05 May 2022

Helen of Troy

My friend and fellow historian Doolin' Dalton (Brian Thornton) have at various times discussed historical questions of all kinds from all ages. And I've often pondered those Western Ur-epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, from which we get legends, myths, stereotypes, tag lines, slang, and a whole new kind of hero:  Odysseus, who wins everything by his wits, not his brawn. (QUITE a change from past heroes, from Gilgamesh to Odysseus' fellow warrior Achilles.)  

The Iliad and The Odyssey were finally written down somewhere in the 700s BC, but scholars and archaeologists have proved, from Homer's language to archaeological excavations, that it's set in Mycenean Greece (1700-1050 BC), some time between the 13th and 12th centuries BC. Long time ago, but reading it even today there's a lot that seems very… modern? normal? about a 10 years' war with lots of posturing, POWs, destruction, burnt earth, rape, death, trickery, treachery, etc. 

But what strikes me every time I read it is something that (back then) no one talked about. This was a patriarchal world with a matrilineal inheritance system. Later, as a historian, I figured out that this wasn't and isn't unusual.  From the Hebrew tribes to China to Egypt, from the Hopi to the Tuareg,  Check out Wikipedia - matrilineality has been, is, and ever shall be among certain cultures. And it makes perfect sense. While there may be some doubt in a pre-DNA world as to the father, there's almost never any doubt about who's the mother. (This is part of the reason royal houses and most aristocracy had their moms-to-be used to give birth in public. No switching babies!)

You can see it everywhere, once you look for it. Penelope, waiting for Odysseus to come home, weaving her web and unpicking it every night while hundreds of suitors are besieging her to marry her. It doesn't make sense from a modern point of view - after all, if Odysseus is dead, then there's the grown son Telemachus to take over, right? But if it's a matrilineal system, then as long as Penelope is alive, her husband, not her son, is King of Ithaca. She's quite a prize. 

It also explains why, when Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods to get a fair wind back to Greece, his wife Clytemnestra decides to murder his sorry ass, because he just killed the heir to the throne, the one who would pass on the throne of Mycenae to her husband. (No, I have no idea why Clytemnestra's other daughter, Electra, couldn't replace Iphigenia in the line of succession. Myths are sloppy things. But it does explain why Orestes has nothing.)  

This also explains a lot about Helen of Sparta, a/k/a/ Helen of Troy. She was reputedly the most beautiful woman in the world from childhood. Theseus kidnapped her when she was 7 or 10, depending on who tells the story, and while he did not take her virginity, he did satisfy himself with her other ways. She was rescued by her divine half-brothers, Castor and Pollux, who returned her to Sparta. When she was old enough to marry, as many as 36 princes and warriors showed up. This made her father, Tyndareus, King of Sparta, very, very nervous - what if they wouldn't accept his choice? What if they kept fighting forever?  

Odysseus (good old wily Odysseus) cut a deal with Tyndareus - if Odysseus figured a way to make everyone agree, then Tyndareus would back Odysseus' marriage with Penelope. Agreed! So Odysseus made everyone swear that whoever Tyndareus chose, all the suitors would defend the chosen husband against anyone who quarreled with him. Or seduce or kidnap Helen. 

Obviously Odysseus could see the writing on the wall:  her life would never be tame.  And perhaps Tyndareus knew as well, and picked the relatively uncharismatic Menelaus for her husband:* someone who, when the going got tough, would fight to keep her, and later take her back.   

* It reminds me of when, in 900s AD France, the Merovingian line finally sputtered out, and the French nobles gathered around and elected Hugh Capet King of the Franks, because he was relatively weak and landless.  He surprised them by hanging in there, and siring progeny that ruled – in one branch or another – until 1848. 

And thus, the Trojan War…


We may or may not have the choice to love,
but we have no choice in being loved.
We are or we aren't, 
and there's nothing we can do about it.
(An inconvenient truth.)

Perhaps that's why so much of art and artifice
revolves around getting someone to love us.
Once more trying to fight against immovable fact.

But it's true: we cannot make someone love us.

But if they do,
it's harder than you might think to make them stop.
They say that God hasn't wearied of us yet.

that hidden shame or public outrage,
is truth's dark face of love.
It is obsession,
whether with a place or a memory or a person or an idea.

Without that, it's merely curiosity.
Scratching an itch.

Poor Helen.
So many men's obsession.
Though some of them, like Theseus, were just scratching an itch.
So young, so young - 
Is it any wonder there's no hint that Helen ever loved back?
Not even in Troy, 
where Aphrodite has to keep luring her back 
into the not quite wedded bed of Paris.

She'd been inoculated against love.

