Helen’s mixed feelings for Alexander in Iliad 3: the cognitive, pragmatic, and emotional significance of third-person pronouns

2016.05.02 | By Anna Bonifazi

detail of Aphrodite and Helen form Greek vase
Aphrodite (left) and Helen (right). Detail of an Attic red-figure crater, ca. 450–440 BCE, found in Gnathia (now Egnazia, Italy).

In Bonifazi 2012:34–38 I discuss Helen’s speech to Aphrodite in Iliad 3 (399–412), with a particular focus on how Helen recalls Alexander. Aphrodite has just rescued Alexander in a duel against Menelaos, and places him in his bedroom (380–382). Then the goddess restores him to Helens’ arms: Alexander now looks a most charming man waiting for Helen (κεῖνος ὅ γ’ ἐν θαλάμῳ καὶ δινωτοῖσι λέχεσσι / κάλλεΐ τε στίλβων καὶ εἵμασιν· οὐδέ κε φαίης / ἀνδρὶ μαχεσσάμενον τόν γ’ ἐλθεῖν, ἀλλὰ χορὸν δὲ / ἔρχεσθ’, ἠὲ χοροῖο νέον λήγοντα καθίζειν “Look at him! There he is, in the room with the bed of circled patterns; he is glittering with his beauty and his clothing. You would not say that he has come from a fight against a hero, but he has come to a dance, or he is resting after stopping dance” 391–394). Aphrodite tells her to join him, but Helen addresses a passionate speech expressing different feelings and emotional attitudes: wrath, bitterness, sarcasm—towards Aphrodite as well as towards Alexander—and self-pity.[1]

The part of the speech that most interests me encompasses lines 406 to 412. I am going to argue that the way in which Helen recalls Alexander over those lines contributes a great deal to the cognitive and emotional characterization of the speech, and in particular to the expression of Helen’s mixed feelings towards Alexander. The speech reenactment by the Homeric performer shows a careful choice of third-person pronouns, which contribute to the depiction of Helen’s complex emotionality at that moment of the poem.

ἧσο παρ’ αὐτὸν ἰοῦσα, θεῶν δ’ ἀπόεικε κελεύθου,
μηδ’ ἔτι σοῖσι πόδεσσιν ὑποστρέψειας Ὄλυμπον,
ἀλλ’ αἰεὶ περὶ κεῖνον ὀΐζυε καί φύλασσε,
εἰς ὅ κέ σ’ ἢ ἄλοχον ποιήσεται ἢ ὅ γε δούλην.
κεῖσε δ’ ἐγὼν οὐκ εἶμι· νεμεσσητὸν δέ κεν εἴη·
κείνου πορσανέουσα λέχος· Τρῳαὶ δέ μ’ ὀπίσσω
πᾶσαι μωμήσονται· ἔχω δ’ ἄχε’ ἄκριτα θυμῷ.

(Iliad 3.406–412; Helen to Aphrodite)

Go yourself and sit behind him, abandon the gods’ way,
turn your feet back never again to the path of Olympos
but stay with him forever, and suffer for him, and look after him
until he makes you his wedded wife, or makes you his slave girl.
Not I. I am not going to him. It would be too shameful.
I will not serve his bed, since the Trojan women hereafter
would laugh at me, all, and my heart even now is confused with sorrows.

(tr. Lattimore)

Helen uses four different third person pronouns to refer to Alexander: αὐτόν, 406; κεῖνον, 408, and κείνου, 411; ἑ, 408; ὅ, 409.[2] Such a variation would not be necessary in order to disambiguate whether the male referent is Menelaos or Alexander. Even though she mentioned Menelaos at 403, the content of 406-412 makes it clear that the only male Helen talks about is Alexander. What is, then, the communicative purpose behind this grammatically unnecessary lexical variation? Let me briefly offer my reading of what Helen conveys by using each of these pronouns in the context of their host clauses.

