Erin Robichaud

Helen of Troy? A Reexamination of Helen’s Speech in the Iliad

April 3, 2021   /  

Name: Erin Robichaud
Majors: History, Classical Studies
Advisors: Dr. Madonna Hettinger, Dr. Josephine Shaya

In most interpretations, Helen of Troy’s beauty makes her a vain, promiscuous, and dangerous woman. This is the Helen that patriarchal societies have written into existence and passed on to later generations, but it is not the Helen that appears in the Iliad. This thesis argues that Helen’s voice makes her a perceptive and powerful strategist. On different occasions, Helen adopts the speech patterns of various social groups represented in Homeric society in order to assume their identity. She builds a Trojan and a Greek persona as a means to protect herself from the trauma she experiences during the Trojan War. The thesis utilizes cultural game theory to capture, describe, and track Helen’s verbal interactions in the Iliad. Because Helen’s personal identity fluctuates between Greek and Trojan, “Helen of Troy” is a gross simplification of her character that overlooks her intellect, skill, and agency. Scholars have not fully accounted for Helen’s tactful use of speech because they focus instead on her beauty and the danger that beauty has represented to the male psyche. Their studies often contain an unconscious inheritance of the narrative which patriarchal societies have ascribed to Helen. In contrast, this study listens to Helen’s words in conjunction with her other Iliadic appearances. It concludes that she uses language to assimilate with and to stand out from Homeric characters. This thesis offers Helen’s story, a story that has been passed over in the historiographic tradition but has always been there in the ancient Greek.

Erin will be online to field comments on April 16:
2-4pm EDT (PST 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

60 thoughts on “Helen of Troy? A Reexamination of Helen’s Speech in the Iliad”

  1. Dear Erin,

    Wonderful thesis, great video!

    I thought the observations on Helen’s oscillating capture of the speech patterns of the different groups were especially interesting.

    I have a few questions: Helen’s extremely harsh self-criticisms have always been really challenging for me. You seem to analyze these self-criticisms as part of the lament conventions, which is illuminating; do you think that Helen is trying, in addition to her other strategies, to make it impossible for others to criticize her, since no one could be harder on her than she is on herself?

    Also: I wonder what you thought of her deployment of the family connection to Hector in her speech in Book 6 (‘sit down next to me, bro-in-law’), which carries a lot of baggage, it seems to me; a claim of legitimate marriage to Paris (since from Menelaus’ point of view, their relations are adultery), for instance?

    I really liked the way you showed how Helen chooses her mode of speech, as you say, she belongs with all, but also none…

    1. Dear Professor Foster,

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the video!

      Yes, I analyze Helen’s self-criticism as part of Iliadic lament conventions, but also as part of the type of language that heroes/warriors use (for example, calling someone a “dog” on the battlefield as an insult). This certainly adds to the uniqueness and complexity with which Helen employs these self-criticisms.

      I do think that in addition to her other strategies, Helen is trying to make it impossible for others to criticize her by being her harshest critic. It takes away a means with which the Trojans and Greeks can use to “other” Helen. It also certainly aids the image Helen projects with her personas – namely that of a non-threatening woman. For if she appears as the “self-corrected” woman who is aware of and regrets her “wrong-doing” (abandoning Menelaos for Paris), then surely Helen won’t repeat the same transgression, right? Although I present this particular analysis of Helen’s self-criticism more as a beneficial by-product of her persona, it is a central argument in Ruby Blondell’s publication “’Bitch that I am’: Self-Blame and Self-Assertion in the Iliad.”

