Helen’s Fatal Attraction and its Inversion

2016.05.03 | By Leonard Muellner

The ritual roles of Helen in the performance of poetry for lament and initiation, both within the epic and in Spartan cult outside it, complement and enrich the picture of Helen’s poetic perspective in the 6th rhapsody of the Iliad.

A Muse playing a lyre. Detail from Greek vase housed at Staatliche Antikensammlungen, 440–430 BCE. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol (own work, 2007-02-10) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
A Muse playing a lyre. Detail from Greek vase housed at Staatliche Antikensammlungen, 440–430 BCE. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol (own work, 2007-02-10) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
In the sixth rhapsody of the Iliad, Hektor returns to Troy from the field of battle at the urging of one of his numerous brothers, the seer Helenos. Once inside, Helenos tells him, Hektor should ask his mother to gather the old women into the shrine of Athena on the acropolis and have them lay upon the goddess’s knees a peplos ‘tapestry’ (woven by the women themselves), the most deserving-of-favor (khariestatos) and biggest and most beloved (philtatos) one that they can find. In addition, they are to promise the goddess a sacrifice of 12 yearling virgin cows in the hope that she will, in return, take pity upon the women and children of Troy and hold off Diomedes, who is on an unstoppable rampage that threatens the whole Trojan fighting force. After successfully encouraging his warriors to fight harder and telling them why he is departing from the field, Hektor enters the city (6.237) by the Left Gates and makes his way to the palace of Priam. Just before entering it, he comes upon his mother, Hekabe. She immediately asks him why he has left the battle, but before he can give a response, she offers her own, assuming that he is exhausted from the struggle on the battlefield and that he has come to pray to Zeus. So she offers him wine to pour as a libation for the god and to drink himself: “In a tired man,” she says, “wine will greatly increase the energy of mind-and-body [menos]” (6.254–262).

The trouble is, Hektor is not tired, nor has he come to pray to Zeus; give wine to me, a man whose menos is not depleted, he responds, and you will actually strip it from my limbs (m’apoguiōsēis meneos), nor can I make a libation with hands splattered with blood and gore (6.264–268). (In other situations, depleted Homeric warriors do in fact get restorative drinks of wine, mixed with other strengthening ingredients like grated cheese and onions.) After setting her straight, he tells his mother to gather the old women and make the offerings of peplos and cows to Athena. That process is then narrated in detail (6.286–312). Unusually, and ominously, the goddess rejects the women’s prayer.

The disconnect between Hektor and his mother must be significant, because Hekabe is the first of three women whom Hektor encounters on this excursion into the city, and all three look as though they disconnect with him either literally or by ‘misreading’ his menos or thumos ‘spirit, desire’ (the two words are not synonyms, but both relate to a person’s state of mind and body, which are interrelated, not distinct, in Homeric diction). Andromakhē, the last of the three, almost fails to connect with him literally before he returns to battle, but when she does meet him at the last moment, she tells him that his menos is about to destroy him (6.407: phthisei se to son menos). With her, though, by way of emphatic contrast, he agrees in a most gentle and sad way (6.443–446). A sequential pattern attested in ancient and modern Greek narrative traditions first described by Ioannis Kakridis (1943) is structuring the narrative in such a way as to make the encounter with the last and most important person in the sequence, Andromakhe, more dramatic and significant than the others. When she and Hektor do meet, in fact, each of them says how the other is the most important person to them relative to other family and community members (Andromakhe, 6.429–432; Hektor, 6.450–455); so the sequence of disconnects are to be concluded by a highly emotional reconnection.

The second of the three women whom Hektor encounters is Helen herself, and my purpose is to contextualize her exchange with him. But before that happens, Hektor, who is wielding a 16-cubit long spear inside the palace of Priam, comes upon her and another brother of his, Paris, who is sitting and fondling his armor and his bow and arrows. He has not been fighting since Aphrodite wrapped him up in a cloud and disappeared him from the battlefield in the third rhapsody of the poem, his inconclusive duel with Menelaos. This time is the only time in Hektor’s sequence of encounters that he is the first to speak, and his words to Paris are described as abusive and shaming (neikessen..aiskhrois epeessi, 6.325): it is not a good thing for him to be withdrawn from the fighting when it is going on for his sake, and he himself would object to someone neglecting hateful war under such circumstances (6.326–331). Hektor’s brief, straightforward words are effective in getting Paris to respond positively and committing to a return to the fight. “Victory comes to one man and then another (nīkē d’epameibetai andras),” Paris says, which is something like our expression, “You win some, you lose some.” In the epic context that is a not-so-empowered view of the warrior life, but one that motivates Paris at least to fight. Hektor does not respond at all to his agreeable response, and apparently Paris goes off to arm himself. Then Helen, left alone with Hektor, addresses him with, by contrast, gracious words (muthoisi…meilikhioisi),[1] as follows:

