Herodotus of Halicarnassus, more philosopher than historian, was up to some mischief when, at the beginning of his account of Egypt in Book II of the Inquiries, relates—and endorses—a variant of Homer’s telling of the primary cause behind the Trojan war. As Herodotus discloses, Homer knew the story of Helen’s abduction did not occur in quite the same way as presented in the Iliad. The true story, related to Herodotus by a few Egyptian divines, was that Helen never sailed the wine-dark seas to Troy; all along she was cooling her heels with Proteus, king of Memphis. The Poet suppressed this information on the grounds that a tranquil stay in Egypt does not lend itself to good epic-making. Or so goes Herodotus’ accusation.
Fast forward a decade from the publication of the Inquiries to 412 B.C. It’s winter time, and the Athenians are reeling from their failed Sicilian expedition. Sparta is now in ascendance. But this is a minor point, really; for the might of classical Athens, now diminished, will never return. It is against this backdrop that Euripides (480 – 406 B.C.), one of the three great Greek tragedians, presented his Helen for the Dionysia. Let us attempt, begging some license, to imagine the reaction of the average Athenian theater-goer when Euripides revealed his plot-line followed, not Homer, but, in rough outline, the Herodotean variant. Some in the audience would have recognized the precedent for the alternative history (Hesiod and Stesichorus famously had versions denying Helen’s presence in Troy) and settled in for a retelling; some, perhaps, would have taken offense at the gall of this innovating dramaturge and shuffled off in search of unmixed wine in the agora; but every Athenian with a properly tuned soul would have reflected on the meaning of Euripides’ Helen in light of the present, rather unfortunate, circumstances. (I would trade all of Aeschylus to have witnessed the crowd’s reaction.) So how does Helen hold up today? And why should it be included in the Western canon?
But before I forget, the summary, for which the following should suffice: As the play opens, we find Helen already in Egypt, and learn that her straitened circumstances are thanks to a bit of trouble Paris got himself in after judging a beauty contest between Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera. (Parenthetically, only a Paris, indeed, would be fool enough to agree to ref such a thing.) Aphrodite, we learn, promised Helen as a bribe for Paris’ vote. Athena and Hera discover the ploy, revenge themselves upon Paris by substituting a phantom Helen for the real one in Troy, and banish the actual Helen to Egypt, where the tyrannical (and Greek-hating) king Theoclymenus keeps her captive. Menelaus eventually arrives to rescue his wife and escape. And so, the story ends.
On its face, Helen thus appears to lack some of the dynamism or intellectual heft of other, better-known tragedies. But this is an erroneous view, for at least two main reasons. First, in Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships now gets to tell her story. She gains, one might say, a soul, moving from an abstract catalyzing agent for the Trojan war, into a human being with depth, feeling, and insight. This is accomplished marvelously by Euripides who puts lines like these in Helen’s mouth:
Women and friends, what is this destiny on which, I am fastened? Was I born a monster among mankind…I wish that like a picture I had been rubbed out and done again, made plain, without this loveliness, for so the Greeks would never have been aware of all those misfortunes that are now mine.
Euripides shaded depiction of Helen reveals the triple injustice done to this woman. She is blamed by the Greeks for war she did not start; she is abducted from her family and forced to live a sad existence in Egypt; and, worst of all, no matter how strong her public relations campaign, we still can’t seem to stop repeating Homer’s version of things.
A second reason to read Euripides’ Helen is for the clever way the great theme of war is treated. Immediately, the reader is struck by the Aristophanic tincture of the play: the Trojan War, productive of so much death and suffering, was, we learn, fought over…an apparition. As Menelaus remarks to his servant, “We were swindled by the gods. We had our hands upon an idol of the clouds,” to which Euripides, as if underscoring the absurdity of it all, has the servant respond, “You mean it was for a cloud, for nothing, we did all that work?” It is tempting to interpret Helen in light of Athens own defeat in the Peloponnesian War, or simply on account of its overextension in the Sicilian expedition. And perhaps this is what Euripides had in mind. But I do also think the Helen plot is a useful way to think of war, simply. That is, the origin of conflict is sometimes impossible to discern; and when discernment is possible, it may turn out that what we thought we were fighting for is something else entirely.
There is one last point Helen explores—the rationality of a belief in the divine and honesty of interpreters of divine things. But this is a question that each one of us, like Helen, must answer for ourselves. So, allow me to conclude, fittingly, with the Chorus:
Many are the forms of what is unknown. Much that the gods achieve is surprise. What we look for does not come to pass; God finds a way for what none foresaw. Such was the end of this story.