There be dragons!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Menelaus & Helen in Book 4 of the Odyssey



Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, who occupies the first four books of the epic, reveals the essential theme of the work as a struggle against the overwhelming force of the feminine power. This power, representative of the unconscious and the multifarious powers of the hostile world, is readily seen in the character of the dragon, Apep, in the Egyptian story of Ra. In this story the sun god, Ra, dies at sunset and descends into the underworld, the Duat. Traveling through the Duat in a boat he meets with several difficulties and challenges that threaten to engulf him, culminating in the many-headed dragon, Apep. After he defeats Apep Ra rises with the morning sun to a new life.

The story embodies a profound insight into the human psyche. The subconscious, or unconscious, threatens to inundate the conscious mind and, as G.E.Dimock notes in his article "The Name of Odysseus", drive the individual into oblivion, nothingness, ignominy and loss of self. Consequently, the over-mothering tendency of women to protect their young men, to end sorrow, and to engulf the lives of those around them becomes an element of this savage natural force which, as Dimock points out, suffers from "impotence and blindness. She is indiscriminate in her blows."

As Dimock points out, for a man especially to define himself he must accept and endure pain. Pain and consciousness are inseparable and our position in life is inevitably bound up with suffering.


It is significant, therefore, to make note of the exchange between Helen and Menelaus in Book 4 of the text. The red-haired king of Sparta entertains Telemachus in his gilded house, offering him a sumptuous banquet and great hospitality.

Then they leaned the chariot against the end wall of the courtyard, and led the way into the house. Telemachus and Pisistratus were astonished when they saw it, for its splendour was as that of the sun and moon... - Odyssey Book 4
Menelaus is a representative of the sun-god in this instance (his red hair and glittering halls), setting the sun-hero (Telemachus) on his quest. But all is not well in the relationship between Menelaus and his most beautiful queen, Helen. The two have just married off their children and are now empty-nesters & they seem to have a smoldering feud between them.

At the banquet in Telemachus' honor both Menelaus and Helen are laudatory of Odysseus and agree to tell tales of their association with him. Helen first tells a story of aiding Odysseus in his covert scouting operation of the city of Troy. In telling the story she reveals something of the tricky nature of Telemachus' father, but she also reinforces for Menelaus the idea that she, Helen, was always on their side even when she was within the walls of Troy. There is also a subtle tweak of Menelaus' pride when she proclaims openly that she bathed Odysseus.

I alone recognized him and began to question him, but he was too cunning for me. When, however, I had washed and anointed him and had given him clothes, and after I had sworn a solemn oath not to betray him to the Trojans till he had got safely back to his own camp and to the ships, he told me all that the Achaeans meant to do. - Odyssey Book 4

Thus Homer confirms that we are still dealing with the same wily, slatternly woman we met in The Iliad.

Menelaus tells a story that, though openly suggesting the wiliness of Odysseus, slyly counteracts Helen's claim of loyalty and goodwill. In his story the Greeks are within the Trojan Horse which the mob is dubious about bringing within their walls. Helen walks about the Horse calling out to each man in the voice of their wife, attempting to get them to reveal their presence within the Horse.

Three times did you go all round our hiding place and pat it; you called our chiefs each by his own name, and mimicked all our wives -Diomed, Ulysses, and I from our seats inside heard what a noise you made. - Odyssey Book 4

The Greeks are in a precarious situation; if they are revealed they are entirely vulnerable to being burned or stabbed by the mob. Helen's actions, therefore, threaten to annihilate the best of the Greeks, turning them over to the wrath of the many-headed beast of the mob. In this instance she is not an ally but a representation of that feminine force associated with Apep, the many-headed dragon.

Her connection to this overwhelming force of the unconscious is further confirmed by her attitude toward sorrow. When all the members of the party start weeping over fallen comrades Helen puts into their wine a drug to end all sorrow.

Then Jove's daughter Helen bethought her of another matter. She drugged the wine with an herb that banishes all care, sorrow, and ill humour. Whoever drinks wine thus drugged cannot shed a single tear all the rest of the day, not even though his father and mother both of them drop down dead, or he sees a brother or a son hewn in pieces before his very eyes. This drug, of such sovereign power and virtue, had been given to Helen by Polydamna wife of Thon, a woman of Egypt, where there grow all sorts of herbs, some good to put into the mixing-bowl and others poisonous. - Odyssey Book 4

The drug comes from Egypt, realm of the dead, and it makes a person inhuman. To live one's life without any emotional response to loss, numb to pain, would be monstrous. Further it would mean a loss of consciousness which recognizes and registers pain. Thus the action Helen does is itself a dragon-like action which threatens to inundate with darkness the mind of the men at the party making them insensate to the human experience; oblivious nobodies (outis).



Finally, the threat of the action reveals Homer's thesis that pain and consciousness are inevitably linked. To escape pain is the juvenile way out; one cannot live in a fantasy of painless pleasure. As Dimock notes

To pass from the darkness of the cave into the light, to pass from being "nobody" to having a name, is to be born. But to be born is to cast one's name in the teeth of a hostile universe; it is to incur the enmity of Poseidon...We are born for trouble, the adventure of the Cyclops implies, yet to stay in the womb is to remain nobody. There is security of a sort in being nobody, but as the Cyclops promises, Nobody will be devoured in the end, though last of all.

Resurrection, rebirth, adulthood occur by accepting, enduring the pain which the world throws our way. It involves turning from our juvenile fantasies of comfort and endless pleasure to wrestle with the exigencies and complexities of human consciousness. Consequently, the morning after, Telemachus is eager to return home to endure the pain he so readily tried to flee & Odysseus, in the very next book, is found on the resort island of Ogygia longing to leave that fantasy and return home, despite the pain, to the real world of Ithaca.

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