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Introduction to Euripides' Helen
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

[You might begin by reading through my introduction to Euripides' Ion, to which this is something of a companion piece.]

Euripides' Helen: Plot Summary [FN 1]

The Greeks, having fought for ten long years, finally seize the city of Troy and recapture Helen, wife of the Greek king Menelaus — or so they think. It turns out, however, that Helen never sailed to Troy at all, never ran off with the Trojan prince Alexander/Paris or abandoned her husband and family. Instead, she was spirited off to Egypt by the cunning messenger god Hermes while a phantom Helen (eidolon) was sent to Troy in her place — all part of a cunning plan on the part of Hera, to avenge herself against Paris, and of Zeus, to decrease the human population. In Egypt, Helen was at first received in a kindly fashion by good King Proteus and treated honorably. Proteus has recently died, however, and his less than honorable son Theoclymenus now holds the throne. Attracted by her beauty, Theoclymenus has vowed to marry Helen, with her consent or without it, which has driven Helen to seek refuge at Proteus' tomb, in front of the palace doors.

Helen informs the audience of all of this in a prologue speech, after which the Greek hero Teucer suddenly enters. Teucer is one of the minor heroes of the Trojan war, an archer from the island of Salamis and half-brother to the great hero Ajax, son of Telamon (who committed suicide in the later years of the war). Teucer, it turns out, has been banished from Salamis on account of his brother's death and is on his way to Cyprus, where he is to found a new city. He has stopped off at Egypt to seek advice about his mission from Theoclymenus' sister, Theonoe ("Divine-minded"), who is a renowned seer.

On first seeing Helen, Teucer is shocked and angered, noting that the entire Greek world hates and spurns her, but he quickly assumes that he must be mistaken about who she is, and the two chat. Helen learns that Troy has fallen, but that Menelaus and his ship have disappeared, while at home in Sparta, her mother has committed suicide, out of shame at her daughter's behavior, and her two brothers (the Dioscuri) disappeared. Distraught to learn that she has even less grounds for hope than she had imagined, Helen warns Teucer not to knock on the palace door, since Theoclymenus has decreed that all Greeks who land on his shores are to be killed at once. (What she doesn't mention is that this is due to his fear that they might attempt to make off with Helen and take her home.) Teucer departs, cursing Helen's name just as he had when he fist entered, and Helen is left alone to bemoan her fate. A chorus of female Greek captives enters: Helen tells them of what she has heard and declares her intention to kill herself; they convince her to consult Theonoe to find out the truth. Helen and the chorus then enter the palace.

In the meantime, Menelaus has been driven off course by a storm on his way home to Sparta and finds himself shipwrecked on the shores of Egypt. His ship destroyed, with no provisions or other resources, he enters dressed in rags, hoping to find some sort of assistance from the locals. He knocks on the palace door only to be met by a surly portress who, unimpressed by his claims of being a grand hero, tells him to beat it before her master gets home; that her master has Helen of Sparta, the daughter of Tyndareus and child of Zeus, inside his palace and is determined that any Greeks who happen by be immediately put to death. Menelaus is thoroughly discomfited by this news: could someone have stolen Helen from the cave, where he left her with his men? Could there be two Helens? — both from a place called Sparta, and both the daughter of a Tyndareus? — Is there some other "man" named Zeus?

Helen and the chorus return, with the news that Menelaus is not dead but has to come to Egypt. Helen sees Menelaus and, assuming at first that he is some ruffian sent to waylay her, rushes toward the tomb of Proteus for sanctuary. Menelaus is shocked to see a woman who looks just like his wife, and Helen to see that this "ruffian" is actually her long-lost husband. When she attempts to greet him, however, he refuses to believe her tale.

One of Menelaus' sailors — a slave — enters to announce that "Helen," who was hiding with them in the cave, has just vanished into thin air. A happy reunion between the married couple ensues, while the old sailor reflects on the worthlessness of prophecy.

Helen and Menelaus are then left to ponder their position. Helen announces that she has an escape plan but the couple must first seek the assistance of the prophetess Theonoe, to ensure that she does not betray their scheme to Theoclymenus.

Theonoe arrives, aware of Menelaus' presence, and the two present an elaborate plea for her assistance. Theonoe proclaims that, should they manage to devise a plan for escape, she will not betray them.

Helen then instructs Menelaus to pretend to be one of his own sailors and to announce that "Menelaus" has drowned at sea in the shipwreck that has landed them on the shores of Egypt. Helen will then claim that there is a Greek custom that all who drown at sea receive a symbolic burial at sea from on board a ship — a rite that she, Menelaus' wife, and the "sailor" (i.e., Menelaus) must perform alone in order to lay his spirit: only then can she offer herself in marriage to the Egyptian king. Theoclymenus arrives and the plan works like a charm: a messenger reports how Helen, Menelaus, and Menelaus' men (who joined the funeral procession at the last second) sailed out to sea and, once away from shore, seized the ship and set sail for Greece. Theoclymenus realizes that he can never overtake Helen and Menelaus, but declares his intention to punish his sister Theonoe for her presumed treachery. He is stopped, first by a loyal slave, who declares that he will never allow such an impious act, then by the sudden appearance of the Dioscuri, Helen's brothers (now gods), who proclaim that this is all by the will of Zeus. Theoclymenus declares his intention to abide by the gods' will.

