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Euripides' 'Helen': most noble and most chaste.

Euripides' Helen of 412 is one of the playwright's late plays and shares with many of those plays what critics call either a melodramatic or a romantic style. One thinks of Iphigeneia in Tauris and Ion as examples of this trend.(1) Like many of Euripides' plays, Helen is also unabashedly self-reflexive and literary, constantly referring to and manipulating earlier treatments of its subject matter while at the same time apparently reflecting intellectual and cultural issues of the late fifth century.(2) Neither of these treatments of Helen's story, the melodramatic/romantic or the self-reflexive, seems immediately apparent as a narrative option from the dominant tradition concerning her. In the Iliad Helen's plight partakes more of the tragic than the romantic; her status in the Odyssey, seems slightly improved but still ambiguous. Nor does the basic story of Helen's removal to Troy and sojourn there seem to afford room for change or manipulation: the only possible area of controversy in Homer resides in the extent of Helen's responsibility and her volition. Euripides himself in his other plays dealing with the Trojan War assumes an extremely censorious stance towards Helen based upon the most negative possible interpretation of Homer and the cyclic epics.(3) Yet in Helen he radically resolves the question of Helen's responsibility and volition by adopting Stesichorus' variant tradition, thereby apparently blowing apart the Homeric Helen and her story. The introduction of the eidolon separates Helen from the immediate blame of being the cause of the Trojan War; the eidolon also to a certain extent separates Helen from her epic tradition.

I am interested in two intertwined problems which arise from Euripides' reconstitution of Helen. The first is precisely the extent to which he does actually sever his Helen from her epic traditions. Although the premise that Helen never was at Troy represents a striking departure from and challenge to the Homeric tradition, nevertheless even what seem to be Euripides' most outrageous innovations find their origins in the Homeric corpus itself. What Euripides seems to be doing in Helen is exploring the ramifications of certain incidents and ideas expressed but not emphasized or fully developed in Homer. I thus consider first the more subtle ways in which Euripides exploits elements from the Homeric tradition which that tradition may repress but does not completely erase.

Within the Homeric tradition Helen emerges as a contrasting figure to virtuous women in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Euripides' Helen has long been recognized as echoing the plot of the Odyssey specifically, and my second inquiry arises from this correspondence.(4) What kind of comment is Euripides making about Penelope (and Homer and the Homeric tradition) by situating his heroine in vivtually the same narrative situation as the Homeric Penelope? Euripides' innovation lies in his attribution to Helen of success in the completion of her plans, in the implication that women can plan and bring to fruition a plan of action which the Homeric Helen and Penelope never achieve. By presenting a Helen whose plans are successful, Euripides fulfills the possibility of a female subjectivity which is repressed in the Homeric epics. Thus even in this innovation Euripides finds his impetus in the Homeric poems: his characterization of Helen expands upon aspects of Helen suggested but not fulfilled in Homer, primarily her subjectivity.

I borrow the term "subject" as it is most commonly used in recent feminist theory. Subjectivity can be understood as a character's position within a narrative: that is, as either active subject or passive object. It can also he understood as the "positionality" with which each reader identifies as a part of the process of reading. As de Lauretis writes in Alice Doesn't, "subjectivity is engaged in the cogs of narrative and indeed constituted in the relation of narrative, meaning, and desire; so that the very work of narrativity is the engagement of the subject in certain positionalities of meaning and desire" (106). De Lauretis's theory of the subject and its creation through the construction of gender owes debts to both Freud's psychoanalytical approach focusing on the figure of Oedipus and Propp's structuralist study of myth: it thus seems particularly applicable to an analysis of ancient literature, and especially of epic and tragedy: "The hero, the mythical subject, is constructed as human being and as male; he is the active principle of culture, the establisher of distinction, the creator of differences. Female is what is not susceptible to transformation, to life or death; she (it) is an element of plot-space, a topos, a resistance, matrix and matter" (Alice Doesn't 119). With the active principle identified as masculine, both the obstacles to the male's progress and his goal are constructed as feminine. Not only is gender difference Constructed within the text - subjectivity being identified with the active, male principle - but each reader must take up a position upon encountering the text. Generally speaking, the female reader will identify with female characters, male with male. This identification by the reader obviously has important implications when one considers the socially normative function of poetry within Greek society. In the Odyssey acceptable female identity and positionality in the narrative are defined by a contrast between Penelope and other women, among whom Helen is significant. This comparison is continued in Euripides' play, but there Helen supplants Penelope as the example of female excellence.(5)

