Conflicting ideas about Helen of Troy, and her level of culpability in the end of the Age of Heroes, begins with her birth.
Though Leda is considered by the majority of poets and scholars to have been her mother, there is another tradition that Leda was, in fact, a foster mother who raised a little girl dropped in her lap one morning by a large and mysterious swan. In this version, Helen was the daughter of Zeus and the goddess Nemesis, the embodiment of divine retribution for those whose excessive pride had led them to raise themselves above the order of things. Older than Zeus, Nemesis was one of those early goddesses of mysterious origins (her mother was usually cited as Nyx, the fathomless night) and incredible, unquestionable power. The most pervasive myth about her was that she wandered the earth, winged and carrying a sword, and that the day she left the earth to return to heaven would mark the beginning of the end of the world. Thus, in versions of the Trojan saga where Nemesis is the mother of Helen, it is not Zeus who visits Leda as a swan, but Leda’s perception of Nemesis as she takes flight, abandoning her newborn daughter, the vehicle through which disaster of epic proportions will be unleashed on the kingdoms of men.
If we accept this story it’s actually kind of hard to hold Helen’s role as the Greek anti-Christ against her: clearly it’s what’s intended from the start by forces not only more powerful than her, but more powerful than Zeus himself- which is interesting to think about in light of the tradition that Zeus generally disapproves of the Trojan War, favors the Trojans an account of their high level of civilization, and only upholds the Greeks “winning” the war because it’s decreed by Fate, who even Zeus can not over-rule. Even without the double whammy of being the daughter of Nemesis, the earliest depictions we get of Helen, via The Iliad (where she is Leda’s daughter), depict her as a reluctant prop- the question is really just whose prop. Her husband’s? Her lover’s? Or something far more powerful and sinister?
Homer’s Helen, as she appears in Book III of The Iliad, is a lonely, sad woman full of self-hate who is shunned by the majority of Trojans, particularly the women, and feels helpless, adrift in a sea of conflicting interests, none of which are her own. At one point she openly admits that she has no real love for Paris, but only left Menelaus on account of the machinations of Aphrodite, who uses threats and magic to keep Helen in Paris’ bed. But anyone who knows anything about Greek mythology knows that the gods, particularly the Olympian gods, aren’t stand alone beings whimsically using their super powers to toy with human beings, but rather manifestations of the forces inside of us, representing just how powerful- and whimsical- our own personalities can be. Claiming that “Aphrodite made me do it!” is akin to crying, “The Devil made me do it!” and was really a poetic way of shirking responsibility. Maybe the Devil did make you do it, but the question of who let the Devil in remains on the table and implies that the sins of the transgressor cannot be wholly placed upon external intervention. Even the most literal reading of the gods of Ancient Greece will usually find that human beings often take the first step, and usually the second and third as well, of their own free will: the gods rarely act or intervene so much as indirectly help out or hinder- or in the case of sins, provide the temptations. When Helen tries to resist Aphrodite it’s frightening and you feel sorry for her, but it’s hard not to also recognize the person Helen is really fighting with is herself and not so much her attraction to Paris, as her desire to control him and benefit from the place in Trojan society conveyed by her marriage to him. Not that Helen considered herself worse off with Menelaus- in Book III she readily considers returning to him and ultimately they do end up together and (irony of all ironies) more or less happy (certainly they end their days much more peacefully than most of the other major players in the Trojan War). What Helen doesn’t consider is any life outside of being a kept woman to a king or prince who can provide her with the jewels and luxuries she rushes to pack when it looks like she might be heading back to Greece. The implication is that ultimately Helen, though complicated and mortal, is still fundamentally a weak willed woman who values status, wealth and other facets of her own vanity over doing “the right thing.”
Of course, it might be hard to know what the right thing to do is when you live in a society where traditional concepts of good and evil don’t really exist and the value system of war, honor and retribution tends to trump that of peace, forgiveness and generosity. For this reason, famously pacifist Euripedes often uses Helen as the symbol of the war-mongering mentality he saw as man’s worst personality flaw- an outgrowth of unchecked vanity and delusion which tied in nicely with the myth of Helen. Where as mysoginist Hesiod used Helen as the ultimate embodiment of the evils women created, Euripedes often took a novel (and to some extent, progressive) approach of making Helen the symbol of man’s ultimate evils, usually by contrasting her, negatively, with other women of her era, for whom Euripedes seems to have felt tremendous sympathy. This is particularly notable in The Trojan Women, where Helen is sharply contrasted with Andromache, Cassandra and Hecuba, presented as noble sufferers whose spirits somehow remain unbroken, while Helen flounces around the stage like the vacuous slut the chorus (also women) accuses her of being. In another Euripedean tragedy, Andromache, Helen’s daughter Hermoine conducts herself in a fashion that the chorus readily recognizes as “like mother, like daughter”. Eventually she runs off and marries Orestes, her cousin, further cementing the idea of the Houses of Sparta and Argos as the classical equivalent of white trash. Contrast this with Euripedes’ love affair with Andromache, Helen’s Trojan foil, the devoted wife and widow of Hector whose infant son is brutally murdered and yet somehow Andromache is able to keep it together, survive a decade of slavery to the son of her husband’s killer, and eventually ends up married to Helenus, one of the last surviving princes of Troy who has somehow managed to eke out a small and peaceful kingdom. Andromache’s ultimate happiness is one of the hardest earned happy endings in Greek mythology, but it establishes her as a bonafide heroine- a shining example of everything Helen doesn’t embody- namely strength of character, will power to endure the brutality of men and gods alike, and integrity and honor comparable to her husband’s legendary example.
