Friday, April 20, 2012
H - Helen of Sparta/Troy #paganblogproject
And she does. Helen's ancestry is attached to Aphrodite for generations, putting the girl squarely in the Golden One's hands. When Aphrodite says "Go" (as she tells Helen several times throughout the mortal's relationship with Paris), Helen is compelled to obey.
One of my current writing projects is a novel (Temple of Beauty) that explores the life of Helen, much as my book Temple of Love explored the life of Sappho. What follows in this blog post are excerpts, two full (non-consecutive) chapters, from the Temple of Beauty, my own interpretation of the life of Helen of Sparta. (It is told in the voice of her sister, Clytemnaestra.)
“My mother did NOT have sex with a swan,” I raged as a child. “God or not! Who would do that?”
Nobody listened to me, though. “You were hatched from eggs,” they said. “Zeus came to your mother as a swan, knowing she would never knowingly betray her husband.” They pointed to my brothers’ skullcap hats as proof. “The remnants of the shell,” they whispered. Secretly, I believe our brothers wore the hats because of people’s silly rumors. They found it to be a great joke when we were young, and as adults it always worked in their favor to remind the world that they were “sons of Zeus” – men worthy of consideration.
Helen and I are twins. You might have known this, I suppose, but it’s easy to forget since we look nothing alike. Everyone knows our brothers are twins. Kastor and Pollux. Living their lives so bound up in each other, the gods transformed their twin souls into star-set Gemini when they died.
No stories of sisterly affection or close bond for Helen and Klytemnaestra, though. We didn’t begin or end our lives with enmity, but where our brothers lived and died by each other’s sides, Helen and I were as alien as any two women could have been.
Our mother was the Queen of Sparta, just as Helen was after her. She bore the four of us together, but two of us were sired by the mortal king, while the other two were fathered by an immortal god. Helen and Pollux had the touch of divinity upon them from birth. Beautiful, radiant, marked.
“Zeus, king of the gods, is the father of those two,” people said. “He placed the starry swan in the sky to mark the birth of beautiful Helen.”
The boys were both strong, swift and clever. They wrestled without fear, laughed without shame, and rode without division between themselves and their mounts. Sparta hailed them as the kingdom’s young defenders, and they first practiced this role on Helen and me.
We girls also wrestled bravely, as all Spartan women must, but Helen’s skill in the arena was not enough to prevent her first abduction or to manage an escape. Only Kastor and Pollux could reclaim her from Theseus. Only Kastor and Pollux could smuggle Helen out of Athens and restore her to Sparta.
Theseus stole Helen from us when we were fourteen. Theseus, victor over the Minotaur. Theseus, ruler of Athens. Theseus, lover of every great beauty in the Mediterranean. And so the great hero decided he would have my sister and could not be persuaded otherwise, not by my parents or by the gods themselves.
“Athens is the greatest city in Greece, fair Helen,” he said to her as his oarsmen swiftly rowed them toward that place and away from my father. “Being king there, it is fitting that my queen be the daughter of immortal Zeus, king of the gods. His favor, through you, will shine on me and my city.”
The Spartan princess gave him nothing easily, not even words. What he had from her, he was obliged to take.
“You are my bride now, beautiful Helen, child of Zeus,” he cooed in an attempt to woo her. “That means that you are Queen – and wife to the greatest hero of our age.”
An ugly look crossed her pretty face as she sniffed in disdain.
Nonplussed, he sputtered, “Am I not worthy of the daughter of a God?” His rage was rising.
Slowly, her glinting eyes glided back to his gaze. “I would be the happiest wife of the lowliest hoplite in Sparta if I could rid myself of your arrogant Athenian imposition.”
His only retort came from the back of his hand, and it left the side of her face swollen, stinging and red. She silently vowed never to give him the holy saltwater of her tears, not for so small an injury, and certainly never when he might see her.
She lived as his prisoner, if also as his wife, for two years. Her mother-in-law became her warden, and the daughter she bore to Theseus became her tiny cell-mate.
