Greek Drama Ep.4: Helen by Euripides

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.

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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.

Greek Drama Ep.6: The Concepts of Hybris, Nemesis, and Catharsis

Hybris, nemesis, and catharsis are three important aspects of every ancient Greek tragedy. Hybris and nemesis were mentioned way before the birth of Greek theatre; we know the terms from ancient Greek mythology. And catharsis is a concept that was introduced in drama. But what is the meaning of these three theatrical terms?

Greek Drama Ep.5: Antigone by Sophocles

Antigone by Sophocles is one of the most well-known ancient Greek theatrical plays. It belongs to a collection of tragedies – the Theban plays – since it takes place in the Greek city of Thebes. It was written by the great tragedian Sophocles and was presented at the theatrical competition of Dionysia in 441 BC. It is based on the myth of Oedipus but Sophocles manages to make the story even more tragic. It focuses on the subject of written vs. unwritten rules and absolute power.

Top 10 Misunderstood Women in Ancient Greek Mythology | #GreekMyths

Ancient Greek mythology features many outstanding and admirable female characters, such as goddess Athena and heroine Atalante. At the same time, there are countless other women that got a negative reputation due to a lack of knowledge or shallow knowledge regarding their background. Let’s see the ten (10) most misunderstood mythical women.

10 Misunderstood Mythical Women:

  1. Gorgon Medusa
  2. Helen of Troy
  3. Medea
  4. Electra
  5. Lamia
  6. Clytemnestra
  7. Pandora
  8. Hera
  9. Hecate
  10. Circe

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Before we look at every character, it is important to remember that characters in ancient Greek myths are not necessarily “evil” nor “saints”. These terms were introduced centuries later. In the Greek pagan religion, gods and goddesses were similar to humans, meaning that they possessed negative and positive characteristics. With this in mind, we should understand that ancient Greeks were not necessarily judging these heroines the way they are judged today.

10: Circe

Circe was a mythical sorceress featured in Homer’s Odyssey and other legends. She is known as the “evil witch” of ancient Greek mythology and she has inspired a fictional supervillain that appears in DC Comics with the same name. Was she really that bad? Circe would use her potions and magic powers to transform her enemies into animals and to hold the men she desired as captives. Odysseus was one of these men. She was definitely not a saint but, if you count and evaluate the crimes she committed in the Odyssey with those committed by Odysseus, she is quite innocent.

9: Hecate

If you are not new to this channel, you are already familiar with Hecate. Hecate was the goddess of darkness, witchcraft, and necromancy. She was also a chthonic deity, meaning that she resided under the surface of the Earth and not on Mount Olympus with Zeus and the rest of the gods and goddesses. In Christianity and other monotheistic religions, the underworld is a place of punishment and a place were evil resides, contrary to the heavens in the sky. Therefore, Hecate is often considered a fallen angel, a demon in the Judeo-Christian sense. However, Hecate is one of the least evil deities in pagan mythology. Yes, she would help people who wanted to put a curse on someone, however, she did not commit a series of crimes like other gods and goddesses with a good reputation.

8: Hera

Hera, the goddess of marriage, is one of the most vengeful mythological characters, punishing the women Zeus would cheat on her with. If you have watched all videos made by Helinika, then you might know that she tormented Leto by keeping her from giving birth anywhere on planet Earth. At the same time, it is worth understanding her background. Hera was eaten alive by her father, Chronos, and she was finally rescued by her brother, Zeus. In the end, she was forced to marry him and witness his infidelities, without complaining. As a protector of the sanction of marriage, she wanted to protect her own marriage from any external forces but she picked the wrong targets. But is she up to her terrible reputation? Absolutely not.

7: Pandora

The myth of Pandora’s jar has been featured on Helinika’s channel in the past. Pandora was a robot-like woman; a creation of Zeus and Hephaestus that was offered to humanity as a “gift” and “curse” at the same time. Just like Eve in the creation myth, Pandora is often blamed as the woman who damned humanity by opening a jar that contained all evils. But if we look closely to the myth’s details, if someone is to blame here, that would be Zeus. The king of the Olympian gods and goddesses wanted to give some disadvantages to humans, since they had acquired the element of fire, enabling them to create advanced technological innovations. Pandora had free will but, at the same time, she was created in a way that predetermined the opening of the jar. The gods gave her the trait of curiosity and then offered her an unlocked jar and told her to never open it. Pandora was indeed curious, she was made that way, but she did not have any bad intentions when she opened the jar. She was simply a pawn in Zeus’ plan.

