What Does Helen Look Like?

Last year twitter friend asked me about the appearance of Helen recently:

This came at a time when many are talking about the ethnicity of Homeric heroes and rightly arguing that so many of our ideas about race, color, and identity have little to do with the ancient world and everything to do with our own. (See also the discussion on Pharos.) Within this debate is the important realization that ancient concepts of hue and range of color-representation may have been altogether different from our own. In addition to Tim Whitmarsh’s essay (cited above) Maria Michel Sassi’s  essay does well to explore gaps between how we conceive of color and how the ancients may have.

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

Οἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων,
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπὶ γᾶν μέλαιναν
ἔμμεναι κάλλιστον, ἐγὼ δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
τω τις ἔραται

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

kuane

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:

xanthe

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.

Image result for ancient greek helen
From Wikipedia

Apollo Makes A Toy Aeneas

Iliad, 5.449-453

αὐτὰρ ὃ εἴδωλον τεῦξ’ ἀργυρότοξος ᾿Απόλλων
αὐτῷ τ’ Αἰνείᾳ ἴκελον καὶ τεύχεσι τοῖον,
ἀμφὶ δ’ ἄρ’ εἰδώλῳ Τρῶες καὶ δῖοι ᾿Αχαιοὶ
δῄουν ἀλλήλων ἀμφὶ στήθεσσι βοείας
ἀσπίδας εὐκύκλους λαισήϊά τε πτερόεντα.

“Then silver-bowed Apollo made an eidolon
Which was similar to Aeneas and armed in that way,
And the Trojans and shining Achaeans were struggling
Over the eidolon, striking around their chests
Their oxhide well-rounded shields and their winged light ones*.”

Schol. Ad Il. 5.449-50b

[“but he made an eidolon] On the one hand, the eidolon represents the entire framework of the cosmos which is the model of everything as it truly is when crafted by the generative gods, but beforehand by Helios, who is the lord of all that is born and seen.

The eidolon is nothing less than Aeneas, the son of Aphrodite and Trôos, which was the first native beauty. For all beauty comes from Aphrodite, around which the fundamental material of the soul does not depart when it is pressed.”

[but he made an eidolon]: [he did this] in order that the Trojans might fight more bravely because they want to save the body.”

Here is Edward Butler’s translation from his comment, taking pains to bring sense to it from Platonic traditions:

“The eidôlon on the one hand is taken to be the fabrication of the cosmos, which is the impression of Real Being arranged by all the encosmic Gods, while on the other hand, that which is previously [arranged] by Helios, who is the ruler of all that is generated and visible. Nor is the eidôlon any less Aeneas, being the son of Aphrodite and of Trôs, who is the indigenous beauty; for all beauty is from Aphrodite, about whom the more material of the souls do not cease to clash with one another.”

ex. αὐτὰρ ὁ εἴδωλον<—τοῖον>: εἴδωλον μὲν ἄκουε πᾶν τὸ δημιούργημα τοῦ κόσμου, ὅπερ τύπος ὂν τοῦ ὄντως ὄντος ὑπὸ πάντων μὲν τῶν ἐγκοσμίων θεῶν κοσμεῖται, προηγουμένως δὲ ὑπὸ τοῦ ῾Ηλίου, ὅς ἐστιν ἡγεμὼν παντὸς γεννητοῦ τε καὶ ὁρατοῦ. οὐδὲν δὲ ἧττον Αἰνείου ἐστὶ τὸ εἴδωλον, υἱοῦ ᾿Αφροδίτης καὶ Τρωός, ὅ ἐστι τὸ ἐγχώριον κάλλος· πᾶν γὰρ ἐξ ᾿Αφροδίτης κάλλος ἐστι, περὶ ὃ αἱ ὑλικώτεραι τῶν ψυχῶν οὐκ ἀπαλλάσσονται συντριβόμεναι. b(BCE3E4)T

ex. αὐτὰρ ὁ εἴδωλον τεῦξε<—τοῖον>: ἵνα φιλοτιμοτέρως μάχωνται Τρῶες τὸ πτῶμα σῶσαι θέλοντες. b(BCE3E4)T

Strangeness here:  (1) What in the world is going on in the first scholion? I think it is an allegorical reading of the passage, but still.
(2) Is the scholion providing a different father for Aeneas?

 

There was also an eidolon for Helen.

