A beautiful woman accused of causing chaos and bringing all evils to this world. She could be Eve or Pandora. But, this time, she is Helen. The one accused of causing the Trojan War. The one who left her husband’s side and traveled to Troy with another man, Paris.
Greek mythology and the Homeric hymns that kept them alive focused on brave heroes who fought battles and explored the world. Greek tragedy, on the other hand, placed the misunderstood characters under the spotlight. In the IIiad and the Odyssey, we hear what men had to say about Helen. In the play Helen by Euripides, we listen to her side of the story.
Euripides’ Helen (Theatrical Play)
In 412 BC, the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides presented a trilogy of plays at the annual theatrical competition of Dionysia in Athens. One of those plays was Helen – inspired by the legend of Helen of Troy.
Helen’s Myth | Helen of Troy
According to the myth, Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leda and wife of king Menelaus of Sparta. One night, Helen reportedly escaped Sparta with her Trojan lover, Paris. The latter was a young prince who was promised by goddess Aphrodite the most beautiful woman in the world. And, despite popular belief, it is not clear whether Helen chose to leave with Paris.
Ancient Greek sources are contradictory regarding Helen’s stance on this matter. Herodotus and most sources mention she was abducted by Paris. The poet Sappho, however, argues that Helen left Sparta willingly. “Full easy it is to make this understood of one and all: for she that far surpassed all mortals in beauty, Helen her most noble husband. Deserted, and went sailing to Troy, with never a thought for her daughter and dear parents.”, she writes.
Looking closely at the storyline, we can easily notice how irrelevant Helen’s stance appeared to be. Nobody really cared whether Helen was abducted or decided to escape from Sparta because she was unhappy. She was portrayed as the destructive woman – source of all evils- for whom several ships sailed towards Troy. And many young men fought and lost their lives. She, a “wicked woman”, was blamed for starting a vicious war.
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Euripides’ Take on Helen’s Myth
The unconventional ancient Greek tragedian Euripides wanted to defend Helen. Inspired by Herodotus’ claim that the Spartan queen was taken to Egypt by god Hermes, he told her version of the story.
In Euripides’ version of the story, Paris did not travel to Troy with Helen herself, but with an “eidolon” – a lifeless copy of her. Goddess Hera, protector of marriage, wanted to stop Paris from doing so. The Trojan prince had offered the apple of discord to another goddess and she aimed at punishing him. She ordered the messenger god Hermes to guide Helen out of her palace and transport her to Egypt, where she took refuge at the palace of Proteas.
The play starts with Helen standing next to Proteas’ grave, explaining her story. She is hopeless. She was taken away from home against her will. She had no way of returning home and she knew her name was tainted anyways. Not only that, but she felt uneasy in Egypt after her protector’s death. King Proteas’ son, Theoklymenos, put a lot of pressure on her. He wanted to marry her.
Helen then comes across a familiar face. Teucros, the best Greek archer who participated at the Trojan war, had visited the palace of Proteas to ask for a prophecy. Proteas’ daughter, Theonoe, was a well-known fortune teller at that time. Helen is desperate to know where her husband is and if he is searching for her. Teucros, however, informs her that Menelaos is probably dead. She also becomes aware of how hated she is by both Greeks and Trojans. Helen then starts mourning on stage, along with a group of Spartan women. She has lost all hope.
But what Helen, the tragic character of play, does not know, is that Menelaos is alive and hiding on the riverside of the Nile. He was washed ashore when his ship sunk. Him, the counterfeit Helen, and his men, were all hiding in a cave.
Menelaos then decides to seek for help at the palace of Proteas, where he comes across an old maid. The woman explains that Greeks are not welcome here. Theoklymenos, the son of Proteas, will execute any Greek who steps foot at his house, to keep Helen by his side. Menelaos is buffled. Who is this Helen she is talking about?
Menelaos and Helen finally meet and after a long dialogue – during which they are both skeptical about each other – they reunite. “I was tricked by the gods into taking to my arms a misty phantom-form, to my sorrow.”, he says. With one of the characters replying: “How so? Was it then for this we vainly toiled?”.
With Theonoe’s help, they manage to escape by boat and return to Sparta. Theoklymenos becomes enraged and almost kills his sister. But Theonoe is saved last minute with the help of the gods and goddesses.
Helen, a Play with Anti-War Sentiment
On a surface level, the tragedy focuses on the importance of virtue and oaths, especially between husband and wife. But Helen is more than a play about loyalty. The play is about the nonsense of war. What was the purpose of the Trojan war? Just a lifeless shadow. Euripides had just witnessed the defeat of Athens in the Sicilian Expedition. This war had caused great panic to Athenians and people started questioning the necessity of war.
Moreover, the play brings forward the voices of women who have been shamed and blamed from society without much proof. Both the feminist and anti-war sentiment of the play were inspired by the teachings of the sophists. The latter were Greek lecturers who questioned the values and ethics of their time. Some of them argued that women should be equal to men, that war only brings destruction, gods and goddesses do not exist, and that humanity should focus on science.
Euripides’ plays were controversial, since they questioned the morals of his time. He is known as the misunderstood tragedian and it took years to get recognized for his contribution to theatre. Helen has inspired many contemporary artists, including the Greek poet Yorgos Seferis.
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