6: Clytemnestra

You might know Clytemnestra as the woman who murdered her husband Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, with the help of her lover. Fewer people though understand why she committed such a crime. Clytemnestra, sister of Helen of Troy, had a daughter, Iphigenia. When Helen was abducted by Paris and taken to Troy, Agamemnon gathered his forces to help Menelaus, Helen’s husband, bring her home. However, the winds were weak, and they were unable to sail away. According to an omen, goddess Artemis had to be appeased by sacrificing Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter. The man sacrificed his daughter and then sailed to Troy and came back with a concubine named Cassandra. Clytemnestra was enraged with the fact that her husband had killed their daughter and then had the audacity to come home with his lover. She killed him and Agamemnon was remembered as a hero of the Trojan war and she was remembered as the jealous wife who killed her husband.

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5: Lamia

If you have watched Helinika’s video on ancient Greek vampires, then you might remember Lamia. A monster that would take the form of a woman to seduce men and feed off of them. She was also known for abducting babies from their cribs. But why did she target men and why was she abducting babies in the first place? Lamia was another victim of Zeus and Hera. Zeus had forced himself on her, getting her pregnant. Hera got enraged and decided to punish the victim by killing her babies and cursing her with the inability to sleep. Lamia was deeply traumatized and turned into the monster we know today.

4: Electra

You might know Electra from Carl Jung’s neo-Freudian Electra complex, which describes the hostility of a daughter towards her mother. Electra is a character in ancient Greek mythology and numerous Greek tragedies. She was the daughter of Clytemnestra and the younger sister of Iphigenia. When Agamemnon returned home, she was out of Mycenae and she was unaware of his heinous acts. As soon as she came home and learned that her mother had killed her father and was now living with her lover, Electra plotted the murder of Clytemnestra with the help of her brother, Orestes. We do not know whether Electra had inappropriate feelings for her father or if she was always hostile towards her mother, despite the popular belief.

3: Medea

Medea is a character known by most people, whether they are interested in ancient Greek mythology and drama or not. She was Circe’s niece, priestess of Hecate, and, as you can imagine, these two facts would be enough to put her in the “evil” category. The woman, however, is known for murdering her children. This act can’t be excused. What we can do, is try to understand how she ended up there. If you have watched the Argonautica on Helinika’s channel, then you might remember that Medea was the princess of Colchis and was used by the goddesses of Mount Olympus as a pawn in their plan to help Jason flee with the Golden Fleece. Medea was blinded with Eros arrows and got madly in love -literally madly- with Jason. That meant that she would do anything to stop something or someone who stood between her and Jason. The hero did not have any feelings for her but married Medea anyways to receive the Golden Fleece and gain power. After having two children with her, he decided to get married to a younger woman, which enraged Medea. The latter went on a killing spree and fled the city of Iolcos. Her story will be narrated in this channel in the future, so make sure to subscribe and stay connected.

2: Helen of Troy

Helen of Troy was one of the first “trophy wives” to have ever existed. Known as “the most beautiful woman in the world” she was married to king Menelaus of Sparta and either abducted by Paris of Troy or tricked into following him to Troy. She is often blamed for starting the Trojan war and being the source of so many evils. Her reputation was tainted, although she never took any actions herself. She was simply the apple of discord between two men: Menelaus and Paris. Her reputation was restored with a play called “Helen” by the ancient Greek dramatist Euripides. I wont reveal too much about the plot, since it will be discussed in a future video, however, Euripides condemns war and hostility, as the roots of all evils, and portrays Helen as a frank, reliable, and misunderstood character.