The source of Euripides' highly provocative, and at first glance highly challenging, version of Helen's involvement with the Trojan War is apparently the Stesichorean palinode found in Plato's Phaedrus and referred to in a Hellenistic fragment:(6)


In Phaedrus Stesichorus simply recants the story of Helen going to Troy; there is no mention of any eidolon or trip to Egypt. The eidolon first appears in the Hellenistic fragment, where its invention is attributed to Stesichorus.(7) Other sources for Helen's sojourn in Egypt include Herodotus' Histories 2.112-20, but no eidolon makes an appearance in that story. The historian makes no mention of Stesichorus; interestingly, Herodotus says that Homer knows this story but suppresses it (2.116).(8)

Not surprisingly in the context of traditional archaic poetry, Stesichorus' version of events is not as idiosyncratic as it seems. First, many of the individual and apparently unique elements comprising the palinode can be found in Homer. Homer alludes to a visit to Egypt by Helen and Menelaus in the Odyssey (4.227-30, 4.351-592, 4.125-27), and in the Iliad (6.289-92) Paris and Helen are said to have stopped in Phoenicia on their way to Troy. These allusions in Homer obviously attest to some connection between Menelaus and Helen and Egypt and would make plausible a story of Menelaus' retrieving Helen on his way back from Troy. The Iliad also presents us with an eidolon which resembles Helen's: at 5.449 and 5.451 Apollo makes an image of Aeneas in order to save Aeneas and to deceive the hero's enemy.(9) Second, the substitution of the eidolon does not completely negate Homer: by admitting the presence of the eidolon in Troy this alternative tradition both denies and simultaneously reinscribes Homer's narrative, as Bassi has compellingly argued.(10) Stesichorus cannot deny the presence of Helen in Troy, so he creates a fiction, the eidolon, which contains the absence he apparently initially posited. Stesichorus' challenge to the epic tradition, in the end, cannot completely escape the strong bonds imposed by that tradition.

The uniqueness of the variant of the Helen story which Stesichorus presents is reinforced by a brief survey of the way Helen's character is perceived throughout early Greek cult and literature. Clader addresses Helen's underlying divine nature by an analysis of Helen's epithets, which she reads as survivals or incursions of Helen's pre-epic or cultic nature into the Homeric texts.(11) Although the story of Helen's involvement in the Trojan War does not seem to be directly related to the divine Helen, the characters of the human and divine Helen show some overlap. As a goddess Helen shares the ambiguous nature of her human incarnation (Clader, Helen 40, 53, 80). The diction surrounding Helen suggests that behind the beautiful facade the divine Helen was "menacing" (Clader 23, 30) and threatening (12, 17). Helen can bestow fame, as she does in the Iliad, but this fame involves danger and death (Clader 81). Since Clader's argument about Helen's divine self is derived entirely from an analysis of diction, it is impossible to make any statement about the subjectivity of the goddess Helen, since subjectivity is constructed through narrative. What is clear is that as a goddess, Helen seems to exhibit the dangerous ambiguity of the epic Helen.

