Lagrenée Helen Recognizing Telemachus


Finding Helen in texts is frustrating. Many contradictory facts may be encountered. Who was Helen? What about her life, her power, her birth, her beauty? Was she hated or was she loved? If we were to write a short biography, it might read like this: Helen was the daughter of Leda and Tyndareus/Zeus, and Clytemnestra, Castor and Polydeuces’ sister. Penelope was her cousin. She married Menelaos king of Sparta, was seduced and abducted by Paris who took her to Troy. The Achaeans fought the Trojans for ten years to get her back.

But there is more to know about her.

In  A variation on the idea of a gleam that blinded Homer, an article from Classical Inquiries, Nagy writes about “[t]he blinding of Homer by Helen” and “[t]he blinding of Stesichorus by Helen”:

But others say that he [= Homer] experienced the same thing [= blindness] because of the anger [mēnis] of Helen, who was angry [orgizesthai] at him because he said that she had abandoned her previous husband [= Menelaos] and had followed Alexander [= Paris]. Here is how it happened: the spirit [psūkhē] of the heroine [hērōinē], appearing in the night, stood next to him and advised him to burn his poetry. <. . .> how, if he did so, things would go well. But (he told her) that he just couldn’t bring himself to do this.

Vita 6.51–57

Were Stesichorus and Homer blinded because they composed songs which did not satisfy Helen?

In the Odyssey, she uses a special drug to help her guests forget their sorrows.

She [= Helen] put a drug into the wine from which they drank. It [= the drug] was against penthos [nē-penthes] and against anger [a-kholon]. It made one forget all bad things.  Whoever swallowed it, once it was mixed with the wine into the mixing bowl, could not shed a tear from his cheeks for that day,  even if his mother and father died or if he had earlier lost a brother or his own dear son, killed by bronze weapons—even if he saw it all happen with his own eyes. This drug, of such sovereign power and virtue, had been given to Helen by Polydamna wife of Thon, a woman of Egypt, where there grow all sorts  of herbs, some good to put into the mixing-bowl and others poisonous. Moreover, every one in the whole country is a skilled physician, for they are of the lineage of Paieon. When Helen had put this drug in the bowl, and had told the servants to serve the wine round, she said:

“Menelaus, son of Atreus, dear to Zeus, and you my good friends, sons of honourable men (which is as Zeus wills, for he is the giver both of good and evil, and can do what he chooses), feast here as you will, and listen while I tell you a tale in season…”

Odyssey 4.220–240 Sourcebook[1]

Ann Bergen in chapter 5 of Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought writes about Helen’s drug. Her drug is “like the poetry of kleos.

Helen’s φάρμακον “drug” is, then, like the poetry of κλέος “fame.” It is so effective an antidote to grief that at the tragedy of your family, you would sense only glory and would not weep. With this drug Helen can now supply what the banquet has lacked heretofore, remembrance of the past without pain. For indeed, just as she adds a φάρμακον “drug” with the power of poetic κλέος, so she will now supply a μύθος “story” with the properties of her “good drug.” Unlike Menelaus’ earlier recollections, Helen’s μύθος will be a painless painful memory. By this drug-like narrative supplement, events naturally tragic for some of the audience will be detoxified. A song of the λυγρός “baneful” genre for some will sound like κλέος and will be heard by all without loss or suffering. By thus describing her drug and its verbal counter-part, the poet casts Helen in the role played by himself and by the Odyssean tradition he repeats—the role of making past deeds present with κλέος for the actors and τέρψις “delight” for the audience. Helen’s φάρμακον “drug”/μύθος “story” will be, therefore, the opposite of Menelaus’ part of the evening—just as female is the opposite of male, wife of husband, and Odyssey of Iliad—but it will be the equal of its mate in constitution. For both are based upon the assumption of analogous polarities, controllable and mutually exclusive, to which poetry and drugs offer no exception.

Ann Bergen, Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought (CHS)

Different stories about Helen emerge. Was she in Troy or was her ghost in Troy? Was she in Egypt as Stesichorus (and later Herodotus and Euripides) wrote?

In one of the translations at Sententiae Antiquae, Helen did not go to Troy.