1: Gorgon Medusa

The most misunderstood female character in ancient Greek mythology is Gorgon Medusa, a terrifying monster with venomous snakes on her head. Those who gazed into her face would turn to stone but she was finally destroyed by the Greek hero Perseus who used her head as a weapon. Medusa has been interpreted by Freud as a representation of the fear of castration in little boys. However, Medusa is now considered a symbol of female rage against gender-based violence. The monster was once a woman who was assaulted by Poseidon in goddess Athena’s temple. The goddess then decided to blame the victim for the attack and turned her into a serpent-headed monster that no one would be able to look in the eyes without turning to stone. As a result, Medusa hid in a cave in the island she resided in and, although she did not commit any heinous acts herself, she was killed by Perseus and her head was used as a weapon against his enemies.

What is the Meaning of Hellas, Hellenes, Hellenistic, Hellenism, and Philhellenism?

You might be wondering why Greece is officially called “Hellenic Republic” or “Hellas” and why Greeks are often called “Hellenes”. The same goes with adjectives such as “Hellenic” and “Hellenistic” instead of Greek. Another common term is “Philhellenism”, meaning friend/lover of Hellenism. What do these terms mean and how are they connected to Greece?

Hellas and Hellenes

The reality is that Greeks/Hellenes today use the terms «Ελλάδα» (Hellada), «Έλληνες» (Hellenes), and «ελληνικός» (Hellenic) when talking about Greece, Greeks, and Greek (adjective) respectively. At the same time, many western countries are more familiar with the Latin “Graecia”, hence the common use of the words  “Greece” and “Greek”. In this sense, “Greece” and “Hellas” can be used interchangeably, but the second option is more accurate than the first.

Origins of the Terms Hellas and Hellenes

There are various theories surrounding the etymology of “Hellas”. We know from the ancient Greek poet Homer that Hellas was a place in central Greece, where the women were described as “very beautiful” (καλλιγύναικος). You might have also heard of the mythical Helen of Troy, considered the “most beautiful woman in the world”, whose abduction started the Trojan War. Her name, which is still a very popular given name for girls, means “bright”/ “of light”, leading us to the conclusion that Hellas was “the land of light”. Greece is still referred to as “the land of light”, not only because of its clear skies and many consecutive days of sunlight, but also because its history inspired the Age of Enlightenment.

The term started describing all Greeks thanks to the conquests of Alexander the Great (356 BC – 323 BC). Up to that point, the Greeks were organized in city-states, such as Athens and Sparta. Greeks were aware of their common characteristics in religion, language, and appearance, and would distinguish themselves from people of different cultural backgrounds.

With the creation of the vast empire of Alexander, these differences became more prominent and Greeks started recognizing themselves as one group: the Hellenes. Ancient Greek historian Thucydides was also using the term “to Hellenize” (ελληνίζει) when referring to the spread of the Greek language and culture.

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Hellenistic Period

The Hellenistic Period is the historical period that starts with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and ends with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC and the emergence of the Roman Empire. This was the time when the Attic dialect of the Greek language, that you may know as Koine Greek, became the lingua franca in the Mediterranean and other regions that were reached and influenced by Alexander. Some scholars often refer to it as an age of decadence, since it marks the decline of the Greek Classical Era. However, the Hellenistic Period was a time of prosperity and was characterized by a great progress in arts, mathematics, philosophy, architecture, and science. Stoicism and Epicureanism saw a rise during this period.

Hellenism

“Hellenism” has three different meanings. Today, the term describes the culture(s) of Hellas and Hellenes (Greece and Greeks) from ancient to modern times. Sometimes, scholars might use the term Hellenism to describe only the culture of the Hellenistic Period, as described in the previous paragraph. In the European Romantic era, “Hellenism” was a synonym of the neoclassical movement in art and architecture, which was inspired by the Greek Classical era.  

Philhellenism and Philhellenes

Philhellenism derives from the Greek «φιλώ» (to befriend, to love, to adore, to kiss) and the term Hellenism, which is a synonym for the Greek culture and aesthetic. Philhellenes are the admirers of Hellenism and Hellenes (Greek culture and Greeks). Philhellenism became a movement in Western Europe and other regions in the 17th, 18th and 19th Century thanks to the neoclassical movement that focused on the study of Classical philosophers and thanks to the tradition of the Grand Tour; a coming of age trip for upper-class European men in the archaeological sites of Italy and Greece. Philhellenism played a crucial role in the start and completion of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire.

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