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François Jouan-Helen Of Sparta And The Eidōlon Controversy

Gustave Moreau, ‘Helen’, Watercolor. From the collections of the Orsay Museum.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA are excerpts from François Jouan’s lengthy introduction to Euripides Play, ‘Helen’. ‘Les Tragiques Grecs’, Collection Bouquins, Robert Laffont. 2001. Helen and her double, the ‘eidōlon’. The idea that Helen at Troy is a mere ‘eidōlon’ or ‘image-double’ of Helen at Sparta is brought to life in an ancient Greek lyric form of song known as ‘palinōidiā’ or ‘recantation’, attributed to Stesichoros. This controversial theory found its way up to Euripides, Dio Chrysostom and in our modern times, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the librettist of Richard Strauss’ opera, ‘Helen of Egypt’, based on Euripides’ play. François Jouan, below, explains to us some of the intertwined dynamics of the ‘eidōlon’ controversy. Our working translation from the original French.


Excerpt 1:

From a Byzantine scholia in the margin of a manuscript of collected plays of Euripides: ‘Herodotus speaks of Helen. He clearly states that Helen went to Egypt, which is confirmed by Homer, when he shows Helen gifting Telemachus ‘a remedy that provides the oblivion of worries; remedy given to her by Polydamna, the wife of Thoon.’ Homer’s version is that Helen wandered with Menelaus after the sack of troy and arrived in Egypt where she brought back the remedies to Sparta, her final destination. Opposite is Euripides’ version: In it, he states that Helen never went to Troy, but only her ghost, because Hermes took her away, upon the advices of Hera, and entrusted her to the good Egyptian king Proteus. After Proteus’ death, his son, Theoclymenos fantasizes marrying her, but she took refuge at Proteus’ mausoleum as a supplicant. This is then that Menelaus appears to her, after losing his ships and crew at sea and some companions in a cave. They scheme a stratagem and trick Theoclymenos, sailing back safely to their beloved Sparta.’


Excerpt 2:

The very subject of Euripides’s ‘Helen’ is singular because it contradicts everything the poet said of the heroine elsewhere in his theatre. In the great debate about ‘Helen’s fault’, initiated in the ‘Iliad’, Euripides placed himself into the ranks of the accusation. All the characters of his dramas are convinced that in following Paris, she was the immediate cause of the war. She let herself be seduced by the handsomeness of the Trojan and the attractiveness of Phrygian wealth. Selfish, frivolous, proud, Helen deserves the rebukes that fall upon her from everywhere and these are to be found also in ‘Helen’ but fall short of any effects because Euripides explains that Paris did not take away the true Helen, but a ghost made in her image, an ‘eidōlon’ made by Hera in order to revenge-trick Aphrodite who was crowned in the beauty contest by Paris, the son of Priam. Hermes took the real Helen in Egypt and entrusted her to the wise king Proteus. it is there, near Pharos, that she awaits Menelaus, to whom she is faithful in a stainless behavior. After the good king’s death, she took refuge at the king’s mausoleum to avoid the unwanted courtship of his son, Theoclymenos. Seven years after the end of the long and bloody war waged for a ‘shadow’, Menelaus is thrown by a storm on the coasts of Egypt with a few survivors and the false Helen he brings back from Troy. This is the interesting situation Euripides brings as an opening in his play.

From where does the strange story of the ‘shadow’ of Helen come from? In the ‘Iliad’, we see the gods create fake warriors to trick the fighters. In chapter V, Aphrodite takes away from the fights her son Aeneas, whose life was threatened, and replaces him by a ‘shadow’. Homer to add at verse 451: ‘And the Trojans and the Achaeans were fighting for a ‘shadow‘.’ For Euripides, it is the whole war that is ‘waged for a shadow‘. In other legends, the swapping of a real person for an ‘eidōlon’ is made in order to protect a woman or a goddess from male sexual abuse. The most famous example is of Hera, who protects herself with it from the assaults of Ixion the giant. This shadow made of clouds (nephos or nephele) is generally the craft of a god.