Helen and Menelaos. Menelaos intends to strike Helen, but captivated by her beauty he drops his sword. A flying Eros and Aphrodite watch the scene. (450–440) Louvre
Helen and Menelaos. Menelaos intends to strike Helen, but captivated by her beauty he drops his sword. A flying Eros and Aphrodite watch the scene. (450–440) Louvre

This is not the true tale:
You never went in the well-benched ships
You did not go to the towers of Troy…
[It is a fault in Homer that
He put Helen in Troy
And not her image only;
It is a fault in Hesiod
In another: there are two, differing
Recantations and this is the beginning.
Come here, dance loving goddess;
Golden-winged, maiden,
As Khamaileôn put it.
Stesichorus himself says that
an image [eidolon] went to Troy
and that Helen stayed back
with Prôteus…”

Stesichorus, fr. 15 (the Helen Palinode). Translated by Joel Christensen.

Plato seems to agree with Stesichorus about Helen. In Phaedrus, according to him, Helen was not in Troy.

…they put on airs as though they amounted to something, if they could cheat some mere manikins and gain honour among them. Now I, my friend, must purify myself; and for those who have sinned in matters of mythology there is an ancient purification, unknown to Homer, but known to Stesichorus. For when he was stricken with blindness for speaking ill of Helen, he was not, like Homer, ignorant of the reason, but since he was educated, he knew it and straightway he writes the poem [Stesichorus Frag. 32 Bergk]:“That saying is not true; thou didst not go within the well-oared ships, nor didst thou come to the walls of Troy.”

Plato Phaedrus 243a, on Perseus

Was Helen loved? She was not loved by all, and she is depicted horribly in Aeschylus’ tragedy Agamemnon.

[Chorus] Who can have given a name so altogether true—was it some power invisible guiding his tongue aright by forecasting of destiny? —who named that bride of the spear and source of strife with the name of Helen? For, true to her name, a Hell she proved to ships, Hell to men, Hell to city,  when stepping forth from her luxuriant [habros] and costly-curtained bower, she sailed the sea before the breath of earth-born Zephyros. And after her a goodly host of warrior huntsmen followed on the oars’ vanished track in pursuit of a quarry that had beached its boat on Simmers’ leafy banks—in a conflict [eris] to end in blood.

Aeschylus Agamemnon 680–700, Sourcebook

In Euripides’ Orestes, Electra and her brother try to kill her.

Slay her, kill her, destroy her! Stab with your twin double-edged swords  the woman who left her father, left her husband, and killed so many of the men of Hellas, slain beside the river-bank, where tears rained down, by the iron darts  all round the eddies of Scamander.

Euripides Orestes 1303–1311

However, Apollo saves her at the end of the play. She becomes a goddess.

[Apollo] Go your ways, and honor Peace, fairest of goddesses; I will bring Helen to the halls of Zeus,  when I have come to the sky, bright with stars. There, enthroned beside Hera and Hebe, the bride of Heracles, she will be honoured by men with libations as a goddess for ever; along with those Zeus-born sons of Tyndareus, she will be a guardian of the sea, for the good of sailors.

Euripides Orestes 1683–1692, translated by E. P. Coleridge, on Perseus

She will be with Zeus. Is she Zeus ‘daughter? Helen’s birth is surrounded by mysteries. Different versions exist.

The Greeks say that Nemesis was the mother of Helen, while Leda suckled and nursed her. The father of Helen the Greeks like everybody else hold to be not Tyndareus but Zeus.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.33.7, translated by W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod on Perseus

And here is the version given by Helen herself, in Euripides’ play, while she is in Egypt waiting for Menelaos, who is in Troy.

[Helen] These are the lovely pure streams of the Nile, which waters the plain and lands of Egypt, fed by white melting snow instead of rain from heaven. Proteus was king of this land when he was alive, [5] living on the island of Pharos and lord of Egypt; and he married one of the daughters of the sea, Psamathe, after she left Aiakos’ bed. She bore two children in his palace here: a son Theoklymenos, [because he spent his life in reverence of the gods,]  and a noble daughter, her mother’s pride, called Eido in her infancy. But when she came to youth, the season of marriage, she was called Theonoe; for she knew whatever the gods design, both present and to come, having received this honor from her grandfather Nereus.

