The Bridge from Heaven To Helen: Reconciling the Divine and Human Forms of Helen

§1.1 In this paper, based on my forthcoming thesis, I aim not only to open up a dialogue about Helen of Troy and her many receptions, but also to show two specific receptions of Helen in antiquity and modernity. These two receptions, the Makron skyphos and H.D.’s Helen in Egypt, both illustrate her dual nature as a human and a divine figure- a nature that has origins in Spartan cult. To begin, it will be necessary to juxtapose Spartan marriage ritual and the Trojan War scenes depicted on the Makron skyphos . The themes that appear in Spartan cult and on the Makron skyphos will then allow us to grasp how fully H.D. revives the divine Helen.

§1.2 René Girard, in Violence and the Sacred, makes an observation that will help us link Spartan marriage ritual with the visual narrative on the Makron skyphos: “[T]he shift from violence to sexuality and from sexuality to violence is easily effected, even by the most ‘normal’ of individuals, totally lacking in perversion.Thwarted sexuality leads naturally to violence, just as lovers’ quarrels often end in amorous embrace.” [1] The Spartans, far from seeing this oscillatory relationship between violence and sexuality as taboo or perverted, actually institutionalized a ‘ritual rape’ [2] that betrays an underlying anxiety surrounding the bride and her initiation to legitimate married life. By examining two cults in Sparta, we can see that Helen is a primary patron of both initiation and marriage in Spartan ritual.The cult of Helen and Menelaus at the Menelaion in Therapne [3] focuses on Helen as a married, mortal woman, [4] while the cult of Helen Platanistas, or Helen of the plane Trees, focuses on Helen as a liminal and divine parthenos figure associated with fertility through tree worship.[5] These cults are complimentary and describe Helen’s movement from parthenos to gyne, which in turn project two complimentary Helens that reinforce Spartan social mores. If we draw from Theokritus’ Epithalamium for Helen (Idyll 18) as does Matthew Gumpert in Grafting Helen, we will see not only a Helen whose maidenhood is mourned and marriage is celebrated by her peers, but also a Helen envied by those same peers.[6] This is a foreshadowing of her ability to divide the entire Mediterranean world through a Girardian process of mimetic desire.

§1.3 However, her reputation at Sparta does not end there, but instead is joined with her cult at the Menelaion, at which Helen is both venerated as a mortal wife, [7] and is a patron of marital initiation for young girls, identified as such by votive offerings found dedicated to her at the Menelaion that are similar in form to ex-voto offerings found at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia.[8] The Spartans had established complimentary cults that acknowledge Helen’s divine and human natures through the worship of her lost parthenos status as represented by “Helen’s Tree” at the Plane Tree grove near the Eurotas and her status as the reclaimed wife of Menelaus at the Menelaion. It seems to be appropriate, then, to graft these two Helens onto a paradigm of Spartan anxiety- the virginal parthenos is enticing, and can be snatched from the community, as was the case in the myth of Theseus’ rape of Helen at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia. However, Helen as wife, as gyne, returns and becomes a legitimate and celebrated member of the community.

§1.4 Keeping in mind the binary relationship between the vegetal parthenos Helen and the mortal gyne Helen in Sparta, we jump ahead to the Makron skyphos , dated around 490-480 BCE and attributed to the painter Makron and the potter Hieron. The Makron skyphos squarely situates the masculine potential for violence and Helen’s position as an object of desire within a Trojan War narrative. As we saw in the complimentary Spartan cults, Sides A and B of the Makron skyphos relate a narrative of rape and return that mirrors her separation and reintegration into Spartan society. What I want to propose is that the skyphos depicts a Helen acted upon by implicit and explicit forces that parallel Spartan anxieties concerning marriage and social integration.

