The traditional story of Helen of Troy is well known. Promised to Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy, in return for his choosing Aphrodite as the most beautiful of the goddesses she was abducted from Sparta and her husband Menelaos and taken to Troy. Menelaos raised an army from among the Greek city states to recapture her and so began the ten-year long Trojan War.
Except from a quite early stage there was an alternative version of the story attributed to a late 7th / early 6th century BC poet called Stisikhoros. This version is elaborated in a play by Euripidis called ‘Eleni’ which has been my introduction to Greek tragedy, thanks to my Greek tutor (Sofia) with whom I have been reading it in a Modern Greek translation.
In this version of the myth, Helen never went to Troy. Through the intervention of Hera, wife and sister of Zeus and goddess of women and marriage, Helen was taken to Egypt while her place in Troy was taken by a living, talking image of her fashioned by Hera. Apparently Hera’s trick was to thwart Aphrodite and protect the sacred vows of marriage. Initially Helen lived under the protection of King Proteas until his death.
At the end of the Trojan War, Menelaos, returning to Sparta with the false ‘Helen’ is shipwrecked on the coast of Egypt and discovers that his real wife has been there the whole time. The real Helen is wracked with guilt at the bloodshed caused on her account – details of which are relayed to her by Teukros, a follower of Menelaos who is the first to encounter her. This story is an extraordinary invention and must be one of the earliest examples of the use of a double in literature. Euripidis was writing it (412 BC) at a critical time in the history of Athens, It came after a series of military setbacks, starting with the disastrous attempt by Athens to conquer Sicily in 415 BC and at a point in the Peloponnesian Wars when the Spartan army had captured Dekeleia in 423 BC and were threatening Attica. One of the things Euripidis is aiming to do in his play is to question the meaning of war, a radical attitude at that time.
At the same time as reading the play I have also been reading a poem by Seferis called ‘Eleni’ which takes up the same theme and crystallizes its meaning in a stunning image. The first three stanzas of the following extract from the poem are written from the point of view of Teukros, the follower of Menelaos who first discover the real Helen in Egypt. The rest of the poem is then in the voice of the poet. Here’s my translation:
Nightingale of the folk poet,
On such a night as this on Proteas’s seashore
The Spartan women slaves listened to you and led the mourning,
And amongst them – who would have said it? – Eleni!
She who for years we hunted on the banks of the River Skamandros.
She was here on the edge of the desert: I touched her and she spoke to me:
“It’s not true, it’s not true”, she cried.
“I didn’t board the blue prowed ship.
I never set foot in fearless Troy.”
With her deep bosom, the sun in her hair
And that height,
Shades everywhere smile
At her shoulders, thighs and knees:
Living skin, and eyes
With their large eyelids,
She was here on the banks of the Nile Delta.
And in Troy?
Nothing in Troy – an image.
This is what the gods wanted.
And Paris went to bed with a shade, as if it were
A solid creature.
And for ten years we were butchered for Eleni.
Great suffering had befallen Greece.
So many corpses thrown into the jaws of the sea, into the jaws of the earth:
So many souls ground like corn in millstones.
And the rivers overflowed with blood amidst the ooze
For a swollen piece of linen, for a cloud,
The fluttering of a butterfly, the feather of a swan,
For an empty shift, for an Eleni.
And my brother?
Nightingale, nightingale, nightingale,
What is a god? What isn’t a god? And what is between the two?
“The nightingales don’t let you sleep in Platres.”
In sea-loving Cyprus
Which promised to remind me of my native land,
I am alone and anchored to this fairy tale,
If it is true that this is a fairy tale,
If it is true that men will not get caught again
By the old trickery of the gods:
If it is true
That some other Teukros, after many years,
Or some other Ajax or Priam or Hecuba
Or some unknown, nameless person
Who saw a Skamandros overflow with corpses,
Is fated to hear
Messengers who come to say
How so much suffering, so much life
Went into the bottomless pit
For an empty shift, for an Eleni.