Helen of Troy

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Note

[In this story in rhyme of the fortunes of Helen, the theory that she was an unwilling victim of the Gods has been preferred.  Many of the descriptions of manners are versified from the Iliad and the Odyssey.  The description of the events after the death of Hector, and the account of the sack of Troy, is chiefly borrowed from Quintus Smyrnaeus.]

The character and history of Helen of Troy have been conceived of in very different ways by poets and mythologists.  In attempting to trace the chief current of ancient traditions about Helen, we cannot really get further back than the Homeric poems, the Iliad and Odyssey.  Philological conjecture may assure us that Helen, like most of the characters of old romance, is “merely the Dawn,” or Light, or some other bright being carried away by Paris, who represents Night, or Winter, or the Cloud, or some other power of darkness.  Without discussing these ideas, it may be said that the Greek poets (at all events before allegorical explanations of mythology came in, about five hundred years before Christ) regarded Helen simply as a woman of wonderful beauty.  Homer was not thinking of the Dawn, or the Cloud when he described Helen among the Elders on the Ilian walls, or repeated her lament over the dead body of Hector.  The Homeric poems are our oldest literary documents about Helen, but it is probable enough that the poet has modified and purified more ancient traditions which still survive in various fragments of Greek legend.  In Homer Helen is always the daughter of Zeus.  Isocrates tells us (“Helena,” 211 b) that “while many of the demigods were children of Zeus, he thought the paternity of none of his daughters worth claiming, save that of Helen only.”  In Homer, then, Helen is the daughter of Zeus, but Homer says nothing of the famous legend which makes Zeus assume the form of a swan to woo the mother of Helen.  Unhomeric as this myth is, we may regard it as extremely ancient.  Very similar tales of pursuit and metamorphosis, for amatory or other purposes, among the old legends of Wales, and in the “Arabian Nights,” as well as in the myths of Australians and Red Indians.  Again, the belief that different families of mankind descend from animals, as from the Swan, or from gods in the shape of animals, is found in every quarter of the world, and among the rudest races.  Many Australian natives of to-day claim descent, like the royal house of Sparta, from the Swan.  The Greek myths hesitated as to whether Nemesis or Leda was the bride of the Swan.  Homer only mentions Leda among “the wives and daughters of mighty men,” whose ghosts Odysseus beheld in Hades: “And I saw Leda, the famous bedfellow of Tyndareus, who bare to Tyndareus two sons, hardy of heart, Castor, tamer of steeds, and the boxer Polydeuces.”  These heroes Helen, in the Iliad (iii. 238), describes as her mother’s sons.  Thus, if Homer has any distinct view on the subject, he holds that Leda is the mother of Helen by Zeus, of the Dioscuri by Tyndareus.