My own fatherland, Sparta, is not without fame, and my father is Tyndareus; but there is indeed a story that Zeus flew to my mother Leda, taking the form of a bird, a swan, which accomplished the deceitful union, fleeing the pursuit of an eagle, if this story is true. My name is Helen; I will tell the evils I have suffered. For the sake of beauty, three goddesses came to a deep valley on Mount Ida, to Paris: Hera and Kypris, and the virgin daughter of Zeus, wishing to have the judgment of their loveliness decided. Kypris offered my beauty, if misfortune is beautiful, for Paris to marry, and so she won. Paris, the shepherd of Ida, left his ox-stalls  and came to Sparta, to have me in marriage.

Euripides Helen 1–31, translated by E.P. Coleridge, on Perseus

It is difficult to find a detailed physical description of her. We hear of her beautiful hair and that she looks like a goddess. In the Iliad, the old men attest to her beauty:

These were too old to fight, but they were fluent orators, and sat on the tower like cicadas that chirrup delicately from the boughs of some high tree in a wood. When they saw Helen coming towards the tower, they said softly to one another, “There is no way to wish for retribution [nemesis] that Trojans and strong-greaved Achaeans should endure so much and so long, for the sake of a woman so marvelously and divinely lovely. Still, fair though she be, let them take her and go…”

Iliad 3.145–160, Sourcebook

Helen appears in one of the nicest poems composed by Sappho. Does it appear that Sappho understood that Helen was not only a beautiful woman but a free and independent one?

Some say a massing of chariots and their drivers, some say of footsoldiers, some say of ships, if you think of everything that exists on the surface of this black earth, is the most beautiful thing of them all. But I say it is that one thing that anyone passionately loves [erātai]. It’s really quite easy to make this understandable  to everyone, this thing. You see, that woman who was by far supreme in beauty among all humans, Helen, she […] her best of all husbands, him she left behind and sailed to Troy, caring not about her daughter and her dear parents, not caring at all. She was swept along […]  [All this] reminds me right now of Anaktoria. She is [not] here. Oh, how I would far rather wish to see her taking a dancing step that arouses passionate love [= eraton], and to see the luminous radiance from the look of her face  than to see those chariots of the Lydians and the footsoldiers in their armor as they fight in battle […].

Sappho 16, Sourcebook

Helen resembles no other epic or tragic character. In her book Les Larmes d’Achille, Hélène Monsacré writes beautifully about Helen. Helen, she says, does not shed tears for the loss of a husband or a child, “She cries about her mistake and its consequences…She is the only feminine epic character to have such autonomy of feelings.”

Elle pleure son erreur et ses conséquences…Elle est en cela le seul personnage féminin de l”épopée à avoir une telle autonomie de sentiments.
Les Larmes d’Achille, Le Felin, 2010, p. 203

Helen is also a woman who gives kleos. Her husband Menelaos gets it from her.

“…As for your own end, Menelaos, fostered son of Zeus, you shall not die in horse-pasturing Argos, but the gods will take you to the Elysian plain, which is at the ends of the world. There fair-haired Rhadamanthus  reigns, and men lead an easier life than any where else in the world, for in Elysium there falls not rain, nor hail, nor snow, but Okeanos breathes ever with a West wind that sings softly from the sea, and gives fresh life to all men. This will happen to you because you have married Helen, and are Zeus’ son-in-law.“

Odyssey 4.560–570, Sourcebook

Finding Helen’s identity is a never-ending process.

Feel free to share your thoughts or other texts about Helen in the Forum.

[1] Sourcebook: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours Sourcebook of Original Greek Texts Translated into English, Gregory Nagy, General Editor.

Image credits

Jean-Jacques Lagrenée (1739–1821) Helen Recognising Telemachus, Son of Odysseus, 1795 Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain

Helen and Menelaos vase, Louvre 


Hélène Emeriaud is a retired teacher. A Community TA for HeroesX in v3, v4,and v5. She enjoys being a participant in Hour 25.