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This section wishes to give an in-depth look at the role the goddesses played in Helen’s destiny. This means that we will take our point of departure in the fight for the golden apple which leads to Helen being given to Paris. Here, we will also put forth two different arguments, one in which scholars argue that she was a hostage and the other which that she went willingly.
To support these arguments, the Iliad depiction of the kidnapping will be used but also Sappho’s fragment 16 which tells that she went willingly. In continuation of this, one may also examine Helen’s only role in her abduction.
One myth tells that Helen’s abduction originated at the wedding of Thetis and Peleus, every god and goddess were invited to this celebration with the exception of Eris, the goddess of strife, discord, and chaos. Her exclusion enraged her very much and thus she concocted this scheme of pitting Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera against one another.
This was done by throwing “a golden apple among the guests which was inscribed “to the finest.” First, these three women went to Zeus to ask whether he could choose who should be rewarded the fairest of them all, but “not willing to decide in such delicate a matter, [he] sent the goddesses to Mount Ida.” At this Mount was where the beautiful Paris was tending to his flocks and asked him to make a decision in the matter. It is here, one hears of the goddesses bribing him to get the apple: Hera offering him power, Athena offered him military greatness and Aphrodite offering him the fittest lady in all of Greece.
And, it is Mrs. Aphrodite’s bribe that in turn leads to Helen being abducted and thus the telling of the Trojan campaign begins. Another suggests that Paris has heard of her charm, grace, and elegance and thus went to Sparta to kidnap her. It is when telling of Paris arrival, many a myth diverge. Some sources suggest that she willingly left her family behind to be with her “beloved” Paris. Since she was promised to Paris by Aphrodite there is an ambiguity when it comes to her willingness to go with Paris. Other scholars go as far as to argue that her abduction can only be compared to the heinous crime of rape. The argument of rape shall be seen in the ancient meaning of the raptus. In terms of her relationship with Paris also varies depending on the source. In some, she loves him dearly while in others she is merely hostage who brought disaster to everyone around her.
In Homer, Helen is at times a very sympatric character. Taken from her home and family, put under a trance by the wicked Aphrodite. This clearly paints Helen as the victim of this war. On the other hand, one can even go as far as to argue the Helen paints herself as the villain. While the other characters excuse is her beauty, Homer describes it as follows: “Surely there is no blame on Trojans and strong-grieved Achaeans / if for a long time they suffer hardship for a woman like this one.” Priam goes on blaming the war on god’s actions and the reason why Helen “choose” to leave Greece. Yet, the matter becomes even more complex when the village elders voice their concern when it comes to their grieving families. The fight between these ideas calls in to question Helen’s own role in her abduction. In order to find out if she is indeed the villain or the victim of this scheme, it is important to establish if she was driven by desire. Even if she is the villain of the story, it is important to take her action into account. If one should take the classical love story approach, she would not know that her actions had consequences. Plus, she is probably blinded by love or desire even. The classical love story approach may also paint her as a selfish individual who did not know this resulted in a string of violence and destruction. So, did she actually have the luxury of choosing? See the answer to this is as complicated as the character herself since throughout the story she blames herself when nobody else will. With the use of phrases such as “slut that I am,” she paints herself as the villain or at least a temptress. Here, she also undermines herself and maybe even regrets seduce Paris, or is it the other way around. When she approaches Priam on the wall of Troy, the village elders proclaim that one can surely understand why men of honor choices to fight for a beauty such as herself. These comments seem not only to excuse the outbreak of war but also that Helen does not have a choice she will forever be chained. Coupled this with her being nothing more than a prize to be won eliminates Helen’s freedom to choose entirely. When Priam calls upon Helen, he seems to portray her as a victim as well.