Of course, Helen would have been known to the world as “Helen of Athens” if it weren’t for our brothers. The boyhood games of rescuing Helen and I from sea monsters as we cursed and fought against the imagined creatures from our restraints on the rocky shore transformed into the battle tactics of men. Young men, brash and bold and un-bearded, unwilling to have a sister and a woman of the royal house of Sparta snatched from under their noses.
“A small crew is best,” Kastor told our father. “We want to be unseen, slipping through the waters, through the city, through Theseus’ door.” Kastor was always such a cunning youth. His wit sliced like a knife. You wanted him with you for every sticky situation, knowing he would carve a way out of it.
They waited, watched and listened within the walls of Theseus’ lands when they arrived. Using plots and ploys, they let the hour ripen to pluck Helen from her jail, stealing away her warden to become her slave as revenge for their sister’s abduction. When Theseus went to the underworld to abduct a bride for his brother, Kastor and Pollux brought Theseus’ own mother back in servitude to Sparta, Helen’s servant for many years.
“And on his throne, we left his rival to rule,” Pollux crowed, drinking the sweet wine for which he was named. “Theseus is brought low for his pride. He sought to steal the daughters of the gods from the families to whom they belong, and he has lost all.”
“He took me,“ Helen told me later. “He took me from my home and family. He took me from myself, my maidenhood. Gave me his daughter to bear and his mother to watch over us both. He thrust them both upon me, and then he left us all as he went in search of greater glory and an immortal wife for his brother. Theseus.” She spat on the earthen floor when she said his name. Such crudeness from my pristine twin.
She was utterly unable to love the child. “She looks like her father,” she said plaintively as she looked into the little girl’s face. “All I see is him when I behold her. How can I take her lovingly to my bosom when she reminds me of the man I despise? Perhaps I should seek a Spartan family to foster her. She is healthy.”
“She might be her father’s child,” I said, “but she is also yours. Iphigenia looks like our family, too, and she is touched with your beauty, Sister. I am, myself, roused with motherly affection for the little girl. Keep her within our own family, and give her to me to rear. I will be her mother, and you shall become her aunt.”
Helen was both elated and relieved, but there was another emotion working behind that beautiful façade as well. An odd look came upon her as she placed the toddler in my arms. She studied our faces, and as moisture dampened her bright eyes, she said, “She looks like your own daughter, Klytemnaestra. ” She paused for a steadying breath. “And so she shall be.”
So little Iphigenia became my daughter before I ever knew the marriage bed.
Kastor and Pollux made sacrifices to Zeus, king of the gods and father to the divine ones among us. Helen made sacrifices to Aphrodite, goddess of love, thanking her for being rid of an unwanted union. I now had a baby, no husband and no stain upon my honor for the unlikely combination, so my sacrifices were for Artemis, the protectress of children, of girls.
Both sets of twins were reunited – sisters and brothers, divine and mortal, connected and separate. Our tales are linked together, the four of us, from our births to our deaths. Kastor and Pollux were bound up in each other so that the world saw it at their first breaths, but none of us were ever free of the bonds of kinship, of twin-ship, that ruled our lives. They would set sail again to reclaim Helen for Sparta, for abduction was a cycle stamped into her very soul.
I would stay behind. Our childhood games never positioned me to rescue my sister, and reality didn’t have us both ravished and in need of rescue. Indeed, I was a prudent and unsung foil to my impetuous and fabled sister.
“You are my mirror’s reflection,” she said to me once. “Or perhaps I am yours. It’s hard to tell which side of the polished copper I stand on when I look at you. I see myself as I ought to be – the dutiful mother, the honorable wife, the mighty queen.”
I would forever be her reflection, and she would be mine – opposites, staring at each other from across a thin but impassable gulf.
She loved Menelaus like no other. History and myth haven’t told that portion of my sister’s story well. For Helen, the Spartan queen, her strong war-king was a far greater prize than a pretty shepherd. Paris was her duty, as the golden Goddess of love made clear, and Helen loved him as much as her body would allow. Her spirit, though, had been wedded to the towering, thundering, iron-hardened warrior who swept across the sea to reclaim his beloved queen.
