Helen of Troy

"They took our women" - no doubt a very ancient rallying cry. Not suprising: if we look at human behaviour throughout history and in all or most cultures, "woman" is what we men fight for, to protect or to acquire. Sometimes the acquiring happens in a formalized, ritualized way (e.g. of exogamous marriage) and at the other end of the spectrum it may take the form of mass rape taking revenge on the enemy. In all cases it makes an appeal more powerful than civilization itself. The myth of the abduction of Helen, I would maintain, represents a conscious attempt to mobilize such forces.

The concept is explained to us in the story of the Judgement of Paris. Paris, while herding his sheep in the mountains, is visited by three goddesses. They want him to decide who is the most beautiful and each goddess offers him a bribe. The question for Paris becomes: what is the best bribe?

Paris and Helen
Paris takes Helen onto a ship (from an early geometric vase from Thebes). He grabs her by the wrist which makes her seem unwilling.

Hera offers him power/kingship, Athena wisdom/success in war, Aphrodite beauty/the most beautiful woman. This latter one is his predictable choice. This woman happens to be Helen, wife of king Menelaos of Sparta. All of Hellas had wooed her but Menelaos won. Every competitor had sworn an oath to come to Menelaos' help if someone tried to steal her from him. Here, Helen clearly functions as a trophy, a symbol of victory. This sounds like an attempt to establish peace in Greece by a freezing of the military/political situation. Sparta has won (never mind that Menelaos is supposed to be pre-dorian) and that is it. Freeze. Part of this attempt at preventing stasis in Hellas was a functioning cooperative emigration policy, in the beginning mainly to Asia Minor and, originally, including Sparta. See 'Poseidon'.

But the question discussed in the myth is: 'How do we get them to go?'. What can we bribe them with? Not power, because we have that and we are not sharing. Success in war maybe, meaning loot and the spoils of war to be had if we win. But usually there is not so much loot available and people may sometimes wonder if that is worth dying for. What is it that the second or third son of a poor nobleman dreams of as he is slaving away in his father's asphodel field (or herding his sheep) and that he has hardly any chance of acquiring in his native land?

I would even go so far as to suggest that the myth of the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia could be a defense of this policy. "The girl" (really meaning the local girls) has to be sacrificed, otherwise "the ships will not sail". In other words, the policy will not work unless we play the sex card. All for the greater good of course. Homer does not mention this story, either because he found it too horrible or because it is a later comment on the situation.

Charter myth

So we proceed on the assumption that the story of Helen really is the charter myth behind the Ionian migration (see also the history page) and that the Iliad (and the Odyssey in some places) is a comment on it. Let me list the main themes that are connected in this respect:

  1. the Chryseis - Briseis theme (see below)
  2. Nestor's injunction 'not to go home before the struggles and groans of Helen are paid back' (Il 2.354-).
  3. Priam's remark to Helen: "I don't blame you, I blame the gods" (Il 3.164)
  4. Helen and Aphrodite in the "Paris and Helen in the bedroom" episode (il 3.374-)
  5. the 'red stained ivory' of a Carian or Maeonian woman (Il 4.141-)
  6. Diomedes' chasing Aphrodite off the battlefield (Il 5.530-)
  7. ? Ares giving his chariot & horses to Aphrodite
  8. the picture of Andromache who will be enslaved
  9. Helen's pharmakon ('clever remedy') (Od 4.219-)
  10. especially: the 'Ares and Aphrodite' story in the Odyssey (Od 8.266-)

Seizing women
...as for those who came from the very town-hall of Athens and think they are the best born of the Ionians, these did not bring wives with them to their settlements, but married Carian women whose parents they had put to death. For this slaughter, these women made a custom and bound themselves by oath (and enjoined it on their daughters) that no one would sit at table with her husband or call him by his name, because the men had married them after slaying their fathers and husbands and sons. This happened at Miletus. (Herodotus 1.146)

We do not need to take the above story by Herodotus at face value but it is a hint that something was going on with respect to women in the Ionian migration. Of course every new settlement had to find women to marry from among the local people since the colonists did not take women with them(1). That does not mean that it was normal for settlers to go out and seize women by force. Homer, if I read the Iliad right, was exceedingly angry about it. The mere fact that he tells the story of Chryseis, dishonorable as it is, at the very beginning of the poem, is enough for me to draw this conclusion. But there are many more points.
Clearly, many people will think I am reading the Iliad through modern glasses. After all, taking slaves in war was common practice and the 8th century public would not have expected anything else. I was also told that, for instance, the hanging of the servant girls in the Odyssey was not nearly as offensive to the ancient Greek mind as it is to us. Well, maybe so. But if one looks carefully at the rhetoric and the pathos that the poet manipulates, a different picture emerges. In this page I will try to clarify how this works, using the above list as the main points of interest.

1. Chryseis and Briseis

Paris' abduction of Helen was such a great crime that an army had to be sent to Troy to get her back. Then what about Chryseis or Briseis? The irony is almost too harsh. And Agamemnon's argument for keeping her ('I like her better than my wedded wife') and the way he dismisses the girl's father must be offensive to ancient Greek ears as well as to ours. Note Achilles' commentary on the situation in Il 9.332- and Thersites Il 2.232-.
So first the poet brings on Chryseis and shows us how Agamemnon is in the wrong. Then he plays the rhetorical "what if they did this to you?" card and he lets Agamemnon take Briseis away from Achilles. Briseis has a double role: a girl who was his prize, his honour, but also a girl who is loved by Achilles (that is what he claims, Il 9.340-) and is not just a slave (though I doubt she could refuse to sleep with him). So she is taken away from Achilles and the poet leaves it up to the public to make the connection, that this is an evil thing to do.

But what was evil, the attack on his honour or the taking away of a loved one? This is not a difficult question. Achilles lets many of his comrades be slaughtered to restore his honour. Honour is everything and it knows no pity. But the crux of honour is: 'what will people say about you'. The scandalous story by Herodotus above shows exactly what will happen to your honour if you let such a story become public. Seizing women was not ok. This poet surely knew exactly how honour works, and he still said those things.

2. the struggles and groans of Helen
Il 2.354-6 (Nestor speaking):
τὼ μή τις πρὶν ἐπειγέσθω οἶκονδὲ νέεσθαι
πρίν τινα πὰρ Τρώων ἀλόχῳ κατακοιμηθῆναι,
τίσασθαι δ' Ἑλένης ὁρμήματά τε στοναχάς τε.

Let no one be in a hurry to get home before having slept with some Trojan's wife, to make them pay for the struggles and groans of Helen.

Note that this presupposes that Helen was unwilling, abducted by Paris. The wording suggests rape. This may fit the charter myth but it is not how Homer tells the story. He gives us a Helen who followed Paris for love and feels shame about it (Il 3.171-, 3.390-, 24.764).

3. "I blame the gods"

In Homer, the above does not have the function of absolving the Trojans from the accusation of "coming over here and stealing our girls". But if Paris is not to blame for abduction, then Helen must be guilty of betraying her husband. This is a problem for Homer. See the page on women.

  1. See also the famous Pithecoussai inscription with its mention of Aphrodite's desire.