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.



Re-post for #MythMonth: Erikhthonios and Erekhtheus: Folk-Etymology and Premature Ejaculation

Eratosthenes, Catasterismi 1.13

“Euripides also speaks of [Erikhthonios’] birth in this way. Because he was filled with lust for her, Hephaistos wanted to have sex with Athena. But when she turned away—because she preferred her virginity—she hid herself in a certain part of Attica which they say is also named “the Hephaisteion” after him. He thought that he could overpower her but when he attacked he was struck by her spear and ejaculated—his semen fell on the earth. They say that a child was born from it, and that he was named Erikhthonius for that reason…”

λέγει δὲ καὶ Εὐριπίδης περὶ τῆς γενέσεως αὐτοῦ τὸν τρόπον τοῦτον· ῞Ηφαιστον ἐρασθέντα ᾿Αθηνᾶς βούλεσθαι αὐτῇ μιγῆναι, τῆς δὲ ἀποστρεφομένης καὶ τὴν παρθενίαν μᾶλλον αἱρουμένης ἔν τινι τόπῳ τῆς ᾿Αττικῆς κρύπτεσθαι, ὃν λέγουσι καὶ ἀπ’ ἐκείνου προσαγορευθῆναι ῾Ηφαιστεῖον· ὃς δόξας αὐτὴν κρατήσειν καὶ ἐπιθέμενος πληγεὶς ὑπ’ αὐτῆς τῷ δόρατι ἀφῆκε τὴν ἐπιθυμίαν, φερομένης εἰς τὴν γῆν τῆς σπορᾶς· ἐξ ἧς γεγενῆσθαι λέγουσι παῖδα, ὃς ἐκ τούτου ᾿Εριχθόνιος ἐκλήθη…

The name Erikhthonios had folk etymologies in the ancient world based on the narratives surrounding him and the sound. One interpretation, “rich-earth” (eri-khthonios), points to his autochthonous character and his association with Athenian prosperity. Another (“strife-land”; eris-khthonios) draws possibly on the struggle between Poseidon-Erekhtheus and Athena. A third traces the root of the first half to wool” (erion) perhaps reflecting Athena’s association with weaving and occurring as a reflex in the version of the tale where Athena uses wool to wipe off Hephaistos’ premature ejaculation (Apollodorus records that it was this semen-sponge that impregnated Gaia).

The Birth of Erikhthonios

Here’s what a Byzantine Etymological Dictionary has to say:

Etymologicum Magnum

“Erekhteus: He is called Epikhthonios because he was engendered [espasthai] in lust; Or from Hephaistos desire [orekseôs], or from “breaking” [ereikô], Erekhtheus’ power; from the fact that he brought apart the earth and was born from Hephaistos’ semen when Athena hid it in the earth, he is also called Erikhthonios.”

᾿Ερεχθεύς: ῾Ο ᾿Επιχθόνιος καλούμενος, ἀπὸ τοῦ ἐσπᾶσθαι εἰς τὴν ἔραν· ἢ ἀπὸ τῆς ὀρέξεως τοῦ ῾Ηφαίστου· ἢ παρὰ τὸ ἐρείκω, ᾿Ερεχθεὺς κύριον· παρὰ τὸ διασχίσαι αὐτὸν τὴν γῆν καὶ γεννηθῆναι ἀπὸ τοῦ σπέρματος ῾Ηφαίστου, ἡνίκα ἔκρυψεν αὐτὸ ἡ ᾿Αθηνᾶ ἐν τῇ γῇ, ὁ αὐτὸς δὲ λέγεται καὶ ᾿Εριχθόνιος.

According to Homer (Il. 2.546-51) Erekhtheus, nearly identical to Erikhthonios in early narratives only to be disambiguated in royal genealogies by the classical period, was born from Gaia and raised by Athena. The name Erekhtheus may be derived from the verb erekhthô which means “to tear or smash” and may be associated with Poseidon the “earthshaker”.

Iliad 2.546-551:

“Then came the men who occupied the well-built city of Athens, the people of great-hearted Erekhtheus, whom Athena the daughter of Zeus raised after the fertile earth gave birth to him, the one Athena brought into her own wealthy temple. There the sons of Athens worship him every new year with bulls and lambs. Menestheus, the son of Peteos led them. No earth-born man ever was his equal at marshaling the cavalry and spear-holding men.”

Οἳ δ’ ἄρ’ ᾿Αθήνας εἶχον ἐϋκτίμενον πτολίεθρον
δῆμον ᾿Ερεχθῆος μεγαλήτορος, ὅν ποτ’ ᾿Αθήνη
θρέψε Διὸς θυγάτηρ, τέκε δὲ ζείδωρος ἄρουρα,
κὰδ δ’ ἐν ᾿Αθήνῃς εἷσεν ἑῷ ἐν πίονι νηῷ·
ἔνθα δέ μιν ταύροισι καὶ ἀρνειοῖς ἱλάονται
κοῦροι ᾿Αθηναίων περιτελλομένων ἐνιαυτῶν·
τῶν αὖθ’ ἡγεμόνευ’ υἱὸς Πετεῶο Μενεσθεύς.
τῷ δ’ οὔ πώ τις ὁμοῖος ἐπιχθόνιος γένετ’ ἀνὴρ
κοσμῆσαι ἵππους τε καὶ ἀνέρας ἀσπιδιώτας·

There are some interesting echoes here from stories we learn later about Erikhthonios. Note (1) the closeness between Athena and Erekhtheus (implying no strife or suppressing it); (2) the early evidence for co-worship of the two; and (3) the possible—though not probable—echo of Erikhthonios in the adjective epikhthonios (“earth-born”).

Of some interest: According to Pausanias (1.28.10) it was Erekhtheus (the king) who first offered animal sacrifices at the Bouphonia (“Cow-slaughter” festival). In his commentary on the Iliad G. S. Kirk (1985, 206) suggests that the annual festival (περιτελλομένων ἐνιαυτῶν, here translated rather feebly as “every new year”) may be a form of the Panathenaia.



Walter Burkert. Greek Religion. Cambridge, 1985.

L. R. Farnell. The Cults of the Greek City States. 1895.

Timothy Gantz. Early Greek Myth. Baltimore, 1993.

Simon Price. Religions of the Ancient Greeks. Cambridge, 1999.