And then came all the tribute-bearers,
fiery warriors and princes.
And of them all Menelaus was chosen for her husband.
Menelaus, not the sharpest knife in the drawer,
nor the man to set the world on fire.
Although he did when Paris took her.

But when he burnt those topless towers
was he burning for a woman or a crown?
He was only king of Sparta because he married Helen.
Without her he was just another landless prince.

Oh, yes, I can easily believe
that Helen went home with Menelaus,
that paragon of boring husbandhood,
and was perfectly happy, 
living out her days in peace and quiet.
I can imagine her relief.  

Think about it.
Her whole life was spent with men 
ravening like wolves for her fair flesh.
Except for one man who was ravening for something else.
But because he did,
he was the one man who would always want her,
take her back,
forgive her,
live quietly with her,
happy to have her,
his Queen who made him King.

© Eve Fisher, 2022

My latest story, "For Blood", a sci-fi/mystery combo, is up at Black Cat Weekly #35. Available at Black Cat and  Amazon.  



  1. Great Job my Greek princess.

  2. Intriguing, Eve. You put a twist on the history (a twistory?) with brave Odysseus. Years ago, I saw the movie Troy as one of those 3am television movies. I wasn't impressed, but I admit their take of the death of Achilles was new to me.

    My time at university happened nearly as long ago at the Trojan War and details are fuzzy, but I'm not convinced the death of Iphigenia was the sole motivating source behind the murder of Agamemnon. I look to Clytemnestra's affair with the homicidal Aegisthus, the pair who also knocked off my fave, Cassandra. (snuff, sniffle) Just sayin'.

  3. Oh! What am I thinking? Congratulations on your tale in Black Cat.

    Eve, do you happen to know if Black Cat offers a print edition any more?

  4. Black Cat doesn't offer a print edition for the Mystery Weekly. For the other one, I think they do, but I'm not sure. The future of publishing?

  5. Also, Leigh, while I agree that Clytemnestra's affair with Aegisthus was a definite factor, all the stories about it say that she was truly enraged when she found out that Agamemnon had sacrificed Iphigenia.

  6. Very informative. Black Cat MYSTERY Magazine is available in paper. Black Cat WEEKLY is not (and considering they republish old novels along with their stories, that's a good thing). I can't resist adding one cool thing about the Iliad. Homer (or the anonymous oral poets he was quoting was describing events that supposedly happened about 1200 BC, but the Iliad also describes an artifact, Ajax's shield, of a type that archaeologists have since found... AND IT IS FAR OLDER. So those poets knew about stuff much older than the Trojan War. Freaks me out.

  7. Rob, oral histories are full of stuff like that. That's why both Gilgamesh and Genesis (and other ancient records) have flood stories. And why a version of Cinderella and her wicked sisters, and stories about a blind king, show up in almost every culture. It is spooky.

  8. Eve, by coincidence I just today got my second copy of The Buried Book by David Damrosch (I foolishly loaned out my first copy). It tells the story of the Epic of Gilgamesh in reverse chronological order, like an archaeological dig; starting with its translation, then its discovery, writing, back to what parts might be based on history. Nonfiction, if that isn't clear.

  9. Oh, Rob - I'm going to get a hold of that one! Thanks.

  10. Eve!

    1. Sorry to respond so tardily to this. GREAT post!

    2. Congratulations on the sale!

    3. What a lovely poem! In solidarity with your take on the legendary Helen, I add one I wrote many years ago from the perspective of wily Odysseus's own Penelope.

    Comes now the wide sky itself
    To call away my love, off to become a name
    On the lips of succeeding generations.
    Oh ruler of both my body and my
    Heart, suzerain to my soul, lover
    Of my eternity; the foot to my sandal,
    How many times shall Nyx visit
    My bed in thine absence?
    Forever and forever across the
    Wine-dark sea shall I seek for the white
    Of thy sail, for the eyes of thy sturdy
    Vessel, bearing thee home, triumphant
    To this, thy Ithaka, and thy Penelope.
    Kingdom and heart were one and
    The same in this: to thee we bow,
    And while we abide and while we
    Pray for thy safe returning, thine own
    Heart will rest here side-by-side with
    Mine, and I shall make a bier for it,
    And it shall know the shelter of a
    Constant soul set to guard it in
    S’bower. For t’was ever thus, and
    Ever thus shall be when travelers go
    Down to the sea in ships, and the other
    Halves of them wait upon their
    Homecoming; from the first time in
    Dugout canoe to the sleek contraptions
    Of the instant age.
    Brian Thornton

  11. Thanks for the poem, Brian! I wrote a poem from Odysseus' point of view once, for a Greek poet I had as a character who uses it to seduce a woman:
    ’A gentleman beds all alike,
    But for this queen, my queen,
    I’ll build a bed of living wood
    To cradle her as she cradles me
    In living arms…’”


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