“Dear brother-in-law of mine, cold and evil-conniving bitch that I am:
on the day that my mother gave birth to me, I wish that
an evil wind had carried me off
to a mountain or into a wave of the sea that crashes on the shore,
a wave that would have snatched me away before these deeds were done.
But since the gods meted out these bad things in the way that they have,
I wish that I had been the wife of a better man,
one who understood the righteous anger and the quantities of disgust that people feel.
This man’s mind as of now is not steadfast, nor in the future
will it become so: for that I think that he will reap the reward.
But come in and sit down on this seat,
dear brother-in-law, since the toil has beset your mind most of all
because of me, bitch that I am, and because of the blind folly of Paris,
[we] on whom Zeus has set a bad destiny, so that also hereafter
we may be subjects of song (aoidimoi) for people to come.”

Iliad 6.344–358

Her words seem more abusive than Hektor’s, but at her own and Paris’s expense. The adjective meilikhos that is applied to her speech by the narrator and that is usually translated ‘gracious, mild’ is derived from a plural noun meilia that is attested twice in the Iliad to describe the gifts of Agamemnon to Achilles (Iliad 9.147, 9.289), so perhaps meilikhioisi here means ‘ingratiating’, as Agamemnon’s gifts are intended to be, rather than the imprecise ‘gracious.’ She sets her own sense of shame, her own regret about her very existence and the indignation that she has generated in others in contrast to the insouciance of her husband: her intent is to ingratiate herself and connect with Hektor, to exhibit to him her awareness of the stress that they cause him above all to bear. Then she asks Hektor to sit with her, on the notion that they are all victims of a destiny set by a higher power, Zeus himself, and that the ultimate purpose is for them to be worth singing about, aoidimoi from aoidē ‘song’, in times to come.

This last remark has one or two parallels in the repertoire of traditional epic diction (as in Odyssey 8.579–580 and Hymn to Apollo 299), but it is no less striking given the fact that these lines were being composed and sung before people in times to come, so they are an instance of the trope called mise en abyme. But in the case of Helen, as others have remarked, she is repeatedly portrayed in both the Iliad and the Odyssey as a person with an exceptional consciousness of the role of poetry. Aside from this passage, there is the scene in which we first encounter her in Iliad 3.121–128:

“And Iris in turn went as a messenger to white-armed Helen,
resembling in form her sister-in-law, the wife of the son of Antenor…
and she found her in the great hall, and she [Helen] was weaving a great tapestry,
double-weave and purple, and she embroidered many ordeals in it,
ordeals of horse-taming Trojans and Achaeans with their bronze tunics
that they were enduring because of her at the hands of Ares.”

Iliad 3.121–128

The scholia in the Venetus B and Townley MSS. of the Iliad note that in this passage “the poet has fabricated a noteworthy model of his own composition,” but from the internal point of view, it’s Helen who has done the handiwork, and it is worth keeping in mind that weaving is a traditional metaphor for poetic composition (see Nagy 2005, Chapter 3, on the words humnos ‘hymn’ and prooimion ‘prelude’). There is good reason to dwell on this point, because of what happens next. Hektor turns her down:

“Don’t make me sit down, Helen, for all your affection; you will not persuade me.
Already my thumos is in a hurry that I protect
the Trojans, who have a great longing for me when I am away…”

Iliad 6.360–362

Clearly Hektor is not connecting to the long view, cosmic and poetic, that Helen offers him. Apparently, nothing could be further from the mindset of a warrior just now engaged in combat and eager to return to it, and that is why Helen’s otherwise ingratiating speech fails. In fact, this is something that we know from a handful of relevant passages: for one, there is Achilles, whose withdrawal from the battle leads him to actually perform epic poetry (9.189: aeide d’ara klea andrōn ‘he was actually singing the songs of warriors’) with Patroklos as his audience or partner in Iliad 9.186-191 at precisely the moment when the embassy comes to persuade him, unsuccessfully, to return to the battle. As difficult as it may be to disengage Hektor from fighting to contemplating poetry about him fighting, the opposite is also true. But the parallel between Achilles’ song in Iliad 9, though its subject is not given, and Helen’s weaving, whose subject is the toils of the Trojans and the Achaeans, is striking, and it marks the two characters as related but also isolated in the perspective, not to say the distance, that they acquire from the sufferings around them.

