The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships, The Woman that Wept for Each: The Misconstruction of Helen of Troy
Despite her abduction as the clear causation of the Trojan War (as interpreted by most Classical literature), Helen of Troy is seen only six times throughout the course of Homer’s Iliad. Helen, described as the most beautiful woman of the ancient world, suffers within a cocoon of cheap, inconsequential physicality, longing internally for autonomy and belonging. Helen foils and parries against the spatial and sexual confines of these six impressions, struggling to assert her personhood and tell her story in the face of misogyny, ignominy, and undue blame.
With her abduction from Sparta comes bloodshed, and in turn, guilt. In her first appearance, Helen is roused from her weaving by Iris, messenger of Olympus and goddess of rainbows. While men painted terracotta vases and performed on stage, weaving was one of the most prominent methods for women in Ancient Greece to enrich mythological discourse in an artful way, making it a popular wifely pastime. However, Helen chooses to depict a rather unusual, unsettling scene in her cloth: “[Iris] found Helen in her room, weaving a folding mantle on a great loom and designing into the blood-red fabric the trials that the Trojans and Greeks had suffered for her beauty.” (3.127–30) This scene illustrates the intense, raw guilt Helen is consumed with. Though far from the battlefield, Helen feels graphically connected with and directly responsible for the bloodshed due to her complacency in her abduction from Sparta. Interestingly, she sympathizes with the city of her current husband, Paris, as well as that of her previous husband, Menelaus.
Despite how she is viewed as an object, Helen maintains her autonomy and strength, pupils wet with desperation fueled ferocity, teeth clamped shut on her humanity as a terrier clutches to a bone. Here, Helen confronts Aphrodite, conductor of her abduction:
“You eerie thing, why do you love lying to me like this? Where are you taking me now? Phrygia? Beautiful Maeonia? Another city where you have some other boyfriend for me? … Go sit by Paris yourself… Maybe someday he’ll make you his wife, or even his slave. I’m not going back there. It would be treason to share his bed. The Trojan women would hold me at fault. I have enough pain as it is” (3.426–40).
Though Aphrodite swiftly retaliates against the woman, it is important to consider the courage necessary to confront the Goddess in the first place. In mythological canon, humans were largely at the mercy of Gods — mere playthings for divine entertainment. In the Iliad, deities intervene in a myriad of ways without much concern for consequence (controlling the rise and fall of war, giving direction to ambiguous lust, etc). Helen, though seen as another pawn, asserts her sovereignty and demands free will from Aphrodite’s meddling. Beyond this, Helen seems to regard marriage as a mere enhancement of slavery. She refuses to return to Paris in, defying not only divine wishes, but social constructs in a display of antique feminism.
Though constantly sought after, Helen is terribly alone. In Sparta, she was a possession, a mere flower in the vast bouquet of Menelaus’ earthly treasures. In Troy, while still an accessory, her reputation is more malignant, nefarious; Trojans view her as the direct catalyst of the war and subsequent murder of their city’s brothers, sons, and fathers. Over the corpse of her dear friend Hektor, Helen mourns: “I weep for you and for myself, and my heart is heavy, because there is no one left in all of Troy who will… be my friend. Everyone shudders at me” (24.827–30). Though she has lost her only true friend and sympathizer, the mere fact that she is present at the interment ceremony indicates that Helen has achieved some level of inclusion among the citizens of Troy. However, just as she has reached this milestone, the city is poised to be forgotten. While this turn is unfortunate, Helen never required acceptance from Troy, but herself. While battles raged on the shores of cities, Helen waged an internal war; she emerged victorious, holding the bloody head of self-doubt by its matted, binding hair.
In the Iliad, Helen is seen as a beautiful possession yet abhorred foreigner; constantly pursued but continuously alone; both a victim and the malefactor. However, her experiences, serving as a sort of nostos to her self, ultimately led her to find the relief of autonomy in loneliness, and a gradual but undisputable comfort with asserting her own personhood, no matter its label.