Greek ideas as to the character of Helen varied with the various moods of Greek literature.  Homer’s own ideas about his heroine are probably best expressed in the words with which Priam greets her as she appears among the assembled elders, who are watching the Argive heroes from the wall of Troy:—“In nowise, dear child, do I blame thee; nay, the Gods are to blame, who have roused against me the woful war of the Achaeans.”  Homer, like Priam, throws the guilt of Helen on the Gods, but it is not very easy to understand exactly what he means by saying “the Gods are to blame.”  In the first place, Homer avoids the psychological problems in which modern poetry revels, by attributing almost all changes of the moods of men to divine inspiration.  Thus when Achilles, in a famous passage of the first book of the Iliad, puts up his half-drawn sword in the sheath, and does not slay Agamemnon, Homer assigns his repentance to the direct influence of Athene.  Again, he says in the Odyssey, about Clytemnestra, that “she would none of the foul deed;” that is of the love of Aegisthus, till “the doom of the Gods bound her to her ruin.”  So far the same excuse is made for the murderous Clytemnestra as for the amiable Helen.  Again, Homer is, in the strictest sense, and in strong contrast to the Greek tragedians and to Virgil, a chivalrous poet.  It would probably be impossible to find a passage in which he speaks harshly or censoriously of the conduct of any fair and noble lady.  The sordid treachery of Eriphyle, who sold her lord for gold, wins for her the epithet “hateful;” and Achilles, in a moment of strong grief, applies a term of abhorrence to Helen.  But Homer is too chivalrous to judge the life of any lady, and only shows the other side of the chivalrous character—its cruelty to persons not of noble birth—in describing the “foul death” of the waiting women of Penelope.  “God forbid that I should take these women’s lives by a clean death,” says Telemachus (Odyssey, xxii. 462).  So “about all their necks nooses were cast that they might die by the death most pitiful.  And they writhed with their feet for a little space, but for no long while.”  In trying to understand Homer’s estimate of Helen, therefore, we must make allowance for his theory of divine intervention, and for his chivalrous judgment of ladies.  But there are two passages in the Iliad which may be taken as indicating Homer’s opinion that Helen was literally a victim, an unwilling victim, of Aphrodite, and that she was carried away by force a captive from Lacedaemon.  These passages are in the Iliad, ii. 356, 590.  In the former text Nestor says, “let none be eager to return home ere he has couched with a Trojan’s wife, and avenged the longings and sorrows of Helen”—τίσσθαι δΈλένης ορμηματα τε στοναχας τε.  It is thus that Mr. Gladstone, a notable champion of Helen’s, would render this passage, and the same interpretation was favoured by the ancient “Separatists” (Chorizontes), who wished to prove that the Iliad and Odyssey were by different authors; but many authorities prefer to translate “to avenge our labours and sorrows for Helen’s sake”—“to avenge all that we have endured in the attempt to win back Helen.”  Thus the evidence of this passage is ambiguous.  The fairer way to seek for Homer’s real view of Helen is to examine all the passages in which she occurs.  The result will be something like this:—Homer sees in Helen a being of the rarest personal charm and grace of character; a woman who imputes to herself guilt much greater than the real measure of her offence.  She is ever gentle except with the Goddess who betrayed her, and the unworthy lover whose lot she is compelled to share.  Against them her helpless anger breaks out in flashes of eloquent scorn.  Homer was apparently acquainted with the myth of Helen’s capture by Theseus, a myth illustrated in the decorations of the coffer of Cypselus.  But we first see Helen, the cause of the war, when Menelaus and Paris are about to fight their duel for her sake, in the tenth year of the Leaguer (Iliad, iii. 121).  Iris is sent to summon Helen to the walls.  She finds Helen in her chamber, weaving at a mighty loom, and embroidering on tapestry the adventures of the siege—the battles of horse-taming Trojans and bronze-clad Achaeans.  The message of Iris renews in Helen’s heart “a sweet desire for her lord and her own city, and them that begat her;” so, draped in silvery white, Helen goes with her three maidens to the walls.  There, above the gate, like some king in the Old Testament, Paris sits among his counsellors, and they are all amazed at Helen’s beauty; “no marvel is it that Trojans and Achaeans suffer long and weary toils for such a woman, so wondrous like to the immortal goddesses.”  Then Priam, assuring Helen that he holds her blameless, bids her name to him her kinsfolk and the other Achaean warriors.  In her reply, Helen displays that grace of penitence which is certainly not often found in ancient literature:—“Would that evil death had been my choice, when I followed thy son, and left my bridal bower and my kin, and my daughter dear, and the maidens of like age with me.”  Agamemnon she calls, “the husband’s brother of me shameless; alas, that such an one should be.”  She names many of the warriors, but misses her brothers Castor and Polydeuces, “own brothers of mine, one mother bare us.  Either they followed not from pleasant Lacedaemon, or hither they followed in swift ships, but now they have no heart to go down into the battle for dread of the shame and many reproaches that are mine.”

“So spake she, but already the life-giving earth did cover them, there in Lacedaemon, in their own dear country.”

Menelaus and Paris fought out their duel, the Trojan was discomfited, but was rescued from death and carried to Helen’s bower by Aphrodite.  Then the Goddess came in disguise to seek Helen on the wall, and force her back into the arms of her defeated lover.  Helen turned on the Goddess with an abruptness and a force of sarcasm and invective which seem quite foreign to her gentle nature.  “Wilt thou take me further yet to some city of Phrygia or pleasant Maeonia, if there any man is dear to thee … Nay, go thyself and sit down by Paris, and forswear the paths of the Gods, but ever lament for him and cherish him, till he make thee his wife, yea, or perchance his slave, but to him will I never go.”  But this anger of Helen is soon overcome by fear, when the Goddess, in turn, waxes wrathful, and Helen is literally driven by threats—“for the daughter of Zeus was afraid,”—into the arms of Paris.  Yet even so she taunts her lover with his cowardice, a cowardice which she never really condones.  In the sixth book of the Iliad she has been urging him to return to the war.  She then expresses her penitence to Hector, “would that the fury of the wind had borne me afar to the mountains, or the wave of the roaring sea—ere ever these ill deeds were done!”  In this passage too, she prophesies that her fortunes will be αοίδιμοι εσσομένοισι famous in the songs, good or evil, of men unborn.  In the last book of the Iliad we meet Helen once more, as she laments over the dead body of Hector.  “‘Never, in all the twenty years since I came hither, have I heard from thee one taunt or one evil word: nay, but if any other rebuked me in the halls, any one of my husband’s brothers, or of their sisters, or their wives, or the mother of my husband (but the king was ever gentle to me as a father), then wouldst thou restrain them with thy loving kindness and thy gentle speech.’  So spake she; weeping.”

