Destroyer, Born on the Ground, Pitiable: Etymologies for Helen

In a choral ode from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, we find a folk etymology implied for Helen’s name. Where I have translated “killer”, the Greek has versions of the aorist of αἵρεω (εἶλον) which, without its augment looks like the beginning of Helen’s name (ἑλ-).

 Aeschylus, Agamemnon 684-696

“Whoever pronounced a name
So thoroughly true?
Wasn’t it someone we’d not see
Guiding the tongue with luck
From a foreknowledge of fate?
Who named the spear-bride,
Struggled-over woman
Helen?
For, appropriately,
That ship-killer [hele-nas], man-killer [hel-andros]
City-killer [hele-ptolis], sailed
From her fine-spun, curtains
On the breath of great Zephyr
and many-manned bands
Of shield-bearers followed
The vanished journey struck
By the oars to the banks
Of leafy Simois
For a bloody strife.”

Χο. τίς ποτ’ ὠνόμαξεν ὧδ’
ἐς τὸ πᾶν ἐτητύμως—
μή τις ὅντιν’ οὐχ ὁρῶ-
μεν προνοί-
αισι τοῦ πεπρωμένου
γλῶσσαν ἐν τύχᾳ νέμων; —τὰν
δορίγαμβρον ἀμφινεικῆ
θ’ ῾Ελέναν; ἐπεὶ πρεπόντως
ἑλένας, ἕλανδρος, ἑλέ-
πτολις, ἐκ τῶν ἁβροπήνων
προκαλυμμάτων ἔπλευσε
Ζεφύρου γίγαντος αὔρᾳ,
πολύανδροί
τε φεράσπιδες κυναγοὶ
κατ’ ἴχνος πλατᾶν ἄφαντον
κελσάντων Σιμόεντος
ἀκτὰς ἐπ’ ἀεξιφύλλους
δι’ ἔριν αἱματόεσσαν.

Ancient etymologies do not follow this Aeschylean play.

Etym. Gudianum

“Helenê. From attracting [helkein] many to her beauty. Or it is from helô, helkuô, she is the one who drags young men to her personal beauty. Or it comes from Hellas [Greece]. Or it comes from being born on the ground [helos].”

     ῾Ελένη· … ἀπὸ τοῦ πολλοὺς ἕλκειν ἐν τῷ κάλλει αὐτῆς· ἢ παρὰ τὸ ἕλω, τὸ ἑλκύω, ἡ πρὸς τὸ ἴδιον κάλλος ἑλκύουσα τοὺς νέους ἀνθρώπους· ἢ παρὰ τὸ ῾Ελλάς· ἢ παρὰ τὸ ἐν ἕλει γεγεννῆσθαι.

Etym.  Magnum

“Helenê: A heroine. From helô, helkuô, she is the one who drags young men to her personal beauty. Or it comes from Hellas [Greece]. Or it comes from being born on the ground [helos]. Or because she was thrown in a marshy [helôdei] place by Tyndareus once she obtained some divine prescience and she was taken back up by Leda. Helenê was named from pity [heleos].”

     ῾Ελένη: ῾Η ἡρωΐς· παρὰ τὸ ἕλω, τὸ ἑλκύω, ἡ πρὸς τὸ ἴδιον κάλλος ἕλκουσα τοὺς ἀνθρώπους· διὰ τὸ πολλοὺς ἑλεῖν τῷ κάλλει· ἢ παρὰ τὸ ῾Ελλάς· ἢ παρὰ τὸ ἐν ἕλει γεγενῆσθαι, ἡ ὑπὸ τοῦ Τυνδάρεω ἐν ἑλώδει τόπῳ ῥιφθεῖσα, θείας δέ τινος προνοίας τυχοῦσα, καὶ ἀναληφθεῖσα ὑπὸ Λήδας. ᾿Εκ τοῦ ἕλους οὖν ῾Ελένη ὠνομάσθη.

Modern linguistics show that Helen’s name is just really hard to figure out.

Some Modern Material

In Lakonia, Helen was original spelled with a digamma. (And this may have extended to Corinth and Chalcidice too Cf. R. Wachter Non-Attic Vase Inscriptions 2001, §251).