In line with what I argue about Homeric αὐτός in Bonifazi 2012:134–155, αὐτόν at 406 puts Alexander at the center of Aphrodite’s attention, narratively and visually: the actions that exemplify Aphrodite’s love for him are, in Helen’s words, “sitting beside him, staying with him, suffering for him, looking after him.” Alexander is the center; things happen around him. I read this as Helen’s view of Aphrodite’s perception of Alexander, but it may also reflects Helen’s own emotional perception of the man.

The lexical choice κεῖνον at 408 is consistent with the Homeric use of κεῖνος in contexts where characters—the primary narrator almost never utters κεῖνος—lament the distance, absence or death of somebody well known, and make them visually present in their mind (Bonifazi 2012:38–67). Once again, Aphrodite’s suffering for, and care of, Alexander are part of Helen’s imagination of the goddess’ love/worship of the man. It may also overlap with Helen’s own lament (cf. 412 “I already have confused sorrows in my heart”).[3] I read κεῖνος in 411 in a different way: there Helen recalls the vision of beautiful Alexander in his bedroom; it echoes the deictic κεῖνος uttered by Aphrodite in line 391 (see above). A sense of distance may be conveyed as well: the host clause indicates that Helen wants to keep herself away from Alexander. After all, at a later point (3.428) she will comment: “I wish you had died” (ὡς ὤφελες αὐτόθ’ ὀλέσθαι). The variants in the implications of κεῖνος suggest that the use of a third-person is better understood in connection with the communicative value of its host clause or sentence, rather than in connection with its grammatical classification.

While ἑ in 408 marks Alexander as an easily accessible referent, and the host clause parallels the immediately preceding clause in communicative force, ὁ followed by γε at 409 has a different value. Mark de Kreij (2016: II.5 §43) observes: “ὅ γε in disjunctions is not used to juxtapose two referents, but rather two possible events involving the same referent.” He reads γε to stress ὅ; ὅ γε hints at a paradoxical role by Alexander (“or HE makes you a slave,” which subverts the hierarchy god – mortals). In a slightly different reading, γε conveys emphasis on the whole short clause; the piece of information that γε stresses, includes δούλην (slave-concubine) as well; what is highlighted is the whole picture as a remarkable/unexpected situation (“or (even) he makes you his slave-concubine”).

To sum up: Helen is jealous of Aphrodite’s vouchsafing to Alexander not only safety but also charm and beauty. Through her pronominal choices and their host clauses she conveys that she would like to keep distance from Alexander, while acknowledging, at the same time, his beautiful appearance. She also puts him at the center of attention, and imagines his ability to play paradoxical roles. Her mixed recalls of Alexander match her mixed feelings.


Works cited

Bonifazi, A. 2012. Homer’s Versicolored Fabric: The Evocative Power of Ancient Greek Epic Word-Making. Washington DC.

Ebbott, M. 1999. “The Wrath of Helen: Self-Blame and Nemesis in the Iliad.” In Nine Essays on Homer, ed. M. Carlisle and O. Levaniouk, 3–20. Lanham.

Erbse, H. 1969–1988. Scholia Graeca in Homeri Iliadem (scholia vetera). 7 vols. Berlin.

Kirk, G. S. M. 1985. The Iliad: A Commentary. Vol. 1. Cambridge.

De Kreij, M. 2016. Particle Use in Homer and Pindar (volume II). In Bonifazi, A., Drummen, A. and M. De Kreij, M. Particles in Ancient Greek Discourse, online edition. Washington D.C.

Lattimore, R. A. 1951. The Iliad of Homer. Chicago.

Worman, N. 2001a. “This Voice Which is Not One: Helen’s Verbal Guises in Homeric Epic.” In Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society, ed. A. Lardinois and L. McClure, 19–37. Princeton.



[1] See Kirk 1985:323. As for Helen’s feelings of shame, nemesis, and self-blame informing her character throughout the poem, see Ebbott 1999. See also Worman 2001:24–25.

[2] εἰς ὅ, 409, is a subordinating relative construction including neuter ὅ.

[3] The scholia vetera define this speech κομματικός; see Erbse 1969–1988, I:430 (ad 403d).