Helen of Troy and Her Shameless Phantom

Helen of Troy and Her Shameless Phantom

Helen of Troy and Her Shameless Phantom

Helen of Troy and Her Shameless Phantom

Synopsis

Like the male heroes of epic poetry, Helen of Troy has been immortalized, but not for deeds of strength and honor; she is remembered as the beautiful woman who disgraced herself and betrayed her family and state. Norman Austin here surveys interpretations of Helen in Greek literature from the Homeric period through later antiquity. He looks most closely at a revisionist myth according to which Helen never sailed to Troy, but remained blameless, while a libertine phantom or ghost impersonated her at Troy. Comparing the functions of contradictory images of Helen, Austin helps to clarify the problematic relations between beauty and honor and between ugliness and shame in ancient Greece. Austin first discusses the canonical account if the Iliad and the Odyssey: Helen as the archetype of woman without shame. He next considers different versions of Helen in the Homeric tradition. Among these, he shows how Sappho presents Helen as an icon of absolute beauty while she defends her own preference of eros over honor and her choice of woman as the object of desire. Austin then turns to three major authors who repudiated the traditional Helen of Troy: the lyric poet Stesichorus and the dramatist Euripides, who embraced the alternative myth of Helen's phantom; and the historian Herodotus, who claimed to have found in Egypt a Helen story that dispenses with both Helen and the phantom. Austin maintains that the conflicting motives that prompted these writers to rehabilitate Helen led to further revisions of her image, though none have endured as a credible substitute for the Helen of epic tradition.

Excerpt

Helen of Troy and Her Shameless Phantom, byNorman Austin, is an exquisite point of contact for myth and poetics. And there are two kinds of myth here, two kinds of poetics. On one side, we see Helen of Troy herself, whose story of shameless beauty and betrayal was widely known and accepted by ancient Hellenes as a centerpiece of their primary epic tradition, the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. Myth merges here with poetics. On the other side, however, we see -- or we think we see -- Helen the Eidōlon or "Phantom," whose story is that there was no such story. What kind of poetics, then, can we expect to merge with this anti-myth?

The story of Helen the Phantom, like that of Helen of Troy, was widely known by Hellenes, but its mythical authority was by no means universally accepted. Made famous by the Palinode or "Recantation" of the lyric poet Stesichorus, the myth behind this story was local -- not pan-Hellenic like the myth of Helen that became universalized by the epic poet Homer. The "truth" of this local myth, held to be sacred in various Dorian cultural enclaves, was that Helen, a sort of nature goddess, never in fact left home. Rejecting the pan-Hellenic myth, which insists that Helen shamefully left for Troy with her lover Paris, this myth that we see taking shape in the poetics of Stesichorus' Palinode reacts by making Helen of Troy a fleeting image, an Eidōlon.

There is another myth that accompanies, like some background . . .

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