In the Odyssey, Helen is once more in Lacedaemon, the honoured but still penitent wife of Menelaus.  How they became reconciled (an extremely difficult point in the story), there is nothing in Homer to tell us.

Sir John Lubbock has conjectured that in the morals of the heroic age Helen was not really regarded as guilty.  She was lawfully married, by “capture,” to Paris.  Unfortunately for this theory there is abundant proof that, in the heroic age, wives were nominallybought for so many cattle, or given as a reward for great services.  There is no sign of marriage by capture, and, again, marriage by capture is a savage institution which applies to unmarried women, not to women already wedded, as Helen was to Menelaus.  Perhaps the oldest evidence we have for opinion about the later relations of Helen and Menelaus, is derived from Pausanias’s (174. a.d.) description of the Chest of Cypselus.  This ancient coffer, a work of the seventh century, b.c., was still preserved at Olympia, in the time of Pausanias.  On one of the bands of cedar or of ivory, was represented (Pausanias, v. 18), “Menelaus with a sword in his hand, rushing on to kill Helen—clearly at the sacking of Ilios.”  How Menelaus passed from a desire to kill Helen to his absolute complacency in the Odyssey, Homer does not tell us.  According to a statement attributed to Stesichorus (635, 554, b.c.?), the army of the Achaeans purposed to stone Helen, but was overawed and compelled to relent by her extraordinary beauty: “when they beheld her, they cast down their stones on the ground.”  It may be conjectured that the reconciliation followed this futile attempt at punishing a daughter of Zeus.  Homer, then, leaves us without information about the adventures of Helen, between the sack of Tiny and the reconciliation with Menelaus.  He hints that she was married to Deiphobus, after the death of Paris, and alludes to the tradition that she mimicked the voices of the wives of the heroes, and so nearly tempted them to leave their ambush in the wooden horse.  But in the fourth book of the Odyssey, when Telemachus visits Lacedaemon, he finds Helen the honoured wife of Menelaus, rich in the marvellous gifts bestowed on her, in her wanderings from Troy, by the princes of Egypt.

“While yet he pondered these things in his mind and in his heart, Helen came forth from her fragrant vaulted chamber, like Artemis of the golden arrows; and with her came Adraste and set for her the well-wrought chair, and Alcippe bare a rug of soft wool, and Phylo bare a silver basket which Alcandre gave her, the wife of Polybus, who dwelt in Thebes of Egypt, where is the chiefest store of wealth in the houses.  He gave two silver baths to Menelaus, and tripods twain, and ten talents of gold.  And besides all this, his wife bestowed on Helen lovely gifts; a golden distaff did she give, and a silver basket with wheels beneath, and the rims thereof were finished with gold.  This it was that the handmaid Phylo bare and set beside her, filled with dressed yarn, and across it was laid a distaff charged with wool of violet blue.  So Helen sat her down in the chair, and beneath was a footstool for the feet.”

When the host and guests begin to weep the ready tears of the heroic age over the sorrows of the past, and dread of the dim future, Helen comforts them with a magical potion.

“Then Helen, daughter of Zeus, turned to new thoughts.  Presently she cast a drug into the wine whereof they drank, a drug to lull all pain and anger, and bring forgetfulness of every sorrow.  Whoso should drink a draught thereof, when it is mingled in the bowl, on that day he would let no tear fall down his cheeks, not though his mother and his father died, not though men slew his brother or dear son with the sword before his face, and his own eyes beheld it.  Medicines of such virtue and so helpful had the daughter of Zeus, which Polydamna, the wife of Thon, had given her, a woman of Egypt, where Earth the grain-giver yields herbs in greatest plenty, many that are healing in the cup, and many baneful.”

So Telemachus was kindly entertained by Helen and Menelaus, and when he left them it was not without a gift.