Euripides' Helen: Mythological Background, Contemporary Resonances

Euripides was not the first to claim that Helen never went to Troy. The 7th/6th-century lyric poet *Stesichorus had composed a piece in which he attempted to atone for an earlier insult to Helen by presenting what was called his *Palinode ("poetic recantation"). [FN 2] In it, he claimed that, contrary to the generally received account, Helen never went to Troy at all but spent those years with *Proteus, the old man of the sea — a powerful sea-god known mainly for his ability to shape-shift (as are many sea-divinities, due to their "aqueous" natures) [FN 3] and to foretell future events. What went to Troy, according to Stesichorus, was a mere phantom (eidolon) crafted by the gods. [FN 4]

Stesichorus was altering or "correcting" the mythological tradition in a way that was common in the pre-classical period, in particular, and that seems to be common to many oral cultures, which lack the sense of an authoritative orthodoxy that typifies many literate traditions. (Consider what might have been the fate of a medieval monk who attempted to "correct" the tale of Adam and Eve in a similar fashion!) He was not making the story up from whole cloth, however, but blending in and refashioning material from Homer's Odyssey, where Menelaus recounts the tale of being becalmed on the island of Pharos (just off the coast of Egypt) on his way home from Troy, and being instructed by the minor sea-goddess Eidothea (Proteus' daughter, herself endowed with prophetic powers) to trap Proteus in order to learn how to return to Greece safely (Hom. Od. 4.351-572). [FN 5] The connection suggested here between Menelaus, the kidnapped Helen, Egypt, Proteus, magic, and deceptive appearances provides the matrix for Stesichorus' "corrected" version.

But there is no indication that Stesichorus' Proteus was anything other than the traditional god. Transforming him into a righteous mortal Egyptian king would seem to be the work of the 5th-century historian Herodotus, an older contemporary of Euripides. [FN 6] In his account of his travels in Egypt (2.112-20), Herodotus mentions that, "There is in the precinct of Proteus [in Memphis] a temple called the temple of the Stranger Aphrodite; I guess this is a temple of Helen, daughter of Tyndareus, partly because I have heard the story of Helen's abiding with Proteus, and partly because it bears the name of the Foreign Aphrodite: for no other of Aphrodite's temples is called by that name." [FN 7] Herodotus goes on to present an elaborate version that has Helen confiscated from Paris by the righteous Proteus while the couple is on their way to Troy, out of outrage at Paris' violation of the guest-host relationship and of the marriage-bond between Menelaus and Helen. (Notably, for readers of Euripides, he remarks, "If I did not make it a point never to kill a stranger who has been caught by the wind and driven to my coasts, I would have punished you on behalf of the Greek, you most vile man.") Thus when the Greeks arrive in Troy and demand the return of Helen and her riches, the Trojans can only answer that they do not have her — the truth of which only becomes known to them after Troy has been wiped out. Menelaus then sails to Egypt, is hosted lavishly by Proteus, and is presented with both Helen and the riches that Paris had stolen. Unfortunately, when he is subsequently detained in Egypt by adverse winds, he sacrifices two local children in order to placate the gods [FN 8] and then must flee before the wrath of the angry Egyptians.

Like Herodotus, Euripides picks up on Stesichorus' version, yet stays much truer to the general outlines of the earlier poet's account. But he develops the section of the tale that others seem to have left blank — just what happened to Helen during her stay in Egypt — and in this way is able to generate an elaborate romantic melodrama filled with mistaken identities, recognition, intrigue, and hair-breadth escapes. He is also able to generate a wonderful irony by extending Stesichorus' cunning re-casting of Homer's account in the Odyssey: in this version, Helen is not the adulterous slut who thoughtlessly abandoned her husband and child and caused the death of thousands; she is in fact the loyal, loving wife — a parallel to Odysseus' faithful wife *Penelope, who was renowned both for her cunning and her steadfast fidelity to her husband. The casting of Helen as a Penelope figure adds to the list of surprising innovations and inversions presented by this version of the myth, and presents yet another instance of the dangers of believing what seems to be the case — or trusting in tradition wisdom.

Like Ion, then, Helen is a play filled with suspense, surprises, near disasters, and a number of humorous scenes. But in what sense is it at all a tragedy?

For some scholars, even to ask that question is to display a modern, scholarly bias. Malcolm Heath, for example, has argued that "intellectualizing" interpretations of Greek tragedy which locate the "meaning" of a work in subtle points of characterization or thematic content are founded on a misconception as to the nature of Greek tragoidia, which is best to be understood in terms of the practical concerns of the theater. Heath sets out a series of interpretative principles that re-assert the essentially rhetorical preoccupations of Greek tragedy (its focus on "the effects of poetry on its audience") and its concern to give pleasure through "the excitation of an emotional response." In his view, the main task of the tragedian is to offer re-enactments of the traditional myths in a manner that rouses the audience's anxiety for the characters and an empathetic engagement with their sufferings. [FN 9] In this sense, then, a "tragedy" is virtually any dramatic work produced in Athens at the appropriate part of the program of the City Dionysia or the less august Lenaea.

