Shall we talk about Helen of Sparta?
This Roman relief, believed to be based on Greek models and dating anywhere from 100 BC- 100, depicts Aphrodite, Eros, and Peitho (goddess of Persuasion) overseeing the meeting between Helen and Paris.
In both Greek and Roman mythologies, Helen’s birth follows sexual violence. In Ovid, she is born to Leda after Zeus rapes her in swan form. In Greek epic fragments, Helen is the daughter of Nemesis, who changes form to try, unsuccessfully, to escape Zeus’ sexual assault. This experience is also shared by Achilles’ mother, Thetis, who is forcibly married to Peleus and (in some versions) tries to change form to escape him. Achilles and Helen, both born after sexual violence, are instruments through which Zeus brings about countless Achaean deaths, and ends the age of heroes.
In Homer’s Iliad, Helen’s epithets are “daughter of Zeus” (both κόρη/maiden and θυγάτηρ/daughter are used in the Greek), typically reserved for goddesses. Helen is the only mortal to whom this epithet is applied, though male heroes may be described as “born of Zeus.” This seems to portray Helen in both heroic and divine terms.
In Iliad book 3, Aphrodite summons Helen to Paris’ bed, but Helen refuses, asking the goddess, “Lady; why are you so anxious to lead me astray like this?” In response, Aphrodite seethes: “Do not provoke me, obstinate woman, or I may grow angry and desert you, and come to hate you as violently as now I love you […] and then you will die a wretched death.” In response, “Helen, daughter of Zeus, was afraid, and went away, covering her face with her shining white veil, in silence.”
It’s a chilling scene that underscores Helen’s captivity and powerlessness. The pervasiveness of Aphrodite’s violence, whether for love or hate, is striking. It makes her seem indeed a perfect companion for Ares.
I would love to hear your thoughts on Helen and the various ways she has been represented in ancient mythologies and modern retellings.
7 thoughts on “Helen in Greek and Roman Mythologies”
I think it’s interesting how Helen is such a famous and, it turns out, oversimplified, figure. Recently, there’s been a lot more talk about Marilyn Monroe and how she was used by various people in various ways, and how, in a sense, Kim Kardashian wearing her famous “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress, continues this treatment long after her death. We think of Helen of Troy as a famous beauty, and a homewrecker, essentially, only on a huge scale, what with “causing” a war and all. But as I wrote to you previously, as a first-time reader of “The Iliad” who participated in your read-along a few years ago, I found those scenes where she tried to resist Aphrodite absolutely heartbreaking. My knowledge of her previously was as a young woman in love, blind to the damage she was doing, or not caring. But after that, I saw her story differently.
I had no idea of Helen’s origin and seeing how that parallels Achilles is so interesting. I’ve always seen Helen presented as a passive part of the story, the instigator behind all the events but in the versions I’ve heard and read, she didn’t have much agency or her perspective was often left out entirely and her story only comes through other characters’ tellings.
It’s so interesting to read different versions of Helen’s backstory from the epic cycle. I’m probably getting tiresome repeating this endlessly, but it’s so helpful to remember that what we get in Anglophone retellings is the Roman view, which is quite different from the archaic Greek one!
Without knowing any better, I accidentally read Samuel Butler’s version of the Odyssey first, now I can’t unread it! No other version now sounds so beautiful and poetic to me. If only I had went to High School in the 19th Century I could read it in the Greek!
Ah, as long as you found a translation that speaks to you, that is great 🙂