Helen

During the classical period women were seen as trophies not actually considered something at all equal to that of a man, Helen was no exception.  Helen of Troy (or Sparta) was seen as an object to the men around her and a pawn in the spectrum of life.  There were multiple sides of Helen told from different perspectives; the two that stand out the most in character are people being able to manipulate her verses Helen herself knowing that she was being manipulated and using that to her advantage.

Helen ultimately was valued for her beauty.   The downside of Helen’s beauty is referred to in Euripides’s Helen; he talks about the trouble beauty causes.  Someone is always chasing after her and everyone wants her.  There is little autonomy and little choice that she gets to make in the matter of her life.  There s also the fact that her beauty attracts a great deal of cosmic attention as an instrument gods could use, just as Helen was used to start the Trojan War.  She would not be in her current situation if it were not for her beauty; and as she realized in Troy, her beauty does not make her any friends or allies to support her.  This fact is even seen in Homer’s Iliad in Troy because everyone was blaming her for the war and all of the Trojan men were dying trying to fight for her.  Hector is the only one that defends her to his family and the people of Troy.  People assume that there is nothing else to her as in the ‘dumb blonde’ motif of being passive and submissive.  Helen is trying to fight against the stereotype and is constantly rebelling against the idea.  She is seen on multiple occasions as being smart, clever, and manipulative, even going so far as to be on par with a man of Odysseus’s stature.

In Homer’s Iliad concerning the duel between Paris and Menelaus, Helen knows what is happening to her and is aware of her situation within the confines of Troy.  The gods are deities of the immortal realm but also representative of human power and a representation of human nature; so in the case of Helen, Aphrodite is the representation of what Helen really is: lust.  Helen has the power to arouse men’s eros, which she can be a victim of in her subjugation to her beauty or she can use it as an agent to get what she wants out of life.

She is aware of the decisions that she makes and admits that they might have been a mistake.  Helen is seen as a prize, she is a trophy for Menelaus and Paris.  Helen is mad that Paris is such a coward, although Aphrodite says not to cross her and go to support Paris.  If Aphrodite were to abandoned Helen then no one would support her, Helen’s power would be gone, and without her passion no one would want her, which would put her in a very dangerous situation.   To lose her charms is to lose who she is and her power.  Her charms are what allows her to be able to stay in Troy and have the men value what they are defending, something so beautiful; just as when she is with Menelaus, without her charms she would have been killed on the spot.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus talks to Menelaus to find out about his father Odysseus.  Helen bursts into the room with a loom, makes a big entrance, and sits with Menelaus.  She creates a striking figure, powerful, not hiding from anything. In Homer’s Odyssey Helen is very straightforward and blunt, “My heart tells me to come right out and say I’ve never seen such a likeness, neither in man nor woman-I’m amazed at the sight.  To life he’s like the son of great Odysseus, surely he’s Telemachus” (Book 4: lines 155-159).  Tension between Menelaus and Helen is seen in the comical narration of their stories about Odysseus. Helen tells a story about Odysseus infiltrating Troy being disguised.  She says that she questioned and bathed him, goading Menelaus.  Story involves Helen saying how much she longed to go home. In this context Helen seems to be out for herself and aware of her situation.  It is extremely hard to tell if she generally regrets her actions about going to Troy or why exactly she chose to go.  She chooses her own lover, something that women normally were not able to do.

The driving theme in Athens during the time that Euripides was writing in were feelings that the war was fought for nothing.  Athenians were reconsidering wars and why they were fighting them.  Helen is portrayed this way in Euripides Helen because there was such a poor opinion of her from the Greek perspective that it was almost a defense against her actions and why the war was fought.  Looking at it from this perspective Helen did not have a choice in her actions and was led on by a goddess, as were the Greek forces that were fighting for a phantom on the shores of Troy. .  Euripides version is that Helen never even went to Troy and was in Egypt the whole entire time.  Gods set up the Trojan War; gods are not blamed in Homer.  Zeus wanted the war to decrease population.  Helen says that Troy was demolished for nothing.  Even Teucer, a Greek that had been fighting at Troy, said that Helen was guilty which happened to be the standard Greek perception at the time, everything was blamed on Helen. In this work it seems that she genuinely missed Menelaus and is portrayed in an innocent light.

In Euripides’s Helen, Helen remarks on her beauty as a curse, “My life has certainly been grotesque, and the troubles I have, partly thanks to Hera, partly to my beauty.  Oh, if only I could be wiped out like a painted picture and start afresh with a plainer look instead of this beauty” (lines 260 – 263).  Helen makes a point in her speech to include the fault of the goddess, Hera, also including her beauty as being a curse that got her into trouble in the first place.  She denounces her beauty as being something only troublesome to herself.

Helen says in Euripides’s Helen, “Listen to this, if a woman, too, can make a clever suggestion: are you willing to have a false report spread that you are dead?” (Lines 1049-1051).  In this passage Helen is being very clever and passive in her motives, a complete reversal of the Helen portrayed by Homer. Helen knows what she has to do to survive, and takes on a very Odyssean way of accomplishing that.  She is willing to lie and disguise Menelaus and to defeat a suitor all for her goal of getting back home.  She tries sacrificing one thing for the betterment of them both.  Helen at this point lets Menelaus thinks that he is in control of everything and she is just suggesting something to him.  Helen is humbling herself for Menelaus and supporting him in what he says while kindly making constructive suggestions. Helen is portrayed as being gracious, highly reasonable one and smarter than Menelaus throughout the play Helen. She is a very doting wife and more domestic than typically portrayed by other authors.

Depending on the author Helen is shown in different perspectives as being extremely manipulative and taking control of her own fate to being innocent and doting.  There are many different facets to the inner Helen and historical perceptions of what she had to go through and face as a woman of the time.  Although she was a woman it seems that she had a great deal of control over her fate and that of the men, at least, around her and a great power in her actions that women typically did not have at the time.

 

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~ by wolfangel87 on November 18, 2010.

One Response to “Helen”

  1. Wow! This post was wonderful to read. I love it when Helen is seen as strong, intelligent, and efficacious. Don’t know if you are interested in fiction, but Margaret George has written a fabulous novel, HELEN OF TROY. I also have a new release from Penguin, PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER, in which Helen is a major character.

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