§1.5 On Side A, an armored Paris, brandishing a spear and grasping Helen’s wrist, leads Helen from Sparta and on Side B a similarly armored Menelaus threatens Helen with a drawn sword.Wrist-grabbing, a common gesture depicted in both the rape and return of Helen, [9] may allude to an implicit violence alongside deities of seduction and attraction. Helen is being led with inclined head, on which Aphrodite is adjusting a diadem. One of the more interesting features on the cup, Peitho, stands behind Aphrodite holding a flower. It may very well seem that Helen, and probably Paris, are under the influence of both Aphrodite and Peitho, and her acquiescence to these influential forces are communicated by her rather demure posture. Paris, on the other hand, is exhibited in full motion.He seems to be engaged in a scene of explicit eroticism and implicit violence, a scene Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood calls an “erotic pursuit.” [10] On Side A, then, we can identify not only the elements of peitho and eros, personified by deities, but also bia, implicit in Paris’ wrist-grabbing gesture and drawn spear. Her status as a desirable woman is thus emphasized, just as it would have been at the cult of Helen Platanistas.

§1.6 It is also important to note the flower that Peitho is holding- as a symbol; Peitho has been identified with antha in Ibycus fr.288 [11] as a life-giving and nourishing figure. Ibycus fr.13 [12] also mentions the “blossoms of Peitho.” [13] However, potential vegetal imagery notwithstanding, we shall see that the repetition of Peitho’s flower, like the figure of Helen, is critical in establishing conceptual continuity and temporal progression from Side A to Side B.

§1.7 Side B, then, skips ahead ten years to Menelaus’ recovery of Helen at Troy. Aphrodite is present behind Helen again, but the goddess seems to exert even more control over the situation. Her arms are extended over Helen’s head in what seems to be an effort to expose Helen’s face to Menelaus, who is in the process of drawing his sword. A female figure stands behind Aphrodite. This is not Peitho as she is labeled on Side A, but bears a flower similar to Peitho’s. As opposed to the erotic pursuit on Side A, Side B depicts an explicitly violent situation in which Aphrodite and a figure that parallels Peitho serve to protect Helen, presumably by exhibiting her attractiveness, as opposed to the scene of seduction on Side A.

§1.8 While Aphrodite and Helen both remain constant presences on both sides, the mood of the scenes are radically changed by the substitution of Paris with Menelaus. The figure of Peitho on Side A has been replaced with a female figure labeled ‘Chryseis,’ accompanied by another labeled ‘Chryses.’ Conceptually, these two scenes are parallel with a sharp contrast in atmosphere: Side A depicts the erotic pursuit with undertones of violence, and Side B depicts an attack scene in which Aphrodite presumably works her charms on Menelaus by either adjusting Helen’s disheveled headwear, or is, in fact, showing her beautiful face to the livid Menelaus. Both sides illustrate, implicitly and explicitly, important forces that play into the rape and return of Helen: an erotically charged peitho and a winged Eros preside over Paris’ seduction, while bia lurks in the weapons and gestures of Paris and especially Menelaus.

§1.9 Helen, then, not only stands between the human and the divine as a ritual figure, but also embodies ambivalence towards violence and sexuality in the Trojan cycle as depicted on the Makron skyphos . In both the ritual spaces of Spartan cult and the visual narrative on the Makron skyphos , she assumes a bifold nature that mediates between mortality and immortality, seduction and seizure. But Helen is a malleable woman, one who is seized repeatedly by the likes of Paris and Theseus. As men like Gorgias tried to exonerate her in the fifth century BCE and Virgil tried to demonize her in the first century BCE, her character took on many forms, but she slowly lost the bifold nature that characterized her representation in Spartan cult and the Makron skyphos.

§1.10 Modern receptions of Helen, such as the Hollywood epic Troy or the ABC miniseries “Helen of Troy,” tend to portray her as en extremely flat character- a Helen without her bifold nature. Unfortunately, she is reduced to nothing more than eye-candy in these two receptions. But her dual nature was not lost. The American poetess H.D. penned an interpretation of Euripides’ Helen entitled Helen in Egypt. In this extended dramatic poem, H.D.manages to recapture a numinous Helen by weaving elements of Helen’s Rhodian tree cult [14] with her status as an eternally contested bride. Of course, H.D. is not drawing directly from the Spartan marriage cults, but is rather tremendously sensitive to Euripides’ treatment of Helen in his play of the same name, just as Euripides probably had in mind Helen’s strikingly twofold representations in Iliad III and Odyssey IV.[15] From her representations in Spartan cult and her subsequent incarnations in Homer, Helen has now reached us via H.D.’s interpretation of the latent themes of duality in Euripides.