There is one last parallel to these passages, one that casts a certain shadow over them, and that is the song of the Sirens in Odyssey 12.184-192:

“Come here, Odysseus of much praise/many encoded tales, great glory of the Achaeans,
stop your ship so that you can hear the two of us sing.
No one yet has ridden by here in a black ship
before hearing the honey-sweet voice from our mouths,
but every one takes delight and returns home knowing more than before.
For we know everything, as many things in wide Troy
as the Argives and the Trojans toiled over by the will of the gods,
and we know as many things as happen over the richly nourishing earth.”

This song has unmistakable resemblances in content and diction to the description of the weaving of Helen, to her words to Hektor, and also to the way in which the Muses speak of their knowledge when they address the poet Hesiod in the Theogony: the poetic verb in the texts, idmen ‘we know’, is repeated anaphorically in both places (Theogony 26-28, Odyssey 12.191–192), though the objects of knowledge are not directly comparable. But there is a parallelism as well in Circe’s warning to Odysseus about these singers:

“Whoever by lack of knowledge draws near and hears the voice
of the Sirens, in no way do his wife and deprived children
stand by him and rejoice on his return (nostēsanti) home…”

Odyssey 12.42–43

Hektor actually is on an immediate mission to see his wife and child, but also, mutatis mutandis, returning home to wife and children for Odysseus is the equivalent to Hektor’s larger mission of returning rapidly from the citadel to the battlefield to save Troy. The resemblances suggest that Hektor’s trip to Troy is a kind of mini-odyssey with well-intentioned but risky stopovers on the way to the hero’s climactic (and ultimately final) reunion with his wife and son; and one can certainly say that the whole episode from Hekabe on serves to crystallize Hektor’s identity as a hero.

We now have the elements of a context for Helen’s presentation of the role of song and for the fatal attraction it offers engaged warriors like Hektor and Odysseus: for the disengaged one, Achilles, it highlights the challenge that he faces in actually returning to the warrior’s mindset, in moving out of the singer’s perspective actually to choose to become the hero of the Iliad, given the acknowledgement in these passages that the remote perspective of the singer, Muse or performer, inherently diverts a hero from the path to glory.

More importantly, we can see Helen as a complex figure, a character with a higher view of her world and her place in it. It reminds us that she is after all the last person to sing in the Iliad, and what she sings is a deeply moving lament for Hektor that tells of his unfailingly kind words to her despite her marginality and the hostility she feels from the community (24.762-775). With apposite internal and typological (in other words, not historically related) parallels as evidence, Richard Martin has in another connection defined Helen as in fact a professional lamenter, a figure who holds the role of leader in the call-and-response chorus of both ancient Greek epic and modern Greek lament traditions of performance (Martin 2003): for instance, he can show that the death wish that she articulates in her speech to Hector in Iliad 6 is a standard topic in lament traditions. His view of her is nicely complemented by the cautious scholarship of Claude Calame, who also develops a systematic, albeit tentative, view of Helen as the leader of a chorus, not of lamenting women but of young female initiates in ancient Sparta. In fact he proposes that she was the leader of two such choruses, one of younger girls being initiated into adolescence in the cult of Artemis Orthia, the other for adolescents being initiated into adulthood in the cult of Athena Khalkioikos. The first corresponds as ritual to the myth of Helen’s abduction as a young girl by Theseus, the second to the myth of her aduction by Paris (Calame 2001).

