Starting the year right…

Published January 1, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

…blog-wise, by going back to my heartland.  That is, by talking about Greek myths.  The Trojan War, of course.  (It’s like a red letter day when it’s anything else, for the past year…well, almost a year.  A year minus two weeks, roughly.)

However, today’s is also different, ’cause today I want to talk about Helen.  Why she goes to Troy with Alexander/Paris is ultimately one of the biggest sticking points of the myth.  And by “sticking points” I more mean “hurdles on the track, which can trip the whole story and leave it flat on its face, unable to finish the race.”  It’s just that “sticking point” is more economical, in terms of number of words.

It seems like a lot of versions–even one of the earliest (technically, merely a reference (by Sappho), rather than a full telling)–insist that Helen went willingly out of love for Alexander/Paris.  That actually makes zero sense.  In fact, it makes negative sense.

Let me explain.  Helen is the Queen of Sparta.  (Actually, of Lacedaemon or Laconia, but Sparta is faster to type, so I’m going with that for this discussion.  And by that logic, I think I’ll start just calling him the later name Paris instead of the Homeric Alexander.)  And when I say she’s the Queen of Sparta, I mean it literally.  Not that she’s the “wife of the king”  but that she, herself, is the queen.  In other words, it’s her birthright to be the queen.  Menelaos only became king by marrying her.  So what the “she’s doing it for love” crowd are claiming is that she left behind the land of her birth, where the throne itself was her birthright, in order to move to a faraway kingdom (where, realistically, she wouldn’t speak the language or worship the same gods (though the myths themselves don’t reflect that)) where her beloved was only second in line to the throne.  So she’s sacrificing her royal birthright to be the foreign “bride” of a prince who has little chance of succeeding to the throne, given that his elder brother is a god among men, while Paris himself is a weakling.

Now let’s stop and look at a few other Greek queens in the same larger myth who decided that they didn’t love their husbands.  Clytemnestra spent years cavorting with Aigisthos until Agamemnon finally returned home, at which time they murdered him and then had their own wedding and settled in to rule Mycenae in peace.  (Until Orestes came home and killed them both, but that’s another story.)  Diomedes’ wife (sorry, I don’t remember her name) decided she didn’t love him, so she hooked up with a man from one of the other ruling families of Argos, and as soon as Diomedes returned home from the war, they drove him out of Argos, then ruled the city as husband and wife.  Clytemnestra’s case is complicated, but Diomedes’ wife’s case is open and shut.  Diomedes gained his throne by marrying her, so when she decided she wanted another husband, he was out of luck, out of wife, and out of home.  In other words, his position is exactly what Menelaos’ would have been if Helen simply fell in love with Paris; they would have driven him out of Sparta on his return from Crete.  Or, if Helen turned out to be more like her sister, they would have murdered him on his return.  Either way, her simply running away from Sparta–leaving behind her daughter as well as her homeland!–makes no sense.  If I had my reference books with me, I could come up with some more obscure cases that would parallel Diomedes’ pretty much exactly.  And probably a few that parallel Agamemnon’s, too.  (Though in most (or all) of those cases it would be the wife’s lover who did the killing, not the wife.  The fact that Clytemnestra herself took part in the murders was what really shocked them about the story.)

So, why did she go to Troy?  Well, that’s the big thing that every version has to decide on, isn’t it?  It’s easiest if you’re going to accept interference by the gods.  Then the gods made her go, in one way or another, for one reason or another.  That’s really the standard explanation, when one’s specifically given, in ancient times.  (There are exceptions, of course.  The Trojan Women of Euripides established that she went for reasons of lust and greed, and Sappho said she went for love, just to name two.)  The Iliad didn’t make a big deal of it, but it did have one small mention that did point out that Aphrodite’s gift to Paris made Helen unable to refuse him, thus explaining why she left with him, and moving the blame from Helen to Aphrodite.  The Cypria apparently told the story more fully, and made it even more clear that it was divine will that she go.

But how about if one wants to tell the story without the gods, or at least without allowing them much agency to interfere directly in the actions of humans?  Then, if you want it to make sense, there are only a few good explanations, and two of them specifically turn one side into the “good guys” and the other into the “bad guys.”