The surviving literature, with the exception of Stesichorus, also represents a Helen whose narrative replicates what we see in Homer. In Cypria Helen is taken to Troy by Paris and becomes the cause of the war. The stories of the capture of Troy and Menelaus' recapture of Helen in the Little Iliad and Iliou Persis do not contradict the completed reunion we see in Odyssey 4. References to Helen in lyric also follow the same narrative of the Trojan War. Alcaeus and Ibycus both blame Helen and/or Aphrodite for the war.(12) Sappho's famous poem (16) about Helen, however sympathetic, still presents a Helen who is driven by her passion and whose passion causes the Trojan War. Granted that Sappho elevates this passion to heroic status, Helen is still stuck in the same story and defined by the same characteristics as in Homer. Much later, Gorgias uses the story of Helen as the vehicle for proving his own skill. He exculpates her from blame by asserting that she is the object of external forces beyond her control, such as the gods and necessity, the force of Paris, love, and persuasive speech (Encomium on Helen 6-8, 19-21). All of these authors participate in the dominant tradition concerning Helen as an object - of Paris, of the gods, of her own passions. Excusing Helen, apologizing for Helen, justifying Helen's behavior may make us feel sympathy for her and may allow for more positive portrayals of her. Yet in none of these stories does Helen achieve subjective control of her story. The only way to do this is by changing the terms of her story, as do Stesichorus and Euripides.

Euripides in following Stesichorus to a certain extent reinscribes the Homeric tradition, but he adds to it or supplements it by providing a story for the chaste Helen in Egypt. His decision to use Stesichorus' eidolon allows the tragedian to settle the question of Helen's responsibility for the Trojan War and to exculpate Helen from the blame suggested in the Iliad.(13) This initial and important step establishes Helen's innocence and virtue, from which basis Euripides can create a Helen who actively pursues the morally sanctioned project of reunification with her husband. Yet even though the figure of Helen is excused from blame, the play still addresses the question raised by the Iliad itself: for what does an epic hero fight when, he enters a battle? The answer given by Helen, that he fights for an illusion, is already implicit in the text of the Iliad: Suzuki points out that even in the Iliad Helen is already emblematic in that as a cause for the war she has become a symbol rather than reality for the Greek warriors. They are already fighting over her phantom.(14) Even a Helen who is present as an eidolon, a concept which seems alien to the Homeric corpus, reveals itself to be contained metaphorically within that corpus. The issue of moral culpability, the primary question about Helen in the epics themselves, is simply rephrased by the transfer of shame from the "real" Helen to the "fake" one: how much difference is there between a woman who is blamed for something she may not be able to control and whose renown is based on that blame (the epic Helen) and a woman whose ghostly image is the cause of blame but to whose person blame nevertheless attaches (the Stesichorean/Euripidean Helen)? So what appears to be a radical revision of the Iliad is not one; it is rather another myth exemplifying a similar point. Euripides' mode of expression of this question, with its emphasis on onoma/pragma, illusion/reality, is reflective of late fifth-century intellectual currents.

In much the same way, the Euripidean character of Helen herself, freed (but not entirely) from the eidolon of epic, is a reconfiguration of elements already visible in the Homeric Helen. Helen, whose very objectivity causes the Trojan War, exhibits a certain type of subjectivity in Homer through her literary self-reflection, her deception, and her perception. Uniquely among mortal women in Homeric epic, she is represented as capable of constructing a poetic narrative, of acting as a type of poet.(15) In the Iliad her well-known poetic activities include weaving the story of Troy in her tapestry, describing the Greeks in the Teichoscopia, and commenting upon her own position within the epic tradition.(16) She also acts as a poet in the Odyssey (4), when she tells Telemachus about her encounter with his father.(17) Helen's poetic abilities imply a unique understanding of events, and her implied affinity to the poet of the epics further enhances her status. She is even credited with the story of the Iliad by a scholion which suggests that Homer derived his story of the Trojan War from the scenes on her tapestry.(18)

Helen's approximation of poetic art does indeed grant her a privileged status in the epic world, but her power is severely circumscribed. That her narrative is embedded within the Iliad indicates a lack of control over or possession of her own poetic creations. Even though she may originate this narrative, it has been appropriated by the male poet and made his own.(19) Or rather, her origination of the narrative is always embedded in the Iliad. In addition, Helen's muthoi would be singularly perishable if they had not been enshrined within the Iliad: her stories exist in forms not generally preserved or enduring - conversations with the Trojan elders and Hector, lament, and the perishable material of tapestry.(20) Furthermore, in her narrative confrontation with Menelaus in the Odyssey, the veracity itself of Helen's story as an exemplar of her character is challenged by Menelaus' unflattering story. The juxtaposition of the two versions of Helen in this scene denies ultimate poetic authority to Helen's version.(21) Helen's subjectivity, therefore, seems to be primarily an inwardness or self-knowledge, rather than an ability to impose her will on a narrative which prevails as the authoritative version of events.(22) Her ultimate lack of subjectivity is expressed in the ambiguity surrounding her responsibility for her past actions, which is unresolvable, and her powerlessness to construct a definitive version of herself.