And yet a more interesting, and perhaps less obvious comparison, is between Helen and Medea. Where as we know Andromache will ultimately end up better and certainly more reveared than Helen because that’s how most stories work, it’s shocking when one realizes that Medea arguably also comes to a better end. While she isn’t responsible for starting a war, Medea is certainly on par with Clytemnestra and the daughters of Danaus, famous villainesses of Greek myth. Her racked up body count includes an old man, his twin daughters, her own brother, and her own children. Yet at the end of her mythic cycle, Medea steps onto a chariot led by dragons and ascends into the heavens and, ostensibly, immortality. Helen, even in the most forgiving tales, only manages a spot in Elysium, the VIP section of the Underworld. Why does one lethal beauty end up a goddess while another more or less fades into obscurity? In the end, it’s all conjecture, but my theory can be summed up in one sentence: because Medea is a bad-ass and Helen is just a pretty face.
Something we often forget is that ancient Greek morality was very different from the Judeo-Christian morality that influences our modern concepts of right or wrong. Being a terrible person (i.e. Medea) was a lot more acceptable if you were pro-actively terrible. If you really embraced the darkness of your soul you might end up condemned to eternal torture in Tartarus- but you also had a decent shot at being elevated to divine status if, frankly, even the gods were impressed (and probably somewhat frightened of you). That, however, would require more work than Helen ever puts into anything, and so once more her defining feature (aside from her beauty) appears to be her passiveness. She lacks the personal drive to be either a heroine or a villain, and because she more or less ends peacefully, she’s even denied the noble victimhood/martyr status of figures like Cassandra or Iphegenia. Her only significant child, Hermoine, isn’t terribly significant at all so Helen doesn’t even have the dubious distinction of being the mother of a hero, a la Denae, Aethra or even Cassiopeia. Even Helen of Troy’s name hints that her only value is in relation to the society whose destruction her passivity brings about; without it, she’s just a pretty face. Which, since beauty ultimately fades (and even Helen ends up in the Underworld) means that in reality, Helen is arguably the most famous cipher in literature.
Euripedes sources his play about Helen from this idea: that behind the attractive façade, there’s actually nothing there- Helen is a giant zero. First suggested by the ancient historian Herodotus, the crux of the argument is that Helen herself never actually went to Troy, but it was a decoy created by Aphrodite (a la Pandora) who Paris stole and the real Helen awoke to find herself in Egypt, one of the few civilized nations to abstain entirely from the Trojan War. For ten years Helen remained in this place until by chance, on his return voyage from Troy, Menelaus and his crew landed near the temple where she sought sanctuary and only then does Menelaus realize that the Helen in his ship is a phantom, and that the war he has spent the prime of his life fighting and which has killed countless men and women and children, was fought in the name of something that was never really there. Euripedes takes this variant a few steps farther, implying that the phantom Helen was the ultimate punishment of the Gods- or perhaps, the ultimate gambit in their attempt to reveal to mankind their true nature, as no less than Athena (the goddess of wisdom) is credited with the creation of the phantom Helen (though Hera apparently comes up with the idea). Helen was written at a time when there was a great tremendous questioning of traditional values, and it’s hard to miss the poet’s statement about the worthlessness of trophies (be they beautiful queens or glorious reputations), the pointlessness of war, the destructiveness of honor at all costs, and that man’s foolish and violent nature is the problem, not Fate, not the gods, and certainly not an errant woman. As Menelaus and Helen escape to freedom and ostensible domestic bliss (that was apparently never in question, just interrupted), the happy ending isn’t entirely satisfying because it’s impossible to ignore the sheer wastefulness of everything that has provided for it. Even when Helen is finally given her redemption, she leaves a bitter taste in your mouth and you can never quite shake the nagging thought that femme fatale or tragic pawn, she just wasn’t worth it.
But as Janine Garofolo’s character points out in the climactic scene of the 1996 film The Truth About Cats And Dogs, when has that knowledge ever stopped men from throwing it all away for a pretty face?
Check back next week for the conclusion of Stuart Bousel’s exploration of Helen of Troy, and don’t miss Helen at the San Francisco Theater Pub, one night only, this Valentine’s Day, at the Cafe Royale (800 Post Street, San Francisco), 8 PM, Free!