Euripides: Helen (of Egypt)

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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18 Responses

  1. Avatar North
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    I never felt any animus towards Helen, poor dear, but goodness knows I hated Paris.
    And then they made Troy the movie. Troy is a good reason to give up agnosticism; if you believe there is a God then it stands to reason that someone will be held to account for Troy.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to North
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      Haha! Yeah, it’s pretty terrible. I think the words “Brad Pitt is Achilles!” should be read about like, “Do not drink! Poison!” by most of us.

      I think Helen is generally remembered pretty well, which is nice. Certainly, the Greeks weren’t all in agreement with Homer in thinking that she cheated on her husband and launched a war because her mind was clouded by the goddess. Paris is, of course, a selfish twit. He’s the only character I can remember not being remotely likeable in the Iliad. I think we’re supposed to cheer when Menelaus kicks his ass.Report

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp in reply to North
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      I gagged the most when Helen said to Orlando Bloom: “I just want a man I can grow old with.” Not a terrible line…for an Adam Sandler comedy. For Helen of Troy? To say to Paris? Pretty terrible.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Kyle Cupp
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        I must’ve blocked that line out of my memory. This does bring up the whole issue of both removing all gods from the story and making Paris a sniveling wimp- thus making it completely inexplicable that Helen leaves with him!Report

    • Avatar BenSix in reply to North
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      Filming “Troy” was a loser from the start. We’re supposed to believe that Helen was so awesomely beautiful that people were prepared to launch a long and bloody conflict so as to regain her. Trying to depict that in contemporary film was like trying to express the joys of sex through morse code.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to BenSix
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        That’s where the Gods come in Bensix, and what makes their removal from the movie so ludicrous.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to BenSix
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        We’ve got a relative who works as a cinematographer on a lot of big movies and he often complains that the “MTV look” has destroyed filmmaking. I think what he’s talking about is that he’ll compose these beautiful shots and then, in the editing, they’re sped up and made choppy with the idea being that the audience can’t focus their attention on a single image for more than a few seconds. But, with beauty, the whole point is to be caught up and enraptured by a single image- it’s all about close attention. I think this is why a movie like Troy can convey that Paris is horny, but nothing about beauty or desire.Report

  2. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    In Terry Pratchett’s Eric, by the time the Greeks win Helen has had several children with Paris and is plump, middle-aged, and, to be generous, pleasant-looking.Report

  3. Avatar Kyle Cupp
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    I’ve heard it said that you know you’ve experienced real beauty when the thought of never experiencing it again is unbearable.Report

  4. Avatar J.L. Wall
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    In a few more weeks I might have had something more interesting to say — I’m about 100 lines through the Greek at the moment (I, erm, haven’t even read it in translation — which is bad not because I have a B.A. in Classics, but because it, by all means, ought to have been on my honors thesis reading list. Oops.)

    Anyway, the focus of said paper was a (Sicilian) Greek poet named Stesichorus. Among his more famous fragments is the “Palinode,” which comes to us through Plato’s PHAEDRUS, an event that’s itself pretty interesting/relevant to the discussion here. Sokrates is worried that he is about to slander Love:

    “And so, my friend, I have to purify myself. Now for such as offend in speaking of gods and heroes there is an ancient mode of purification, which was known to Stesichorus, though not to Homer. When Stesichorus lost the sight of his eyes because of his defamation of Helen, he was not, like Homer, at a loss to know why. As a true artist he understood the reason, and promptly wrote the lines:

    ‘It is not true, this story:
    You did not go in the well-benched ships,
    You did not come to the walls of Troy.’*

    “And after finishing the composition of his so-called palinode he straightaway recovered his sight. Now it’s here that I shall show greater wisdom than these poets. I shall attempt to make my due palinode to Love before any harm comes to me for my defamation of him, and no longer veiling my head for shame, but uncovered.”

    There’s some disagreement about the extent to which this blindness-tale was believed, or at least told, in Greece (there’s no other source for it, and some argue Plato was just making it up). Whatever the case, it’s an interesting version of events in and of itself. However, if, like me, you’re into making sweeping literary claims based on a couple hundred fragmentary lines, then it becomes another piece of evidence that there was a kind of tension/”competition” between the myths/worlds of Homer and Stesichorus as they strove for what we’ll just call “mythic truthiness.”

    Things get interesting when you consider Euripides in light of that possibility: he had a reputation for being the more iconoclastic of the tragedians, and there are several clear links (clearer than with Sophokles or Aeschylus) between his work and Stesichorus — whose works, given the canonical status of the Homeric poems, would be positioned in a way similar to those of Euripides. There is, of course, his HELEN; the PHOENICIAN WOMEN very nearly paraphrases what happens to be the most complete surviving scene from Stesichorus’ poetry; not to mention a slew of other, much smaller details sometimes credited in the ancient world to Steischorus (though that’s hard to tell, and other dramatists picked up on them, too).

    So what I’m trying to get at is this: there is a possibility that Euripides’ so-called iconoclasm was, in fact a (deliberate? self-conscious?) positioning of himself and his work in line with a longer literary tradition espousing the “minority-view” myths.** There’s precious little evidence for any such literary tradition (and I generally get into a lot of trouble for talking of self-conscious literary traditions before c. 500 BCE), but the possibility of its existence is, for me, the more intriguing proposition.

    *Excluding these 3 lines, the text is from the translation in the big Edith Hamilton-edited volume of Plato’s works. But the “Palinode” was just awful in it, so I used my own.

    **Yes, I’m just asserting that Homeric versions of things were the mainstream versions. But at least as regards Helen, assertions otherwise DO come in some degree of connection with it, though her absence from Troy seems to have had rather healthy support. You could do worse than Herodotus and Euripides. Yet — Homer was a reading primer, a schoolbook, a source for oracles, commonly recited, source of multitudinous cottage industries, and, if you ask any number of Classicists more qualified than I, the closest thing ancient Greece had to a Bible — not because it was sacred or holy, but because it was The Book.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to J.L. Wall
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      I don’t want to be a pest, but… if you posted something about Stesichorus it would be really cool! I’d forgotten all about him. (On that note, I was thinking of asking you to post something about Sappho. She’s my favorite of the Greek poets, but I’m not sure how much I can say about her poems having only a rudimentary understanding of Greek.)

      Anyway, I do think of Homer as a… well, a foundational text for the Greeks. It’s not exactly the Bible, but you can assume that everyone else who was written down was familiar with the epics. I sort of think of the tragedies as being fan-fiction for the Iliad, in the same way that there are a million spin-off books from “the Star Wars universe” or whatnot. Homer is the ur-text and the rest are elaborations of the myths. But, of course, the big thing I forget (too often) is that, for most of these people, they weren’t talking about myths, but histories.

      As for the Stesichorus/Euripides connection, I think it’s entirely plausible from what little I remember reading about Stesichorus. But, again, if you’d like to post something about it, I can guarantee I’ll read it and comment.Report

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