Helen is perhaps the most elusive figure of Greek myth. She is both the dutiful wife and the heartless adulterer, and whichever side we might think we are looking at, her other self is never far off. This poem is no exception. Theocritus imagines the wedding song performed at Helen’s marriage to the hero Menelaus, a curious topic considering Helen is Greece’s most famous adulterer. However Theocritus’ poetry is memorable for its play with mythical figures. He looks at the human events that take place outside Greek epic, putting familiar characters into new settings.
The poem is sung by an imagined group of maidens celebrating the bride and groom. This section is about the plane-tree cult that will be established for Helen. They describe a ritual where they hang wreathes and oil on a tree that bears her name. It is known that there were Greek cults that worshipped Helen and so this can be read at face value in celebrating its origins. With Helen however things are never so simple, and as we shall see her illicit lover Paris is lurking in the shadows.
O fair, o gracious damsel, a housewife art thou now.
But we at dawn to the race-course and to the flowering meads
Will hasten, there to pluck and twine sweet-breathing coronals;
And often longingly on thee, dear Helen, shall we think,
As tender lambs yearn for the teat of the ewe that gave them birth.
A garland of earth-creeping lotus will be the first
To wreathe for thee, and hang it on a shady plane-tree’s boughs;
And we first from a silver phial of soft-flowing oil
Upon the shady plane-tree’s roots will pour it drop by drop
And letters on the bark in Dorian wise shall be engraved,
That passers by may read: “Worship me, I am Helen’s tree.”
The first half of this poem which I have not included describes Helen as a playful girl. We see her before the Trojan War; her beauty is still innocent. Now the girls sing of Helen’s future, but it is not the future we were expecting. There is no reference to her elopement with Paris that is so famous and would be so well known to Theocritus’ audience. Helen is returned to Sparta, the land where her husband Menelaus is King, and she is a local goddess, worshipped by her former playmates.
Or so it might seem at first glance, but there is a very playful reference at the end of this passage that just gives us a glimpse of the ‘other’ Helen. The Greek for ‘passers by’ in the last line is ‘parion tis‘, and the scholar Lane has pointed out that the name Paris is hiding here. In fact if the ‘p’ is capitalised then the Greek could be translated as ‘some Paris or other’. It is a carefully hidden reference to the man Helen runs away with. She is at her most powerful and divine in this line, and yet even here she cannot escape her reputation. Paris’ presence is felt, even if the girls do not yet know his significance; for now he is just a casual passer-by.
You might think this is stretching it a bit, finding the word Paris when Theocritus cannot help that the Greek for ‘passer-by’ contains the same letters. But even if Theocritus did not mean to put Paris in there he has been found. The point is that scholars have always been suspicious of this text. They have carefully sifted through it, specifically searching for references to Helen’s lover. She is not a trusted character. We are always searching for something more, something that is being hidden from the reader. This is why Helen is my favourite character from mythology. She keeps everyone guessing. Even if you do decide to take the poem at face value you can only pretend to ignore the presence of Paris, the hints at her unfaithfulness. They are well-hidden, they may even be unintentional, but they are there, and the result is that you will never really know which Helen you are looking at.
Further reading: Lane, Nicholas. Some Illusive puns in Theocritus “Idyll” 18 Gow. Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica. New Series, Vol. 83, No. 2 (2006), pp. 23-26.
(translation by Trevelyan, R.C. 1947)