“And Helen stood by the coffers wherein were her robes of curious needlework which she herself had wrought.  Then Helen, the fair lady, lifted one and brought it out, the widest and most beautifully embroidered of all, and it shone like a star, and lay far beneath the rest.”

Presently, we read, “Helen of the fair face came up with the robe in her hands, and spake: ‘Lo!  I too give thee this gift, dear child, a memorial of the hands of Helen, for thy bride to wear upon the day of thy desire, even of thy marriage.  But meanwhile let it lie with thy mother in her chamber.  And may joy go with thee to thy well-builded house, and thine own country.’”

Helen’s last words, in Homer, are words of good omen, her prophecy to Telemachus that Odysseus shall return home after long wanderings, and take vengeance on the rovers.  We see Helen no more, but Homer does not leave us in doubt as to her later fortunes.  He quotes the prophecy which Proteus, the ancient one of the sea, delivered to Menelaus:—

“But thou, Menelaus, son of Zeus, art not ordained to die and meet thy fate in Argos, the pasture-land of horses, but the deathless gods will convey thee to the Elysian plain and the world’s end, where is Rhadamanthus of the fair hair, where life is easiest for men.  No snow is there, nor yet great storm, nor any rain; but alway ocean sendeth forth the breeze of the shrill West to blow cool on men: yea, for thou hast Helen to wife, and thereby they deem thee to be son of Zeus.”

We must believe, with Isocrates, that Helen was translated, with her lord, to that field of Elysium, “where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow.”  This version of the end of Helen’s history we have adopted, but many other legends were known in Greece.  Pausanias tells us that, in a battle between the Crotoniats and the Locrians, one Leonymus charged the empty space in the Locrian line, which was entrusted to the care of the ghost of Aias.  Leonymus was wounded by the invisible spear of the hero, and could not be healed of the hurt.  The Delphian oracle bade him seek the Isle of Leuke in the Euxine Sea, where Aias would appear to him, and heal him.  When Leonymus returned from Leuke he told how Achilles dwelt there with his ancient comrades, and how he was now wedded to Helen of Troy.  Yet the local tradition of Lacedaemon showed the sepulchre of Helen in Therapnae.  According to a Rhodian legend (adopted by the author of the “Epic of Hades”), Helen was banished from Sparta by the sons of Menelaus, came wandering to Rhodes, and was there strangled by the servants of the queen Polyxo, who thus avenged the death of her husband at Troy.  It is certain, as we learn both from Herodotus (vi. 61) and from Isocrates, that Helen was worshipped in Therapnae.  In the days of Ariston the king, a deformed child was daily brought by her nurse to the shrine of Helen.  And it is said that, as the nurse was leaving the shrine, a woman appeared unto her, and asked what she bore in her arms, who said, “she bore a child.”  Then the woman said, “show it to me,” which the nurse refused, for the parents of the child had forbidden that she should be seen of any.  But the woman straitly commanding that the child should be shown, and the other beholding her eagerness, at length the nurse showed the child, and the woman caressed its face and said, “she shall be the fairest woman in Sparta.”  And from that day the fashion of its countenance was changed, “and the child became the fairest of all the Spartan women.”

It is a characteristic of Greek literature that, with the rise of democracy, the old epic conception of the ancient heroes altered.  We can scarcely recognize the Odysseus of Homer in the Odysseus of Sophocles.  The kings are regarded by the tragedians with some of the distrust and hatred which the unconstitutional tyrants of Athens had aroused.  Just as the later chansons de geste of France, the poems written in an age of feudal opposition to central authority, degraded heroes like Charles, so rhetorical, republican, and sophistical Greece put its quibbles into the lips of Agamemnon and Helen, and slandered the stainless and fearless Patroclus and Achilles.

The Helen of Euripides, in the “Troades,” is a pettifogging sophist, who pleads her cause to Menelaus with rhetorical artifice.  In the “Helena,” again, Euripides quite deserts the Homeric traditions, and adopts the late myths which denied that Helen ever went to Troy.  She remained in Egypt, and Achaeans and Trojans fought for a mere shadow, formed by the Gods out of clouds and wind.  In the “Cyclops” of Euripides, a satirical drama, the cynical giant is allowed to speak of Helen in a strain of coarse banter.  Perhaps the essay of Isocrates on Helen may be regarded as a kind of answer to the attacks of several speakers in the works of the tragedians.  Isocrates defends Helen simply on the plea of her beauty: “To Heracles Zeus gave strength, to Helen beauty, which naturally rules over even strength itself.”  Beauty, he declares, the Gods themselves consider the noblest thing in the world, as the Goddesses showed when they contended for the prize of loveliness.  And so marvellous, says Isocrates, was the beauty of Helen, that for her glory Zeus did not spare his beloved son, Sarpedon; and Thetis saw Achilles die, and the Dawn bewailed her Memnon.  “Beauty has raised more mortals to immortality than all the other virtues together.”  And that Helen is now a Goddess, Isocrates proves by the fact that the sacrifices offered to her in Therapnae, are such as are given, not to heroes, but to immortal Gods.