“Come over where I am, dear child, and sit down beside me / look at your husband of time past, your friends, and your people. / I am not blaming you: to me the gods are blameworthy / who drove upon me this sorrowful war against the Athenians. / So, you could tell me the name of this man who is so tremendous; who is this Athenian man of power and stature? / Though in truth, there are others taller by a head than he is, / yet these eyes have never yet looked on a man so splendid / nor so lordly as this: such a man might well be royal”
Here, one sees that Priam himself seems to blame the gods for this horrific slaughter-fest, yet he does also acknowledge that Helen has brought lots of misery with her. But he also wishes her to forget her past and move on. Further, he also interrogates her to find out more about Menelaus, who is royal by marriage and not by blood. If Helen did not have a choice in her kidnapping one can easily draw the conclusion that she was overpowered by the goddess of love and therefore is without guilt. Within the framework of the Iliad, the power of Aphrodite is not strongly emphasized but rather Helen’s beauty and lust may accidentally cause the war. Thus, the relation between the goddess of love and the most breath-taking maiden in all of Greece is more concerned with Helen’s reasons for leaving with Paris. Many say that beauty attracts beauty and that is certainly the case here, but it is also argued that Helen may be as vain as Paris. This notion is based on the fact that Helen falls head over heels for this stunning prince and their relationship does not go deeper than the surface. Although this may be true at some point in the narrative Homer hints at the infamous nature of Helen by writing as follows: “we shall be made into things of the song for the men of the future.” This suggests that she find the idea of fame tantalizing and this stands in starch contrast to the picture she paints of an unworthy woman at the beginning of the narrative. In contrast to the story Helen has been woven into my “meeting” Paris there is another awaiting her which tells of her glory and is fabricated by humans for humans. Then again, her feeling sorry for herself may paint her as more of a drama Queen than an actual apology. While the hunger for fame and immortalization is hinted at throughout the tale this is especially evident in book three where she claims the following:
“I wish bitter death had been what I wanted, / when I came hither / following your son, forsaking my chamber, my kinsman, / my grown child, and the loveliness of girls my own age. / It did not happen that way: and now I am worn by weeping”
Here, the reader is thrown directly into a scene where he/she is witness to Helen taking the position of the narrator in the tale. She is in the middle of telling a story of a struggle between two nations where the prize is not only glory but also the hand of the sweetheart of one of the nations. If she should truly be the victim of this conflict, she should distance herself from it. On the contrary, she bathes in the glory that comes with the title of being the “fairest” of the land. On a literal level, she is the overseer of the battle and thus immortalizing the role. Metaphorically, not hinting too much to her role in this bloody play. The way this plays out tells us truly how dangerous a woman can be and how bloodthirsty even. When it comes to her duality or her ability to manipulate not only the reader but also the characters within the narrative. At one turn, she is the puppet controlled by lust the next she is the puppeteer making central characters believe in her lie. Plus, at times she does seem to have empathy for those she dragged into her mess. Her empathy is often used as an argument in favor of her being the victim rather than the villain. Thus, one can even argue that Homer uses Helen to discuss the danger of female beauty. According to Rudy Blondell beauty played a vital role in a woman’s fate in ancient Greece, the same can be said for men as well.
Ancient Greek culture is obsessed with identifying the best the swiftest, the strongest, the finest of its kind. Beauty is high on this list of prized traits. As the manifestation of bodily excellence, it betokens women’s readiness for marriage and men’s for its male equivalent to the battlefield. It is therefore sought after in men and women alike. Yet beauty has special meaning for women. A woman’s most highly valued social function is to perpetuate her husband’s name and line by bearing him, male heirs. A girl’s acquisition of erotic beauty at adolescence marks her readiness to undertake this role, signaling her desirability as a wife and her potential to bear fine children.
In the ancient world of the Iliad vanity was the bases for choosing who should marry who. Plus, it seemed to play a more significant role in women’s future since her “erotic” beauty tells if she is the right maiden to bear offspring. Attractions seemed also to be based strongly on appearance while for men it is more a question of military excellence. In relation to the Iliad, the “erotic beauty” of the protagonist Helen leads to war or so it is said. Many a man does desire her and she herself a victim of her own desire. In terms of desire she is herself quite confused does she wish to bed Paris or not. In the Iliad, this is clearly depicted in book 6 where she at once passionately curses Paris and shortly after cuddles with him in bed. If one is to believe her to be the wicked young lady driven by desire, she depicts herself as and thus the villain. It is even more difficult to see her as an individual who does not realize that her actions have consequences. Plus, an individual who is truly cunning would not care about the consequences. So, one may argue that she has no identity besides that of a daughter, mother or wife which makes it a great challenge for her to find her footing outside these roles. At the time women did not have a chance to create their own sense of identity they were basically just fitted into a certain box. Additionally, they were not seen as sexual beings with their own desires and needs. In short, their main purpose was to be ruled and it is here the magnificent Helen breaks conventions or does she. This is a highly debated point for many scholars to this day. As mentioned previously, she does portray herself as a wicked woman the major of the narrative, yet she does have remorse for the victims of her actions. This is especially prevalent at Hector’s funeral.
“Hector of all my lord’s brothers dearest by of my spirit: / my husband of Alexandros, like an immortal, who brought me here to Troy; / and I should have died before I came with him/ I mourn for you in the sorrow of heart and mourn myself also and my ill luck. / There was no other in all the wide Troad who was kind to me, and my friend; all others shrank when they saw me.”
