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 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.

Helen's Second Appearance

Helen's second appearance in the Iliad is with the old men at the Scaean Gate. Here Helen actually speaks, but only in response to Trojan King Priam's addressing her. Although the war has been waged for 9 years and the leaders are presumably well known, Priam asks Helen to identify men who turn out to be Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Ajax. Roisman believes this was a conversational gambit rather than a reflection of Priam's ignorance. Helen responds politely and with flattery, addressing Priam as "'Dear father-in-law, you arouse in me both respect and awe,' 3.172." She then adds that she regrets ever having left her homeland and daughter, and, continuing the theme of her responsibility, she is sorry that she has caused the death of those slain in war. She says she wishes she had not followed Priam's son, thereby deflecting some of the blame from herself, and possibly laying it at Priam's feet as guilty by virtue of having helped create such a son.

They soon reached the Scaean Gates.
Oucalegaon and Antenor, both prudent men,
elder statesmen, sat at the Scaean Gates, 160
with Priam and his entourage—Panthous, Thymoetes,
Lampus, Clytius, and warlike Hicataeon. Old men now,
their fighting days were finished, but they all spoke well.
They sat there, on the tower, these Trojan elders,
like cicadas perched up on a forest branch, chirping
their soft, delicate sounds. Seeing Helen approach the tower,
they commented softly to each other—their words had wings:
"There's nothing shameful about the fact
that Trojans and well-armed Achaeans
have endured great suffering a long time 170
over such a woman—just like a goddess,
immortal, awe-inspiring. She's beautiful.
But nonetheless let her go back with the ships.
Let her not stay here, a blight on us, our children."
So they talked. Priam then called out to Helen.
"Come here, dear child. Sit down in front of me,
so you can see your first husband, your friends,
your relatives. As far as I'm concerned,
you bear no blame. For I blame the gods.
They drove me to wage this wretched war 180
against Achaeans. Tell me, who's that large man,
over there, that impressive, strong Achaean?
Others may be taller by a head than him,
but I've never seen with my own eyes
such a striking man, so noble, so like a king."
Then Helen, goddess among women, said to Priam:
"My dear father-in-law, whom I respect and honour,
how I wish I'd chosen evil death
when I came here with your son, leaving behind
my married home, companions, darling child, 190
and friends my age. But things didn't work that way.
So I weep all the time. But to answer you,
that man is wide-ruling Agamemnon,
son of Atreus, a good king, fine fighter,
and once he was my brother-in-law,
if that life was ever real. I'm such a whore."
Priam gazed in wonder at Agamemnon, saying:
"Son of Atreus, blessed by the gods, fortune's child,
divinely favoured, many long-haired Achaeans
serve under you. Once I went to Phrygia, 200
that vine-rich land, where I saw Phrygian troops
with all their horses, thousands of them,
soldiers of Otreus, godlike Mygdon,
camped by the banks of the Sangarius river.
I was their ally, part of their army,
the day the Amazons, men's peers in war,
came on against them. But those forces then
were fewer than these bright-eyed Achaeans."
The old man then spied Odysseus and asked:
"Dear child, come tell me who this man is, 210
shorter by a head than Agamemnon,
son of Atreus. But he looks broader
in his shoulders and his chest. His armour's stacked
there on the fertile earth, but he strides on,
marching through men's ranks just like a ram
moving through large white multitudes of sheep.
Yes, a woolly ram, that's what he seems to me."
Helen, child of Zeus, then answered Priam:
"That man is Laertes' son, crafty Odysseus,
raised in rocky Ithaca. He's well versed 220
in all sorts of tricks, deceptive strategies."
At that point, wise Antenor said to Helen:
"Lady, what you say is true. Once lord Odysseus
came here with war-loving Menelaus,
as an ambassador in your affairs.
I received them both in my residence
and entertained them. I got to know them—
from their appearance and their wise advice.

Speech continues...

Helen's Third Appearance

Helen's third appearance in the Iliad is with Aphrodite, whom Helen takes to task. Aphrodite is in disguise, as Iris had been, but Helen sees straight through it. Aphrodite, representing blind lust, appears before Helen to summon her to Paris' bed at the conclusion of the duel between Menelaus and Paris, which had ended with the survival of both men. Helen is aggravated with Aphrodite and her approach to life. Helen insinuates that Aphrodite would really like Paris for herself. Helen then makes a peculiar comment, that going to Paris' bedchamber will arouse snide comments among the women of the city. This is odd because Helen has been living as Paris' wife for nine years. Roisman says this shows that Helen is now longing for social acceptance among the Trojans.

