Second Summer Update: A Double Helen

As I talked about in my last post, I’ve been reading up on literary criticism and perspectives concerning classical versions of Helen of Troy. I recently finished the book Helen of Troy and her Shameless Phantom by Norman Austin, which talks a lot about the counter-Homeric tradition in early Greek writings. Many of these works attempted to exculpate Helen by shipping her off to Egypt or rendering her presence in Troy a mere phantom of her real self (or both, as in Herodotus!). This imagination of a dual Helen, the pure and chaste reality as opposed to the wanton phantom, fascinates me. I think it’s especially interesting how this doubleness is reflected even in the primary Homeric texts– and then was taken even farther in counter-Homeric revisions of the Troy story.

Most people know a little bit about Helen of Troy as woman at the center of the Trojan War, who either eloped with or was kidnapped by the Trojan prince Paris from her “rightful” husband Menelaus in Sparta, catalyzing the nine year conflict that was the Trojan War, and which resulted in the downfall of Troy and return of Helen to Greece. As you can see, even Helen’s “origin story,” so to speak,” is wrapped up in ambiguity: did she purposefully leave her husband, or was she taken against her will? Homer leaves this question unanswered, although many characters in the Iliad as well as later versions of the narrative such as Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida discuss the big “who’s to blame?” question in great detail. So, that’s one point of doubleness, and I’ll tell you some more too. First, Helen has a sort of dual paternity: she’s at once the daughter of Zeus, the god who had an affair with her mother, and of Tyndareus, her earthly father. She’s also a twin (her sister is Clytemnestra), and she has a set of twin brothers, the Dioskouroi, Castor and Pollux. In the Iliad and Odyssey, Helen straddles the line between the worlds of men and women, mortal and immortal, subject and object. As Mihoko Suzuki says in her book Metamorphoses of Helen, this woman is “marked by radical undecidability.”

As I continue reading about classical Helen and move into medieval and Renaissance Helen, I will continue looking at this trend, because I think the doubleness of Helen may yield some interesting insights about the agency and femininity of this character. Besides doubleness in her own persona, Helen also has some literary doubles, including Cressida/Criseyde (potential descendant of the Iliad’s Briseis) and, I would argue, Lavinia of Virgil’s Aeneid, the love interest of his titular character who also, in some ways, spurs a war ostensibly over marriage rights. I’m curious what this doubleness means for Helen– do the early Greek attempts to purify Helen diminish her agency? Which version of her can act as a subject rather than an object: real Helen or phantom Helen? Can agency and femininity exist at the same time, or are they split between the doubles, and if so, how? These are some questions I’ll be thinking about as I keep on reading. Up next, I’ll be looking at some articles from Linguistics and Gender Studies perspectives about what agency looks like so that I can have an operative definition for classifying Helen’s agentive position or lack thereof in both classical and early modern texts.

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