Thinking about Helen
I have spent the summer studying The Iliad and The Odyssey as I prepare for a new year of teaching English to high school freshmen. These ancient Greek epics are known as the cornerstones of Western literature and culture, works that define our culture and reveal to us the source of our values--specifically, hospitality and valor. Culturally, that’s why we keep them around and why we have English classes in which kids are expected to wrestle with the ideas of these books. On the surface, that cornerstone-of-Western-culture stuff sounds like the mission of English class is to confirm established prejudices about how cool the West is and why we are write to impose ourselves on the world. In fact, taxpayers underwrite the exploration of the big questions of who we are and what we are doing here--individually and in relation to each other. In this materialistic, money-grubbing, screw-nature-if-there’s-a-dollar-to-be-made age, we put money down on the big questions and expect our kids to work on them. English class is about becoming yourself.
Which brings me to an essential female figure in these epics that focus on the actions of men. Helen of Troy is a significant figure in these epics, even if she occupies marginal space in them. She is the famous and sought-after beauty, the woman whose face launched a thousand ships, and a character with very few lines and next to no agency in her own life. I have been wondering about Helen, how we understand her today, and how she is significant to our story beyond being a Bronze Age hottie. My question: What is Helen?
The myths tells us she is the daughter of Zeus and Leda, born of rape because Zeus, being Zeus, doesn’t ask for permission or honor the safe word. She is kidnapped for her beauty more than once. When she marries Menelaus, the kings of Greece vow to fight for her if she is ever taken away from Greece again. She is a trophy wife, a thing on a shelf. A conquest. For a while.
Then, one day Zeus throws a wedding for Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles. Wouldn’t you know but Eris, the goddess of discord, shows up ready to cause trouble because she was not invited. (If the gods and goddesses represent aspects of human nature, then to exclude one from an event that celebrates life--marriage is a rite that does that, despite what it so often becomes--then to deny some aspect of life is to invite trouble. And there she is.) Eris brings a golden apple to the party and says it’s for the prettiest goddess there and that Zeus should decide who gets it. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite are there, and each is pretty sure she deserves the apple. Manly god though he is, Zeus does not want a girl-fight at this shindig any more than he wants to be on the outs with the ladies, so he sends Hermes to get Paris, a mortal who is visiting from Troy, to have him decide.
Each goddess tries to bribe Paris to get him to select her (Insecure goddesses. Note that.) Given the choice of wealth from Hera, power from Athena, or the most beautiful woman in the world from Aphrodite, Paris chooses the most beautiful woman in the world. He rejects the stuff of this world for something he cannot hold--something that will pass. In doing so, he offends the hospitality of his hosts, of course. Taking someone’s wife for yourself is transgressive, for sure. Here the story is not about celebrating the virtues but pushing beyond the limitations imposed by the rule book, breaking boundaries to be true to yourself. What does Helen think about all this? She doesn’t say. But she does go.
So here we have two characters acting on their imagination as it is inspired by the energies of the body, as Joseph Campbell says in one of his definitions of myth. Here is a union of spirit formed on the occasion of another wedding--itself a ritual, an enactment of myth. We do these things to discover what is possible.
A scan of the top ten results of a Google search of “Helen of Troy” will tell you she eloped with Paris and her departure caused a war. Nobody who wrote the stuff that lands in the top 10 worries about connecting the two ideas. Perhaps in this age of Trump and his “fire and fury” (not quite Shakespeare’s “sound and fury” even if we hold our breaths and hope his language signifies nothing) logical connections aren’t what we’re about anymore. But I want to make the leap.
Why is Helen worth fighting for--and for 10 years and at incredible cost? What do the Greeks think they have lost? What have they lost that even 10 years of fighting can’t recapture--and leads to Zeus’s ending the Age of the Gods? That’s my original question: What is Helen? And why doesn’t she say anything, really? It’s hard to say--and I think it should be. The American composer has said that when words fail, music speaks. Helen’s magnificence is like music: it is ineffable, exquisite, beyond words; it is the potential we reach for inside ourselves. It is not a thing to own but a thing to live. You can storm the walls all you want, but you can’t really claim it as property. The twists and turns and the ego battles in The Iliad (and Troy) show what happens when fighters lose sight of the struggle. Really, they have gone to do they know not what.
Having eyes to see, the Greeks did not. Talk all about epics and fighting for the honor of your cultural rulebook, and you won’t hear the music in the story that takes you beyond the story to that place of limitless possibility that could be your life. Let the scales fall from your eyes and see that you are fighting for your life; the Age of the Gods need not end. You can live it.
P. S. Following your bliss is transgressive. So says Joseph Campbell, the 20th-century English teacher and mythographer who gave his life to helping us understand the monomyth and how we can become the heroes of our own lives. We know this now the same way Homer knew it about 3,000 years ago. Watching the 2005 version of King Kong over the past two night, I saw Helen in Kong. He is all nature living unselfconsciously and embracing the beauty and grace of Annie who accepts him and makes of her person and her curiosity a gift to him. She respects him fearlessly. The men who seek this being they see as a freak of nature try to fight him into submission. When they do, they turn him into a curiosity they can exploit for--of course--money. Here’s what happens when we stop following our bliss and sublimate our passion for life: we become the grotesque freaks.