Ancient Athenian Drama

Euripides: Helen

5th century BC, Ancient Greek.

Am I to believe that the same person has spent the same ten years both in Troy and on the shores of the Nile Delta?

Can a person exist in two places at once? It would seem to be impossible. Drama played out previously on the stone flags of this huge open-air theatre, this space that entertains fourteen thousand people at a time beside the mount of the Acropolis – this theatre has allowed us, in previous years, to witness Helen delivering a speech that begs for her life, detailing her years in the city of Troy, her attempt to escape that city following the death of her lover Paris. She made a speech surrounded by the ruins of toppled buildings, charred shrines and the cries of Trojan women lamenting a future of bereavement and slavery. We have seen Helen survive a long sea journey home from Ilium, from Troy, returning to Greece with her husband King Menelaus of Sparta only to have King Agamemnon’s son Orestes try to take her life. But here we are being asked to swallow something wholly incredible.

It now appears that Helen has spent all the years of the Trojan war and the ensuing years of hopeless return – as Odysseus and Menelaus sailed their own ways back and forth across a sea that could not deliver them home – that she has spent all this time, in Egypt! I cannot bring myself to believe it. I cannot believe that one person can ever be in two places at once. And neither can I believe that the Helen whom Paris fought for and died for on the plains of Ilium was a phantom, as we are being asked to believe, a creature made of air. I have outgrown such childish tales! But then, am I to believe that the same person has spent the same ten years both in Troy and on the shores of the Nile Delta?

Let me try to understand this. Menelaus, Helen’s husband, has spent the last seven years, like Odysseus, sailing a sea that, by some enchantment, has entrapped him. He now arrives in Egypt where the Pharaoh believes him to be a shipwrecked sailor who has been serving on a ship that Menelaus commanded and that Menelaus is dead. So Menelaus, embracing this new identity, has now left Egypt in a boat with his Helen, who is both Helen of Troy whom Paris abducted and loved and for whom ten long years of war were waged, and at the same time a woman who has spent the last seventeen years in Egypt!

I have not caught what the Dioscuri, the divine Castor and Polydeuces, have just said in the concluding lines of this play, my mind has been so full of thought. But perhaps their own nature, as inseparable twins, spending alternate days alive in the world and dead beneath it, has some bearing upon this.

Story fragment retold from: Vellacott, Philip, 1973. Euripedes: The Bacchae and other plays (Penguin Classics). Translated from Ancient Greek with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited. Helen, pp 135–89.

See for yourself

Euripides – Wikipedia

Helen of Troy – Wikipedia

Euripides: Helen – English translation, Internet Classics Archive (download plain text version)

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