|Helen of Troy (1898) by Evelyn De Morgan|
1. Helen of Troy, also known as beautiful Helen, Helen of Argos, or Helen of Sparta, was said to have been the most beautiful woman in the world. The myths relate how she was born (hatched from an egg) after Zeus 'visited' Leda (wife of Tyndareus) in the form of a swan and 'seduced' her. Helen's appearance inspired artists of all times to represent her, frequently as the personification of ideal human beauty. Images of Helen started appearing in the 7th century BC, with her abduction by Paris (or escape with him) being a popular motif.
|Helen a la porte scee (1888) by Gustave Moureau|
In stories, Helen is a prize; a possession; a temptress and seductress; she forces men to act a certain way and her beauty has been portrayed as potent and destructive. But here's the thing; she is always passive - things are done to her and because of her and for her, but never by her. She is born from rape, abducted, captured, stolen, rescued, contested, and never gets to tell her own story. We know that she is beautiful, but not a lot else, and if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then she is a blank canvas on which we project our own ideology. Gustave Moreau portrays her as faceless in his painting of her witnessing the destruction of Troy.
In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood refers to Helen as "the sceptic bitch" and "poison on legs". She redresses the balance, however, in her 1995 poem, Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing, in which Helen understands that her 'beery worshippers' would like to 'watch me/ and feel nothing. Reduce me to components/ as in a clock factory or an abattoir./ Crush out the mystery./ Wall me up alive/ in my own body." If we're talking about Helen's influence on poetry and plays, we cannot ignore Chritopher Marlowe's lines from his 1604 tragedy Doctor Faustus, in which the titular character sells his soul for (among other things) a night of passion with Helen of Troy, and when he first catches sight of her remarks,
"Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!"
|Odysseus Wants to Embrace the Ghost of His Mother (1901) by Jan Styka|
Odysseus’ mother Anticleia is a shady character in the Odyssey; we meet her only in the Underworld, where Odysseus has gone to seek the advice of the dead prophet, Tiresias. Initially Odysseus rebuffs his mother as he is waiting for the prophet to approach, but after speaking with Tiresias, he allows Anticleia to come near and lets her speak. She asks him why he is in the underworld while alive, and he tells her about his various troubles and failed attempts to get home. Then he asks her how she died and inquires about his family at home.
Anticleia says that she died from a broken heart, longing for him while he was at war and having given up hope of ever seeing her son again. She also says that Laërtes (Odysseus' father) "grieves continually" for Odysseus and lives in a hovel in the countryside, clad in rags and sleeping on the floor. Penelope has not yet remarried but is overwhelmed with sadness and longing for her husband while Telemachus acts as magistrate for Odysseus' properties. Odysseus attempts to embrace his mother three times but discovers that she is incorporeal, and his arms simply pass through her. She explains that this is how all ghosts are, and he expresses great sorrow.
Odysseus’ futile attempt to reach out to her could be seen as an indication of his distant relationship with his mother. His warm memories of planting trees in the family’s orchard with his father is not matched by any such memories of his mother.
|Ulysses Recognised by Eurycleia (1849) by Gustave Housez|
As a girl, Eurycleia was bought by Laertes, Odysseus's father. He treated her as his wife, but she was never his consumated lover, so as not to dishonour his real wife, Anticleia. She later nursed Telemachus, Odysseus's son. The name Eurycleia means 'broad fame', while Anticleia means 'anti-fame'. The tension between the meanings of their names can be seen to reflect the tebsion between the aspects of Odysseus's life.
Odysseus was born to Anticleia, a noble woman, but nursed and raised by Eurycleia, a lower-class maid. Odysseus's fame came from his role as a noble hero paralleled to his role as an anonymous beggar. His heroism was essential for capturing Troy; his skills as an orator and a schemer as well as his strength and tactics on the battlefield were instrumental in the success of the Greeks. However, he disguised himself as a beggar at critical moments, such as when he entered Troy and killed the unsuspecting Trojan soldiers, and when he returned to Ithaca and killed Penelope's suitors.
Eurycleia was the only person to recognise him without him first revealing himself (as he did to Telemachus) when he returned home after the Trojan War. She then informed him which of his servant girls had been unfaithful to Penelope during his absence, conspiring with Penelope's suitors and becoming their lovers. His son, Telemachus, hanged the twelve maids that Eurycleia identified.
Eurycleia supports Telemachus in much the same way as she had Odysseus before him, giving Telemachus provisions and supplies before he left for Pylos to seek out news of his father. She swore not to tell Penelope he had left until twelve days had passed, as Telemachus did not want his mother to be any more worried than she already was, or indeed to prevent him from going.
Some classicists argue that the woman who anoints Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is a direct reference to Eurycleia. She is the only one to recognise Jesus, and what she has done will be widely known in the same way as Eurycleia is the only one to recognise Odysseus and whose name means 'widely known'.
|Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, a Roman copy of the original by Leochares circa 325BC|
|Calypso (1869) by Henri Lehmann|
If Helen of Troy is the face that launched a thousand ships, then Calypso is the name that launched almost as many products, including ships. Tributes to her come in the form of a drink (rum, peach schnapps, orange juice and grenadine), a dance, a style of music, video games, software companies, space craft, British Navy ships, an underwater camera, and a 1942 British minesweeper that was later repurposed as an oceanographic research ship operated by Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
The name means to cover, conceal or hide, and in Greek Mythology, she is a nymph who 'detained' Odysseus on the island Ogygia for seven years when he was attempting to return home to his wife, Penelope in Ithaca. In some accounts this 'detainment" resulted in two children. In others, Odysseus pines for his wife until Athena intervenes and begs her father, Zeus, to order the release of Odysseus from the island.
Zeus orders the messenger Hermes to tell Calypso to set Odysseus free, as it was not his destiny to live with her forever. She is furious and points out the double standards that allow gods to abduct females willy-nilly, but that punish goddesses who have affairs with mortals. Eventually she reluctantly concedes and sends Odysseus on his way after providing him with wine, bread and the materials for a raft. She then takes up the same position on the rock looking out to sea and pining for him, as he had previously sat longing for his Penelope. In The Odyssey, this is the section of the adventures that begins the tale, before it plunges back into flashback, thus positioning it as an important highlight of the journey.