Storage Jar with Aeneas and Anchises  Greek, Athens, about 510 B.C.   Terracotta

Decolonizing a Myth Class

This post is an explanatory (and exploratory) framework for a website I have started for a course on Classical Mythology. This website is developing as the central ‘text’ of my Classical Mythology Course at Brandeis University. The website and the following discussion are intended as adaptive and evolving responses to teaching Greek myth. 

 

Since the events of the most recent SCS Annual Meeting and its subsequent coverage, I have been thinking a lot about the state of the discipline of Classical Studies and what I can do (as well as what I must do) based on the various roles I play within the field and the University. I have been listening carefully to what people like Joy Connolly, Yurie Hong, and Rebecca Futo Kennedy have to say about the measures we can institute now, in the medium term, and in the long term; I have also seriously contemplated what Classicists of color have to say about themselves and the field—learning a lot in particular from Dan-El Padilla Peralta, Nandini Pandey, Jackie Murray (through her deep and powerful interview with Scott Lepisto on Itinera), Mathura Umachandran, Yung In Chae, and my own student Helen Wong, whose critique of my department’s focus on “Western Civilization” has been eating away at me for months now.

Through conversations with some of these generous people as well as other friends and colleagues (including Suzanne Lye, Amy Pistone, Kelly Dugan, Tara Mulder, Caitlin Gillespie, Robyn LeBlanc, Hilary Lehmann, Curtis Dozier, Justin Arft), I have clarified for myself that my actions must be commensurate with the roles I play. But they also must be made with the help of and participation of others. (And this is why I am trying to name everyone I have spoken to and listened to about these issues: none of us will change our fields alone; none of us is in this alone.) Envisioning and creating a community is essential, especially when the odds can seem so long and the voices eager to dismiss the need for change so many.

For me, this means trying to align my values with my actions over several separate domains: my ‘scholarship’, my work as a midcareer reader and editor, my role as department chair and in university governance, my mentorship of students at the graduate and undergraduate level, and, finally, but not of least importance, my role as an instructor. While these roles naturally influence each other, the classroom is a place where I know I can take direct and immediate action.

I am going to be working with my department to alter our curriculum, and to change the language of our mission (to align with what we actually do), and to reconsider the way we train graduate students. And I will likely write some posts here and there to talk about these efforts. But, for now, let’s talk about Classical Mythology.

 

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

I have had training at two institutions for what was called “Affirmative Action Advocacy” at one and “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” at the other. For the most part, my training has not been about creating inclusive classroom spaces or diversifying our disciplines; instead it has been about the workplace and hiring practices. At Brandeis University, I have learned a lot from training in our Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion over the past few years, and I think that the basic distinctions plotted by each category are useful both for understanding the manifold character of problems in our field and for adapting our classrooms.

Diversity is something most people can understand to an extent: it means creating and valuing a space that has people from different backgrounds, religions, language groups, genders, sexual orientations and identities, and abilities. But diversity alone can be no more sophisticated than collecting baseball cards if we do not recognize that because of structural and institutional prejudices (racism, sexism, ableism, and on…) the individuals who are representative of diversity do not start with the same knowledge, skills, or emotional stances towards education.

Equity means making the effort on institutional and individual bases to redress the unequal starting points (and this often gets some people riled up because equity is about achieving fair outcomes, but not about giving everyone the same thing). And Inclusion means modifying the space to accommodate the different abilities and perspectives of our community.

I have taken the trouble of spelling this out in part because there is much opportunity for confusion and in order to make my starting point clear. A good exercise before engaging in this activity is to take a self-test for implicit bias. I also think that Robin D’Angelo’s  “White Fragility” is an essential read. In addition, check out Amy Pistone’s round-up of a SCS workshop “Centering the Margins: Creating Inclusive Syllabi” (with Suzanne Lye, Yurie Hong, Robyn LeBlanc, and Rebecca Kennedy).

 

What is Decolonizing?

Decolonizing is a process with philosophical underpinnings in the middle 20th century which seeks to de-center the works of European colonial authorities, to recenter global voices which have been marginalized from our history and literature, and to re-frame the past by listening to the voices of those marginalized by their bodies and class. Decolonizing also means reading the work of scholars who have been traditionally marginalized from our fields and re-introducing non-canonical subjects as a historical corrective.

