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Thursday, April 08, 2021

A To Z Blogging Challenge 2021 - H Is For Helen And Heracles!

 Ah, the Trojan War! The source of so much fiction, music, art, film...

I won’t go into too much detail about a story we all know, but you really can’t write about Greek myth without Helen of Troy, any more than you can write about women in science without Marie Curie or bushrangers without Ned Kelly.

Helen, by Dante Gabriele Rossetti. Public Domain

Helen was the daughter of Queen Leda of Sparta, who was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan and somehow ended up with four children, two of whom were her husband’s and two were Zeus’s. Helen was one of Zeus’s children. There is something truly dreadful about the notion of being raped by a swan, but anyway. 

Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world, or in Greece anyway, and had a whole lot of suitors. This is important to know, because of how it ended up. King Tyndareus, Helen’s mortal Dad, was tearing his hair out trying not to upset any of the suitors and asked the advice of Odysseus, who was one of them, but unlikely to declare war if insulted. 

As it happens, Odysseus had taken one look at the competition and decided he’d rather marry his cousin Penelope, who was smart and brave and much less likely to be the source of trouble. So - this clever guy got a bright idea for keeping the peace. He made all the suitors swear and oath to defend Helen’s choice. Sounds good, right? 

Big mistake. It worked to start with, and Helen chose Menelaus, one of the Atreus boys. 

After she ran off with Paris to Troy, some years later, that peace plan was used to start a war. You see...everyone had promised to defend the winner, remember? Odysseus must have been kicking himself. He tried to get out of going to the war by playing mad. It didn’t work.

I’m sure you all know the rest of the story, but if you don’t, ask in the comments.

Let’s just go through a few interpretations. Helen does appear briefly in the Odyssey, happy enough back in Sparta, when Telemachus is searching for his Dad. Someone once wrote that it’s typical of Helen that she needs eight maids to carry her knitting...

There is a theory by early writers, including Euripides and Herodotus that Helen never actually went to Troy and was replaced there by a phantom, while she was in Egypt. (I used that idea in my humorous story “Five Ways To Start A War”, published in an anthology)

Helen appears in Medea, by Kerry Greenwood. She is a sad young woman, fed up with being passed around like a parcel, and has been raped. 

She appears in musical theatre too. Offenbach’s La Belle Helene ends with Helen and Paris running off together and as it’s Offenbach, it’s hilarious.

Aussie actor and singer the late Jon English wrote the story as a rock opera, Paris. The music is beautiful! If you can get hold of the CD, go for it. I bought mine at opening night of an amateur production which the author was attending, a huge smile on his face.

She appears also in quite a bit of fiction, including my favourite, Whom The Gods Would Destroy, by Richard Powell, but I won’t go into detail here, as I have a post planned, under W.

Film-wise, she is a character in Troy, with Orlando Bloom as Paris. )That was a film I remember particularly because of the fact that Sean Bean was Odysseus, so wasn’t killed off!)

Rosanna Podesta played the role in Helen Of Troy, in the 1950s. That was particularly interesting because she couldn’t speak English at the time, but was taught to speak her lines with a British accent! 

Let’s get on to one more major character whose name starts with H, Heracles, probably better known by his Roman name Hercules, under which he got a lot of sword and sandal movies, many of them done for laughs.

Creative Commons image

Heracles was another child of Zeus. This time Zeus respected the mother, Alcmene, enough to pose as her husband, to whom she was completely faithful. Later that night her husband turned up also wanting some playtime, and fathered Heracles’ twin, Iphicles. Poor Iphicles, it must have been tough when your brother is the big, strong one everyone admires...

Zeus’s wife Hera was not impressed with her husband’s latest lot of philandering, so made Heracles’ life miserable, despite him having been named for her. Among other things, she drove him mad and caused him to kill his wife and children. It wasn’t his fault, but as punishment her had to do the Twelve Labours, ordered by his cousin, King Eurystheus. 