      Your second question is a great question and something I worked hard to think through in my own research and writing. I agree with Mihoko Suzuki’s assertion from The Metamorphoses of Helen that Helen makes alliances based on personal affinities rather than any whole-sale divisions. Helen does call Hektor “brother-in-law” in book six and again at book twenty-four, which would make us think that Helen herself sees her marriage to Paris as legitimate. In book three, however, Helen uses certain terms (ἄλοχος, ἄκοιτις) to describe her relationship with Paris, which are opposed to the term she uses to describe her relationship with Menelaos (πόσις). I interpret that Helen uses ἄλοχος and ἄκοτις in a derogatory manner in order to undercut the meaning of her “marriage” to Paris. With someone like Hektor though, who Helen describes has always been kind to her and can look past her sexual allure, she has more of a reason to see him as family and therefore treat/call him like family. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Helen can regard Hektor as family because of how he treats her while at the same time regarding Paris as non-family because of how he treats her.

      Thank you for these thoughtful questions!

  2. Erin, it makes my day every time our paths cross! Congratulations on finishing IS. This is incredibly fascinating. What drew you to Helen and her story in the first place?

    1. Mine too! Thank you!

      My sophomore year I took a a class called “Helen of Troy” with Professor Ryan. I was fascinated by the multiple representations of Helen that appear in ancient literature that I had never been aware of before. In the Homeric epics especially, Helen is a rich and complex figure because of her language, but I was noticing in academic studies that the conversation centered on her beauty. I felt a certain responsibility to share the Helen that I was observing in order to re-center this conversation on her voice, her story, and her agency.

  3. Congratulations, Erin. It’s wonderful to see this culmination of your project!

    1. Thank you, Professor Florence!

      I’m grateful your guidance on my Jr. I.S. also on Helen! It certainly provided a strong stepping-stone for Sr. I.S.

  4. Great job, Erin! This seems to be a really novel interpretation and overall argument. Congrats!

  5. Wonderful to see your great project come to fruition, Erin! Your depth of knowledge really comes across in this video.

  6. Congrats, Erin! This is a really interesting project. I’m curious about how you chose this topic.

    1. Thank you, Sofia!

      I took a class titled “Helen of Troy” my sophomore year, where I first discovered and learned more about the disconnect between Helen in the Iliad and Helen’s representation. I observed that in academic studies most scholars were arguing that Helen means to seduce Hektor in book six, which to me seems to be a surface level interpretation of the scene. I wrote my I.S. to present a different narrative of this scene that is more complex and which, I believe, better reflects the social stakes that are at play for Helen and reflects her agency.

      I wanted to present what I felt was a faithful and accurate narrative of one woman’s story, which is not too much different from our time sharing the Women’s Advisory Board’s story through the Wooster Digital History Project!

  7. I remember when you were first telling me about the beginnings of this project years ago. Even then, I could see the originality and the perceptiveness of it; now that it’s completed, however, I’m honestly blown away. Not only is your argument innovative and consequential, but your execution of it is superb–the translations, the textual analysis, the cultural understanding…it’s something else. Coming from a philosophy perspective, your reading reminds me of Deleuze’s reading of Kafka as a case of “minoritarian literature”; Helen finds herself caught between conflicting societies, and yet she is unable to truly fit within either, and so she takes her own line of flight towards becoming something entirely different and unassimilable to either. Well done, Erin!

    1. I remember too. What good times in Professor Ng’s class!

      I’m not familiar with Deleuze’s reading of Kafka or “minoritarian literature,” but it sounds like something worth reading up on. Any suggestions on where to start?

      Thank you for your comments!

      1. Yes, good times indeed!

        The specific work I’m referencing is called Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature by Deleuze and Guattari, but that’s intense philosophy that even I have trouble understanding, so I’m not sure you should take this as a recommendation! 😅

  8. Dear Erin,
    How thrilling this is. (My performance IS was called “Women of the Classics.” I played 5 of the women from the Greek plays pertaining to the Trojan war. Back steps of McGaw Chapel in full moonlight..).
    I thought a lot about Helen. In one play she claims she wasn’t even there, but that it was her image. I love your exploration of her agency. CAN a beautiful woman be HEARD? Or, is her beauty her biggest problem? You cleverly show the skills she has to develop to survive and not be “set apart.”
    Alas, for her. Well done! And congrats on your own translation! Mary Beidler Gearen ‘79

    1. Dear Mary (if I may),

      Your I.S. sounds equally thrilling! May I ask who you chose and how you played them?

