Stesichorus of Himnera, c. 600-550 BCE
In Classical Greece, poets typically sang tales about the great men, women, goddesses and gods, whose deeds were recorded in Homer and other Bronze-Age sources now lost to us. Sometimes their later versions of the story may preserve details missing from our older records, and at other times they may elect not to follow their predecessors. In effect, they decide "the myths were wrong" and rewrite the story of the past. To do so may have far-reaching effects if one's version of the past is accepted. Stesichorus is a famous example of one such attempt to do so.
1) What might explain Stesichorus' struggle with the "Helen problem"? Think of it from a poet's point of view. What could writing poem #2 have done to him that he would return to Helen's story with the radical revision of the myth in #3?
2) The American imagist poet, H.D. (pen name of Hilda Doolittle), wrote a novel poem called Helen in Egypt which describes the meeting between Helen and the ghost of Achilles after the end of the war. Following Stesichorus' version of the myth, Helen tells the spirit she never went with Paris and that a goddess took her to Egypt for the duration of the war. Is this "legal" and what is the importance of such a poetic project? What difference does it make to this culture whether and why Helen went to Troy? How does it affect the creative process to realize that one is wrestling with the mythic "truths" which are part of one's culture's foundations?
3) #4 refers to the conclusion of the Odyssey's Book IV, when Telemakhos (Odysseus' son) takes leave of Helen and Menelaos on the morning after the dinner where the two tales of Odysseus are told. It paraphrases Helen's prophsey that Odysseus would return, after nearly 20 years of war and wandering, to kill the suitors who had beseiged his wife in their hall. What might the prophesy have to do with her parting gift, a cup that was brought from Troy? (Her other gift to Telemakhos, in the Odyssey, was a bridal robe for his eventual wedding. Talk about an ambiguous source for such a gift!)
4) As Raynor reminds us, Helen was worshiped as a goddess in Sparta and may have had devotees elsewhere, as well (150-153). What does it mean to "worship" a heroic figure from the past? How might such "worship" inspire the worshiper?
5) #6 involves another rewriting of an ancient story. Oedipus, king of Thebes, was the victim of an unfortunate destiny which was foretold to his father. Laius had asked the Delphic oracle to interpret his wife's dream while she was pregnant with Oedipus, and the oracle told him the boy would murder his father and breed children with his mother. Horrified, Laius ordered his wife to kill the child at birth. Jocasta couldn't bring herself to do so, but gave the child to a herdsman who was ordered to expose the baby on a rugged hillside where it would die of natural causes. The herdsman was too tender-hearted to do it, but after having pierced the infant's ankles, at the last moment he gave the baby to a neighboring herder who brought it back to Corinth. Polybius and his wife, the king and queen of Corinth, lamented their childlessness. They raised the boy as their own until one night when Oedipus, out drinking, was infuriated to be told he was not his father's child. He asked the oracle at Delphi, which told him the same thing it had told Laius. Fleeing in horror, he met a proud man in a chariot at a crossroads and killed him (i.e., Laius), and after answering the riddle of the Sphinx and freeing Thebes from the beast's influence, he was rewarded with the now widowed Jocasta's hand in marriage. According to the myth, when he discovered his crime, Jocasta hanged herself and he blinded himself. (His sons fell to fighting each other over rule of Thebes and killed each other, and his daughter Antigone [after violating the law by burying one of her brothers] hanged herself rather than await execution by the new ruler, Creon.) Sophocles' play depicting Oedupus' discovery of his guilt was considered by Aristotle the most perfect example of Greek tragedy, in part for its compact plot, which revealed all this in a single day's action. What appears to be driving Stesichorus to rewrite Jocasta's behavior? Does it help you understand #3's revision of Helen?
For Paul Halsall's excellent compilation of web sites and documents devoted to the study of ancient Greek culture, click here.