If she was Aphrodite made flesh, he was Ares. They were mortal enough to die in the end, I promise you that much. For proof, look to the banks of the river near the town of Therapne. My sister’s clay was burned there, high on the funeral pyre. A tree still stands there in her honor, and a shrine they call the Menalaion, for her husband.
I won’t lie to you, gentle guest, and say she didn’t love the pretty shepherd, too. Paris was charming, and he endeared himself to Helen of Sparta. The Gods make their plans, and Aphrodite always knew that Helen would make the journey across the sea to Troy. Even before that dreadful contest.
You’ve heard the tale of that golden apple and the appointment of Paris as judge, I’m sure. No? Oh, my friend, the world believes the story starts here, so let me share the briefest telling of that tale.
At a certain marriage feast, all the Gods of Olympos were invited. All but Eris, for who would willingly welcome Strife into their marriage? And yet, who could keep her out? And so she came, but the gift she brought was conflict, cleverly concealed. She rolled in a golden apple engraved with a single word. “Kallisti.” It means “for the fairest.” Aphrodite, with the grace of a dove, bent to lift it, knowing she was the fairest of gods and men. Hera, queen of the Olympians, recognized the apple as being stolen from her own evening orchard and strutted with a peacock’s beauty to claim the prize, while grey-eyed Athene, stunning in her wisdom, swooped in to forestall the fray. When the parents of swift Akhilles married, all the Gods of Olympos were invited. All but Strife, for who would willingly welcome Strife into their marriage? And yet, who could keep her out? And so she came, with a gift of her own. She rolled in a golden apple engraved with a single word. “Kallisti.” For the fairest. Aphrodite, with the grace of a dove, bent to lift it, knowing it was hers. Hera, queen of the Olympians, recognized the apple from her evening orchard and strutted with a peacock’s beauty to claim the prize, while grey-eyed Athene, stunning in her wisdom, swooped in to forestall the fray.
Paris was chosen to settle the dispute that erupted between the three goddesses. Paris, a Trojan prince. Paris, a handsome and romantic youth. Paris, a shepherd whose city was favored of old by lovely Aphrodite.
Each goddess appealed to the young prince with the greatest reward she could offer the young man. Hera, in all her royal authority, came to him first. “I can make you a king like there has never been among men before. Your father is a majestic man, but your reign, young prince, will span boundaries no mortal has yet dared to reach and bring you riches beyond imagining. Kingship will be yours, if you give the apple to me.” She left him with a light in his eyes and a desire for power he hadn’t known could stir within his heart.
Happily considering her offer, Paris was approached by solemn Athena. He saw the warning in her eyes, like storm clouds building over a troubled sea. “That apple is no trifle or trinket, Paris. By giving it into my care, you would show wisdom beyond other men. I can turn that wisdom into the makings of legend and lore. Your name will be sung for generations beyond count as a great hero.”
Aphrodite spoke directly to the shepherd’s heart. “The apple’s intended owner is clear enough, sweet boy. It is marked ‘for the fairest,’ and that is me.” She blushed sweetly and continued, “Is it a boast if I say this of myself?”
Paris, at last given leave to speak among the immortal ones, said, “It is not a boast, for all the poets and philosophers hail the beauty of golden Aphrodite.”
“There is a mortal woman whose beauty the poets sing, too, sweet Paris,” Aphrodite continued. “Helen of Sparta is a woman in whose face and form my own beauty shines. In exchange for this prize, lovely Paris, I will give you the greatest love the world has ever known. You will be beloved of the most beautiful woman in the world, and poets and philosophers will tell your tale until the gods turn their shining faces from the world and men have sung their last songs.”
And so, my friend, Love won the contest. Oh, the war was bitter and Helen was cursed by Trojans and Greeks alike, but Aphrodite knew that Paris was like most mortals. He understood that love was as precious as gold.