      One of the things that I hope comes out of this I.S. project is that it causes us to reexamine our perceptions of other women from antiquity who have been given a bad rap, such as Clytemnestra. Often our perceptions reflect the patriarchal responses/fears that surround their character rather than reflecting the motivations and actions of the character themselves.

      Your I.S. sounds like it really helped you think through this dilemma by embodying these characters! Did you find that you had a different or more intimate view of these women after playing them?

      Thank you for your comment!

  9. A fascinating project excellently executed!

    I am curious about Helen’s voice. Given that she is tailoring what she says to survive between various factions, is there such a thing as “the true Helen” which is to say, are there passages when you believe she speaks as herself?

    1. Thank you, Cormac!

      Yes, there are moments in the Iliad where I believe that Helen speaks as “the true Helen.” The most prevalent is in book three, when Helen refuses Aphrodite’s request/order that she also retreat to Paris’ bedchamber after the duel. When speaking with Aphrodite, Helen insults the goddess in a vitriolic response. I believe that Helen’s anger and passion in this moment speaks to the comfortability and intimacy Helen has with Aphrodite to be so upfront with the goddess.

      I do believe, however, that Helen can also speak as “the true Helen” even while speaking through a persona. Perhaps I should have defined this along with agency, but I define that a persona is an impression that Helen gives off about herself that can enhance a trait she already possesses. To use an example from my response to Professor Foster, Helen calls Hektor “brother-in-law” as a part of the lament conventions she uses to build her Trojan persona. At the same time though, Helen does have a very real and personal connection to Hektor that warrants her calling him “brother-in-law” and does not make it out of place or “untrue” for her to do so.

      With all that said though, there is the valid question about how “true” any of Helen’s voice is, seeming how Helen’s words come from Homer. For the scope of my I.S., however, I focused on the world/action that takes place within the text rather than focusing on authorial intent. This is certainly something that I have thought much about and will have to work through as I continue with my research.

  10. Hi Erin,

    This is Anna’s mom, congratulations on a great I.S. and an awesome presentation. As much of history is written by men, it was interesting to study Helen’s voice.

    1. Hi Dr. Shearer!

      Thank you for your comment! It is also interesting that is just not men who have overlooked Helen’s voice. Women and non-gender binary scholars, who have an unconscious inheritance or internalized patriarchal understanding of Helen, have also overlooked Helen’s voice. It is a good reminder of the complexity that surrounds Women and Gender Studies.

      1. Sadly there are decades of bias to wade through. Best of luck with the next steps.

  11. Erin,
    A great presentation! You have done such a wonderful job of exploring Helen as a masterful game-player who carefully wields her words to her advantage. I have been intrigued with your thesis since our early conversations about your topic and I am so happy to see that you have shared your findings in this format.

    1. Hello Ms. Monbarren,

      Thank you for your comment! And thank you for your help in the early stages of research! I have so enjoyed working with you on various projects outside of I.S.

  12. I love your passion in reclaiming Helen’s voice. You are EXACTLY what History and Classics Studies needs.
    Congratulations on your great work!

  13. Erin, this is such an interesting project! You give Helen a new voice in a phenomenal way! This is such an excellent representation of your academic abilities. 🙂

  14. Hi Erin, this is such a fascinating project. Congratulations on executing it so well!

    1. Thank you, Pavithra! Thank you once more for all your help in the final formatting of my I.S. You quite literally saved me from a major headache!

  15. Very interesting topic, Erin! I enjoyed hearing your fresh take on Helen’s voice. Congrats!

    1. Thank you, Karin! I am glad to know that you came to watch! It means a lot to me!

  16. Hi Erin, great job!! I really enjoyed your close reading of that scene from Book 6. One question: can you give a specific example of when Helen switches from a Greek to Trojan identity or vice versa, and how she achieves that? Again, amazing job!!!

