in the iliad helen speaks the last lament for hector. the only man in troy who showed her kindness is slain—and now, helen says, πάντες δέ με πεφρίκασιν, all men shudder at me. she doesn’t speak in the iliad again.
homer isn’t cruel to helen; her story is cruel enough. in the conjectured era of the trojan war, women are mothers by twelve, grandmothers by twenty-four, and buried by thirty. the lineage of mycenaean families passes through daughters: royal women are kingmakers, and command a little power, but they are bartered like jewels (the iliad speaks again and again of helen and all her wealth). helen is the most beautiful woman in the world, golden with kharis, the seductive grace that arouses desire. she is coveted by men beyond all reason. after she is seized by paris and compelled by aphrodite to love him against her will—in other writings of the myth, she loves him freely—she is never out of danger.
the helen of the iliad is clever and powerful and capricious and kind and melancholy: full of fury toward paris and aphrodite, longing for sparta and its women, fear for her own life. she condemns herself before others can. in book vi, as war blazes and roars below them, helen tells hector, on us the gods have set an evil destiny: that we should be a singer’s theme for generations to come—as if she knows that, in the centuries after, men will rarely write of paris’ vanity and hubris and lust, his violation of the sacred guest-pact, his refusal to relent and avoid war with the achaeans. instead they’ll write and paint the beautiful, perfidious, ruinous woman whose hands are red with the blood of men, and call her not queen of sparta but helen of troy: a forced marriage to the city that desired and hated her. she is an eidolon made of want and rapture and dread and resentment.
homer doesn’t condemn helen—and in the odyssey she’s seen reconciled with menelaus. she’s worshipped in sparta as a symbol of sexual power for centuries, until the end of roman rule: pausanias writes that pilgrims come to see the remains of her birth-egg, hung from the roof of a temple in the spartan acropolis; spartan girls dance and sing songs praising one another’s beauty and strength as part of rites of passage, leading them from parthenos to nýmphē, virgin to bride. cults of helen appear across greece, italy, turkey—as far as palestine—celebrating her shining beauty; they sacrifice to her as if she were a goddess. much of this is quickly forgotten.
every age finds new words to hate helen, but they are old ways of hating: deceiver and scandal and insatiate whore. she is euripides’ bitchwhore and hesiod’s kalon kakon (“beautiful evil”) and clement of alexandria’s adulterous beauty and whore and shakespeare’s strumpet and proctor’s trull and flurt of whoredom and schiller’s pricktease and levin’s adulterous witch. her lusts damned a golden world to die, they say. pandora’s box lies between a woman’s thighs. helen is a symbol of how men’s desire for women becomes the evidence by which women are condemned, abused, reviled.
but no cage of words can hold her fast. she is elusive; she yields nothing. she has outlasted civilisations, and is beautiful still. before troy is ash and ruin she has already heard all the slander of the centuries; and at last she turns her face away—as if to say: i am not for you