Friday, August 19, 2022

Helen by Euripides - What is god, what is not god, what is between man and god, who shall say?

Helen (412 BCE) is Euripides’s romantic comedy about the survival of middle-aged love.  We know it was performed with the lost Andromeda, a romantic comedy about young love, our culture’s favorite subject but something the Greeks did not care about at all.  Why did Euripides write such things under the preposterous guise of “tragedy”?

In his last decade, Euripides was making a broad, complex critique of Athenian and Greek culture, alongside a more specific protest against the imperial war with Sparta.  Helen was performed soon after the destruction of the Sicilian expedition, the catastrophe that provides the astounding climax of The Peloponnesian War of Thucydides.  I think of it as the climax, since it is all downhill for Athens from there.  Euripides responds to this disastrous news by staging light, witty love stories.

He had, based on the surviving plays, two structures available.  One is cynical, violent, and perhaps nihilistic: Herakles, The Trojan Women, Elektra.  The other is full of fairy tale devices and happy endings: Iphigenia at Tauris, Ion, Helen.  We will see more examples of both types.  Both are openly revisionist: maybe the story went a little differently than we usually tell it.

For example, maybe Helen was innocent and never ran off with Paris, but was carried way to Egypt while a savage war was fought over “a Helen-image” that was “dispatched… to Ilium so men might die in hate and blood.”  I am quoting from Electra – from the end of my previous post – and I still find it curious that Euripides previewed Helen in Electra.  Euripides did not invent this revisionist story of Helen’s innocence, by the way.  It is almost as old as Homer.

So, happy endings, for Helen, for Iphigenia, but not for the thousands slaughtered on the battlefield, not for Clytemnestra.  Her reason for murdering her husband was a fake.  The entire reason for the Trojan War was a fake.  The background of the “happy endings” are violent, spiraling catastrophes cause by cabals of capricious, or insane, or evil gods.  The romances are nearly as nihilistic as the violent plays.

I have been puzzling over this bit sung by the chorus, which comes just after a direct statement about the human costs of the Trojan War, surely standing in for the Peloponnesian War.  Euripides is not afraid to be direct at this point, but he moves into a more abstract idea:

What is god, what is not god, what is between man

and god, who shall say?  Say he has found

the remote way to the absolute,

that he has seen god, and come

back to us, and returned there, and come

back again, reason’s feet leaping

The void?  Who can hope for such fortune?  (237, tr. Lattimore)

Having said all this, I think Helen, on its own, is a marvelous little thing.  Since it is almost identical to Iphigenia in Tauris – discovery and reunion, a Greek-hating barbarian king, a trick allowing escape – I wonder if the that is in fact the third play in the trilogy. Perhaps Andromeda also had the same structure.  My sense is that Euripides was perverse – postmodernist – enough to present three almost identical plays.

For an illustration, I chose a crater owned by the Louvre that depicts Menelaus encountering Helen, but in the traditional story, after the sack of Troy, so in our sense it is Menelaus encountering the false Helen, which perhaps explains the presence of the cute little Eros flying above them.  This piece is famous enough that the artist is now “the Menelaus painter.”

Our next play is Lysistrata by Aristophanes, a landmark, a must-read if there were such a thing  We have read anti-war Aristophanes before, but nothing like this.


  1. "The romances are nearly as nihilistic as the violent plays." Yes, and I think this gets at the ancient idea of "tragedy" much better than Aristotle's "tragic flaw" or whatever theory. The word "tragedy" meant something like "poem sung at the sacrifice of a goat," and the sacrifice of a goat was the climax of the Great Dionysia, and the winning playwright had the sacrifice made in his honor. So "tragedy" is more about the ritual setting of the play than the content, which as far as I can tell only had to do with ancient myths and historical figures. What we moderns think of as "tragic" has been laid over what the Greeks were doing. The plays were focused on man in the face of death, though, surely. All of this is prefatory nonsense to my idea that Euripides "romantic comedies" were just as much "tragedy" to his contemporaries as anything by Sophocles. Man, gods, death. That's all you needed, I think. But Euripides is surely going in a new direction with his later plays, using them as metaphors for his contemporary Athens. This is all written in a rush and is probably a hash, sorry.

  2. Great post, which elucidated a few points for me. Thanks so much.

  3. I wouldn't blame the moderns - maybe the medievals, when they took Aristotle as the secular gospel.

    We'll take a look at Aristotle in the fall and see how much damage he did. He goes well beyond the goat.

    I'm glad the post was helpful, Clare. I interpreted a bit more than usual. But we're getting near the end, we have a lot of examples now. Time to do a little criticism.

  4. Vellacott translates that chorus somewhat differently and makes it more straightforward but also more boring: "You who with learned patience plod remotest realms of toilsome thought, can you by searching find out God, or bound his nature? Look at man! From want to wealth, now forth, now back, now tossed from fame to infamy by unforeseen, ambiguous chance!" I suspect Lattimore is closer to the original, in part because it's much more thematically apt - the whims of gods, the phantom vs. the real Helen, etc.

    I enjoyed this less than Iphigenia in Tauris, but maybe I would have liked it more had I read it first - the similarity is certainly notable. My favorite part of this was an unexpected moment when Theoclymenus' attendant refuses to let his king pass to kill his sister. If the actions of the play do not prevent the Trojan War, at least this nameless figure prevents one more unnecessary death.

  5. It must be a tricky passage. It becomes so abstract, strangely so.

    The tension between the immediate micro - hooray, this character is saved! - and the distant macro - horrible war and massacres - is curious, but certainly how we all experience life.