A modern eidōlon of Helen

2016.05.02 | By Emily G. Shanahan


For this rendering of Helen, I focused heavily on impressions gleaned from Euripides’s tragic play Helen, rather than better-known representations from Homer. My goal was to illustrate the magical effect she has on those around her, rather than a historically accurate reconstruction. The background of the image is an explicating speech Helen gives at the beginning of the work, lines 22–48. I chose this passage because it lays the foundation of Helen’s persona as she appears in the play.

Helen, like the Iliad, gives little direct evidence as to her appearance. We know she is lovely; a local king—she is in Egypt, here—wants desperately to marry her (lines 60–63). She is also likely in a bit of a disarray, as she has taken to sleeping outside to avoid her would-be husband for an unspecified period of time (63–67). For this reason I have stripped her of any jewelry or expensive garments, but her hair is unrealistically neat. This was pointed: just as action movie heroines always seem to wake up with perfect hair and better eyeliner than I could manage after an hour of working at it, Helen is perpetually composed.

A curious inconsistency runs through the narrative. Seventeen full years have passed since the start of the Trojan War, at the start of which Helen was old enough to be married with a daughter (111–114). Helen’s own daughter Hermione is conjectured to be gray-haired at this point in time (283). Yet Helen evidently still appears to be of a marriageable age, quite young indeed. For some unacknowledged reason, though time seems to ravage those around her, Helen is not aging. Part of her intoxicating appeal as the most beautiful woman on earth is apparently the appearance of youth, so I have drawn her using only models in their late teens and early to mid twenties. To emphasize this, I have also made her figure rather thin and angular.

The play never describes any specific facial feature. Perhaps the most logical rendering would assign Helen typical Mediterranean features, but I have chosen instead to draw inspiration from modern celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence (for her cheekbones). The hysteria that surrounds her strikes me as a nice parallel to the mythical reaction to Helen, which can help place the myth in perspective. For all intents and purposes, Jennifer is Helen’s modern counterpart.

Emily Shanahan is currently an undergraduate at UNC at Chapel Hill. She will graduate with a degree in Classics, Greek emphasis, this month.