74 Von Kamptz 1958, 136 suggests that her name is a “cognate of σέλας” to evoke a sense of “shining”, as in her beauty. Cf. Kanavou 2015, 72

Vedic Saranyu: Skutsch 1987, 189; Puhvel 1987, 141–143 (The initial breathing in Greek often points to a lost initial *s but the digamma in certain dialects confuses this) The Vedic name means swift. The PIE root suggested here is *suel-.

Helen has variously been suggested as coming from a vegetation goddess (see Helena Dendritis, Paus. 3.19.9–10; Herodotus 6.61; cf. Skutsch 1987) or a goddess of light.

 

Image result for Ancient Greek Helen

The Ways of Madmen And Wicked Fools

Euripides’ Bacchae, Second chorus 370-433

Sacred queen of the gods
Sacred one who flies
Over the earth on golden wing—
Did you hear these things about Pentheus?
Did you hear
Of his unholy outrage against Bromios
Semele’s son, the first of the gods
Called upon in the finely-wreathed
Feasts? He holds sway here,
To entwine us in the dances
To make us laugh with the flute
To dissolve our worries
Whenever the grape’s shine
Arrives at the feast of the gods
And in the ivy-wound banquets of men
Where the winebowl lets down its sleep.

The fate for unbridled mouths
And lawless foolishness
Is misfortune.
The life of peace
And prudence
Is unshaken and cements together
Human homes. For even though
They live far off in the sky
The gods gaze at human affairs.
Wisdom is not wit;
Nor is thinking thoughts which belong not to mortals.

Life is brief. And because of this
Whoever seeks out great accomplishments
May not grasp the things at hand.
These are the ways of madmen
And wicked fools, I think.

I wish I could travel to Cyprus
The island of Aphrodite
Where the enchanters of mortal minds live,
The Erotes, at Paphos
Where the hundred mouths
Of the barbarian river
Water fertile earth despite no rain;
I wish to go where Pieria
Looms so fair, that seat of the Muses,
The sacred slope of Mount Olympos—
Take me there, Bromios, my Bromios,
Divine master of ecstasy.
There are the Graces, there is Longing, there it is right
For the Bacchants to hold their sacred rites.

The god, the son of Zeus,
He delights in the feast,
He loves wealth-granting peace
The child-rearing goddess.
He has granted equally to the rich
And those below to have
The grief-relieving pleasure of wine.
He hates the person who has no care for these affairs.
During the day and during lovely nights
To live a good life,
To protect wisdom and thoughts and heart
From men who go too far.
Whatever the rather simple-minded mob believes
This is welcome enough belief for me.

῾Οσία πότνα θεῶν,
῾Οσία δ’ ἃ κατὰ γᾶν
χρυσέαι πτέρυγι φέρηι,
τάδε Πενθέως ἀίεις;
ἀίεις οὐχ ὁσίαν
ὕβριν ἐς τὸν Βρόμιον, τὸν
Σεμέλας, τὸν παρὰ καλλι-
στεφάνοις εὐφροσύναις δαί-
μονα πρῶτον μακάρων; ὃς τάδ’ ἔχει,
θιασεύειν τε χοροῖς
μετά τ’ αὐλοῦ γελάσαι
ἀποπαῦσαί τε μερίμνας,
ὁπόταν βότρυος ἔλθηι
γάνος ἐν δαιτὶ θεῶν, κισ-
σοφόροις δ’ ἐν θαλίαις ἀν-
δράσι κρατὴρ ὕπνον ἀμφιβάλληι.
ἀχαλίνων στομάτων
ἀνόμου τ’ ἀφροσύνας
τὸ τέλος δυστυχία·
ὁ δὲ τᾶς ἡσυχίας
βίοτος καὶ τὸ φρονεῖν
ἀσάλευτόν τε μένει καὶ
ξυνέχει δώματα· πόρσω
γὰρ ὅμως αἰθέρα ναίον-
τες ὁρῶσιν τὰ βροτῶν οὐρανίδαι.
τὸ σοφὸν δ’ οὐ σοφία,
τό τε μὴ θνατὰ φρονεῖν
βραχὺς αἰών· ἐπὶ τούτωι
δὲ τίς ἂν μεγάλα διώκων
τὰ παρόντ’ οὐχὶ φέροι; μαι-
νομένων οἵδε τρόποι καὶ
κακοβούλων παρ’ ἔμοιγε φωτῶν.
ἱκοίμαν ποτὶ Κύπρον,
νᾶσον τᾶς ᾿Αφροδίτας,
ἵν’ οἱ θελξίφρονες νέμον-
ται θνατοῖσιν ῎Ερωτες
Πάφον, τὰν ἑκατόστομοι
βαρβάρου ποταμοῦ ῥοαὶ
καρπίζουσιν ἄνομβροι,
οὗ θ’ ἁ καλλιστευομένα
Πιερία, μούσειος ἕδρα,
σεμνὰ κλειτὺς ᾿Ολύμπου·
ἐκεῖσ’ ἄγε με, Βρόμιε Βρόμιε,
πρόβακχ’ εὔιε δαῖμον.
ἐκεῖ Χάριτες, ἐκεῖ δὲ Πόθος, ἐκεῖ δὲ βάκ-
χαις θέμις ὀργιάζειν.
ὁ δαίμων ὁ Διὸς παῖς
χαίρει μὲν θαλίαισιν,
φιλεῖ δ’ ὀλβοδότειραν Εἰ-
ρήναν, κουροτρόφον θεάν.
ἴσαν δ’ ἔς τε τὸν ὄλβιον
τόν τε χείρονα δῶκ’ ἔχειν
οἴνου τέρψιν ἄλυπον·
μισεῖ δ’ ὧι μὴ ταῦτα μέλει,
κατὰ φάος νύκτας τε φίλας
εὐαίωνα διαζῆν,
†σοφὰν δ’ ἀπέχειν πραπίδα φρένα τε
περισσῶν παρὰ φωτῶν†.
τὸ πλῆθος ὅτι τὸ φαυλότερον ἐνόμισε χρῆ-
ταί τε, τόδ’ ἂν δεχοίμαν.

