifier”. She is a blank symbol for desire upon which all audience members (ancient and modern, male and female) project their own (often ambiguous) notions of beauty. To stay with the ancient world, think of that seminal first stanza in Sappho fr. 16:
Some say a force of horsemen, some say infantry
and others say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is [whatever] you love
As long as beauty is relative and in the eye of the beholder any time we disambiguate it by saying that it is one thing and not another we depart from an abstract timeless idea and create something more bounded and less open to audience engagement. I think that part of what makes Homeric poetry work so well is that it combines a maximum amount of specificity within a maximized amount of ambiguity.
Outside of Homer, Helen is described with a little more detail, but in each case the significance of the signifier is less than it appears. In Hesiod, she has nice hair again (῾Ελένης ἕνεκ’ ἠυκόμοιο,Works and Days 165; this is repeated a lot in the fragmentary Hesiodic Catalogue). In fr. 9 of the Cypria she is merely a “Wonder for mortals” (θαῦμα βροτοῖσι·). Much later she has “spiraling eyebrows/lashes” (῾Ελένης ἑλικοβλεφάροιο, Quintus Smyrnaeus, 13.470).
If we want to learn more about Helen, she has additional features outside of epic poetry in lyric. I would be bold enough to claim that the more personal and erotic character of the genre is a better explanation for this specificity than anything else.
In lyric (e.g. Mesomedes, κυανῶπι θεά, θύγατερ Δίκας,) Helen is “cyan-eyed”, but if we look at the semantic range of this nominal root—which describes dark stones and eyes of water divinities—I think we can argue fairly that this indicates a dark and shiny, even watery texture (like lapis lazuli). I suspect this is about the sheen of eyes rather than their hue.
Eustathius remarks that the epithet κυανώπιδα is common (κατὰ κοινὸν ἐπίθετον) and is often used for dark sea creatures, describing as well his hair (Ποσειδῶνα κυανοχαίτην, Ad Hom. Il 1.555.23). Indeed, nymphs in general are “dark-eyed” in lyric (καὶ Νύμφαι κυανώπιδες, Anacr. fr. 12.2) and water deities remain so in Homer (κῦμα μέγα ῥοχθεῖ κυανώπιδος ᾿Αμφιτρίτης, Il. 12.60). Outside of Homer marriageable women also receive this epithet, including Helen’s sister Klytemnestra (Hes. Fr. 23a κού[ρην Τυνδαρέοιο Κλυταιμήσ]τρην κυανῶπ[ιν· cf. fr. 23.27 and for Althaia, 25.14, Elektra (169).
From Robert Beekes. Etymological Dictionary of Greek. Leiden: Brill, 2010
So, in lyric, Helen has dark pools for eyes. But what about her hair? At Sappho fr. 23 Helen is described as “xanthai” ([ ] ξάνθαι δ’ ᾿Ελέναι σ’ ἐίσ[κ]ην; cf. Stesichorus Fr. S103: [ξ]α̣νθὰ δ’ ῾Ελένα̣ π̣ρ[ ; Ibycus, fr. 1a.5: ξα]νθᾶς ῾Ελένας περὶ εἴδει ). But it is important to note that in this context there is a first-person narrator speaking (“I liken you to fair Helen…”). Note as well that there is something formulaic in these lyric lines: the epithet seems to begin the phrase each time.
When it comes to Hair color, xanthus is used in Homer to describe heroes, but not Helen (Menelaos is Xanthus, for example). A byzantine etymological dictionary suggests that the core meaning of this root has something to do with fire (Ξανθὴν, πυῤῥοειδῆ) and argues that the hair “symbolizes the heat and irascibility of the hero” (αἰνίττεται, τὸ θερμὸν καὶ ὀργίλον τοῦ ἥρωος, Etym. Gud, s.v.). But outside the Iliad and Odyssey the adjective is applied to goddesses: both Demeter (H. Dem. 302) and Aphrodite (Soph. fr. 255) are called Xanthê. Modern etymology sees this as anywhere from yellow to brown. But this is altogether relative again. “Light hair” in a group of people who are blond is almost white; among black/brown haired people, light hair can merely be a different shade of brown.
Again, from Beekes 2010:
In the second book of Liu Cixin’s “Three Body Problem Trilogy” The Dark Forest, one of the main characters Luo Ji creates an ideal woman to love in his mind and goes so far as to converse with her, leave his actual girlfriend for her, and go on a trip with her. When he consults a psychologist about this, his doctor tells him his is lucky because everyone is in love with an idea–where the rest of the world will inevitably be disillusioned when they realize this, Luo Ji will never suffer this loss.
