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In the patriarchal society of Ancient Greece, women were seen as inferior to their male counterparts. As a consequence of this, women were far less represented in Ancient Greek society by a large degree, being unable to obtain any form of citizenship in their city-state – a right even freed slaves had could obtain – and were mainly restricted to their household to raise families. This lack of representation of women in Ancient Greek society was reflected in Greek poetry, as the plots poem often circled around men while the female characters were given little to no depth. However, in The Iliad, this long standing patriarchal norm is broken through the character Helen of Troy. Helen is given a much more active characterization than her other female counterparts throughout Greek poetry; this was done by Homer to display how seeing the chaos that war culture brings changes those responsible for the conflict. In The Iliad, Helen is made into a dynamic character through her growing regret over the decision she made to leave Menelaus and her native city state of Sparta to be the wife of Paris in Troy. Once content with her decision, Helen is now at her breaking point. She is filled with guilt that her decision to leave her husband and homeland for another man has resulted in countless deaths of soldiers from both her and her husband’s and country of origin. Soldiers who were still alive were being ripped away from their own families for the nine years of war.
This lead Helen to wish that “death had pleased me then, grim death. – that day I followed your [Paris] to Troy” (III. 209-210), and that she wished “that first day my mother brought me into the light some black whirlwind had rushed me out to the mountains or into the surf where the roaring breakers crash” (VI. 410-412), wishing that she would have just died so that countless other would not have to. As well, Homer makes it obvious who Helen wishes to be married to through Helen’s argument with her husband. This argument, which eclited no response from Paris, displayed that he does not really care about the relationship between he and his wife. Paris only views Helen as his possession and only values Helen because of her beauty. Furthermore, Helen makes it known which side she is still loyal to when King Priam asked Helen at the Trojan wall to tell him who were the Achaean Heroes that were present, and Helen points them out to King Priam but refrain from telling him any further knowledge of the Heroes, despite Helen having more information. This shows that Helen will refrain as much as possible from assisting the Trojans, meaning that she is hoping the Achaeans win the war. Considering Helen’s regret in her marriage to Paris, Paris’ lack of interest in their marriage, and Helen’s willingness to aid the Achaeans, it is clear that Homer, in the poem, is suggesting that Helen wishes to be wed with Meneluas once again. When comparing the characterization Homer gave Helen against the characterizations the poet gave other female characters in the Iliad, it becomes clear that the character of Helen has much more depth than other female characters in the poem. One of these characters, Brieses, the slave to Achilles, is the most characterized female character in the Iliad Homer outside of Helen. Despite Briseis’ importance to the plot of The Iliad, there is very little depth given to her. All that is known about Briseis is that she has a strong relationship with Achilles, as Briseis is taken away from Achilles tent, Briseis “trailed on behind, reluctant, every step” (I. 412), showing that she has a strong affection for Achilles although she is the slave to Achilles.
Also when Briseis speaks after Patroclus’ death there is more of her character revealed from her speech;Patroclus-dearest joy of my heart, my harrowed, broken heart!I left you alive that day I left these shelters,-now I come back to find you fallen, captain of armies…. . . you would sail me west in your warships, home to Phthiaand there with the Myrmidons hold my marriage feast. So now I mourn your death-I will never stop you were always kind. (XIX. 338-356)The speech displays that Briseis is able to forgive those who have committed wrongs against her, in this case Achilles, who as by making Briseis his slave took everything she knew away from her. In her speech, Briseis’ empathy for others is also displayed, even if she does not know those people well, through thanking Patroclus for everything he did to help warm her up to the man, Achilles, who enslaved her and for treating her with kindness and humanity even despite her being a slave. When the characterization of Helen is further compared to another female character in The Iliad, such as Hecuba, the added depth Homer gave the character of Helen becomes even more apparent. Hecuba the Queen of Troy and the mother to Hector displays the trait of protectiveness, as well as an ability to anticipate people’s future actions, with her plead for Hector to avoid fighting Achilles in book 22;Hector, my child! Look-have some respect for this!Pity your mother too, if I ever gave you the breastto soothe your troubles, remember it now, dear boy-beat back that savage man from safe inside the walls!Don’t go forth, a champion pitted against him-merciless, brutal man. If he kills you now,how can I ever mourn you on your deathbed?-dear branch in bloom, dear child I brought to birth!- (XXII. 97-104)Hecuba’s speech reflects her protectiveness over her son, wishing for Hector to challenge the “merciless brutal man” (XXII. 102) of Achilles, obviously not wanting her son to die, let alone having to watch his slaughter. This protectiveness of Hector also extends to Hecuba’s protectiveness of the city of Troy, for the Queen understands that if Hector, the Trojans most experienced warrior and general falls, there will be no future where the Trojans will be able uphold their city from the onslaught of Achaean soldiers. In terms of Hecuba’s knowledge about how people act, it is shown in how Hecuba exclaims to her son how if Achilles “kills you now, how can I ever mourn you on your deathbed?” (XIX. 102-103), Hecuba predicts that if Achilles defeats Hector, that he will not return her son’s body to the Trojans for a proper burial.
This prediction turns into reality as Achilles rage and mission of revenge for the slaughter of Patroclus at the hands of Hector leads Achilles to strapping the lifeless body of Hector to his chariot, and defaced the body as dragged it behind the chariot as Achilles paraded around the walls of Troy in order to keep Hector from entering the afterlife, before keeping the defaced body for himself. All would have stayed that way if King Priam wouldn’t have risked his life by sneaking into the Achaeans campground in order to plead for Achilles to return the body of his son to the Trojans. However, with Hecuba, along with Briseis, other than an array of character traits that can be gleaned from the Iliad there is nothing given from Homer that is gives the female characters any real depth unlike Helen, who as stated before also undergoes change in the poem, and whose choices have ramifications in the plot of the poem. Whenever stories, history, or other knowledge is passed down orally there is destined to become discrepancies in the information presented in those same stories, history, and other knowledge, and the same is true with The Iliad. With the Iliad one of the major differences between the retellings of the poem come with Helen’s importance in the start of the war.
On one side, some retellings portray Helen as passive in the start of the war, having no direct involvement in it occurring other than existing, instead having Paris abduct Helen which then leads to the beginning of the war, and on the other side of the spectrum Helen is portrayed as a driving factor in the starting the war by instead of being abducted, choosing to leave Meneluas to wed Paris. In Homer’s depiction of The Iliad I believe it to be the latter of those two depictions of Helen to be true. Looking at a quote by Helen in Book 3 where Helen explains to King Priam that she regrets “that day I followed your [Paris] to Troy” (III. 210). It can be inferred that Helen using the word “followed” suggests that she had a choice when to follow Paris to Troy and was not forced to wed him through abduction or another means.
In all, Homer was able to use the characterization of Helen in order to display how seeing the damage that war brings creates change in those who perpetrate the conflict through choosing to not make her character passive. By making the choice to make Helen decide to leave Meneluas for Paris on her own, Homer made Helen have responsibility for the start of the conflict, which opened herself up to feel guilt over her decision in the future. If in a different scenario Helen was passive, and was instead abducted, Helen would have no responsibility for the start of the war because she commited no action that would have started the war by being passive, and it would be impossible to feel regret or guilt over starting a conflict if she did nothing to spark the conflict. Also Homer’s choice to give Helen more depth and undergo change in the poem, making her a dynamic character, unlike her other female counterparts who were only given small amounts of character traits, allowed Homer to explore how the perpetrator of conflict may have mixed feeling or completely second guess their choice to spark the conflict when they constantly exposed to the tragedy their conflict has created.
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