Once more, it’s Words Crush Wednesday, and I’m still in the process of trying to quote one of my favorite parts of the Iliad, the duel between Menelaos and Paris. (How long have I been building to this now? Four or five weeks? Maybe my quotes are too short.) Last week, Paris, having been brow-beaten by Hector, finally agreed to fight Menelaos, but only if it was a one-on-one, formal duel, with Helen, her wealth (a very important point!) and the war itself at stake. There are speeches about it as Hector proposes the duel to the Greeks, and as Menelaos gladly accepts, but (as promised) I’m skipping over those, as they don’t really add anything new to the proceedings, per se, apart from the need to have Priam come down and swear his oath that the duel will end the war. I was going to skip straight to the duel now, but…I had to quote this part, because I really like it. Still in Book III, still the W.H.D. Rouse translation. As some set-up, Iris (messenger of the gods) has taken on the guise of one of Priam’s daughters.
Iris found Helen in her room. She was weaving a great web of purple stuff, double size; and embroidering in it pictures of the battles of that war which two armies were waging for her sake. Iris came up to Helen and said:
“Come along, my love, and see a wonderful sight! They were all fighting in the plain like fury, and now all of a sudden they are sitting down, not a sound to be heard, no more battle, all leaning upon their shields, and their spears stuck in the ground! But Alexandros and Menelaos are going to fight for you! and you are to be the wife of the winner!”
These words pierced Helen to the heart. She longed for her husband of the old days, for home and family. At once she threw a white veil over her, and left the house quickly with tears running down her cheeks.
This leads into the famous “Helen on the Wall” sequence, in which she identifies various of the Greek leaders for Priam and the Trojan elders. I like some of that a lot, and may quote it later, but next week I really will move on to the duel itself, I promise. I just had to quote this part in passing, because I love the fact that Helen regrets what’s happening, and at this point wants nothing more than to go home to her daughter and her true husband. (Possibly also to her father; he may still be a live at this point. Or rather, in some stories he definitely is, and in others it doesn’t come up. I don’t think it comes up in the Iliad or the Odyssey, so I don’t know if Tyndareos was considered to be still alive in Homeric times.)
I’ve seen people talk about Helen weaving that tapestry and describe it as an act of vanity on her part, but that’s not how I see it. I see it as her way of mourning all the good lives being cut short because of something she no longer has any power to stop. In fact, she never really had any power to stop it, not in the Homeric version; the war was the will of the gods. (In some of the Athenian tragedies, especially Euripides’ Trojan Women, that’s no longer the case.)
You know, I think when I finally finish with this duel, I’m going to move on to passages that highlight the greatness of my two favorite Achaian champions: Patroclos and Aias. Particularly Patroclos. He doesn’t get enough love (except from Achilles) and that needs to change!