Image result for ancient greek dionysus

Destroyer, Born on the Ground, Pitiable: Etymologies for Helen

In a choral ode from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, we find a folk etymology implied for Helen’s name. Where I have translated “killer”, the Greek has versions of the aorist of αἵρεω (εἶλον) which, without its augment looks like the beginning of Helen’s name (ἑλ-).

 Aeschylus, Agamemnon 684-696

“Whoever pronounced a name
So thoroughly true?
Wasn’t it someone we’d not see
Guiding the tongue with luck
From a foreknowledge of fate?
Who named the spear-bride,
Struggled-over woman
Helen?
For, appropriately,
That ship-killer [hele-nas], man-killer [hel-andros]
City-killer [hele-ptolis], sailed
From her fine-spun, curtains
On the breath of great Zephyr
and many-manned bands
Of shield-bearers followed
The vanished journey struck
By the oars to the banks
Of leafy Simois
For a bloody strife.”

Χο. τίς ποτ’ ὠνόμαξεν ὧδ’
ἐς τὸ πᾶν ἐτητύμως—
μή τις ὅντιν’ οὐχ ὁρῶ-
μεν προνοί-
αισι τοῦ πεπρωμένου
γλῶσσαν ἐν τύχᾳ νέμων; —τὰν
δορίγαμβρον ἀμφινεικῆ
θ’ ῾Ελέναν; ἐπεὶ πρεπόντως
ἑλένας, ἕλανδρος, ἑλέ-
πτολις, ἐκ τῶν ἁβροπήνων
προκαλυμμάτων ἔπλευσε
Ζεφύρου γίγαντος αὔρᾳ,
πολύανδροί
τε φεράσπιδες κυναγοὶ
κατ’ ἴχνος πλατᾶν ἄφαντον
κελσάντων Σιμόεντος
ἀκτὰς ἐπ’ ἀεξιφύλλους
δι’ ἔριν αἱματόεσσαν.

Ancient etymologies do not follow this Aeschylean play.

Etym. Gudianum

“Helenê. From attracting [helkein] many to her beauty. Or it is from helô, helkuô, she is the one who drags young men to her personal beauty. Or it comes from Hellas [Greece]. Or it comes from being born on the ground [helos].”

     ῾Ελένη· … ἀπὸ τοῦ πολλοὺς ἕλκειν ἐν τῷ κάλλει αὐτῆς· ἢ παρὰ τὸ ἕλω, τὸ ἑλκύω, ἡ πρὸς τὸ ἴδιον κάλλος ἑλκύουσα τοὺς νέους ἀνθρώπους· ἢ παρὰ τὸ ῾Ελλάς· ἢ παρὰ τὸ ἐν ἕλει γεγεννῆσθαι.