1)  This is one of the “taking sides” explanations.  Helen could have left with Paris if the Greeks specifically wanted an excuse to invade Troy.  In other words, Menelaos could have told her to elope with Paris as soon as his back was turned, in order to give him and Agamemnon an excuse to invade.  This is incompatible with Menelaos’ portrayal in most ancient works, of course, but that’s not really the point here; I’m just trying to outline the possible reasons a modern author could give Helen for her departure to Troy.  Of course, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be Menelaos who gave her the order to elope:  it could have been Agamemnon, or Tyndareos could see Paris’ flirting with her as an opportunity for his sons-in-law to gain even more power and prestige, or it could even be Odysseus’ suggestion (via his wife, Penelope, perhaps, since she’s Helen’s cousin) or whoever.  Point is, one could make the Trojans out to be essentially blameless by making Helen a knowing tool literally out to cause a war.

2)  To take the other side, Paris could abduct her by force (in many tellings, Aineias goes with him to Sparta, and he’s actually a powerful warrior, unlike his cousin Paris), not so much for reasons of sexual desire, but for political or financial reasons.  Since Helen is the rightful queen, her husband is automatically King of Sparta.  He could attempt to seduce her in order to gain Menelaos’ throne, and when that doesn’t work, steal her by force, intending to coerce her into the union at his leisure, only to find that her husband isn’t willing to wait for Paris’ plan to work.  Or he could steal her for some other political scheme hatched by himself, one of his brothers, one of the Trojan elders, or even by the High King in Hattusa.  (The real Troy was, after all, a Hittite vassal state.)  As a way to make the Greeks out to be blameless, this is a version unlikely to be used by any modern author.  (Except maybe if they’re Greek?)

3)  Helen could go with Paris specifically because she alone wants to foment war between the Greeks and the Trojans.  In most versions–though not all, as there’s no indication in Homer of the story–Helen was abducted by a horny, widowed Theseus when she was a young girl, and her brothers Castor and Polydeuces chased after them with the entire Spartan army, conquering Attica to get her back.  (This is why the King of Athens during the Trojan War is Menestheus rather than Theseus or one of his sons.  The Dioscuri put Menestheus, a friend of theirs as well as a member of a branch of the Athenian royal family, on the throne while they were at it.)  Having once before caused a war by being abducted, Helen would know that her departure to Troy would lead to another war over her, so that could be her real motivation, though exactly why she would want to cause a war would depend on the modern writer’s goals.  (Credit where credit’s due, this one isn’t my idea.  My professor was the one who suggested it, but it makes perfect sense.  It’s heartless, yes, but at least the logic of it is sound, unlike the “she’s doing it for love” version.)

4)  Helen runs off with Paris not because she wants to be married to him, but because she wants to reach Troy for other reasons.  For example, maybe she’s decided that she actually hates men, and wants to be an Amazon.  Troy is much closer to Scythia (where the historical women who inspired the tales of Amazons came from) so she could hope to escape from Troy and join the Amazons.  Or maybe she has some other reason for needing to be in Anatolia:  a prophecy to fulfill, a treasure to seek, a cure for some mystical plague, foretellings of doom if she remains in Greece, there are countless possibilities for whatever the modern storyteller might want.  This version can make not only the Greeks and Trojans out to be essentially blameless as instigators of the war, but can also salvage Helen’s own reputation, if her reasons are right, so it ought to be a modern writer’s go-to logic for Helen’s departure, and yet I doubt it’s seen much (if any) use.

Despite all these versions that would actually work, I have a feeling that if I did a survey of all Trojan War novels, movies and so forth of the last hundred years, I suspect that all (or almost all) of the versions that avoid or reject the intervention of the Greek gods in mortal affairs would go with some variation on the “love” version that doesn’t actually make a lick of sense.  I hope I’m wrong about that, but I fear I’m not.

(Admittedly, my own novel, Ilios, does not do anything groundbreaking in that regard, either.  But that’s because I wanted to follow the myths, so I had Aphrodite send Eros to blind her with one of his arrows.  It still doesn’t make sense, but at least she’s literally out of her head, so it doesn’t need to make sense.  Or not as much sense, anyway.)

So what’s my point?  Mostly, my point is “c’mon, guys, let’s see some creativity here!”  If you’ve gotta muck about with the myths, at least do it in a manner that’s gonna be interesting and make at least some sense.

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