For literature courses and history courses, this process has been ongoing as curricula have change to be more inclusive and re-analyze the past from perspectives outside Europe and the United states. But this movement is not just about changing the content of our courses; it is also about the way we run our courses and treat the people who take them. Such a movement has, of course, been ongoing and has created its own series of backlashes from the staid and deceptive work of Harold Bloom to the more aggressive onslaught of Who Killed Homer.

The various disciplines of Classics have been slow to respond to this movement outside of various forms of reception studies because Classical Studies has been so thoroughly identified with Europe and, as Rebecca Kennedy has shown in a pretty convincing twitter thread, was intentionally weaponized as part of “Western Civilization” to justify and enforce colonialism, slavery and their associated horrors. As Cate Bonesho has recently argued, part of our disciplinary inheritance is denying connections with the Ancient Near East; and as the reactions to Martin Bernal’s Black Athena reveal, our field has mobilized to defend the centrality of European exceptionalism within the last generation.

So, the first question is: can you decolonize the classics? Can we decolonize a tool of colonialism? While the answer is complicated, I think we certainly can: courses that have focused on sexuality and gender, slavery, race and ethnicity, and non-canonical texts have sought to do this in their own way. But what about a myth course?

 

Decolonizing a Myth Class

There are, I think, two chief aspects of dealing with a Classical Mythology course. One has to do with the courses’ intention; the other has to do with its content. Some institutions and instructors may decide to go the way of Eva M. Thury’s and Margaret Devinney’s excellent Introduction to Mythology: Contemporary Approaches to Classical and World Myths (Oxford, 4th Edition). This book focuses on kinds of narratives across cultures (tricksters, heroes, creation stories) and does an admirable job of integrating major scholarly approaches with clear tellings of the myths involved.

The problem with this text is that it is a little expensive, the publisher puts out new editions with some frequency (changing page numbers, undermining the used book market), and the authors can’t sidestep the fact that the process of canonization in Europe has preserved sophisticated versions of the Greek and Roman narratives and, further, that our aesthetic and academic expectations have been shaped by the canon. I taught using this book for many years and found that the aesthetic inheritance of Greek and Roman materials causes students to ‘marginalize’ material from other traditions in their reception. (That said, I would recommend trying out this book to anyone who is starting a myth course from scratch)

Additional considerations when choosing how to teach a myth class include: the competence of the instructor and the curricular/educational intention behind the class. Let’s take up the second thing first. When I teach myth I always start with a discussion of why it is important to teach a myth course. I introduce what I see as the different methods (Edith Hamilton-style anthology vs. literature based deep context) and an overview of why we might even teach myth.

In the process of introducing the course, I explain that one longstanding reason for teaching myth is “cultural literacy”, namely that since so much of “western culture” is shaped or informed by Classical Myth, one needs to be conversant in it to ‘decode’ it. I trouble this notion from the moment I introduce it, emphasizing that (1) there is no single Classical Mythology (anthologies like Hamilton’s select and present narratives from different periods and social contexts erratically) and (2) “western” reception of that non-singular mythology is uneven and spectacularly strange. Artists and authors revel in the odd and obscure: any course of study set up to provide someone with cultural literacy would be a banal trudge through disconnected detail rendered for erudite allusion.

Yes, I tell my students, a Mythology course can function to educate us about elements used in the creation of the “Western Canon” and can thus be indispensable in mounting a critique of it. But I position my myth course as being about storytelling and the way that cultural discourse functions to shape the way we view the world and what we think our roles in it can be. In approaching myth this way, I start with a healthy dose of cognitive science and psychology on how stories shape the brain and our perception of the world; I also include information on the definition of discourse and ideology from perspectives informed by sociology, linguistics, anthropology, and post-modern theory. As such, I argue, myth should be taught with cultural contexts in mind and with an emphasis on the way stories are altered for specific needs and how they function to enforce and explore dominant ideologies.

Understanding how myth is part of how we see the world and how we are initiated into the act of understanding it, I tell my students, is part of developing a personal “user’s manual” for the human brain. Any deep well of traditional storytelling presented within the right framework can help us achieve this knowledge—any body of narrative from Mesoamerican, South Asian, African, East Asian to modern science fiction can contribute to the same ends. Cultural distance, indeed, helps us appreciate how storytelling shapes us. And instructor competence is critical in unpacking and reshaping the reception of myth.

 

Basic Principles of the Class

Much of what follows reflects what I do in many of my courses. But I have benefited a lot from talking with Kelly P. Dugan who was kind enough to share her syllabus for a myth course with me.