According to Heath's definition, there is no doubt that Helen is a tragedy. But his account is limited in at least two regards: 1) there is an objective difference between the sort of experience that Euripides' later plays tend to offer and that offered by tragedies of an earlier period; 2) there is clearly an intellectual element to the aesthetic experience presented by works like Ion and Helen: they are not simply the ancient equivalent of the modern pot-boiler.

In the case of Helen, the play can be seen to respond directly to a number of elements of the contemporary Zeitgeist. Helen was produced in 412 BC, at a rather bleak period in the prolonged war between Athens and Sparta (the so-called Peloponnesian War: 431-404). [FN 10] The Peloponnesian War was Athens' Viet Nam: an unwinnable war of attrition that dragged on for years, from which neither side could escape, and that had an increasingly corrosive effect on political institutions, the social fabric, and public morale. In particular, the years 415-413 had seen Athens engage in a vast naval expedition against the city-state of Syracuse, in distant Sicily. This had ended in utter disaster with the loss of the entire fleet, and had placed Athens, in 412, in an extremely perilous position militarily, financially, and politically. It is thus no accident that Helen presents a rather negative view of the grand expedition against Troy, and of the vain motives that send people off to die in war.

In its portrayal of a world where nothing is as it seems, [FN 11] and where human attempts to make sense of the reality around them are repeatedly thwarted by false seemings and delusions, Helen also responds directly a number of contemporary philosophical and intellectual trends — trends that were themselves fueled, in part, by people's experience of the war. These were not mere academic disagreements fought out in some lecture hall, but presented a wide-ranging and highly influential challenge to traditional religion, morality, and views of society and of humanity's place in the world.

[Read through my discussion of Sophocles' Oedipus and the so-called Greek Enlightenment.]

The argument can be made, then, that Helen does exactly what the plays of earlier generations of tragedians had always done: it employs myth to comment and encourage reflection on a number of issues relevant to its audience. For all of its melodrama and humor, the case can be made that the play's underpinnings are dead serious.

Euripides' Helen: Questions to Consider

  1. to what degree can Helen be considered a tragedy? — in what sense?
  2. what specific features of the play might be taken to associate it with comedy? (e.g., specific scenes, character types, elements of the plot?)
  3. what are the essential themes of the play? — where does its focus lie?
  4. what similarities to Ion does it display? — in what ways is it different?
  5. how might Helen be read as a response to the on-going war with Sparta?
  6. in what ways can Helen be seen to respond to the ideas of, e.g., Democritus and the sophists regarding perception? — Protagoras regarding the gods? — contemporary thinkers in general regarding the authority to be accorded to traditional tales?
  7. how does Helen suit the spirit of an age when Tyche is beginning to be worshipped as a prominent divinity?


[FN 1] For a general account of the Trojan War myth, see:   [Return to text]

[FN 2] Isocrates, Helen 64; Plato, Phaedrus 243a-b.   [Return to text]

[FN 3] Thus the modern English "protean."   [Return to text]

[FN 4] P.Oxy. 2506; Lycophron, Alex. 115-43; Dio Chrysostom, Or. 11.40-41; Σ Aristides, Or. 13.131; Tzetzes ad Lyc. Alex. 113. There is Homeric precedent for the use of an eidolon: Apollo fashions an eidolon of the Trojan hero Aeneas at Iliad 5.449 when he helps him escape. Generally, however, the word is used of ghosts or dream visions.   [Return to text]

[FN 5] Eidothea thus provides a model, of sorts, for Euripides' Theonoe, who sides with Helen and Menelaus against Theoclymenus. Tellingly, Eidothea's name means "Beautiful goddess" or "Seeming-goddess" (cf. Theonoe’s original name, according to Euripides), and the method that she recommends to Menelaus is to have him and his men employ seal-skins to disguise themselves as seals and lie in wait for the god.   [Return to text]

[FN 6] Stephanie West, "Proteus in Stesichorus' Palinode," Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 47 (1982) 6-10. Herodotus' full account is available at:   [Return to text]

[FN 7] Hdt. 2.112 (A.D. Godley, tr.).   [Return to text]

[FN 8] Those of you who know the story of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia will recognize a likely source for Herodotus here:   [Return to text]

[FN 9] M. Heath, The Poetics of Greek Tragedy ( London, 1987) 35-36   [Return to text]

[FN 10] Background:   [Return to text]

[FN 11] Note the number of allusions to transformation, metamorphosis, and disguise in the play. Also the play on words with the stem eido- (form, beauty, appearance): Helen is replaced by an eidolon; Theonoe's given name is Eido; and the character of Theonoe herself is based on Homer's sea-goddess Eidothea.   [Return to text]

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