Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.08.13

Robert Emmet Meagher, The Meaning of Helen: In Search of an Ancient Icon.   Wauconda, IL:  Bolchazy-Carducci, 2002.  Pp. vii, 191.  ISBN 0-86516-510-6.  $24.95.  

Reviewed by Jennifer K. Berenson Maclean, Roanoke College (
Word count: 1883 words

As the term "icon" in the title reveals, Meagher (hereafter M) is not interested in Helen as a particular character of Greek myth, art, and tragedy, but rather he understands Helen as embodying "the complex intact fossil record of woman in Western culture" (p. 1). More specifically, M's goal is to trace the misogyny of Greek culture to its "theoretical demise" (p. 4) in Euripides' Helen. M's prose is filled with wonderful turns of phrase and a flowing yet lighthearted style that makes it a pleasure to read. The strength of this work lies in its insightful interpretation of Hesiod and Euripides; its weakness in its attempt to connect Helen's representation in Greek culture to the wholesale rejection of a Neolithic matriarchal culture that acknowledged the all-encompassing power of the feminine principle.

M sets out his project in Chapter 1: "to discover the meaning, the truth, refracted in Helen's myriad avatars." Thus it is not the pluriformity of mythology surrounding Helen that he seeks to clarify but the opposite, the ultimate unity of the many Helens. "This ascent is from the many to the one, from the many Helens to the one Helen" (p. 22). Although M uses phrases like "the original decision against Helen" (p. 7) and "Helen's home culture" (p. 14), he makes it quite clear that he is not engaged in "a search for the historical Helen" but rather "a historical search for Helen" (p. 11). By focusing on the idea of image -- the mutable representation of another called into being by the act of imagination -- M moves his search beyond explicit images of Helen: "Not only does she seem to be other and more than the sum of her explicit mentions or appearances, but she seems to be present even in myths, stories, and images that contain no direct reference to her" (p. 12; emphasis mine). M casts his net broadly, looking at the trade contacts of the Mycenaeans to identify cultures whose stories might provide these implicit avatars of Helen (pp. 13-21).

In Chapter 2 M demonstrates that the images of Helen are diverse and at least initially seem contradictory. M begins, naturally, with Homer and Hesiod, then surveys Helen's connections with Aphrodite (among others), while dealing with the themes of her birth, beauty, inspiration of eros, death, and the hatred spewed upon her. M draws upon Jean-Pierre Vernant and Rene Girard to illuminate the contradictions of Helen and its origin: Helen is consistently associated with "making love and making war," or more simply, "eros and eris" (p. 31). Rather than resolve his contradiction, M affirms that contradiction is inherent in the nature of image and that this particular contradiction runs throughout the cultures connected to Mycenae (M touches upon Gilgamesh, Tamil literature, the Epic of Kirta from Ugarit, as well as Vedic mythology). The origin of this duality lies in the human desire for being, which was sought through mimesis (e.g., the desirability of Helen in the eyes of men), a course of action that inevitably leads to violence. It is no surprise then that rape and abduction, clearly connected to the eros-eris duality, are common mythological themes.

In Chapter 3 M turns from the explicit Helen to Pandora, the implicit Helen and paradigmatic woman of Hesiod. In the Theogony Hesiod describes the first woman as kalon kakon: one who is essentially evil but has been disguised through a skillful ruse (like the tricks perpetrated by Prometheus against Zeus). Similarly characterized in Works and Days, the first woman is identified as Pandora ("All-gifted" or "All-giver"), and the gifts she metes out to men are the fullness of human misery. M argues for a correspondence between Pandora's jar (pithos) and the womb, thus allowing him to conclude that Pandora herself is the jar and from her womb will come the "gifts" of never-ending progeny who must be fed and the insatiable sexual demands of women. This story of Pandora is central to Hesiod's "revisionist mythology" (p. 66), in which he de-naturalizes the self-evident procreative order that was more properly acknowledged in pre-Mycenaean cultures (Pandora is not the product of nature but of craft, and her form of procreation signals an end to the idyllic pattern of existence of the previous age). This conflict also takes place in the divine realm: the fecundity of male power is victorious over female powers of generation through Zeus's swallowing of Metis, his marrying of Thetis, and his kephalogenic birth of Athena. The contradictions of Pandora (kalon kakon), a cipher for all women, is reflected in Helen, and M concludes the chapter by pointing back to the origin of both in Gaia.

Chapter 4 is largely an argument for a catastrophic cultural transition from an idealized matriarchal culture -- "a sedentary, agricultural society without any form of institutional inequality" (p. 86) that venerated the feminine principle of nature (including both birth and death) -- to the dominance of the Kurgans (a.k.a. Indo-Europeans), a violent, pastoral society with multiple hierarchies, whose chief deities were solar sky-gods. M draws upon female figurines as interpreted by Marija Gimbutas among others to draw a portrait of the Great Goddess, whose pervasive cult M presents as the current scholarly consensus. This was a world without eros and eris; instead the power of sexuality is conceived in a wholly different fashion. Hesiod, he argues, reflects in mythological form the invasion and victory of the Kurgans. The goddess was not only "demoted" (i.e., replaced by Zeus), but "mythically divided and conquered" (i.e., split into multiple distinct and less powerful goddesses; p. 90). It is in this moment according to M that eros and eris take over as society's dominant representation of woman.