The narrative movement which incorporates a Helen who seeks subjectivity only to deny it to her is replicated on a much larger scale in the figure of Penelope. And Penelope's attempts at subjectivity, which involve her decision to remarry, are consistently identified with and compared to the negative examples of Helen and Clytemnestra.(23) Regardless of her behavior, Penelope faces being defined by a negative image: not an eidolon, but a prevailing misogyny and suspicion fueled in the Odyssey by the behavior of Clytemnestra and Helen.(24) When Odysseus meets Agamemnon in the Underworld, Agamemnon berates all women, and includes Penelope:


Athena also tells Odysseus to test Penelope (13.335 et seq.), at the same time that she stresses Penelope's loyalty. Even at the end of the Odyssey, when Penelope has been reunited with Odysseus and proven loyal, Agamemnon's praise is still backhanded:


The possibility that Penelope might have remarried implies disloyalty to Odysseus and a threat to the completion of his nostos, thereby bringing her closer to the worst-case scenario presented by Agamemnon. Penelope's subjectivity, therefore, is equated with, explicitly compared to, acts of violence against the head of an oikos and the destruction of that oikos.

The strongest influence upon Penelope's behavior is the example of Helen, which she acknowledges when she comments on Helen:


The understanding and forgiveness which Penelope's remarks indicate for Helen suggest Penelope's concern for her own behavior, which becomes increasingly ambiguous before Odysseus reveals himself.(25) Penelope's exculpation of Helen throws doubt upon the fixed characterization of each woman, bringing Helen closer in characterization to the chaste Penelope by ascribing her dalliance to ate, and undermining our certainty of Penelope's own chastity.(26)

The course of Penelope's actions over the latter books of the Odyssey, which she thinks leads to remarriage and thus to abandonment if not betrayal of Odysseus, arises because she does not know that Odysseus is present.(27) One can read the narrative of the latter part of the Odyssey as the play of tension between Penelope's subjectivity expressed by her decision to remarry and the fulfillment of Odysseus' nostos, which reaffirms the subjectivity of the hero.(28) The tension is increased on the narrative level by denying Penelope access to Odysseus' plans and plots; the tension is resolved by the consistent assimilation of her subjectivity into Odysseus' subjectivity and goals, regardless of her intentions. The forceful denial of her subjectivity, and her differentiation from the two sisters enacted by the text, create in Penelope a positive exemplar of the proper Greek wife. This narrative movement occurs in three pivotal scenes involving Penelope and Odysseus: Penelope's appearance to the suitors in Odyssey 18; the stringing of the bow in Odyssey 20; and the recognition scene in Odyssey 23.

The potential for disloyalty and its association with subjectivity for Penelope, and the narrative's concomitant assimilation of these elements with Odysseus' goals, is first brought strongly forward in Odyssey 18. Penelope reveals herself to the suitors and for the first time announces her intent to remarry soon; her beauty excites and seduces the men.(29) The spying Odysseus, however, seems to interpret her action as a trick in order to elicit more gifts, involving no serious intent to remarry on Penelope's part.(30) In this scene the poet presents us with the possibility of a female acting as a subject in her own right by initiating a plan. But before the scene is over, that plan is coopted into the hero's plan, and the female is once again a player in his story. This pattern emerges more clearly in the stringing of the bow in Odyssey 20. Penelope sets the contest, this time with no divine intervention, saying that she will marry the victor. Her plan, whether she is stalling for time (as some commentators claim) because she knows that no one can string the bow, or whether she already knows that the beggar is Odysseus, provides Odysseus with his means of reclaiming his oikos.(31) Female subjectivity again disappears or becomes unintentionally part of the hero's plan.

