Though Simone de Beauvoir has forced us to question what makes a woman, the ancient Greeks thought that they knew the answer. There was no separation of sex from gender, and the idea of the female body was thought of solely in comparison to the male body. Nevertheless, in Classical Greek popular culture, including theater and the oral traditions of the Iliad and Odyssey, one is able to see how the ideas of femininity and masculinity are played with and transgressed. This play represents the anxieties and fears that the society shared, as well as what they laughed at—such as women ruling over men in Aristophanes’s Lysistrata. In the case of one of the most famous women from the Trojan War tradition, Helen of Sparta and later of Troy, the gendering actions of her character are complex and difficult to pin down. On the one hand, she is one of the most beautiful women in Greece, a prize wife from Aphrodite. On the other hand, she transgresses gender roles, having an active sexuality and a surprising lack of maternal responsibility. These facts, along with a comparison to other wives from the Trojan War, such as the “ideal” wife Andromache, make it clear that Helen’s very womanness is under scrutiny. Here I aim to show that, in fact, Helen of Troy is portrayed as unwomanly because of her actions outside of the prescribed gender roles.
The first and most obvious way that Helen was portrayed as not-a-woman was through her lack of sexual loyalty within her marriage. Within the Trojan War tradition, marriage is a critical theme, and even the very thing that was being “defended and protected” in the war. One site of female sexual loyalty within marriage derives from the practical protection of patriliny. Men needed sons to carry on their family name, and the only way to secure that was to make sure that their children were theirs. Within marriage, a wife’s sexual loyalty to her husband was one way that a woman could fit within her gendered role. Helen and Menelaus had the most important marriage of the Epic Cycle, but the complexity of Helen makes her difficult to analyze in such short a space. It was her leaving Menelaus for Paris in Troy that led her (first) husband and his Achaean allies to besiege the city. Despite her pivotal role, depictions of Helen are varied and conflicting, with her degree of blame in the Trojan War unclear. Some saw her as merely a passive receiver of the will of the gods, while others showed her as a complicit runaway, either seduced or already interested in the flight to Troy. An alternative option exists as well, that the real Helen never did go to Troy but went to Egypt instead, while a phantom of her went to Troy. Even more interesting is the fact that sometimes even a single source, such as the playwright Euripides or the historian Herodotus, presents conflicting views of Helen’s responsibility. Though understandably problematic, if one considers only the options that state that Helen actually went to Troy, then her extramarital relations with Paris, and thus her lack of female sexual loyalty, open up other interpretations of her character. Helen can be compared to the (other) quintessential “bad” woman of the Trojan War (and of its aftermath), Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra. She is one of the only other women who has extramarital affairs, and these acts are translated into murder, which says a lot about the fears of a woman who steps outside of prescribed roles.
Another distancing of Helen from womanly characteristics is her lack of association with motherhood. As previously stated, progeny and reproduction were important aspects of marriage. Though she left a child behind in Sparta when she went to Troy, the child does not seem to be of any concern to her within the Iliad. Furthermore, in the Odyssey it says that the gods gave Helen no more children after she returned from Troy, so that Menelaus had to have a slave woman bear him a son. In this way, Helen was denied a part in her husband’s lineage, and denied a part of her womanhood as well. She had her motherhood privilege revoked, so to speak. Comparatively, Andromache, the Trojan wife of Hector, is first mentioned within the Iliad with her son, Astyanax, and her relationship with her son is a large part of her characterization. This illustrates a stark difference between the characters—one of which is closely associated with motherhood, and the other who is explicitly dissociated from it.
Aside from marital loyalty and motherhood, Helen’s sex and sensuality differed from more “ideal” pictures of women. While a lack of female sexual loyalty, and explicitly acting on sexual desires, had practical implications for progeny, it also had deeper social meanings for what constituted male and female. It is important to reaffirm that the idea of gendered roles was intimately connected to biological sex in the minds of the Greeks, and further, that biological sex had a bearing on the perception of intercourse and desire. The Greeks considered a woman’s body to simply be the inverse of a man’s. Ancient physicians thought women had “the same genitals turned inwards. The womb was a scrotum, the ovaries were testicles, the cervix was a penis and the vagina was a long foreskin.” This outside-in understanding also led to the idea that women’s sexual desires were inside, and therefore hidden and more complex, unlike the external signs and realizations of an erection. Where men could have intercourse outside of their marriage, for women, “sex is not simply a matter of genital arousal and intercourse. It is sensuality.” It is the lack of subtlety and complexity with regard to bedroom actions that makes Helen stand out from the other women in ancient Greek drama and literature. She leaves her husband’s house and completes the act of intercourse with another man. Compared to this, for instance, is the abstaining from sex and all the complexities along with it—the worrying, waiting, and trickery—that Penelope went through within the Odyssey. Helen is more comparable to Odysseus, who had intercourse with other women without seeing that as conflicting with his marriage. This is not to say that Helen had no remorse for leaving Menelaus or resistance to Paris’s bed, both of which are seen in Book 3 of the Iliad, but her problems are less with the sexual acts and more with her situation.
To summarize, Helen of Troy is a complex character who transgresses traditional female roles, making her characterization unwomanly to the point of being non-female. She shows a lack of sexual loyalty to her husband by leaving with Paris, a complete distancing from any role as a mother, and an active sexuality, which is generally reserved for men. There are many more nuances to her character than are explored here, and I do not mean to say that she is altogether “male” rather than “female,” but the interpretations of Helen should have the Greek ideas of gender, sex, and sexuality in mind. There is also the role of the gods that I did not consider. Nevertheless, Helen is not merely the beauty who passively started the war, whatever her actual role in her abduction was, but she is also a symbol of the fears and anxieties non-womanly women produced. While Clytemnestra might have been responsible for a series of several murders, Helen’s flight led to an all out war between the Trojans and the Greeks.
Darah Vann is a first year graduate student at the University of Houston. She is pursuing a PhD in European history, focusing on Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the Ancient Mediterranean.
Felson, Nancy, and Laura M. Slatkin. 2004. “Gender and Homeric Epic.” In The Cambridge Companion to Homer, ed. Robert Fowler, 91–114. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Sissa, Giulia. 2008. Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World. Trans. George Staunton. New Haven, CT: Yale UP.
Suzuki, Mihoko. 1989. Metamorphoses of Helen: Authority, Difference, and the Epic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP.
 Giulia Sissa, Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World, trans. George Staunton (New Haven: Yale UP, 2008) 3.
 Nancy Felson and Laura M. Slatkin,“Gender and Homeric Epic,” in The Cambridge Companion to Homer, ed. Robert Fowler (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004) 96.
 Mihoko Suzuki, Metamorphoses of Helen: Authority, Difference, and the Epic (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1989), 14–15.
 Odyssey, 4.10–15.
 Iliad, 4.369–375.
 Sissa, Sex and Sensuality, 3.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 21.