Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Helen and the Phantom Slut

For noble men are never hated by the gods,
although they suffer more than those of no account
....

One of my early posts on this weblog discussed how I hope, at some point down the road, to write a verse novel on the curse that haunts the House of Atreus. The basic outline, heavily but not exclusively influenced by Euripides would be:

1. Iphigenia at Aulis: Agamemnon sacrifices his oldest daughter to appease Artemis and make it possible for the Greek fleet to set out for Troy. Artemis apparently shows her acceptance by turning Iphigenia into a deer at the moment of sacrifice and stirring up the sailing-winds.
2. Trojan Women: The Greeks have defeated Troy and are now dividing up the women and killing their children; largely, this would be about Hecuba, Andromache, and Cassandra.
3. Agamemnon: Agamemnon returns home with Cassandra as his slave-girl; Clytemnestra kills him.
4. The Libation Bearers: Electra and Orestes, children of Clytemnestra, kill their mother to avenge their father.
5. Orestes: Pursued by the Furies, Orestes is brought before the tribunal of the gods at the Areopagus and (narrowly) is acquitted, on the condition that he visit a particular country and return from there to his homeland with a statue of Artemis.
6. Iphigenia among the Taurians: Performing his task, Orestes comes among the Taurians, who sacrifice all foreigners to Artemis. As it happens, when Artemis accepted the sacrifice of Iphigenia, she did not turn the girl into a white deer, but replaced her with a white deer before she was actually sacrificed, and whisked her off to this barbarian land to be her priestess. Iphigenia and Orestes find out about each other, and she helps him escape with the image.


The basic idea is that through Iphigenia, as the restored Sacred Victim, the gods are able to unravel the curse (which they cannot directly lift). However, as I noted in that post, the problem with this is that it only undoes it for the line of Agamemnon. Iphigenia's restoration cannot be stretched to cover the line of Menelaus as well; so the curse on the Atreides only finds an incomplete resolution.

However, I have been reading Rex Warner's translation of Helen, and it occurs to me that it might very well provide the beginning of a solution. The basic premise of Euripides' play is the idea, suggested by the poet Stesichorus, that Helen did not go to Troy with Paris. Angered over Paris's choice, Hera fashioned an exact facsimile of Helen out of air. This phantom was the one who fled with Paris. The true Helen was transported by Hermes to Egypt, there virtuously to live out the duration of the Trojan War while her good name was destroyed by the phantom. Returning home from the war, Menelaus is blown off course and shipwrecked on the shores of Egypt. The king at that time had decided he wanted to marry Helen himself, so he has quite prudently decided to kill every Greek who comes by, to guarantee that Menelaus never has a chance to rescue her. The play, which has one of Euripides' beautiful recognition scenes, is about how Menelaus and Helen meet up and manage to get off the island with their lives. As tragedies go, it's actually quite lighthearted and funny.

Now, it strikes me that this could be adapted to heal House Atreides on the line of Menelaus. Just as the restoration of Iphigenia restores the House of Agamemnon, the restoration of Helen could restore the House of Menelaus. It would require adapting the story quite a bit. The deus ex machina at the end seems to me to be one of Euripides' most clumsy. In a play like Alcestis or (more subtly) Medea, the deus ex machina works quite nicely because of the way the play is structured; but here it is very little more than a way to end the play. And the plot really doesn't give much by means of which the curse could be lifted (unlike the Iphigenia arc, which has the neat characteristic of containing one who was sacrificed and yet lives). But it has great elements -- the idolon, the chastity of Helen, the prophetess Theonoe (which has to be one of the best names for a prophetess ever). Something could be done with it.

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