The recognition scene in Odyssey 23 seems to many scholars to be Penelope's assertion of autonomy and control over Odysseus' fate. I suggest an alternative interpretation, which takes into account Penelope's position in the narrative. Put most crudely, the game is up for Penelope, regardless of the hero's identity. The man who has slain the suitors is now the head of her oikos, as his magisterial commands to the servants indicate, despite her initial refusal to recognize him. It is his right to claim Penelope as his wife; her recognition of him functions as an emotional coda for the characters and readers, but Penelope poses no threat to Odysseus' completion of his nostos. From the hero's point of view, it has been accomplished. The actual sema which identifies Odysseus to Penelope is certainly a good trick, but Penelope does not better Odysseus by its use (unless in being the first of the two to think of a good means of identification). Rather, Penelope again provides Odysseus with an opportunity to accomplish his nostos, but this time she does it more knowledgeably.(32) What she gains is personal knowledge, not subjectivity.(33)

While Penelope's reassumption of her proper role in 'Odysseus' oikos serves simultaneously to deny her subjectivity and to eradicate any need for her to assert subjectivity, Euripides presents quite another solution in Helen. For Helen, the eidolon is the cause of her bad reputation and the image from which she repeatedly tries to distinguish herself, just as Penelope struggles with the images of Clytemnestra and Helen. This image of Helen is the epic image: the rumor which spreads the information about the eidolon, which then attaches to the real Helen, can be no other than epic.(34) Even though Helen is quite clear about the difference between herself and the eidolon, nevertheless she feels personal shame for the actions caused by her double:(35) "Nothing is worse than to experience, in all helplessness, a discrepancy between the world's opinion and one's knowledge of oneself" (Wolff, "On Euripides' Helen" 80). Penelope and Helen are thus both defined by others and face a definition of the female as essentially/inherently deceptive, as the site of absence in presence - the beautiful exterior hiding a dog-like, deceptive nature or, in the telling case of the eidolon, signifying that deceit and absence itself. Helen is guilty because of the things she is reputed to have done (Helen 196-99, 363); Penelope is suspect because of the things she is supposedly capable of doing. Euripides' eidolon, in its patent falsity and destructibility, implies the fictionality of the Greek perception of Helen. The complete destruction of this eidolon frees him to explore in Helen's character the potentials of female subjectivity: In this, as in many other respects, his Helen differs from Penelope, who continually labors under the images of Clytemnestra and Helen.

Helen opens upon a Helen who bewails her fate in an explanatory prologue: her introductory words tell the spectator where she is, in Egypt, and then who she is, the daughter of Tyndareus. Her immediate qualification of this last assertion by the unclear logos of Zeus' swanny paternity informs the reader that this play will concern itself with the problem of the logos and its relationship with the truth.(36) Helen, the child of ambiguous paternity, will be the focal point of this concern. And like the two logoi about her birth, Helen herself is a double, and has a double story. We learn that it was not the Helen whom we see on the stage who went to Troy, but her eidolon/image, or her onoma/name, as part of a plot by Hera.(37) And here we have not only gemination, but tripling in the stories, for the real causes of the Trojan War are Zeus' ta bouleumata alla (36) to rid the world of people and to increase Achilles' glory.(38) Just as there is a logos, with the implication of falsehood, that Zeus is Helen's father, so Helen's eidolon inhabits the already mythical world of the Trojan War epic.