§1.11 H.D.’s narrative style in Helen in Egypt is lyric; she uses short scenes of lyric poetry to provide the dramatic action and then supplements each section with a prose exposition that does not so much explain the lyric action as much as it explains the themes therein. The story, in the most general terms, follows Helen through a transformative process of becoming a symbol through her various encounters with Theseus, Paris, and Achilles, as well as her interaction with what H.D. calls the “indecipherable Amen-script,” or hieroglyphs. H.D.uses the hieroglyphs brilliantly to access the now-esoteric nature of Helen’s divinity and her femininity by equating Helen with the hieroglyphs themselves [16] (Handout). H.D.insists that Helen understands the hieroglyphs more than the “instructed scribe,” [17] as she is living the natural symbols, or experiencing them affectively, rather than simply translating and reading them. To an extent, H.D. is doing just this with the Euripidean Helen, and does so not only with the dream-like quality of the narrative, but also by acknowledging her dual nature as a divine figure and a contested bride.

§1.12 The key to Helen’s oscillation between the divine and the human is her own self-identification with the indecipherable, yet intelligible hieroglyph. H.D.identifies Helen with the Egyptian lily, or what she calls the “thousand petalled lil.y” [18] The identification is revealed in small degrees, but her equation with the sacred Egyptian symbol that, in myth, rises and falls with the movement of the sun, [19] allows H.D. to juxtapose the Helen-lily symbol with Persephone’s coordinate rise and fall. H.D., then, effectively yokes Greek and Egyptian mythologies with Helen as the lynchpin. The cyclic life of the lily, equated with Helen, parallels not only Persephonic patterns of return, but also a relationship with fertility and vegetal imagery. H.D. continues on to join the Hieroglyphic Lily-Helen to Helena Dentritis, her Rhodian incarnation a fertility goddess. As H.D.’s narrative progresses, the image of the lily and Helen’s identification with the hieroglyph give way to a series of encounters with Achilles, Paris, and Theseus, which pointedly recall Helen’s state as a contested Spartan bride. Recounting Helen’s amorous encounters, H.D.touches upon both Theseus’ rape of Helen and Persephone, [20] as well as her marriage to Achilles on Leukê. The conflation of these encounters in the text also recalls Helen’s status in Spartan cult as both a desirable parthenos and a celebrated bride. During these scenes of reminiscence, Helen is not only joined with Egyptian rebirth symbols, but is also simultaneously joined with the Egyptian Horus, whose triadic familial relations are grafted onto Helen’s three amorous encounters.[21] Between the falling action and the dénouement of the dramatic poem, H.D. constructs a Helen who assimilates both the elements of fertility cult and assumes the role of the bride in a sort of hieros gamos with Achilles.In section 3.1.5, there is an explicit identification of Helen with Persephone and of Achilles with Hades, [22] which not only unifies Helen’s reality under a single super-myth, but also articulates her status as both divine and human. H.D. speaks through Theseus and says that this unification of Helen’s reality is “incompatable in life,/ yet in myth, completing the circle,/ the triangle, the broken arc” (H.D. Helen in Egypt 224).

