ἐνταῦθα λέκτρων ἱκετεύομεν φυγάς
Fugitive from his bed, I am supplicant here.
Euripides’ Helen, line 799
translation my own
You think you already know my story, but you do not. Men have been telling and retelling my story for ages. Women too, but mostly men. Men try to own my story the way they have always tried to own me. My father, my husband, my lover and now these story tellers. But stories slither like snakes in the hands of the Pythia. They change their shapes of their own accord, and not even she can control them.
You don’t know me. These men who approach the wall of thorns, certain it will be they who penetrate—they do not know me, nor do they care to. What do they know of the inner life of a woman? They see my face, the thousand ships it launched. They call me Beauty. They fight for my skin, not my soul.
I never knew why Leda and Tyndareοs were so eager to hide me from men’s eyes. I couldn’t leave the palace—no girl of royal blood could—but at least Klytemnestra could loiter in the hall when visitors came, men from other lands. She sneered at me as she left, proud of her access, her ambition showing even then. I cared not for status, though I was curious to see what they hid from me, what would happen if I were not hidden.
In my young girlhood, Theseus stole me away thinking that I must truly be a worthy prize for Leda and Tyndareos to secure me away so tightly. Only the swift actions of my brothers Κastor and Polydeukes saved me from his plans. Their actions, and Theseus’ distaste for unripe flesh. He had planted me with his mother, until I was ready. Why steal me at all, you may ask, if he did not want a 9-year-old child? So no one else could have me, of course. I was not a girl, I was τιμή: booty, honor, prize. Precious object.
Once I returned, the abduction just reinforced the story that Theseus began to tell when he stole me. So beautiful. The most beautiful. No one else more beautiful. It was a lie. I was no more beautiful than any other girl, but men want most what they cannot have, and so my parents ensured the fate they feared as completely as if they had intended it in the first place.
Goddess, God-mother, Eris, Discord, Maleficent—call her what you will—she used me to tell her story of the bitter uninvited guest, just as thoroughly as Theseus used me to tell his manly honor in his old age. Tyndareos used me to gain his own prizes as well. All the Gods used me as a pawn in their games, a bit player in their stories. Goddesses are closer kin to Gods than they are to mortal women. They care only for their favorites, and to the dung heap with the rest. But it is not even entirely Eris’ fault. She sows the discord, but we choose to let it ripen and reap it. We tell our own stories, too.
Κάλλιστη, the inscription on the apple will read. Κάλλιστη, claim the suitors at the door. Odysseus, Diomedes, Antilokhos, Agamemnon, Menelaos, Philoktetes, Aias, Teukros. They all stand there, and more. This army of Akhaian men now, each claiming me as his prize—they frighten Tyndareοs. He comes upon an agreement with Odysseus, always keen to find an angle. He wants Tynadareοs’ aid in his suit of my cousin Penelope. He was only at my door for show. My “beauty” compelled them all. I was always a prize more than I was a bride, neither lover nor beloved. I was an entangling alliance.
In the end, it doesn’t matter which one of them Tyndareοs chooses for me. Menelaos gives him most gifts, buys me outright. The night he pierces me with his spindle, I fall asleep. The wall of thorns grows up again around me. I sleepwalk through this new life, through all the duties of a good Akhaian wife. I weave, I spin, I press the olives into oil, I submit to my husband, and I sleep through it all. The household around me may as well be frozen in time for all that I interact with it.
Not even the birth of my daughter can wake me from this slumber. Hermione is frail, fuzzy-headed, mewling like a baby goat when I pass her to the wet nurse. She will be better loved by the serving-women of the house. My own heart is frozen. Try as I might, I cannot summon love for this girl, born to be yet another prize. I can only summon pity.
Everything changes when Paris arrives. For the first time in my life, I do not fear a man. He is not warlike. He does not look upon me as an object to fear or to fuck. He looks at me. He looks in my eyes—and I feel my own heat. I wake up, flushed and furious. I find that I want to take control of my own story.
This time, I am not abducted. I go willingly. I follow this man who cares more for ἔρος than for τιμή. The Akhaians say this makes me a whore, but the Akhaians are the ones who bought and sold me. What do I care for their judgment?
The Trojans are welcoming, at first. Priam and Hekuba look on Paris with the same fear my parents looked at me: the fear of an awful fate foretold. We only have eyes for each other. We spend our days in bed, but not asleep. We do not interact with Ilium outside our bedroom walls, but Ilium is not frozen. Ilium is soaked in our heat. Agamemnon, eager to tell the story of his glory, calls on the alliance made on the altar of my virginity. The thousand ships are launched.
When Hektor drives Paris out of my bed and spurs him onto the battlefield, at first I weep. Then I remember I have a story to tell, and I get out of bed to prepare for battle. Tyndareos may have been my mother’s husband, but he was not my father. Now that I had something to live for, I would fight for it. I use my divine powers, my birthright, to aid the Trojans. I imitate the voices of the Akhaians’ wives, and sent their hearts homeward. I use my knowledge of the men themselves, gained in their pursuit of me, against them.
It is all for naught. Menelaos and Agamemnon will not allow their honor to be so thoroughly damaged by a mere woman. They are Zeus’ playthings, but so am I, and he finally allows them to take the city, by way of his favorite daughter’s favorite. When Menelaos comes upon me, clinging to the knees of the marble goddess, I can see murder in his eyes. To save my skin, I transfer my supplication to him. I tell him stories of unwilling abduction, of escape to Egypt. He considers my story, and of its potential for the restoration of his honor. If I never went to Paris’ bed, he can bring me back to his. If I was asleep in Egypt this whole time, he could reclaim me with a kiss.
All I want is to survive. Paris could not protect me, for all that he was able to waken me. I return with Menelaos. I try to become the dutiful wife again. When we hear of the fate of Agamemnon, I tremble thinking Menelaos might once again threaten to loose his murderous rage on me. He does not. He looks on me from time to time with fear, but he has no need. I long for my sister’s strength, but I do not have it any longer. I yearn for the nerve to place a twin blade into a twin back, and send Menelaos to Hades with his brother. I have not the strength, alas. I am asleep once again. The wall of thorns has returned.