When Rome took up the legends of Greece, she did so in no chivalrous spirit.  Few poets are less chivalrous than Virgil; no hero has less of chivalry than his pious and tearful Aeneas.  In the second book of the Aeneid, the pious one finds Helen hiding in the shrine of Vesta, and determines to slay “the common curse of Troy and of her own country.”  There is no glory, he admits, in murdering a woman:—

Extinxisse nefas tamen et sumpsisse merentis Laudabor poenas, animumqne explesse juvabit Ultricis flammae, et cineres satiasse meorum.

But Venus appears and rescues the unworthy lover of Dido from the crowning infamy which he contemplates.  Hundreds of years later, Helen found a worthier poet in Quintus Smyrnaeus, who in a late age sang the swan-song of Greek epic minstrelsy.  It is thus that (in the fourth century a.d.) Quintus describes Helen, as she is led with the captive women of Ilios, to the ships of the Achaeans:—“Now Helen lamented not, but shame dwelt in her dark eyes, and reddened her lovely cheeks, … while around her the people marvelled as they beheld the flawless grace and winsome beauty of the woman, and none dared upbraid her with secret taunt or open rebuke.  Nay, as she had been a Goddess they beheld her gladly, for dear and desired was she in their sight.  And as when their own country appeareth to men long wandering on the sea, and they, being escaped from death and the deep, gladly put forth their hands to greet their own native place; even so all the Danaans were glad at the sight of her, and had no more memory of all their woful toil, and the din of war: such a spirit did Cytherea put into their hearts, out of favour to fair Helen and father Zeus.”  Thus Quintus makes amends for the trivial verses in which Coluthus describes the flight of a frivolous Helen with an effeminate Paris.

To follow the fortunes of Helen through the middle ages would demand much space and considerable research.  The poets who read Dares Phrygius believed, with the scholar of Dr. Faustus, that “Helen of Greece was the admirablest lady that ever lived.”  When English poetry first found the secret of perfect music, her sweetest numbers were offered by Marlowe at the shrine of Helen.  The speech of Faustus is almost too hackneyed to be quoted, and altogether too beautiful to be omitted:—

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, And burnt the topless towers of Ilium! Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. Her lips suck forth my soul! see where it flies; Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again; Here will I dwell, for heaven is in those lips, And all is dross that is not Helena.

* * * * *

Oh thou art fairer than the evening air Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.

The loves of Faustus and Helen are readily allegorized into the passion of the Renaissance for classical beauty, the passion to which all that is not beauty seemed very dross.  This is the idea of the second part of “Faust,” in which Helen once more became, as she prophesied in the Iliad, a song in the mouths of later men.  Almost her latest apparition in English poetry, is in the “Hellenics” of Landor.  The sweetness of the character of Helen; the tragedy of the death of Corythus by the hand of his father Paris; and the omnipotence of beauty and charm which triumph over the wrath of Menelaus, are the subjects of Landor’s verse.  But Helen, as a woman, has hardly found a nobler praise, in three thousand years, than Helen, as a child, has received from Mr. Swinburne in “Atalanta in Calydon.”  Meleager is the speaker:—

Even such (for sailing hither I saw far hence, And where Eurotas hollows his moist rock Nigh Sparta, with a strenuous-hearted stream) Even such I saw their sisters; one swan-white, The little Helen, and less fair than she Fair Clytemnestra, grave as pasturing fawns Who feed and fear some arrow; but at whiles, As one smitten with love or wrung with joy, She laughs and lightens with her eyes, and then Weeps; whereat Helen, having laughed, weeps too, And the other chides her, and she being chid speaks naught, But cheeks and lips and eyelids kisses her Laughing, so fare they, as in their bloomless bud And full of unblown life, the blood of gods.

There is all the irony of Fate in Althaeas’ reply

Sweet days befall them and good loves and lords, Tender and temperate honours of the hearths, Peace, and a perfect life and blameless bed.

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