Well, it was supposed to be ten, but there were two Labours Eurystheus said were cheating, because he had help with the Hydra, that five headed snake which really had to have two people to kill it, and cleaning p the Augean Stables, because he was going to be paid for the job. His last Labour involved bringing Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the Underworld(better known to modern readers as Fluffy, Hagrid’s giant dog). Cerberus terrified Eurystheus and serve him right!

Heracles was an Argonaut, but dropped out when his squire and lover Hylas was drowned. 

Heracles was a lot like his Dad, enjoying women, plural, and the occasional man. There is one story about him impregnating fifty princesses in a night! No. Don’t even think about it...

He died in the most dreadful way, when his wife, upset about his unfaithfulness, thought she could get him back by soaking his shirt in centaur blood. 

It acted like napalm. Heracles died horribly and part of him went to the Underworld , the immortal part became a god and went to Olympus.  

He appears in Kerry Greenwood’s novel Medea, which casts him in a very positive light. He’s also in Henry Treece’s novel Jason. The TV series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, shows him travelling with his nephew Iolaus. It was very funny and had tributes to a number of films, including Jason And The Argonauts, with an episode featuring those skeletons from that film.

I don’t know of a Hercules film played seriously; I believe they are all played for laughs. 

This post is rather long, so I’ll say good night.

Tomorrow, my friends, I is for Iphigenia! 


Debra She Who Seeks said...

Oh, that Odysseus! Too goddamn smart for his own (and everyone else's good). And glad to hear Heracles got some gay action too.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I suspect Odysseus knew he was too smart for his own good, yes. He probably thought that everyone else benefited from his wisdom. And yes, gay action was pretty common in Ancient Greece. If you were a man, you married for kids, but got your romance from your army buddies. Look at the Greek gods, seducing nymphs and mortal women but fighting over pretty boys! And the very word “lesbian” comes from a bunch of poetry writing gay-action women on Lesbos.

Jayashree (pagesfromjayashree) said...

Coincidentally I have mentioned Fluffy in my blog post for H too !!
I remember learning a poem in school about Helen and Menelaus a few years after the Trojan war where she has lost all her beauty and youth and Menelaus wonders about the futility of war and how short lived everything is in life ...dont remember the name though ... I liked the movie Troy but not sure how much liberty the makers took in changing the mythological story

Iain Kelly said...

Two great 'H' figures who still resonate through the ages. Interesting that the ancient Greeks seemed pretty comfortable with gay lifestyle - if only that could have lasted to many present day societies too!

TWW said...

I have a feeling that I have been saying Heracles name wrong for many, many years.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi TWW! If you have been calling him Hercules, that’s absolutely fine. It’s the Roman version, just as Odysseus is Ulysses for the Romans.

Hi Iain! Yes, it’s nice that gay was fine back then, but frankly, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a woman in Athens. They were locked up like women in some present day societies, not allowed out except for specific festivals and if they did go out, not by themselves. I think the husbands even did the shopping.

Looking forward to reading your H post, Jayashree! Troy is probably one of the lesser movies on the subject. In it, Menelaus is killed off on the first day of the war, which seems to last for a few weeks at best. Andromache escapes, which she didn’t in the myth. Achilles has a romance with Briseis instead of simply claiming her as loot. I guess it would have been harder in this day and age to show him as a brute. I did like some of it, such as when the admiring child asks him if it’s true about his being invulnerable and Achilles, clearly fed up with the number of times he has been asked this question, sighs and asks the boy why he thinks he is wearing all this armour if he is invulnerable. I liked the way they made Patroclus look enough like Achilles to be mistaken for him, and the explanation of the heel thing.

I also liked the way Odysseus gets the idea for the Trojan Horse.

Sue Bursztynski said...

PS Jayashree, if you remember the title of that poem, do let us know.

Debs Carey said...

Two "well-known" characters, but you've put a lot more meat on the bones that I had before, so that was most enjoyable. Especially the bit about Herakles/Hercules being always played for laughs :D

A-Zing from Fiction Can Be Fun
Normally found at Debs Despatches

AJ Blythe said...

I didn't know that Jon English wrote that. I love his music so not sure how I missed this.

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

I think I prefer the Hercules movie by Disney :-)

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge with an A-Z of Faerie: Half-Mortals in Folklore