Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Helen, Alternative

In Greek mytholody Helen was the daughter of Zeus and Leda, daughter of King Tyndareus, wife of Menelaus, and sister of Castor, Polydeuces and Clytemnestra. Her abduction by Paris brought about the Trojan War. As Christopher Marlowe puts it in Doctor Faustus, this is 'the face that launched a thousand ships'.


Helen, by cocoricooo

But why did Paris take Helen?  It all started at a wedding. When Peleus and Thetis (the parents of Achilles) got married, Zeus held a banquet. However, Eris, the goddess of discord, was not invited. So she arrived at the celebration, but threw a golden apple, the Apple of Discord, among the guests, upon which was the inscription 'for the fairest one'. Three goddesses claimed the apple: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. They asked Zeus to judge which of them was fairest, and eventually Zeus, reluctant to make a choice himself, declared that Paris, a Trojan mortal, would judge who the most beautiful goddess was. Aphrodite promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world if he would name her as fairest, and thus he gave the golden apple to the goddess of love, which really angered Zeus's wife, Hera, as well as Athena. And this is the way Paris abducted Helen from Sparta, according to the Homeric version of the myth.

There is a different version of the myth, however, which Euripides used to build his play Helen on. According to this other version, Hera, angry from the judgement of Paris, created a fake Helen, a sort of phantom which Paris actually took with him to Troy thinking it was the real Helen, and then she ordered Hermes to take the real Helen to Egypt, and have her be a guest at the palace of Proteus. According to this myth, the whole Trojan War took place for nothing. Essentially, Euripides's Helen talks about the futility of war.



Helen Chain Shoe Harness, by dearbearcat  


George Seferis (1900-1971), the Greek Nobel prize winning poet, wrote a poem about Helen.  To read the poem in Greek, click here. This is the English text, as Philip Sherard and Edmund Keeley translated it:


George Seferis, Helen

Teucer: . . . in sea-girt Cyprus, where it was decreed
by Apollow that I should live, giving the city
the name of Salamis in memory of my island home.

. . . . . . . . . .
Helen: I never went to Troy; it was a phantom.
. . . . . . . . . .
Servant: What? You mean it was only for a cloud
that we struggled so much?

Euripides, Helen

‘The nightingales won’t let you sleep in Platres.’

Shy nightingale, in the breathing of the leaves,
you who bestow the forest’s musical coolness
on the sundered bodies, on the souls
of those who know they will not return.
Blind voice, you who grope in the darkness of memory
for footsteps and gestures — I wouldn’t dare say kisses —
and the bitter raving of the frenzied slave-woman.

‘The nightingales won’t let you sleep in Platres.’

Platres: where is Platres? And this island: who knows it?
I’ve lived my life hearing names I’ve never heard before:
new countries, new idiocies of men
or of the gods;
                      my fate, which wavers
between the last sword of some Ajax
and another Salamis,
brought me here, to this shore.
                                              The moon
rose from the sea like Aphrodite,
covered the Archer’s stars, now moves to find
the heart of Scorpio, and alters everything.
Truth, where’s the truth?
I too was an archer in the war;
my fate: that of a man who missed his target.

Lyric nightingale,
on a night like this, by the shore of Proteus,
the Spartan slave-girls heard you and began their lament,
and among them — who would have believed it? — Helen!
She whom we hunted so many years by the banks of the Scamander.
She was there, at the desert’s lip; I touched her; she spoke to me:
‘It isn’t true, it isn’t true,’ she cried.
‘I didn’t board the blue bowed ship.
I never went to valiant Troy.’

Breasts girded high, the sun in her hair, and that stature
shadows and smiles everywhere,
on shoulders, thighs and knees;
the skin alive, and her eyes
with the large eyelids,
she was there, on the banks of a Delta.
                                                         And at Troy?
At Troy, nothing: just a phantom image.
That’s how the gods wanted it.
And Paris, Paris lay with a shadow as though it were a solid being;
and for ten whole years we slaughtered ourselves for Helen.

Great suffering had desolated Greece.
So many bodies thrown
into the jaws of the sea, the jaws of the earth
so many souls
fed to the millstones like grain.
And the rivers swelling, blood in their silt,
all for a linen undulation, a filmy cloud,
a butterfly’s flicker, a wisp of swan’s down,
an empty tunic — all for a Helen.
And my brother?
                         Nightingale nightingale nightingale,
what is a god? What is not a god? And what is there in between them?

‘The nightingales won’t let you sleep in Platres.’

Tearful bird,
                  on sea-kissed Cyprus
consecrated to remind me of my country,
I moored alone with this fable,
if it’s true that it is a fable,
if it’s true that mortals will not again take up
the old deceit of the gods;
                                       if it’s true
that in future years some other Teucer,
or some Ajax or Priam or Hecuba,
or someone unknown and nameless who nevertheless saw
a Scamander overflow with corpses,
isn’t fated to hear
messengers coming to tell him
that so much suffering, so much life,
went into the abyss
all for an empty tunic, all for a Helen.

Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

What do you think of that poem? Do you like the alternative version of the story of Helen?


  1. bravo vre amor!!!! poly oraio post!

  2. είσαι καταπληκτική τι να πω πιά...πρέπει να πας να δεις αυτό το ιστολόγιο εδώ, ειδικά την τελευταία ανάρτηση ..

  3. Great post and I love the featured shops!
    Με γεια το blog!

  4. oh wow!
    I love this post, was really interesting. I never knew about that version of the story.
    Thank you for the feature, really gives that extra meaning to all of these designs.

  5. Meno afoni ....
    Very impressive post and beautiful blog!
    Thank you for featuring my dove cushion and keep up this wonderful work :-)
    Bravo sou !

  6. wonderful post!and so beautifully combined the story with beautiful creations!Bravo Amor!!