"Goddess, why do you wish to deceive me so?
Are you going to take me still further off, [400]
to some well populated city somewhere
in Phrygia or beautiful Maeonia,
because you're in love with some mortal man
and Menelaus has just beaten Paris
and wants to take me, a despised woman, 450
back home with him? Is that why you're here,
you and your devious trickery?
Why don't you go with Paris by yourself,
stop walking around here like a goddess,
stop directing your feet toward Olympus,
and lead a miserable life with him,
caring for him, until he makes you his wife [410]
or slave. I won't go to him in there —
that would be shameful, serving him in bed.
Every Trojan woman would revile me afterwards. 460
Besides, my heart is hurt enough already."
(Book III)

Helen has no real choice in whether or not to go to Paris' room. She will go, but since she is concerned with what the others think, she covers herself up so as not to be recognized as she goes to Paris' bedchamber.

Helen's Fourth Appearance

The fourth appearance of Helen is with Paris, to whom she is hostile and insulting. If ever she wanted to be with Paris, maturity and the effects of the war have tempered her passion. Paris does not appear to care very much that Helen insults him. Helen is his possession.

"You've come back from the fight. How I wish 480
you'd died there, killed by that strong warrior
who was my husband once. You used to boast
you were stronger than warlike Menelaus, [430]
more strength in your hands, more power in your spear.
So go now, challenge war-loving Menelaus
to fight again in single combat.
I'd suggest you stay away. Don't fight it out
man to man with red-haired Menelaus,
without further thought. You might well die,
come to a quick end on his spear." 490
Replying to Helen, Paris said:
don't mock my courage with your insults.
Yes, Menelaus has just defeated me,
but with Athena's help. Next time I'll beat him. [440]
For we have gods on our side, too. But come,
let's enjoy our love together on the bed.
Never has desire so filled my mind as now,
not even when I first took you away
from lovely Lacedaemon, sailing off
in our sea-worthy ships, or when I lay with you 500
in our lover's bed on the isle of Cranae.
That's how sweet passion has seized hold of me,
how much I want you now."
(Book III)

Helen's Fifth Appearance

The fifth appearance of Helen is in Book IV. Helen and Hector talk in Paris' house, where Helen manages the household just like the other Trojan women. In her encounter with Hector, Helen is self-deprecating, calling herself "a dog, evil-contriving and abhorred." She says she wishes she had a better husband, implying she wishes she had a husband more like Hector. It sounds as though Helen may be flirting, but in the previous two encounters Helen has shown that lust no longer motivates her, and the praise makes sense without such an insinuation of coquettishness.

"Hector, you are my brother,
and I'm a horrible, conniving bitch.
I wish that on that day my mother bore me
some evil wind had come, carried me away,
and swept me off, up into the mountains,
or into waves of the tumbling, crashing sea, 430
then I would have died before this happened.
But since gods have ordained these evil things,
I wish I'd been wife to a better man, [350]
someone sensitive to others' insults,
with feeling for his many shameful acts.
This husband of mine has no sense now,
and he won't acquire any in the future.
I expect he'll get from that what he deserves.
But come in, sit on this chair, my brother,
since this trouble really weighs upon your mind— 440
all because I was a bitch—because of that
and Paris' folly, Zeus gives us an evil fate,
so we may be subjects for men's songs
in generations yet to come."
(Book VI)

Helen's Sixth Appearance

Helen's final appearance in the Iliad is in Book 24, at Hector's funeral, where she is distinct from the other mourning women, Andromache, Hector's wife, and Hecuba, his mother, in two ways. (1) Helen praises Hector as a family man where they concentrate on his military prowess. (2) Unlike the other Trojan women, Helen will not be taken as an enslaved woman. She will be reunited with Menelaus as his wife. This scene is the first and last time she is included with other Trojan women in a public event. She has achieved a measure of acceptance just as the society to which she aspired is about to be destroyed.

As she spoke, Hecuba wept. She stirred them on [760]
to endless lamentation. Helen was the third
to lead those women in their wailing:
"Hector—of all my husband's brothers,
you're by far the dearest to my heart.
My husband's godlike Alexander, 940
who brought me here to Troy. I wish I'd died
before that happened! This is the twentieth year
since I went away and left my native land,
but I've never heard a nasty word from you
or an abusive speech. In fact, if anyone
ever spoke rudely to me in the house—
one of your brothers or sisters, some brother's
well-dressed wife, or your mother—for your father [770]
always was so kind, as if he were my own—
you'd speak out, persuading them to stop, 950
using your gentleness, your soothing words.
Now I weep for you and for my wretched self,
so sick at heart, for there's no one else
in spacious Troy who's kind to me and friendly.
They all look at me and shudder with disgust."
Helen spoke in tears. The huge crowd joined in their lament.
(Book XXIV)

Roisman says the changes in the behavior of Helen do not reflect personal growth, but the graduated unveiling of her personality in all its richness."

"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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Gill, N.S. "Helen of Troy in the Iliad of Homer." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/helen-of-troy-iliad-of-homer-118918. Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Helen of Troy in the Iliad of Homer. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/helen-of-troy-iliad-of-homer-118918 Gill, N.S. "Helen of Troy in the Iliad of Homer." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/helen-of-troy-iliad-of-homer-118918 (accessed June 1, 2023).