Transparency

One principle central to my ‘decolonizing’ of a myth course is transparency about what our goals are in the course and what my basic principles are in teaching it. While I do believe deeply that other storytelling traditions could do the same work, I cannot fully decolonize my myth course (that is, integrate other storytelling traditions into it) because of my own competences and because of the particular advantage myths from Greece and Rome present: anyone who speaks a European language or is engaged with the popular culture wielded as its own form of discourse by these language groups comes with a familiarity in the basic narrative patterns, assumptions, and aesthetics which are embedded in them. Introducing greater justice and equity in our culture means tackling these forces and assumptions head-on. From the foundational narrative of the triumph of patriarchy to the adoption of “the hero’s journey” as a dominant narrative paradigm, the traditions of Greek storytelling continue to have powerful (and often harmful) effects on our world.

On one test of decolonizing the curriculum, then, my approach is an abject failure: but this is, I think, a fate and a challenge all Classical Studies curricula must face head on: our subjects are products and producers of a racist paradigm. We can, I believe, start the hard work of transforming this paradigm on multiple fronts. Within the framework of a course on myth, I think this means we need to focus on the stories and how they functioned within their cultural contexts and also how they are ‘re-purposed’ as ideological tools in different contexts.

Rather than replicate some of the problems of an anthologized myth course which elides cultural differences, I teach an almost entirely ‘Archaic Greek’ myth course which traces the ‘teleologically’ minded cosmic history generalized through Panhellenism in the 6th and 5th Centuries BCE. I pay particular attention to providing studies with multiforms or allomorphs (terms I privilege over ‘variant’, which reifies the idea that there is a ‘master’ narrative from which other traditions diverge) and also to contextualizing these multiforms within particular places, periods, and expectations. I also heavily emphasize that the process of Panhellenization is one of ideological force, defining ‘Greekness’ by exclusion primarily through the creation of a unified other. In addition, I take every opportunity to reiterate the pluralism of “Greekness” (different dialects, peoples, polities, values) and the multicultural origins of much of what we have received as Greek.

The primary content of my course, then, is not particularly remarkable—I use Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and the Homeric epics with supplementary material drawn from Apollodorus, Ovid, Greek poets, and fragments I have translated on my own. I have begun the secondary step of decolonizing by providing students not just with the multiform traditions from ancient Greece but also to modern critical responses from diverse scholars (where possible).

 

Affordability and Accessibility

The biggest step I have recently taken is the creation of a website which uses only free sources for the core readings in the course. Rather than expect students to purchase a large selection of books, I have found appropriate alternatives online and have supplemented with my own translations where necessary (most of them from this website). I have created this space as an evolving and open course for others to use if they see fit and for even those outside of the academy to use as a starting point for researching Greek myth. Each class day has a brief summary, a list of authors who are discussed in the course that day, links to the open source translations, links to blog posts with additional information, and links to articles. There is a page for resources for researching Greek myth; there is also room for adding material by and for students. I am still working on ways to include my powerpoint slides on the website; for now, all slides are available on the University LMS for students. Since the LMS is clunky and not available outside the Brandeis community it is important to me that course material be made fully public.

 

Responsiveness

Developing new materials and responses to myth over time requires a level of knowledge I could not hope to attain on my own. Students have a large range of knowledge and experiences and bring a lot to the course. I encourage students to share links and material with me and I will integrate their work (when they do it and if they wish it) into the course over time. Sometimes this means I have to have difficult conversations in class about why Sparta is less than cool or why Jordan Peterson is a dangerous ideologue, but these are important moments in helping students develop a more sophisticated understanding of how to handle material from the ancient world. Even though I spend a the bulk of the course on Early Greek material, I use the last few weeks of the course to highlight how ‘Greek’ material is adapted to new contexts (and how different ‘Roman’ material is) and how storytelling functions as myth in modern genres like fantasy, horror, and science fiction.

 

Course policies

An essential pedagogical understanding is that students bring different experiences, learning modalities, and skills to the course. Some will have a strong grasp of the concept of discourse; others will know myriad details of myth which escape me (as happens every semester). I believe that a course must be created in such a way as to allow all students to succeed in attaining its stated goals. Many students are new to college and need to work or have other reasons for not being able to attend all classes: all students can make up any class or missed quiz by completing extra credit.