Etym.  Magnum

“Helenê: A heroine. From helô, helkuô, she is the one who drags young men to her personal beauty. Or it comes from Hellas [Greece]. Or it comes from being born on the ground [helos]. Or because she was thrown in a marshy [helôdei] place by Tyndareus once she obtained some divine prescience and she was taken back up by Leda. Helenê was named from pity [heleos].”

     ῾Ελένη: ῾Η ἡρωΐς· παρὰ τὸ ἕλω, τὸ ἑλκύω, ἡ πρὸς τὸ ἴδιον κάλλος ἕλκουσα τοὺς ἀνθρώπους· διὰ τὸ πολλοὺς ἑλεῖν τῷ κάλλει· ἢ παρὰ τὸ ῾Ελλάς· ἢ παρὰ τὸ ἐν ἕλει γεγενῆσθαι, ἡ ὑπὸ τοῦ Τυνδάρεω ἐν ἑλώδει τόπῳ ῥιφθεῖσα, θείας δέ τινος προνοίας τυχοῦσα, καὶ ἀναληφθεῖσα ὑπὸ Λήδας. ᾿Εκ τοῦ ἕλους οὖν ῾Ελένη ὠνομάσθη.

Modern linguistics show that Helen’s name is just really hard to figure out.

Some Modern Material

In Lakonia, Helen was original spelled with a digamma. (And this may have extended to Corinth and Chalcidice too Cf. R. Wachter Non-Attic Vase Inscriptions 2001, §251).

74 Von Kamptz 1958, 136 suggests that her name is a “cognate of σέλας” to evoke a sense of “shining”, as in her beauty. Cf. Kanavou 2015, 72

Vedic Saranyu: Skutsch 1987, 189; Puhvel 1987, 141–143 (The initial breathing in Greek often points to a lost initial *s but the digamma in certain dialects confuses this) The Vedic name means swift. The PIE root suggested here is *suel-.

Helen has variously been suggested as coming from a vegetation goddess (see Helena Dendritis, Paus. 3.19.9–10; Herodotus 6.61; cf. Skutsch 1987) or a goddess of light.

 

Image result for Ancient Greek Helen

Socrates on Why Poets Never Kill the Chorus (Aelian, Varia Historia 2.11)

“Socrates, after he saw famous men murdered during the reign of the thirty as the tyrants conspired against even the wealthiest men, is said to have run into Antisthenes and said “Are you sad that we are not at all great and righteous in our lives and like those men we see, the kings in our tragedies, those Atreids, Thyestes, Agamemnon and Aigisthus? They are shown slaughtered, lamented, dining on wretched meals again and again. No tragic poet is so daring or shameless to put on stage the slaughtering of the chorus.”

Σωκράτης ἰδὼν κατὰ τὴν ἀρχὴν τῶν τριάκοντα τοὺς ἐνδόξους ἀναιρουμένους καὶ τοὺς βαθύτατα πλουτοῦντας ὑπὸ τῶν τυράννων ἐπιβουλευομένους, ᾿Αντισθένει φασὶ περιτυχόντα εἰπεῖν ‘μή τί σοι μεταμέλει ὅτι μέγα καὶ σεμνὸν οὐδὲν ἐγενόμεθα ἐν τῷ βίῳ καὶ τοιοῦτοι οἵους ἐν τῇ τραγῳδίᾳ τοὺς μονάρχας ὁρῶμεν, ᾿Ατρέας τε ἐκείνους καὶ Θυέστας καὶ ᾿Αγαμέμνονας καὶ Αἰγίσθους; οὗτοι μὲν γὰρ ἀποσφαττόμενοι καὶ ἐκτραγῳδούμενοι καὶ πονηρὰ δεῖπνα δειπνοῦντες ἑκάστοτε ἐκκαλύπτονται· οὐδεὶς δὲ οὕτως ἐγένετο τολμηρὸς οὐδὲ ἀναίσχυντος τραγῳδίας ποιητής, ὥστε ἐσαγαγεῖν ἐς δρᾶμα ἀποσφαττόμενον χορόν.