These ritual roles of Helen in the performance of poetry for lament and initiation, the former within the epic and the latter in Spartan cult outside it, complement and enrich the picture we have sketched of Helen’s poetic perspective in the 6th rhapsody of the Iliad. Perhaps it is not inapposite to point out that initiation rituals generally feature the stylized death of each initiate as well as her rebirth into a new status. In the relationship between myth and ritual, in other words, between two different cultural subsystems, the roles are homologous, not ‘copied’ from one to the other. But there is one further piece of external evidence that informs this way of looking at her role, this from the sphere of hero cult, a subject that is mentioned only in passing in the Homeric poems, where the life of the heroes, on the surface at least, ends in the finality of death and the descent of the soul into Hades. That constraint did not obtain for the poems of the so-called Epic Cyle, the lost epic poems on topics that surround our Iliad and Odyssey. One of them, the Aethiopis, told the story of the death of Achilles at the hands of Paris and Apollo, as we know from a later summary (Proclus, Chrestomathy ii). As in the narrative at the end of the Odyssey, Thetis, Achilles’ mother, along with the Muses and the Nereids, sang laments at his funeral, but in the Aethiopis the narrative goes further: Thetis abducted her son from the pyre and settled him in the White Island (hē Leukē Nēsos). In antiquity, beginning at least in the 6th Century BCE and continuing into the 3rd Century CE, a small uninhabited island in the northestern corner of the Black Sea now called Snake Island was identified as the White Island, and there was a Panhellenic cult of Achilles there, attested to by objects dedicated to him from all over the Hellenic world (for details, see Hedreen 1991). Arrian (Periplus Ponti Euxini 21–22) reports, among other things, that there is a shrine on the island with an ancient wooden statue in it, and that there are many kinds of dedicated objects to be found there, to Achilles as well as some to his best friend and alter ego Patroklos, and that people say that they have seen both heroes in dream visions there. Pausanias reports the presence of other heroes as well on the island, including the two Ajaxes and Helen (Description of Greece 3.9.11–3.9.13), but the fullest report on this cult place comes down to us from Philostratus’ On Heroes, a dialogue from the Second Sophisitc period (mid 1st Century CE to early 3rd Century CE) that preserves many otherwise unattested traditions about hero cults from earlier times. This amazing dialogue focuses on the cult of the hero Protesilaus in Elaious, in Northern Greeece, but at the end of the text, the main speaker, the vinedresser who tends to Protesilaus and his precinct, reports extensively to his Phoenician interlocutor what Protesilaus has taught him about the White Island and its inhabitants, a place that he (Protesilaus) regularly visits. Here are some snippets:

Vinedr.: It was there, my guest, and he tells the following sorts of stories about it. He says that it is one of the islands in the Pontus [=Black Sea] more toward its inhospitable side, which those sailing into the mouth of the Pontus put on their left. It is about thirty stades long, but not more than four stades wide; the trees growing on it are poplars and elms, some stand without order, but others already stand in good order around the sanctuary…There Achilles and Helen first saw and embraced one another, and Poseidon himself and Amphitritê hosted their wedding feast, along with all the Nereids and as many rivers and water-spirits as flow into the Sea of Maiôtis and the Pontus…Then Achilles and Helen are said to drink together and to be engaged in singing. They celebrate in song their desire for one another, Homer’s epics on the Trojan War, and Homer himself. Achilles still praises the gift of poetry which came to him from Calliope, and he pursues it more seriously, since he has ceased from military activities.

Philostratus, On Heroes, §54.2–§54.12

There is a nice inversion, here, in the ritual dimension, of the Homeric narrative tradition about these two characters: now they are giving each other sympotic performances of the epics of which they are the subjects, and in addition they are composing their own songs about their desire for each other and about Homer. But the remarks of Protesilaus on the art of poetry as the hero’s pursuit in the absence of warfare are totally consistent with what we have seen above, and they are clearly a key to the eternal relationship between Helen and Achilles.



Aitken, E. and J. Maclean, ed. and trans. 2001. Philostratus, Heroikos. Atlanta. Also available at http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.prim-src:Berenson_MacleanJ_AitkenE_eds.Flavius_Philostratus_On_Heroes.2001

Calame, Claude. 2001. 2nd ed. Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece: Their Morphology, Religious Role, and Social Functions. Translated by D. Collins and Janice Orion. Lanham.

Grazioisi, B. and J. Haubold, ed. 2010. Homer, Iliad Book VI. Cambridge.

Hedreen, Guy. 1991. “The Cult of Achilles in the Euxine.” Hesperia vol. 60. n. 3, pp. 313–330

Kakridis, Ioannis. 1949. Homeric Researches. Lund.

Martin, Richard. 2003. “Keens from the Absent Chorus: Troy to Ulster.” Western Folklore, vol. 52, no. 1/2, pp. 119–142

Nagy, Gregory. 2002. Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music. The Poetics of the Panhellenic Festival in Classical Athens. Washington DC Also available at http://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/4296



[1] A variant reading for meilikhioisi is attested in the semiuncial scholia in Venetus A, the epithet dia gunaikōn ‘radiant among women’ which is used three times of Helen in Iliad 3 (at lines171, 228, and 423) as well as several times of her and Penelope in the Odyssey. It is an interesting epithet for Helen, since it emphasizes her beauty among mortal women, whereas the rest of her traditional epithets are, I believe, otherwise the epithets of goddesses like Athena and Aphrodite and Artemis. However, it is clear that the system can generates either an adjective for muthoisi or an epithet for the speaker, so the multiformity is completely normal. More work needs to be done on what determines the choice — it may well be possible to predict or explain why one or the other is used.