Because students have different responses to exams and come with different preparation for studying, I have an adaptive grading process. This means that all exams can be made up to full credit (in addition students can earn ‘extra’ credit at any time in the course by writing responses to supplementary material posted on line). This also means providing students with plenty of extra time for exams and assignments and honoring all accommodation needs without creating obstacles. Finally, the course’s activities need to be aligned with its goals: the course starts out lecture heavy to help create a common ground, but I increasingly move toward discussion and workshops. The final assessments are student-designed projects that allow them to work and rework ancient narrative structures. (In earlier versions of the course I have had some success in bringing storytellers to class and having students retell myths in their own words.)

 

Some Future Plans

I teach this course every other year. In addition to updating course materials and continually adding in the work of underrepresented authors and linking to comparative myths in other traditions (a particular weakness of the current format), I need to improve the accessibility of the course. I will eventually create audio versions of each class; but I also need to work with my campus accessibility services to make sure that the powerpoints and website material can work for students of varied abilities. One of the reasons I chose to use wordpress instead of my campus LMS for the material beyond opening up the course to the world at large is that the wordpress site populates to mobile devices fairly well.

In general, however, I hope to benefit from students and researchers who care enough about myth to add to the material on the website. I look forward to any comments and additions and will integrate them as I can. Please email me (joel@brandeis.edu) if you would like to be able to add supplementary material directly or if you have any advice for uploaded the powerpoint slides to the website. I am also profoundly unvisual and have an (unjustifiable) antipathy towards video. I would be particularly grateful, then, for links to appropriate, useful, humorous or otherwise significant video clips. Finally, I would like to integrate more material about reception, but this is another one of my weaknesses.

Farnese Sarcophagus from Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum

The Truth about Daedalus and Icarus

Servius Danielis,  Commentary on the Aeneid, 6, 14

“Phanodikos says that Daidalos—on account of the aforementioned reasons—went on a ship as he was fleeing and when those who were pursuing him drew near, he spread wide a piece of cloth for gaining the help of the winds and escaped them in this way. When they got back, those who were following him said he had escaped them with wings.”

Phanodicos Deliacon Daedalum propter supradictas causas fugientem navem conscendisse et, cum imminerent qui eum sequebantur, intendisse pallium ad adiuvandum ventos et sic evasisse: illos vero qui insequebantur reversos nuntiasse pinnis illum evasisse.

 

Palaephatus, On Unbelievable Things 12

“People claim that Minos imprisoned Daidalos and Ikaros, his son, for a certain reason, but that Daidalos, after he fashioned wings as prosthetics for both of them, flew off with Ikaros. It is impossible to think that a person flies, even one who has prosthetic wings. What it really means, then, is the following kind of thing.

Daidalos, when he was in prison, escaped through a small window and hauled down his son too; once he got on a boat, he left. When Minos found out, he sent ships to pursue him. Then they understood that they were being pursued and there was a furious and driving wind, they seemed to be flying. And while they were sailing with the Kretan wind, they flipped over into the sea. While Daidalos survived onto land, Ikaros died. This is why the sea there is named Ikarion for him. His father buried him after he was tossed up by the waves.”

[Περὶ Δαιδάλου καὶ ᾿Ικάρου.]

     Φασὶν ὅτι Μίνως Δαίδαλον καὶ ῎Ικαρον τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ καθεῖρξε διά τινα αἰτίαν, Δαίδαλος δὲ  ποιήσας πτέρυγας ἀμφοτέροις προσθετάς, ἐξέπτη μετὰ τοῦ ᾿Ικάρου. νοῆσαι δὲ ἄνθρωπον πετόμενον, ἀμήχανον, καὶ ταῦτα πτέρυγας ἔχοντα προσθετάς. τὸ οὖν λεγόμενον ἦν τοιοῦτον. Δαίδαλος ὢν ἐν τῇ εἱρκτῇ, καθεὶς ἑαυτὸν διὰ θυρίδος καὶ τὸν υἱὸν κατασπάσας, σκαφίδι ἐμβάς, ἀπῄει. αἰσθόμενος

δὲ ὁ Μίνως πέμπει πλοῖα διώξοντα. οἱ δὲ ὡς ᾔσθοντο διωκόμενοι, ἀνέμου λάβρου καὶ φοροῦ ὄντος, πετόμενοι ἐφαίνοντο. εἶτα πλέοντες οὐρίῳ Κρητικῷ νότῳ ἐν τῷ πελάγει περιτρέπονται· καὶ ὁ μὲν Δαίδαλος περισῴζεται εἰς τὴν γῆν, ὁ δὲ ῎Ικαρος διαφθείρεται (ὅθεν ἀπ’ ἐκείνου ᾿Ικάριον πέλαγος ἐκλήθη), ἐκβληθέντα δὲ ὑπὸ τῶν κυμάτων ὁ πατὴρ ἔθαψεν.