    1. Hi Amina, thank you! Unfortunately for the sake of time, I was not able to include an example of Helen’s Greek persona. Let me try and not write my whole I.S. in this comment. Ha!

      Hilary Mackie’s Talking Trojan: Speech and Community in the Iliad does an excellent job at portraying a cultural distinction between the Trojans and Greeks through their speech. I relied on Mackie’s argument to distinguish what was a Trojan persona and what was a Greek persona in Helen’s speech. Important for this discussion is that Mackie observes that Trojans use speech to avoid confrontation whereas the Greeks use speech for confrontational purposes.

      At book twenty-four, Helen is at her most “Trojan” because the Trojans have formally accepted her into their community by inviting her to a chief mourner at Hektor’s funeral. At the beginning of her lament, she plays into this Trojan identification conferred onto her by the Trojans as by announcing that Paris is her πόσις (see my response to Professor Foster’s comment for the significance of this term).

      Later in her lament, however, Helen publicly names the Trojans who have abused her during her time thus far in the city (“But if someone else from among my brothers-in-law or my husband’s sisters or the wives of his brothers of the beautiful robes/ or my mother-in-law…/ would reproach me in the megaron…” Hom. Il. 24.754-56). Helen calls attention to the social tension that has existed between her and the Trojans in a deliberate and calculated way, which I argue is aligned with the confrontational speech patterns of the Greeks.

      I argue that Helen begins to switch to her Greek persona in her lament because, with the death of Hektor, the fall of Troy is immanent…and with it her return to the Greeks. It would be better – and safer – for Helen to appear as Greek (and never having been “Trojan”) at the sacking of Troy so that the Greeks do not exhibit any more hostility for Helen than what they already do. For there is evidence from brief passages in the Iliad, and which is supported by ancient Greek vase paintings, that Menelaos pulls his sword out on Helen when he sees her for the first time after relocation (as I put it) to Troy.

      This is a very simplified answer because of space restrictions. If you would like to speak more on this next time we see each other, just let me know!

  17. Congrats Erin! This was very interesting! How did you decide this direction for looking into Helen? It was very fun to see how your project had come together!

    1. Thank you, Morgan!

      When I did my Classics Jr. I.S. on Helen, I knew what I wanted to say about Helen but I did not have a guiding theory to make my argument nice and neat. When I did my History Jr. I.S. on the fictional character of Yseut/Isolde and her agency, I came across a medieval scholar who utilized cultural game theory in his study of courtly love. I quickly realized that cultural game theory was just the theory I was looking for – because of how it can capture and convey the complexity of women’s agency – and was one that could also help me explain Helen’s agency.

      I hope that answers your question!

  18. Erin, it was so fun to hear you explain all the hard work you’ve done this semester in, not giving a voice to Helen, but highlighting the voice that was already there. It has been a joy to listen to you develop this thesis throughout the year, and seeing it all come together is so rewarding. Congratulations!
    My question for you is if you were to continue this project, what aspects of Helen’s speech and overall characterization would you explore and expand upon next? I recall you saying there was so much more you wanted to talk about but had to condense it for the sake of IS.

    1. Thank you, Sarah! I don’t what I would have done if I couldn’t have shared my research developments with you and the rest of our friend group. Your support means the world to me!

      Yes! In my original I.S. plans I was going to include Helen’s speech in the Odyssey (in order to make stronger the argument for her Greek persona), but over winter break and outlining for Chapter 2 I quickly realized that I had plenty of material to cover in the Iliad alone.

      There’s a fascinating flashback that Menelaos shares about Helen in Odyssey book four that I would want to explore more. In this flashback, Helen walks around the Trojan Horse mimicking the voices of wives of the Greek soldiers inside as a means to lure them outside. This is right after Helen shares her own flashback, where she helps Odysseus sneak around Troy and provides him with intel on the Trojans. I’m not entirely sure how to fit these competing stories – especially Menelaos’ – within my argument that Helen begins to rebuild her Greek persona before the sack of Troy.