Chapter 5 brings M to Euripides' unmasking of Hesiod's "revisionist mythology." Euripides' concern for the sufferings of women in war and his pattern of revealing the lies of men about their violence against women come together in his use of Helen and the Trojan War as a spectacle by which to unmask the "moral truth" about Athenian foreign policy. M thus interprets the Helen against the background of the Athenian loss in Sicily and identifies the quest for power or "the passion of pleonexia" (p. 98) as the cause of war, whether Trojan or Peloponnesian. Despite its key role in repelling the Persian invasion, Athens had become the Persian aggressor against the Greek states. Euripides, not unlike Aristophanes, gave form to this insight but went further. By using the device of the phantom of Helen, Euripides was able to force Greek warriors to confront the lies that they created (in this case about Helen) in order to justify their quest for power. Helen's eros and eris are revealed as nothing more than male fantasy.

M is a skillful interpreter of texts and we see this at work in his sections on the Theogony and the Helen. Two questions about his interpretation of these works linger. Prometheus's sacrifice to Zeus results ultimately in Zeus's fashioning of Pandora; by this latter act Zeus's sovereignty over men is asserted (p. 54). Yet Promethean sacrifice continues on and is the form of sacrifice that both Hesiod and his audience witness regularly. One must wonder then whether the Theogony can really be seen as the triumph of Zeus and the establishment of a clear hierarchy between gods and men since men continue to "trick" Zeus on a regular basis. Likewise, the portrayal of the first woman as giving only the illusion of goodness must be tempered by Zeus' second evil -- that avoiding marriage and childbearing will leave men with a cursed old age and no progeny to inherent possessions (lines 602-608). Given the importance of family in sustaining lasting memory of ancestors, must not one then reevaluate the "curse" of women in this text? Turning to the Helen, in M's reading Teukros admits that he has harmed Helen, that his hatred for her has no justification: "In the Helen, Teukros spews on the real Helen his rage against the fantasy Helen" (p. 108). This is true, but only from the perspective of the reader, who knows of the existence of these two Helens (lines 31-51); Teukros, however, apologies to one whom he knows only as a likeness of Helen not as the true Helen; for him there is still only one Helen throughout their dialogue (in fact he rejects the possibility of a phantom Helen in lines 119-122). Euripides is perhaps a bit more subtle than M has led the reader to believe.

My primary hesitancy about this work concerns M's almost Neoplatonic or perhaps Jungian quest for some true Helen in the Neolithic past. The existence of this Helen must be assumed rather than demonstrated, and this assumption seems particularly problematic in light of Helen's acknowledged diversity. Readers will have to decide if they can accept M's approach on this point. A related reservation concerns M's deep reliance on Gimbutas's reconstruction of Neolithic culture. M treads an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying approach to such reconstructions. On the one hand, he quotes Gimbutas freely and accepts many of her quite controversial claims (see especially Chapter 4), while on the other hand acknowledging the tenuousness of even discussing the beliefs and values of Neolithic culture (see, e.g., pp. 74 and 84). Ultimately this caution is unheeded as an example from p. 77 demonstrates:

"There is no trace," writes Gimbutas, "of a father figure in any of the Paleolithic periods. The life-creating power seems to have been of the Great Goddess alone." Even in the Neolithic "the male element, man and animal, represented spontaneous and life-stimulating -- but not life-generating -- powers" (p. 77).

On what basis the secondary function of the male is determined is a mystery, especially since the footnotes reveal that ithyphallic figures are present in substantial numbers in both Paleolithic and Neolithic art. Readers in the profession will demand more careful argumentation and weighing of evidence when it comes to Gimbutas's work.

This is a feminist work, explicitly directly toward not just the rewriting of the past but also holding out a hope for the healing of those wrongs in the present and future. This "multi-millennial war of the sexes ..." is "... not something past and gone, over and done with, but rather something ancient and ever-present, an event waiting to re-happen" (p. 5 and 11). For M this is clearly a source of mournful reflection. One rarely sees in print such a human side of the fruits of research and writing, and I for one find it heartening to see that the Classics can continue to have such an effect upon its devotees (though perhaps not as our Victorian ancestors had hoped).

Given M's interest in exposing the duality of Helen as a fantasy of men's imagination and lust for power, it is surprising that M does not interact with others who have recently explored Helen, often with similar goals (see, e.g., the works of Norman Austin, Froma Zeitlin, and Karen Bassi). Perhaps this, along with the relegation of footnotes to the back of the book, indicates that M has indeed directed his argument primarily toward the non-specialist. Speaking within the field, however, I do not find M's overall argument convincing, despite his insightful weaving together of texts and my personal sympathies with his feminist perspective.

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