Image result for daedalus and icarus image
Anthony Van Dyck, 1625 “Daedalus and Icarus”

What Does Helen Look Like?

A twitter friend asked me about the appearance of Helen recently:

This comes at a time when many are talking about the ethnicity of Homeric heroes and rightly arguing that so many of our ideas about race, color, and identity have little to do with the ancient world and everything to do with our own. (See also the discussion on Pharos.) Within this debate is the important realization that ancient concepts of hue and range of color-representation may have been altogether different from our own. In addition to Tim Whitmarsh’s essay (cited above) Maria Michel Sassi’s recent essay does well to explore gaps between how we conceive of color and how the ancients may have.

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

Οἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων,
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπὶ γᾶν μέλαιναν
ἔμμεναι κάλλιστον, ἐγὼ δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
τω τις ἔραται

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

kuane

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:

xanthe

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.

menelaus_confronts_Helen.jpg

Apollo Makes A Toy Aeneas

Iliad, 5.449-453

αὐτὰρ ὃ εἴδωλον τεῦξ’ ἀργυρότοξος ᾿Απόλλων
αὐτῷ τ’ Αἰνείᾳ ἴκελον καὶ τεύχεσι τοῖον,
ἀμφὶ δ’ ἄρ’ εἰδώλῳ Τρῶες καὶ δῖοι ᾿Αχαιοὶ
δῄουν ἀλλήλων ἀμφὶ στήθεσσι βοείας
ἀσπίδας εὐκύκλους λαισήϊά τε πτερόεντα.

“Then silver-bowed Apollo made an eidolon
Which was similar to Aeneas and armed in that way,
And the Trojans and shining Achaeans were struggling
Over the eidolon, striking around their chests
Their oxhide well-rounded shields and their winged light ones*.”

Schol. Ad Il. 5.449-50b

[“but he made an eidolon] On the one hand, the eidolon represents the entire framework of the cosmos which is the model of everything as it truly is when crafted by the generative gods, but beforehand by Helios, who is the lord of all that is born and seen.

The eidolon is nothing less than Aeneas, the son of Aphrodite and Trôos, which was the first native beauty. For all beauty comes from Aphrodite, around which the fundamental material of the soul does not depart when it is pressed.”

[but he made an eidolon]: [he did this] in order that the Trojans might fight more bravely because they want to save the body.”

ex. αὐτὰρ ὁ εἴδωλον<—τοῖον>: εἴδωλον μὲν ἄκουε πᾶν τὸ δημιούργημα τοῦ κόσμου, ὅπερ τύπος ὂν τοῦ ὄντως ὄντος ὑπὸ πάντων μὲν τῶν ἐγκοσμίων θεῶν κοσμεῖται, προηγουμένως δὲ ὑπὸ τοῦ ῾Ηλίου, ὅς ἐστιν ἡγεμὼν παντὸς γεννητοῦ τε καὶ ὁρατοῦ. οὐδὲν δὲ ἧττον Αἰνείου ἐστὶ τὸ εἴδωλον, υἱοῦ ᾿Αφροδίτης καὶ Τρωός, ὅ ἐστι τὸ ἐγχώριον κάλλος· πᾶν γὰρ ἐξ ᾿Αφροδίτης κάλλος ἐστι, περὶ ὃ αἱ ὑλικώτεραι τῶν ψυχῶν οὐκ ἀπαλλάσσονται συντριβόμεναι. b(BCE3E4)T

ex. αὐτὰρ ὁ εἴδωλον τεῦξε<—τοῖον>: ἵνα φιλοτιμοτέρως μάχωνται Τρῶες τὸ πτῶμα σῶσαι θέλοντες. b(BCE3E4)T

Strangeness here:  (1) What in the world is going on in the first scholion? I think it is an allegorical reading of the passage, but still.
(2) Is the scholion providing a different father for Aeneas?

 

There was also an eidolon for Helen.

