By Thomas Van Nortwick
The brilliant portrait of Hector, Paris, and Helen that began in Book Three continues. Homer signals the parallels with line 6.333, which repeats verbatim 3.59:
Ἕκτορ ἐπεί με κατ᾽ αἶσαν ἐνείκεσας οὐδ᾽ ὑπὲρ αἶσαν …
Hector, since you have rebuked me justly and not beyond measure …
Once again, as in Book Three, Hector attacks Paris for staying out of the fighting and Paris responds with breezy detachment. He has not, as Hector claims, been hanging back because of any resentment, but rather to tend to his own sorrow. It is hard not to hear a large dose of self-pity in these words, to which, “Hector answered nothing,” (6.342), a telling silence. But never mind, Paris says. His wife has been cajoling him with soft words, urging him to return to battle, and he will do just that. Hector should go on ahead and Paris will catch up.
Helen has so far been silent. Speaking to Hector as if Paris were not in the room, she now revisits the tone of her initial appearance in Book Three, self-loathing, regret, and bitter denunciation of Paris. The poisonous dynamic between husband, wife, and brother-in-law intensifies here. We know how Hector feels about his brother, and how Helen views her husband. Now a new element is added, as Helen invites Hector to sit and rest:
Come in now and sit down on this couch,
dear brother-in-law, since grievous toil has befallen you
because of me, bitch that I am, and Alexandros’ blind folly,
we upon whom Zeus has put an evil fate, that we may hereafter
be a topic of song for people in the years to come.
The self-loathing remains, but there also runs underneath these words a certain seductiveness, as if Helen hopes to hurt Paris by flirting with his brother in front of him. The undercurrent in Helen’s words is not lost on Hector:
Then great Hector of the shining helm answered her:
Do not ask me to sit, Helen, though you love me; you will not persuade me.
For already my heart is urging me to stand with
the Trojan warriors, who long for me when I am away.
Hector senses trouble here. We can almost see him backing away toward the doorway. His own words betray the familiar tension in him, between love for his family and the need to be fighting for his city. The use of the word ποθή, “desire,” “yearning,” to describe the soldiers’ feelings toward him even seems to acknowledge on some level the sensual undercurrent in Helen’s words: they too desire him. His entrance into the bedroom, holding his long spear in front of him, now takes on new significance. It is as if he feels the need to protect himself in the company of Helen, his phallic spear at the ready.
With Hector’s refusal of Helen’s offer to sit, the consolation motif introduced by Hecuba’s offer of wine is complete. The question remains, for what loss does Hector need to be consoled? At this point in the episode, the answer is clear: everyone and everything he loves, his family, his friends, his city. The consolation here looks to a future loss, as when Thetis is called to Olympus by Zeus (24.100–102, with essay on 6.263–296). By invoking the narrative pattern explicitly at this moment, Homer ups the emotional stakes for Hector in the coming scene with Andromache yet further. If we are listening to the stylistic signals, we sense that this will be the last time Hector sees his wife and child.
This encounter essentially completes Homer’s portrait of Paris and Helen. Their initial appearance in Book Three, with the tryst enforced by Aphrodite, has the effect of replaying the cause of the war as we witness the suffering that it has brought to Troy. The verbal and thematic parallels between that scene and those in Book Six suggest that Homer wants that original betrayal in our minds again as we watch Hector making his way through the city for the last time. The Paris we find there seems to be basically unchanged from Book Three. In a few telling scenes, Homer presents us with the portrait of a perfectly selfish man, unable to summon up the slightest remorse for what his actions have cost Troy and his family. When Hector and Helen attack him, the words seem to roll off, leaving no mark. He cannot be shamed; he cannot hold a grudge, because that would require caring about the other person; he is the perfect foil for his noble, over-burdened brother.
Helen, too, represents a stark contrast to Paris’ shallow narcissism. By turns remorseful, angry, sarcastic, and, as we have seen, (perhaps unconsciously) seductive, she is, along with Achilles and Agamemnon, among Homer’s most complex creations. Though she is famous for her beauty, Homer never describes her. Instead, we view her through others’ eyes, as when three old codgers catch sight of her as she makes her way to Priam in Book Three:
They, when they saw Helen going toward the tower,
softly spoke winged words to each other:
“There is no blame on the Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans
that they have suffered pains for so long over this woman.
Terribly her face resembles those of the immortal gods.But even so, let her sail back home again,
lest she leave pain behind for our children.”
Helen’s beauty is dangerous, to her and to others. Homer might have left it at that, showing her from the outside, as something that happens to other people. Instead, in a few brief scenes, he lets us see into her troubled heart, revealing unexpected depths of feeling. Homer’s audience might well have come to the story expecting to find in Helen a shallow, selfish woman, who gave in to her lust and betrayed the Greeks. The poet plays against these expectations, showing her to be thoughtful and self-aware, full of shame for her actions and scorn for her feckless husband.
By giving us a more nuanced portrait of Helen, Homer complicates any easy understanding of her motives for leaving Sparta with Paris. In fact, he declines to settle the issue of blame for the catastrophic events of the past nine years. Though full of remorse for her actions and their consequences, she says that it was Zeus who “put an evil fate” on her and Paris (3.357). Priam, who we feel would be entirely justified in hating Helen, instead blames not her but the gods for what has happened (3.164–65). Leaving the matter unresolved is typical for Homer. We might like to have things settled, to know whether Helen went of her own free will or was abducted, but storytellers will often prefer to leave major issues unresolved as we struggle to find answers, which keeps their options open and us more engaged.
If there is one hint as to how Homer might have viewed the dynamics of the original abduction, it might be the remarkable scene in Book Three, when Aphrodite, disguised as an old woman, comes to fetch Helen back to Paris’s side after he escapes Menelaus. Typically for such encounters, the goddess’s extraordinary powers show through the disguise. Helen, discerning the true identity of the old woman, startles us by insulting Aphrodite (calling her δαιμονίη, a peculiar, perhaps ironic usage, since she is in fact speaking to a goddess, whose disguise she has penetrated), suggesting that the goddess go and stay by Paris’s side instead. Perhaps he will make her his bedmate or his slave, she says. These are dangerous words to speak to an omnipotent being. No one else in the poem except Achilles addresses deities in this way, and like him, Helen might be viewed as either courageous or reckless. In any event, Aphrodite is not amused and issues a threat, telling Helen not to make her angry, which might cause her love to turn to hate. Helen is frightened and follows silently along to the bedroom with the old crone (3.396–417).
How are we to understand what happens here? We can take it straight, as Homer tells it. Helen is defiant at first but eventually frightened into obedience. But could we also hear Helen’s words as a reflection of her shame and anger at herself for giving in to Paris? That is, she hates the part of herself that gives in to the power of sexuality that Aphrodite embodies and rails at the goddess as a form of self-reproach? I might be reading the passage anachronistically of course, imputing psychological subtlety where it is not strictly required for the passage to make sense. But this is not an isolated instance of a character in Homeric epic behaving in ways that we might view as evidence for moral and/or psychological complexity. The Iliad, like all great works of art, endures because it resists easy answers to the questions it poses.
Bergren, A. 1983. “Language and the Female in Early Greek Thought.” Arethusa 16: 69–95.
Graziosi, B. and Haubold, J. ed. 2010. Homer: Iliad, Book VI, 5–6; 41–44.
Redfield, J. 1975. Nature and Culture in the Iliad, 35–36. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.