Introduction to “Helen and her Eidolon”

2016.05.01 | By Donna Zuckerberg

While planning the collaborative “Helen and her Eidolon” event between Eidolon and Classical Inquiries, I’ve found myself returning time and again to one difficult question: what, precisely, is an ‘eidōlon’? The answer is less obvious than one might think.

In the prologue of Euripides’s Helen, Helen tells the audience that after her defeat in the Judgement of Paris, Hera “created from the sky a breathing phantom (εἴδωλον ἔμπνουν) for the son of King Priam” (Euripides, Helen 34). Helen also says that Hera created from the wind Helen’s marriage to Paris (ἐξηνέμωσε τἄμ᾽ Ἀλεξάνδρῳ λέχη, Helen 32).

Helen’s eidōlon is an airy phantom, but it is not a mere hologram. It breathes and speaks. The clear implication of λέχη is that it also has sex. It is touchable and interactive. The fact that it is a phantom seems virtually undetectable until the moment it disappears, much later in Euripides’s play.

Much like with the replicants in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the difference between the eidōlon and humans seems so small that it would be almost pedantic to insist upon its artificiality. Can we be sure that the eidōlon did not have free will? In what sense was the eidōlon less ‘real’ than Helen herself?

The eidōlon can only be said to be less real than Helen by the most essentialist reading: it was not the Helen who hatched from Leda’s egg. On the other hand, since the eidōlon went to Troy in place of the ‘real’ Helen, it arguably has a better claim to the title ‘Helen of Troy’ then the authentic Helen does: according to Stesichorus, the real Helen never went to Troy at all.

The idea that the ‘real’ Helen is defined as the physical fleshy Helen born from the egg and the eidōlon is an externally constructed Helen that merely resembles and acts like her has some interesting ramifications. It suggests, first of all, that every artistic version of Helen might in some sense qualify as an eidōlon. After all, the point of an artistic representation of Helen is to resemble her and capture her essence, just as Hera’s eidōlon did. The fact that Euripides’s Helen must specify that the eidōlon that went to Troy was ‘breathing’, ἔμπνουν, implies that this quality is not a requirement. Eidōla need not be embodied. (One can imagine a painting of Helen with a caption that reads ‘this is not Helen’ beneath it.)

Photograph of Teresa Furtado as Helen and John Lawrence Toole as Menelaus in Helen; or, Taken From The Greek at the Adelphi Theatre, June 1866, Guy Little Collection. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

And we could push this idea even further. If every image of Helen is an eidōlon of her—including the images of her that we will publish as part of this event—then in what sense can a literary depiction of Helen be said not to be an eidōlon? Euripides’s own Helen, portrayed by a man wearing a mask onstage in the Great Dionysia, is no less an eidōlon than the version internal to the story. The same idea could apply to H.D.’s Helen, whose purpose is certainly to resemble and act like Helen and give the reader new insight into a familiar character.

What about scholarly interpretations of stories about Helen? Are these not all eidōla as well? Writing about Helen is, no less than painting her or creating a new version of her on the page, an attempt to capture her likeness and copy her essence.

In the next weeks, both here on CI and on Eidolon, you will see the creation of many new eidōla of Helen in the form of words and images. Like the original eidōlon, these new eidōla are attempts to represent and grasp at Helen the woman, half divine, half mortal, spirited away to Egypt to wait blameless while her shadow-self served as a canvas for the crimes and cruelties of the Trojan war.

In a sense, the real Helen is another woman lost to history. We should not, with our new eidōla, be fooled into thinking we’ve found Helen—metaphorically this time, not literally as Paris did—when all we really have is a phantom. But maybe we can wrest the eidōlon from the hands of the usual narrators and fashion it into something that tells a different story.

A guest post by Donna Zuckerberg.