Our sources assign the precise term of ‘eidōlon’ to the VIth century B.C. Sicilian poet Stesichoros. He composed a piece named ‘Helen’ in the spirit of the Ionian epics, that was underlining the indecency of Tyndar’s daughters. For a reason that is escaping us (according to the legend, Helen herself punished the poet by making him blind), the poet recanted and composed a ‘palinode’ (which means a recantation in verses, word that became a usual name). One papyrus, edited and published a few years ago confirmed that for Stesichoros: ‘While the ‘eidōlon’ went to Troy, Helen was staying with Proteus.’ This correction of the legend is no doubt to relate with the Spartan traditions, in which Helen was a local divinity, the object of a few Laconian cults. In the same effort in ‘myth purification’ we find with Pindar-the ‘Lyrical Homer’- who corrected the Ionian epics into the puritan Doric taste. Even though Stesichoros’ name is rarely named in the Vth century B.C., we know that in particular, Euripides and Aristophanes knew well his poems and were inspired by them.

Contrary to what has been said, Euripides was largely inspired by Stesichoros. For the Sicilian poet, the ‘eidōlon’ was Zeus’ craft who then entrusted Hermes to bring his daughter to Egypt. And it was Proteus himself who give her back to Menelaus. In his ‘palinode’ Helen’s wedding (her one and only) must have taken a great space, as some fragments, and Euripides’ many allusions tell us, or also Theocritus’ famous ‘Epithalamium for Helen’. Euripides, in keeping the essentials, that is ‘war for a shadow’ and the ‘innocence of Helen’, reframes this scenario within the general fabric of the Trojan epic-especially the ‘Cyprian songs’- with references to the goddesses beauty contest, and Hera’s anger against Paris and the Trojan people. Therefore, it is here Hera, Zeus’ wife, who crafts the ‘eidōlon’ and has Helen brought to Proteus. His daughter, the Odyssey’s Eidothea, takes the name of Theonoe, and Proteus becomes a king, like in Herodotus’ ‘Histories’. Also, he transmits to his daughter his divinatory gifts. The apparition of Theoclymenos as a character in Euripides’s play makes Helen’s situation more problematic. But Proteus still protects Helen with his mausoleum, placed before the audience and continues to play a role in the action.


Excerpt 3:

One last area of interest in Euripides’ play, that was recently in the limelight of a few recent studies: The use of the ‘eidōlon’ on the dramatic side, the existence of Helen’s ‘double’ creates a chain of misunderstandings that announces in literature the use of the doppelganger and the twin-siblings. The paradox is here that the true Helen is mistaken for the fake one-by Teucros, then by Menelaus, whereas the fake Helen is recognized by all as the true one. The existence of the ‘eidōlon’, once recognized, will lead progressively to Helen’s rehabilitation with Menelaus, then with his servant, and later with everyone, once the couple finally returns home to Sparta. Yet, the ‘eidōlon’ to which Helen owes her salvation, is also, in a large measure, the poetic instrument of her destruction. Because, everything that the ghost does, it is Helen in the eyes of the public opinion that does it. Herself is unable to stand out completely, and she keeps inside herself a guilt feeling. Paradox without a solution, because if the ‘eidōlon’ is only a mere appearance, made of air and smoke, the woes of the Trojans and the Greeks, and those of Helen herself, are very real. This duplication is like the sign and the symbol of the ambiguous character of reality and Man’s difficulty to apprehend it without mistake. This ambiguity is expressed in the vocabulary of the play by the antithetic use of name/thing, appearance/reality, body/spirit, etc. By this aspect, Euripides’ play, ‘Helen’, is connected to the contemporary Sophistic movement, highlighted by works like Gorgias’ ‘Treaty of the non-being’, or Protagoras’ ‘Antilogiae’, based upon the fact that every reality has two sides. Hence, in the play, there are two stories of Helen’s birth or of the Dioscuri’s death; the heroine is at the same time protected by the gods and their victim; she is famous for her beauty and at the same time victim of it; finally, she is innocent and guilty. She embodies a remarkable example of the fundamental duplicity of reality.


Gustave Moreau. ‘Helen on the ramparts of Troy’.
Gustave Moreau museum. Paris. Picture by Jean-Louis Mazieres.
More about Gustave Moreau: 🌿 More about Euripides: 🌿 More about Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss’ ‘Helen of Egypt’:ägyptische_Helena
François Jouan-Helen Of Sparta And The Eidōlon Controversy

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