  19. Congratulations Erin! I am so proud of you for finishing this IS that you are obviously so passionate about. Your presentation was really well done and easy to follow. Your topic is also super timely and very interesting. I agree that it is really important to listen to women’s and other oppressed peoples’ voices within any kind of literature. If you had more time to expand on your thesis, are there any other topics you would have liked to research relating to Helen?

    1. Thank you, Anna!! Your willingness to listen to me speak about Helen for the last years has been a pleasure!

      Like with Sarah’s comment, I know for sure that I would want to further my research with Helen’s speech in the Odyssey. After that though…I’m not too sure. The beauty, and also the complication, with studying myth in ancient literature is that there is never a consistent narration of events from author to author. Mythic traditions allow, welcome, and even thrive off of alternative versions. So I think it would be difficult and also wrong of me to argue that the Helen that appears in the Iliad is also the same Helen that appears in Euripides, for example, although there may certainly be similarities. But perhaps I could compare Homer’s Helen with Euripides Helen, for example?! Or perhaps I could use cultural game theory to better articulate the voice and agency of more women from antiquity – fictional and historical alike!

  20. Congratulations on a compelling and fascinating project, Erin! I’ve loved hearing your thought process as you worked through your IS, and your unrelenting passion for giving agency to Helen and reframing her narrative. While watching your presentation, I wondered if it could even possible to completely separate Helen’s actions from her beauty? Or if that is an integral part of her identity/characterization that will remain even if more begin to recognize her agency and ability to utilize this feature as a weapon?

    1. Thank you, Claire! I’m so glad and grateful that you nor the rest of our friend group ever tired about hearing me speak about Helen. I think I would have burst if I had to keep it all to myself!

      This is great question and something I also had to tackle early on in my I.S. research. The short answer is no, Helen’s voice/actions cannot (and should not) be completely separate from her beauty. At the end of the day, Helen is the most beautiful woman in the world. To ignore Helen’s beauty would be like ignoring my curly hair…simply unthinkable!! Her beauty is as much as a part of her identity as her voice.

      With that said though, Helen’s beauty only makes up one portion of her identity. Yet in popular and scholarly conversations, Helen’s beauty has become her full identity. Her beauty has trumped her other identity markers and has thus simplified her character for us. As a result, this has led us to focus on the effect of Helen’s beauty, not how she uses her beauty in coordination with her voice. What I argue for in my I.S. is that there are other qualities to Helen’s character that we should recognize alongside her beauty .

      I hope this answers your question! If not, you know how to reach me!

  21. As always, very stellar work Erin, you deserve great praise for all the hard work you’ve put into this project (and elsewhere)! It’s interesting (and unfortunate) that even in reading history societal prejudices can color one’s interpretation, as can be seen in the lack of secondary scholarship that takes the same perspective to Helen that you do here. But that’s why you’re here to fix that! I’m curious if you are aware of any other stories from Ancient Greece that have been misinterpreted in the past, but now others are re-investigating the original text to find different meaning? From my (very poor) understanding, the field of Classics has often involved narratives that are misconstrued and twisted to fit some political agendas, so it’s good there are scholars like you who are correcting that.

    1. Thank you, Max! Your support, along with everyone else’s, has gotten me through this year!

      It is interesting that scholars, who most likely do not actively practice misogyny in their daily life, can perpetuate misogynistic/patriarchal narratives in their writing/arguments because of an unconscious inheritance or internalization of those narratives. I’m sure there’s problems in my own perspective of Helen that I’m unaware of, and which someone in the future will write about. But that’s the beauty of academic research, that we can build off of and further academic works into a version that is more updated with social awareness.

      I’m not sure if I would personally call older representations of Helen and other ancient Greek women as “misinterpretations,” because everyone gets something different out of a story and that should not be invalidated simply because it is different from our own (I refer to the idea of a plurality of readings here).
      I’m afraid that I don’t have a scholarly article to back this one up with, but I am aware of a new interpretation floating around about Medusa – that when Athena gives Medusa her famous snake-head, instead of it being a punishment, it is a means with which Medusa can protect herself from men who do not have the best of intentions. While conducting my research, I did come across enough article/book titles that suggests there is a trend in recent scholarship where we are rethinking and challenging those older interpretations.