§1.13 H.D., then, has constructed a Helen by drawing from her bifold nature that we’ve seen represented in Spartan cult and the Makron skyphos . H.D.’s work is important for Classicists and especially reception theorists, for H.D.’s Helen is not just a reception, but a comprehensive reconstruction of the character’s dual nature. Taking into account Helen’s spatial and ritualistic duality represented in Spartan marriage cult, as well as the Makron skyphos’ depiction of Helen as a contested bride associated with divinity, we can begin to understand Helen as a richly nuanced woman. What I would like to convey in this research, then, is that Helen’s slippery character was not foreign to the Spartans in their marriage rituals, nor to Makron, who links her relationship with the divine, represented by Aphrodite, with the all-too-human narrative of sexual violence. We may struggle to categorize Helen, maybe as an adulterer, as collateral damage in larger conflicts, or even as a tool used by scheming Olympians, but a closer inspection reveals that she cannot be bound successfully in one-dimensional representations. A long tradition of variant representations, ranging from a figure of worship to scathing invective, have enriched her character even further, lending an almost mysterious quality to her presence. It is Helen’s ambiguity and variance, I think, that has contributed to her survival as a character as one who not only launched a thousand ships, but a thousand receptions.


Calame, Claude, Derek Collins, and Janice Orion. Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece: Their Morphology, Religious Role, and Social Function. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.

Campbell, David, trans. Greek Lyric. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982. Print.

Cartledge, Paul. The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-heroes of Ancient Greece, from Utopia to Crisis and Collapse. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 2003.

Doolittle, H. Helen in Egypt. New York: Grove, 1961.

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.

Gregory, Eileen. H.D. and Hellenism: Classic Lines. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Gumpert, Matthew. Grafting Helen: The Abduction of the Classical past. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2001.

“Helene.” Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC). Vol. 4. Zurich: Artemis, 1981.

Herodotus. Herodotus: In Four Volumes. Trans. Alfred D. Godley. Vol. 1. London: Heinemann [u.a.], 1981.

Ibycus, Stesichorus, and Simonides. Greek Lyric. Trans. David Campbell. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.

Larson, Jennifer. Greek Heroine Cults. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1995.

Pausanias. Description of Greece. Trans. W. H.S. Jones and H. A. Ormerod. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1960.

Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane. “A Series of Erotic Pursuits: Images and Meanings.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 107 (1987): 131-53.

“Theocritus.” The Greek Bucolic Poets. Trans. J. M. Edmonds. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1977. 5-382.

Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.


Note 1
Girard 1977:35.

Note 2
Cartledge 2003:171.

Note 3
See Herodotus 6.61.3, Pausanias 3.19.9 for attestations of Helen in Therapne and Larson 1995:80 for the archeological record that points to Mycenaean occupation, followed by a period of abandonment and a revival of usage in the eighth century. See also Larson’s comment on the flourishing of epic poetry around the reuse of the Menelaion.

Note 4
Pausanias 3.19.9 and Larson 1995:61.

Note 5
See “Theocritus.” The Greek Bucolic Poets. 1977, Idyll 18, “Helene.” Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC). Vol. 4, 1981, and Calame 1997:195.

Note 6
Gumpert 2001:96-97.

Note 7
See Pausanias 3.19.9 for his comment on Helen’s burial at Therapne.

Note 8
Calame 1997:201.

Note 9
“Helene.” Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC). Vol. 4, 1981.

Note 10
Sourvinou-Inwood 1987:131.

Note 11
Attributed to Ibycus by Athenaeus in Scholars at Dinner.

Note 12
Attributed to Ibycus in the Palatine Anthology.

Note 13
Ibycus, Stesichorus, and Simonides. Greek Lyric. Vol. 3, 1982, 219/257.

Note 14
Herodotus 3.19.10.

Note 15
In Iliad 3.156-160, the Trojan elders draw attention to her “dreadfully” uncanny appearance, much like a divine epiphany: αἰνῶς ἀθανάτῃσι θεῇς εἰς ὦπα ἔοικεν. Odyssey 4.138-146 pointedly notes Helen’s ability to recognize without the use of σήματα, which then spurs Menelaus’ recollection of her mimetic ability that nearly doomed the Trojan Horse scheme. All in all, Helen takes on a certain morally ambiguous quality as both a mortal paragon of domesticity and a dangerous, semi-divine enchantress.

Note 16
H.D. 1961:22-23.

Note 17
H.D. 1961:23.

Note 18
H.D. 1961:29.

Note 19
Wilkinson 2003:135.

Note 20
H.D. 1961:153.

Note 21
Gregory 1997:104.

Note 22
H.D. 1961:224.

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