Trying to make Helen look like an actual person is not only impossible, but it is something which Homeric epic avoids for good reason.
Special thanks to .@spannycat for asking the question. Her own conclusions on the topic are pretty much the same.
A fragment of the mythographer Pherecydes provides an interesting account for how Odysseus came to be married to Penelope (hint: it wasn’t his choice):
Pherecydes, fr. 90 (= Fowler 129)
“Ikarios, the son of Oibalos, married Dôrodokhês, the daughter of Ortilokhos or, according to Pherecydes, Asterôdia, the daughter of Eurypylos, the son of Telestôr. When Laertes heard about Penelope—that she differed from all women in both her beauty and her intelligence, he arranged for her to marry his son Odysseus. She possessed so much virtue that she surpassed even Helen who was born from Zeus in some degree. This is the account of Philostephanos and Pherecydes.”
This story, of course, runs against a more famous version that isn’t exactly compatible (although one could imagine finding some way to match the two tales):
“When Tyndareus saw the mass of suitors, he feared that once one was selected the rest would start fighting. But then Odysseus promised that if he aided him in marrying Penelope, he would propose a way through which there would be no fight—and Tyndareus promised to help him. Odysseus said that he should have the suitors swear an oath to come to the aid if the man who was selected as bridegroom were done wrong by any other man regarding his marriage. After he heard that, Tyndareus had the suitors swear an oath and he himself chose Menelaos as the bride groom and he suited Penelope from Ikarios’ on Odysseus’ behalf.”
After the suitor Amphimedon arrives in the underworld and tells the story of Penelope’s shroud and Odysseus’ return, Agamemnon responds:
“Blessed child of Laertes, much-devising Odysseus,
You really secured a wife with magnificent virtue!
That’s how good the brains are for blameless Penelope,
Ikarios’ daughter, how well she remembered Odysseus,
Her wedded husband. The fame of her virtue will never perish,
And the gods will craft a pleasing song
Of mindful Penelope for mortals over the earth.
This is not the way for Tyndareos’ daughter.
She devised wicked deeds and since she killed
Her wedded husband, a hateful song
Will be hers among men, she will attract harsh rumor
To the race of women, even for those who are good.”
More than half of this speech praises Penelope for being a loyal, ‘good’ wife (and that is another issue of its own). Of course, this makes Agamemnon think of Klytemnestra. There’s a lot to be said about how this passage sets up the end of the Odyssey, but Agamemnon’s words are striking because they reflect a sad reality not just about misogynistic thinking but about the operation of human thought.
Let’s start with the misogyny: Agamemnon says here, quite clearly, that because of the behavior of one woman (well, two if we hear ambiguity in the phrase “Tyndareos’ daughter” and think of Helen too) all women have bad fame, even if they are “good”? A simple response to this is to wonder whether the same applies to men (of course not…) Let’s pass over the fact that the murder of Agamemnon was probably well deserved. I think this passage also reflects human cognition: the story of Klytemnestra is paradigmatic. We learn basic patterns about people and the world and apply these patterns (prejudices) as substitutions for deeper thought.
I am not sure whether this serves as a bit of an anticipatory apologetic on the part of epic–that the tale of Penelope cannot match up to negative messages about women. It probably stands as an acknowledgement of a “negative expectancy effect”–we are primed to hear negative tales and to believe negative things. I suspect that on Homer’s part this is probably less about women and more about anticipating the reception of this poem.
But, at the very least, this is a clear indication that Homer knows the way it goes: we live in a cultural system that discounts positive stories about women in favor of negative ones and which, accordingly, downgrades the authority of the stories they tell. In our responses to the testimonies of men and women, men have the privilege of being individuals whose lives might be ruined by rumor and false claims, while women are always already undermined. This is is an example of structural misogyny.
For discussions of this passage see: On the contrasting fame of Klytemnestra and Penelope, see Franco 2012, 60–61. For invocations of Klytemnestra as an example of how a woman can ruin a nostos, see Murnaghan 2011, chapter 4 and Nagy 1999, 36–39.
Franco, Cristina. 2012. “Women in Homer,” in Sharon L. James and Sheila Dillon, eds., A Companion to Women in the Ancient World. London. 55–65.
Marquardt, Patricia. 1989. “Love’s Labor’s Lost: Women in the Odyssey,” in Robert Sutton, ed., Daidalikon: Studies in Honor of Raymond V. Schoder, S.J. Chicago. 239-248.
Murnaghan, Sheila. 2011. Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey, Second Edition. Lanham.
Nagy, Gregory 1996. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge