Helen (Ἑλένη), they say, was the most beautiful woman in the Ancient Greek world. But she was also one of its most ambiguous figures. Literature presents her in two rather different guises: sinful and erring, or humble and passive. It thus seems that two different variants of her story were always in circulation, each of which accounted for her “simultaneous” stay in Troy and in Egypt. Next to Odysseus and Achilles, Helen takes her place as the most important figure in the so-called Trojan Cycle of myth. Yet she was, equally simultaneously, the wife of Menelaus and Paris, and then Deiphobus. This is the only case of female bigamy in ancient mythography.
The Sicilian poet Stesichorus (c. 630–555 BC) was said to have written at least two poems about Helen, one attacking her for the usual litany of ‘moral failings’, one attacking those poets who told the tale that she went to Troy. Pointedly, his poem was called a Palinode – i.e. a song that retracts something stated in an earlier work. Modern scholars have debated intensely whether these two works once formed parts of a single poem, or whether they were in fact ever written! Whatever the truth, Helen was manifestly a controversial figure, since another Sicilian, the sophist Gorgias (c. 483–376 BC), famously decided to take up her defence. His treatment is elegant and rational, but was written less out of concern for Helen’s reputation and more to amaze his readers with its rhetorical and counterintuitive ingenuity.
Helen of Sparta, also known as Helen of Troy, had an irrestistible charm and magical effect on her surroundings – especially the opposite sex. Even the hoary old men in the third book of Homer’s Iliad (156-8), as well as King Priam himself (164), feel compelled to praise her or at least to apologise to her. It is not easy to interpret precisely how these Trojan elders are delighted by the beauty of this foreigner: no details of her appearance are given. Instead, we see the old men reflecting the general conviction that such a striking beauty drives men crazy. Homer is probably deploying the common technique of under-determining an individual’s appearance, often without giving any specific details at all, in order to leave space for the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks just as they desire.
In Priam’s statement, addressed directly to his beautiful daughter-in-law, we see the characteristic trope of justifying her actions because of her divine beauty. The choice of the old men, although susceptible to the erotic charm and appeal of Helen (156–8), is motivated by objective reason: she should leave Troy so as not to harm its people (159–60). This scene presents what we may call a reverse ecphrasis – a passage where the appearance of something intricate, especially a work of art, is described in detail. Typically, the admiration of a work’s recipients formed the basic element of an ancient ecphrasis. In this passage, however, the viewers appreciate the beauty of the (human) object, but the author does not endorse their praise.
Naming the World’s Most Beautiful Woman
In addition to her mysterious biography and captivating beauty, Helen also possessed a name that evoked various associations in antiquity and beyond. This was driven by its evocative etymology, which allowed the name to form words that echoed her rich literary past. Let us now explore Helen in the light of the other names and epithets she earned and inspired.
In the Homeric epics, Helen is often identified and described as a wife, but not always a wife to the same man. For the Trojans, she is the wife of Paris, both her consort and a son of King Priam. For the Greeks, she was always the wife of Menelaus, the ruler of Sparta; when he lost her, he gathered the Greek force to wage war against Troy. There is nothing surprising in such a stark dichotomy; after all, this change in Helen’s status caused the whole conflict. However, we may be surprised to find Homer’s Helen address Hector as δᾶερ, “brother-in law” (Iliad 6.344): although he does not openly object to such a name, it may be that Hector in particular would not want to legitimise Helen’s new marital status. After all, this greatest of Trojan heroes protects not only his hometown but also the permanence of family relationships – and it was Menelaus who was the first, and still the legal, husband of Helen.
Perhaps the reason for this tactical silence is that it was most important at this stage in the war to encourage Paris to join the battle. Therefore, individual linguistic subtleties must give way to the seriousness of the situation. Priam, however, speaks differently. When asking Helen to point out heroes from the city walls, he refers to Menelaus as her “former husband” (πρότερος πόσις, 3.163). But, at the same time, he explains away her actions – and bigamy – as the will of gods (164–5).
To our surprise, Hector’s treating Helen as a wife of Paris (though indirectly) has far-reaching consequences. In response to this emphasis on her relationship with Paris, Helen refers to the affinity that connects her with Hector, condemning herself as a “bitch” – ἡ κύων (6.344). As in the modern day, this was an offensive term among the Ancient Greeks, due to the dog’s lower position in the hierarchy of the animal world. ‘Bitch-Helen’ prostrates herself before the ultimate Trojan hero, while also trying to keep him away from the battlefield.
It is worth paying attention to the meta-poetic aspect at work here. Helen is aware that it is thanks to her that the heroes of this great war will not be lost from memory: her very existence creates the opportunity or them to win immortal glory (κλέος, kleos). Yet it is possible that she also wants to seduce Hector, or perhaps senses his looming death. In this short scene, then, Helen’s ‘Trojan’ nature seems to show through, reflecting her intimate relationship with her adopted homeland.
On the other hand, if we turn to the Odyssey, we find a Helen who has for some years been the exemplary wife of Menelaus. What is more, she is quite unexpectedly compared to the virgin goddess Artemis (4.121–2). Did this comparison restore to Helen her symbolic virginity? Did she regain marital purity by somehow washing away the stain of her ten-year stay in Troy? According to the Odyssey, the royal couple have been living peacefully in Sparta for years, as if there had never been any terrible war. Helen, now apparently the model of a virtuous and diligent woman, is working at a sliver of wool (4.130–7). A similar scene had already appeared in the Iliad (3.125–7), where she is also spinning, but it is her woven work that drives the narrator’s description. Here, however, she is modestly hidden behind her feminine activities.
We also encounter a striking epithet: Homer calls her “Argive (Ἀργείη) Helen” (4.180), as if she came from Argos. This is the only time in Homer that we find the city of Argos raised to the rank of Helen’s descriptor. Hitherto, she had been either Helen of Sparta or Helen of Troy. What is the logic of tying Helen to Argos, when she is repeatedly said to live in Lacedemonia, in Sparta? It may be that Argive Helen has an association with ἀργεῖν (“to have a rest”), or with Argos, a mother town of her husband, in either instance probably to demonstrate that her controversial past is now a closed case.
Epic Ambition; Tragic Fallout
So much for Homer’s epics. What do we find in the Athenian tragedians? Here Helen appears quite often, but usually only as a side character or as the subject of brief comment. This we see in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and in Euripides’ Cyclops, Hecuba, Trojan Women and Andromache. But the only extant instance where she is the title character of a tragedy is Euripides’ Helen (412 BC).
Her appearance in Aeschylus is perhaps the most interesting of all. In the Agamemnon (458 BC) we find word-games using her name in three famous neologisms: Helenaus (ἑλέναυς), Helandros (ἕλανδρος) and Helepolis (ἑλέπολις) (689–90). All three are compounds: naus (ship), anēr (man) and polis (city) combine with the element Hel- from the name Helen, which conveys “grabbing”, “conquering”, or even “killing”. So Helenaus is ship-destroyer, Helandros man-destroyer, Helepolis city-, or rather Troy-destroyer. This sense can be well rendered in English translation as “Hell-to-ships”, “Hell-to-men”, “Hell-to-cities”. However, what Aeschylus meant by these neologisms is quite ambiguous: it is unclear whether they refer to the destruction of ships, cities and warriors wrought by the Greeks, on their journey back or as a result of war, or instead refer to the harm they suffered in the Trojan war she caused.
The passage from Euripides’ Trojan Women (415 BC) draws attention to this second sense, where Hecuba warns Menelaus not to look at Helen anymore because she may seize him with desire, since she “captures the eyes of men” (891–2). The passage thus conveys a similarly negative picture as seen a generation earlier in Aeschylus.
Yet in the final song of the Chorus in Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata (411 BC), we see an apostrophe to Helen as a figure who provides a special connection between the two warring Greek states – Athens and Sparta. It was because of her that the Trojan War once broke out, which saw the Athenians and Spartans fight together. In this comedy, by contrast, Helen strengthens the peace between these communities by the symbolic meaning of her name.
The aforementioned “bitch” of Helen’s self-presentation in the Iliad is also echoed and adapted in interesting ways by Aeschylus. Helen appears as an asexual lion cub in another famous choral song of the Agamemnon (717–26). Here the Spartan beauty newly introduced to Troy is compared to a domesticated lion cub, who is at first friendly and innocent, but grows up to be cruel and merciless, as its wild nature commands.
At this point, it is worth noting that, in the modern literary tradition, she is almost always called Helen of Troy, despite Troy not being her place of birth or even the place she lived longest. Instead, this name marks either the country she chose or the site of her abduction, depending on whether a particular version of the myth chooses to frame her tale as voluntary escape from a husband or as enforced seizure.
On the other hand, her husband became Spartan – Menelaus, who ultimately came from Argos. Taking Helen as a wife, he became the ruler of Sparta, and is therefore sometimes burdened with Spartan vices himself. This is the case in Euripides’ Andromache (420s BC), where the enslaved title character, widow of the great Hector, speaks about the cunning character of the Spartans (446–64). This invective is unusual because it speaks of the Spartans as “the lords of lies” (ψευδῶν ἄνακτες, 447) – a vice traditionally attributed to the Cretans. In addition, by saying this to the ruler Menelaus, she renders him somehow even more “Spartan” – in the pejorative sense – because his own negative traits are defined as essential features of that entire populace. A little later in the play, Peleus states that Spartan woman simply cannot be “chaste” or “prudent” or “moderate” (all possible senses of σώφρων, 596), even if they wish to.
Helen, on the other hand, twice calls herself a Spartan in Euripides’ Helen (412 BC). In the first case, she presents herself thus in the prologue (16–67). In the second (191–211), however, she does not speak directly of herself. Instead, she becomes a victim of the stereotypical view of Spartan women, who are allegedly corrupted by performing sporting exercises alongside men. Elsewhere in this tragedy, the chorus incorporates her into a group of Trojan women as the victim of war – while still treating her as the main reason for the cruel war.
Helen is several times named after her divine father: for example, she appears as “daughter of Zeus” in Euripides’ Helen (638). But she herself is unsure about her own origin: in this play’s prologue, she speaks of herself as the daughter of Tyndareus (17), but also mentions Zeus as the alleged divine father through his “deceitful bedding” (δόλιον εὐνήν) of Leda (18–21). This is the only case in the Attic tragedians where the name of Helen’s mother is recalled in the context of her origin.
Helen is beautiful beyond measure, that is a certainty. But many things must remain uncertain. She is Trojan or Spartan. She is of divine or of human origin. She is haughty or humble. She is cruel, callous and treacherous. Yet she is also a pitiable victim of fate. Little surprise, then, that Euripides entitled his tragicomedy Helen. Just that one word.
Elżbieta Wesołowska is a Professor of Latin and Ancient Literature at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, where she was previously Director of the Institute of Classical Philology. She is especially interested in the works of Ovid and Seneca, but also in the modern reception of ancient literature, and in translating Latin poetry into Polish.
Those wishing to read more about Helen and her legacy will enjoy Bettany Hughes’s Helen of Troy. Goddess, Princess, Whore (Random House, London/New York, 2005), and Laurie Maguire’s Helen of Troy. From Homer to Hollywood (Wiley-Blackwell, Malden MA, Oxford, 2009). Otto Skutsch’s short but important treatment of Helen’s name is worth consulting: “Helen, Her Name and Nature,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 107 (1987), available with subscription here. The engaging essay of Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos, “Helen’s semiotic body: ancient and modern representations” (Nuntius Antiquus 12, 2016, 187–213), can be accessed here.
For Shakespeare’s reception of Helen, the best place to start is Susan Snyder’s excellent essay “All’s Well that Ends Well and Shakespeare’s Helens” (English Literary Renaissance, 1988, 66–77), which is reprinted in her collection Shakespeare: A Wayward Journey (University of Delaware Press, Newark/London, 2002) 106–17. For readers of Polish, my own treatment of Helen’s influence on Polish literature can be found in the chapter “Helena w tradycji antycznej i literaturze polskiej” in M. Kalinowska, M. Borowska & J. Speina (eds.), Sparta w literaturze i kulturze polskiej (Warsaw, 2015) Vol. II, 131–51.
|⇧1||To read this scene of the Iliad, and to explore any of the Homeric passages mentioned in this piece, the most convenient option is the Chicago Homer, which provides the original Greek with parallel English translation.|
|⇧2||The etymology of Helen (Ἑλένη, Helenē) was disputed throughout antiquity – from Stesichorus, through the tragedian Aeschylus, to the Hellenistic poets, and onwards to the lexicographer Hesychius (5th/6th cent. AD). Although scholars remain divided on the issue, there is some agreement that “light” was the dominant sense, as seen in the homophonous noun ἑλένη, “torch”.|
|⇧3||Interestingly, there are no traces of Helen in the surviving dramas of Sophocles, the third member of this canonical trio of tragedians.|
|⇧4||This passage may be read in Greek and English here.|
|⇧5||The context of these lines can be explored here.|
|⇧6||Christopher Marlowe echoed this idea much later, in his Doctor Faustus (1592), when he wrote of Helen’s “Face that launch’d a thousand ships”, a line that proves both his poetic intuition and erudition (The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Act V Scene 1, line 1874).|
|⇧7||This remarkable passage can be explored here.|
|⇧8||The precise moment when Spartan Helen became Helen of Troy cannot be identified: perhaps the sixteenth century was the point when the balance tipped that way definitively.|
|⇧9||Her bitter and angry speech is well worth reading in full.|
|⇧10||These matter-of-fact introductory lines can be explored here.|