  22. This is truly intriguing, Erin! Excellent job and congratulations! Have you found that Helen is unique in her capacity to move between identities and transcend categorizations or are there other Homeric characters that are similarly capable? Also, would you like to continue this research somehow, either with Helen or another figure, fictional or historical?

    1. Thank you, Dante!

      I haven’t worked much with the Odyssey for this project, but from reading my secondary scholars, it sounds like Odysseus is generally considered as another Homeric character who can also move between different categorizations. I am tentative to argue though, that in Odysseus’ case, he does not actually transcend these categorizations like how Helen does.

      I think that Clytemnestra is another women who deserves a clean interpretation! Like her sister Helen, we have accepted Clytemnestra as a femme fatale, but I reckon there is more to her story than that!

  23. Thanks for sharing this, Erin — a nice presentation!

    I appreciated all the intricate language analysis — and it made me wonder if the similarities between the English words chair and chariot were more than coincidental.

    1. Thank you, Mrs. Vosmeier! I’m so glad you stopped by to watch!

      Who knows?! Language certainly contains a treasure trove of information.

  24. Great job, Erin! This is a truly fascinating interpretation of Helen as a character! Would you say that Helen crafting this ‘dual identity’ for herself in the Iliad is meant to reflect the fact that she essentially ‘walks in both worlds,’ so to speak?

    1. Thank you, Sai!

      I think so…Helen’s personas help her project multiple identities that help her fit in better with Trojan and Greek society! She certainly has an awareness and knowledge of the cultural/speech practices of both societies.

  25. Excellent presentation, Erin! Dr. Rhyan’s class really changed my perceptions and interpretations of the portrayals of women in Homeric Greece as well, and I’m glad to see that your IS explored this topic so well. I think the topic of code-switching as a survival tactic is especially relevant in today’s society, and your insights as to how it gives her power/agency in the situation are illuminating. I’m wondering, like Dante, how this lens can be used to uncover new insights into other overlooked Homeric women, such as Circe, Andromache, or Penelope. Did your thesis examine Helen’s words in The Odyssey as well? I’d be interested to see your interpretations of her scene. Thanks, and congratulations on a job well done!

    1. Thank you, Alexis! It’s so good to hear from you! I hope all is well with your graduate studies!

      Cultural game theory can certainly be applied to other Homeric and literary women, and to historical women as well, which I think is what makes this lens so useful! I think personally, Clytemnestra’s story is the next most urgent story to reexamine because of her similar status as a femme fatale.

      I had planned on including the Odyssey in my I.S., but then I found I had so much to say on the Iliad! There is enough evidence to support the argument that Helen wears a Greek persona in the Odyssey, and even wears a “domestic” persona, which is not seen in the Iliad. I have some preliminary remarks on Helen’s speech/appearance in my Classics Jr. I.S., if you would like me to send them your way.

      Thank you for watching!

  26. Erin, What a great take-away message. We can learn a lot by listening to women! It has been a pleasure working with you. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you, Professor Hettinger! Likewise it has been a pleasure to work with you and Professor Shaya this year. I couldn’t hope for two better advisors!

  27. Congratulations Erin! Your research brings a new perspective to a topic that clearly needed one.

  28. Congratulations, Erin!! This was an amazing and fascinating presentation that so clearly explained things I’ve been hearing you talk about almost as long as I’ve known you! I’m so glad that you were able to turn your interest in Helen into such an important and compelling IS, and I know you’ll take it to great places in the future.

    1. Thank you, Annabelle!!

      You and everyone else have been here since the very beginning of this project. You all probably know it as well as I do by now! Your friendship, support, and enthusiasm has meant the world to me over the last four years. I don’t know what I would have done and where I would be without a friend, roommate, and FYS buddy like you.

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