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Helen of Troy in the Iliad of Homer

Iliad's Portrayal of Helen, According to Hanna M. Roisman


The Iliad describes the conflicts between Achilles and his leader, Agamemnon, and between Greeks and Trojans, following the abduction of Agamemnon's sister-in-law, Helen of Sparta (aka Helen of Troy), by the Trojan prince Paris. Helen's precise role in the abduction is unknown, since the the event is a matter of legend rather than historical fact and has been variously interpreted in literature. In "Helen in the Iliad: Causa Belli and Victim of War: From Silent Weaver to Public Speaker," Hanna M. Roisman looks at the limited details that show Helen's perception of events, people, and her own guilt. The following is my understanding of the details Roisman provides.

Helen of Troy appears only 6 times in the Iliad, four of which are in the third book, one appearance in Book VI, and a final appearance in the last (24th) book. The first and last appearances are specified in the title of Roisman's article.

Helen has mixed feelings because she feels some complicity in her own abduction and realizes how much death and suffering has been the result. That her Trojan husband is not terribly manly compared with his brother or her first husband only increases her feelings of regret. However, it is not clear that Helen had any choice. She is, after all, a possession, one of many Paris stole from Argos, although the only one he is unwilling to return (7.362-64). Helen's fault lies in her beauty rather than in her acts, according to the old men at the Scaean Gate (3.158).

Helen's First Appearance
Helen's first appearance is when the goddess Iris [See Hermes for information on the status of Iris in the Iliad], disguised as a sister-in-law, comes to summon Helen from her weaving. Weaving is a typically wifely occupation, but the subject Helen is weaving is unusual, since she is depicting the suffering of the Trojan War heroes. Roisman argues this shows Helen's willingness to take responsibility for precipitating the deadly course of events. Iris, who summons Helen to witness a duel between her two husbands to decide with whom she will live, inspires Helen with a longing for her original husband, Menelaus. Helen does not appear to see behind the disguise to the goddess and goes compliantly, without uttering a word.

Then Iris came as messenger to white-armed Helen,
taking on the image of her sister-in-law,
wife of Antenor's son, fine Helicaon.
Her name was Laodice, of all Priam's daughters
the most beautiful. She found Helen in her room,
weaving a large cloth, a double purple cloak,
creating pictures of the many battle scenes
between horse-taming Trojans and bronze-clad Achaeans,
wars they suffered for her sake at the hands of Ares.
Standing near by, swift-footed Iris said:

"Come here, dear girl.
Look at the amazing things going on.
Horse-taming Trojans and bronze-clad Achaeans,
men who earlier were fighting one another
in wretched war out there on the plain,
both keen for war's destruction, are sitting still.
Alexander and war-loving Menelaus
are going to fight for you with their long spears.
The man who triumphs will call you his dear wife."

With these words the goddess set in Helen's heart
sweet longing for her former husband, city, parents. Covering herself with a white shawl, she left the house, shedding tears.

Translations here and below by Ian Johnston, Malaspina University-College

Next: Second Appearance of Helen | 3d, 4th, and 5th | Final Appearance

"Helen in the Iliad; Causa Belli and Victim of War: From Silent Weaver to Public Speaker," AJPh 127 (2006) 1-36, Hanna M. Roisman.

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