 

Storage Jar with Aeneas and Anchises  Greek, Athens, about 510 B.C.   Terracotta

Re-Telling Myths as Experiential Learning

“Many words of the ancients still ring true:
Their stories are fine medicine for mortal fear.”

καὶ τῶν παλαιῶν πόλλ’ ἔπη καλῶς ἔχει·
λόγοι γὰρ ἐσθλοὶ φάρμακον φόβου βροτοῖς. –Euripides, fr. 1065

We all know that the young readers–and many older ones–are moved by and identify with stories that draw on myth. Modern authors are part of an ancient tradition of reception, participating in the tradition of giving myth new life by adapting it for new contexts. And students can benefit from engaging in this process on their own.

In partnership with my campus’ Office of Experiential Learning and Teaching I re-designed my myth course this semester to focus more on myth as discourse and training for coping with or responding to discourse. Here is the statement I included on my syllabus:

[Myth] is designated as an experiential learning course. In the pursuit of storytelling as a discourse that shapes the way we think, see, and impact our world, the study of Classical Myth facilitates a reconsideration of where we come from as a human community and a reconfiguration of our understanding of how we shape where we will and can go. The study of myth in this capacity is fundamentally experiential: as a type of cooperative learning, it shows how storytellers and audiences—alongside teachers and students—are partners in the creation and perpetuation of the narratives that define their worlds; it is both relevant and authentic in providing students with the ability to understand the impact of mythmaking on the ancient world and in their own lives. From this perspective, the study of myth can also be transformative in providing students with the ability to sense, to decode and to reuse storytelling to understand and act as participants in their own world.

In keeping with the spirit of mythmaking and reception, this class will also engage in active learning frameworks which include, in addition to regular individual and group interpretation of myth, the telling and retelling of stories for different audiences. The process of interrogating the use of storytelling in the ancient world helps us gain agency over narratives in our own lives, understand our place in a larger human community connected by discourse, and develop greater competence in identifying the social effects of storytelling.

Image result for Ancient GReek myth performance

Periodically during the semester I would break from the typical myth course’s reading and lectures to have students work in groups or individually (1) discussing myths they liked; (2) isolating myths that made them uncomfortable; (3) discussing different versions of myths and reasons for their development; and (4) identifying narratives that had been influential in their lives. In the final weeks of the semester, I used a grant from the Experiential Learning committee to bring a storyteller to campus to work with students of different approaches to storytelling.

This work culminated in a final assignment that had students re-author an ancient myth for a modern context. In this process, I have been influenced by the work of psychologist Michael White who has focused on the importance of identifying the effects of discourse on our lives and regaining control (agency) over our own narratives by retelling our own stories.

Here’s the assignment:

Final Project

Stories (‘myths’) influence our lives from our earliest moments by shaping our expectations about the world and our own lives. Who tells what story has a profound effect on the choices we can make in our lives and the roles we think we may play in the world. In this course we have focused on the variability and reception of myth, emphasizing as well myth’s function as discourse. Cultural discourse is not just an important aspect of our identities vis à vis one another, but it also shapes our sense of agency. Philosophers, social theorists, and psychologists have argued that a sense of agency—most often mediated by types of storytelling—influences the way we interpret past events, impacts our behavior in the present, and constricts our ability to make plans for the future. Retelling stories—both personal narratives and cultural discourses—provides an opportunity for individuals and groups to reconsider and reclaim agency.

This final assignment will ask students to retell stories from Ancient Greece from their own perspectives (meaning individual, temporal, cultural etc.) as part of a practice of reclaiming discourse and learning how to receive and adapt paradigmatic narratives for new purposes. Students may work alone or in groups. The assignments must be submitted by the last day of finals.

Options
Written: Rewrite a classical myth as a short story, either introducing a new variant that changes the narrative to make it applicable to different audiences/agencies or adapting it contextually to a different culture and time (preferably our own). The rewritten narrative should be 1-2 pages (minimum; 3-5 max) with a 2-3 page essay (1) identifying the specific sources you adapted, (2) isolating and explaining the creative choices you made, and (3) discussing any challenges or limitations you encountered when completing the project. This essay is self-reflective and evaluative—it is an essential part of the process. (Note: this option is best for students who would like to work alone; if completed by a group, each member must contribute a separate essay.)
[There were two other options, a video or a recording, and nearly all the students chose to write a story]

Some of the results of this project were absolutely phenomenal. Here’s a selection of what some students did:

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