My last post was on the Sirens in the Odyssey, and as a follow up I thought I’d write a quick post about how Helen is portrayed in the Odyssey. We see Helen in Book 4, returned to her husband and playing the role of the obedient housewife. Odysseus’ son Telemachus has come to the the court of King Menelaus to seek information about his father’s whereabouts. Since the Trojan War Odysseus has vanished from Greece. Menelaus welcomes Telemachus but does not recognise him. It is Helen who correctly reveals the identity of the young prince. The group drink together and reminisce about the heroes at Troy, weeping for those who are lost. Helen then does something very curious. She mixes a drug into the men’s wine. It is a drug that removes all sorrow, so that a man’s parents could lie dead in front of him and he would not be sad.
The most beautiful sight in this world is not arms and warriors, it is the thing you love. Sappho is a great authority on love and beauty, and this poem is a moving tribute to their devastating power. Because it is written by a female poet, it is tempting to read this text as setting male against female, as Sappho denouncing the masculine world of warfare as less important than the feminine values of beauty and love. However, Sappho is rather stating a general truth about life, one that she has tragically learnt from her own experience.
In my post Sappho 31: A Lesbian Passion I explained that the popular theory about Sappho is that she was a sort of teacher or leader for young girls, perhaps preparing them for marriage. So is Anaktoria one of her girls that she used to care for, but who now has married and left? That is currently the most likely reading.
Unfortunately this is a fragmentary poem, and so after ‘led astray’ there are some lines missing. However enough remains for us to appreciate the beauty of Sappho’s words.
Some say horsemen, some say warriors,
Some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
Vision in this dark world, but I say it’s
What you love.
It’s easy to make this clear to everyone,
Since Helen, she who outshone
All others in beauty, left
A fine husband,
And headed for Troy
Without a thought for
Her daughter, her dear parents…
And I recall Anaktoria, whose sweet step
Or that flicker of light on her face,
I’d rather see than Lydian chariots
Or the armed ranks of the hoplites.
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.”