Here, one clearly sees that she is not as cold-hearted is first thought but has quite a great amount of sympathy for others. Yet, she does seem slightly self-centered as well or is it just her acknowledging her own role in the matter. It also suggests that she had a complicated relationship with this Trojan hero which at times could be quite questionable. On the one hand, caring even sisterly on the other seductive: “Helen spoke to him in words of endearment: / But come in now and rest in this chair, my brother” Here, she sorts of disregards the notion that Hector is happily married with children. Further, in the speech she holds at Hector’s funeral also suggests that he was very friendly with her and she may have taken this for potential sexual relations. At some point, this friendly nature may even have turned in to a “brother” needing to protect his “sister.” The thing that possesses the biggest threat to their relationship, besides Hector being a family man, is his that he is the embodiment of honor while the lovely Paris who the direct opposite. By showing interest in Helen he suggests that she is more than just a seductress or that even the nobles individual gives in to lust. He also shows that a little kindness can go a long way. It also shows that one needs wickedness and nobility to be human. The eulogy truly tells that she regrets that she was not the one who died but rather an innocent young man and father. Finally, it indicates her importance in the whole narrative. She was after all the one who set off the whole tale and the one the end it all off by nailing home that she is the only person who came out of this unharmed. Thus, if she is the victim, she seems to be a rather powerful one.
Now, if she is not to be seen as the victim, she is something much darker. In a pivotal point in the story, she mentions wishing to return to her husband: “Speaking to the goddess left on her heart sweet longing after her husband of time before ” Then if she is to be believed, she is truly a scheming mastermind, because she not only comes out life but also forgiven and allowed to return to her spouse. The speech at Hector’s funeral and subsequent relationship with this honorable man is the only thing suggesting otherwise. Or as Naddaff puts it, “Helen’s willingness to shroud herself in the language of shame might be a strategic ploy worthy of only the most dangerous and seductive woman of all.” This clear alludes to her likeness to Aphrodite and the fact that she may never have a say in the matter after all. This “clear” example of her being a puppet controlled by the goddess of love herself suggests that she has resources other women do not. The likeness to Aphrodite also shows that the notion that women are dangerous is not a new one. who should deny themselves to be with the goddess of love herself? Aphrodite’s manipulation tactics are especially apparent when she talks Helen into sitting with the prince of Sparta after she rescued Achilleus. She is outraged by this notion and cries out:
“Strange divinity! Why are you still so stubborn to beguile me? / Will you carry me further yet somewhere among cities fairly settled?/ In Phrygia or in lovely Mania? / Is there also some mortal man there is dear to you?”
This act of fury suggests that Helen is aware that she has been tricked into leaving her home and family and she is quite frankly infuriated by her willingness to do so. Despite her attempt to get Aphrodite to stay of this, she unwillingly goes with Paris to Sparta. Again, Helen ends up drawing the shortest straw of the bunch, the same happens when she arrives in Sparta.
“So, you came back from fighting. Oh, how I wish you have died / there beaten down by the stronger man, who was once my husband. / There was a time before you boasted that you were better than warlike Menelaus / in spear and hand and your own strength. Speaking, he led the way to the bed: / and his wife went with him.”
This clearly shows Paris’ ability in battle which he has non-off whatsoever, yet he still loves to boast about this. Further, the only way he may win on the battlefield is by being a cheat. Concerning Helen, this whole scene again plays into the notion that she has no agency. Plus, she also has a slight problem with uttering the word no.
Helen’s association with the goddess of allure makes her role in the war as a whole rather questionable. Their alliance seems to work both for and against the notion that Helen is a helpless young maiden who has been dragged into this without a say. For instance, many scholars argue that Helen is merely Aphrodite’s mortal counterpart and the Troy elders discussing her beauty seem to agree. Her likeness to the divine beauty of Aphrodite is commented on as follows: “Terrible is the likeness of her face to the immortal goddess.” Besides alluding to her likeness to Aphrodite, Homer also hints at her divine origin and thus her familiar bonds with Aphrodite. First, one has “Helen, the daughter and descended of Zeus” And later “gloriously descended Helen.” These specific descriptions along with others suggest that she may be a demigod and even related by blood to Aphrodite. The likeness of the two ladies is especially prevalent when they in the same scene where this specific reference is used “daughter of Zeus of the aegis.” An interesting referred to in this scenario is the ages which is an attribute of Zeus himself and his wife Athena. This attribute is often shown to be a goatskin shield. Like many fathers, Zeus which to protect his daughters and the same can certainly be said for mothers as well. Fathers become especially protective when their daughters are young and beautiful and thus one may conclude that one sees the reference to the shield. But then again there is a war raging in the world of the mortals. Plus, many a myth suggest that Athena exchanged her feminine beauty and frailness for the masculine trades such as logic and strategic know-how. Her exchanging certain feminine trades for certain masculine trades may be the reason why she is associated with this shield.
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