Who exactly was Helen?
Some poets portray Helen as a slut, others as a victim of rape. The usual story is: she committed adultery with Paris, a Trojan prince, and ran away from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta. Helen, not Paris, is considered the cause of the Trojan War. It’s a pre-feminist thing. But Homer is sympathetic: in the Iliad, Helen feels her disgrace deeply, and the Greek tragedians vary, with Euripides portraying her differently in two different plays. Modern writers similarly struggle with her character.
In Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls, the Iliad is retold from a woman’s point of view. The narrator, Briseis, a princess enslaved by the Greeks during the Trojan war, does not have a voice in her fate. She is assigned first as a chattel to Achilles, then to Agamemnon. She is raped by both: the best she can say of Achilles is that he is quick, and she suffers extreme violence at the hands of Agamemnon.
Surprisingly, Helen, a friend of Briseis, and also a friend of King Priam, does have a voice. She is much hated by the Trojans, but she retains her dignity, boldly observing the battles from the ramparts, and painting the war scenes in her room: she is a talented artist. One day, Helen and Briseis walked through the marketplace with only one maid, and Briseis is surprised by her daring.
…she said, “Well, why not?” There was no point in her worrying what people might think. The Trojan women—“the ladies,” as she always called them—couldn’t think any worse of her than they did already, and as for the men . . . We-ell, she had a pretty good idea what they were thinking—the same thing they’d been thinking since she was ten years old. Oh, yes, I got that story too. Poor Helen, raped on a river bank when she was only ten. Of course I believed her. It was quite a shock to me, later, to realize nobody else did.
I am particularly interested in the portrayal of Helen in Roman classics. Among Roman poets, Ovid is perhaps most sympathetic. Though not a feminist, he portrayed many strong women, especially in Amores, a collection of elegies about love. And I recently read Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of poems in the form of letters between mythological lovers. The correspondence between Paris, portrayed as an attractive dum-dum prince, and Helen, a smart, flirtatious queen with a sense of decorum, is extraordinarily vivid. Helen declines his invitation to run away to Troy: she cannot be bribed with the gifts, and she wonders what could possibly have given him hope of tori (bed, or if we’re prim, the marriage bed). Helen asks, “Was it because Theseus took me by force? Once abducted, do I seem twice to deserve rape?”
She goes on to say she returned unharmed except for a few stolen kisses from Theseus. And Theseus apologized. She asks, “Did Theseus repent so that Paris might succeed him, and my name be always on men’s lips?”
She tells him bawdily how attractive she finds him, and teases him about their flirtation at a dinner party. If only they had met earlier…but being a king’s wife is not to be taken lightly. Menelaus went away on business, leaving Helen as hostess. But she points out that if she left Menelaus there would be war, and that Paris is a beauty, made for love not war.
Helen has said no.
Whether Paris persuades her or abducts her is not treated in the poem. But I have never read a more sympathetic portrayal of Helen.
9 thoughts on “Was Helen Enamored or Abducted?”
Lord Dunsany’s more cynical view of Helen:
“And were you pleased?” they asked of Helen in Hell.
“Pleased?” answered she, “when all Troy’s towers fell,
And dead were Priam’s sons, and lost his throne,
And such a war was fought as none had known,
And even the gods took part, and all because
Of me alone? Pleased?
I should say I was!”
In fact, I’m surprised there isn’t a version where Helen points out that it doesn’t matter whether she was persuaded or abducted- it was all the result of Venus’s will.
Well, Helen is regarded as pure evil by most, I think, and so I was very interested in the Heroides. And, really, I do know some evil beauties who would be as thrilled as Lord Dunsany’s Helen! In the Aeneid, Aeneas spots Helen on his way out of Troy and wants to kill her but is stopped by Venus. And EVERYONE argues about Ovid’s views of women, some feminist critics are horrified by scenes in the Metamorphosis that I myself think comical, and then again the “RED PIll” alt.right men believe he is guiding men to overpower women psychologically (The ARt of Lvoe). I’ve always thought Ovid LIKES women very much, and so was fascinated that Helen comes across as the smart one in the couple and bluntly says she will not go to Troy.
Loved this post, Kat. So fresh. Congrats on your new blog! 🙂
On Sat, Nov 17, 2018 at 10:02 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:
You’ve inspired me to read Heroides.
It’s fascinating, and scarcely anyone reads it.
Me, too – great post!
Barker’s book sounds fascinating. Helen and her portrayal is in of itself fascinating. Though I have read Homer and several other Greek sources I have not read Ovid’s account of her. I should do so.
If you are interested in retellings of such myths from women’s point of view, I highly recamend Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad.
Thanks for the recommendation. I love Margaret Atwood!