The real Helen has been in Egypt under the protection of Proteus, but now his son Theoclymenous assails her for marriage, just as the suitors plague Penelope. But unlike Penelope, whose relationship to the suitors becomes more and more ambiguous in the latter part of the Odyssey Helen explicitly and constantly resists the advances of Theoclymenous, honoring her marriage vows even after she thinks that Menelaus is dead.(39) Helen receives news that Menelaus is reported dead from Teucer, Ajax' brother, and, like Penelope, is plunged into melancholy. While Helen learns from the prophetess Theonoe, the sister of Theoclymenous, that Menelaus is alive (515-31), the very man himself appears onstage in tatters from his shipwreck.(40) Like Odysseus, Menelaus washes ashore in the rags of a beggar, and his demoted position presents problems for his identity. Helen and Menelaus in due course meet, and their recognition scene occupies the central position in the play, unlike Penelope and Odysseus' recognition, which is described by Aristarchus as the telos of the Odyssey (schol. to 23.296).(41) Just as the introduction of the eidolon freed or separated Euripides' Helen from many of the constraints imposed by her epic image in the first part of the play, the manipulation of the recognition scene continues to force a comparison between Helen and Penelope while simultaneously releasing the character from any question of the agnoia which surrounds Penelope.

Helen not only recognizes her husband, but determines and guides the plot of their escape for the latter half of the play.(42) Her leadership is emphasized by the blatant ineptness of Menelaus, whom Euripides clearly delineates as aporos in the face of the obstacles to their escape: Menelaus' aporia justifies the necessity of Helen's intervention. In the first stages of their planning, she attempts to cajole him into taking the reins by flattery and not-so-delicate hints (811-54). She optimistically joins together the two essential elements of their escape when she says to Menelaus, with reference to Theoclymenous, ta tolman d' adunat' andros ou sophou (811), hoping that her husband will provide the requisite tolma and sophia for their salvation. As Menelaus proves himself unable to rise to the occasion, Helen more explicitly states that they need mechane tis (813) which will be their mia . . . elpis (815). When Helen herself finally outlines the proposed appeal to Theonoe to conceal Menelaus' presence, Menelaus comments that it is in fact Helen who leads them to hope, tin' hupageis m' es elpida (826). After Theonoe has been convinced to help the couple, Helen again turns to Menelaus for a plan:


After Menelaus flounders around with ideas full of tolma but lacking sophia, Helen finally steps in with the ironic akouson, en ti gune lekse sophon (1049).

Helen's intervention is illustrated by constant reference to the female ability for plotting and deception. This is a very tricky narrative strategy on Euripides' part, because it seems to lead Helen back to the epic conception of herself and Penelope. The suggestion implicit in line 811, that daring and wisdom are not always found together in one man and that daring is not efficacious without wisdom, is translated in the rest of the play into a polarity which aligns the males (Menelaus and Theoclymenous) with unwise daring and the females with wisdom and cleverness. Helen's plan relies on arts associated with the female (persuasion, deception) and is devised and implemented by a female. When Helen suggests that she try to persuade Theonoe (anapeisamen 825), Menelaus immediately associates this talent with the female, son ergon, hos gunaiki prosphoron gune (830). Theoclymenous comments that he has been seized by female tricks (gunaikeiais technaisin 1621), and Theonoe's mendacity is noted by both Theoclymenous and Helen.(43) The disappearance of the deceptive eidolon, then, has not annihilated the deception inherent in the female, for Helen relies upon deception for the success of her plans.(44) What does disappear is the empty image of deception, the sign separated from the female. The potentially negative judgment of these female tricks, voiced by Theoclymenous, is offset and negated by the purity of purpose of the females. In the character of Helen, Euripides transforms female deception and its potential threat to male structures of order and "truth" into a quality which might work towards "truth" as defined by those structures.(45) The prophetess Theonoe, a mystical, pure figure who - cannot be separated from the truth, sanctions Helen's deceit by herself engaging in concealment, which only serves to uncover the truth.(46) The recognition throughout this play of the overlap and interdependence of the false and the true finally allows the possibility of an acceptance and praise of the ambiguous signification of the female.

By the device of the dei ex machina of Helen's brothers the Dioscouroi, Helen's behavior is further validated and even Theoclymenous' hostility is moderated. Theoclymenous now describes Helen as the best and most moderate sister of the twin gods (aristes sophronestates th' hama . . . adelphes, 1684-85) and remarks that her eugenestate gnome, ho pollais en gunaiksin ouk eni (1687) distinguishes her from other women. This unambiguously positive description of Helen does not at all conform to her familiar epic image. Furthermore, her actions and her rewards are described as being part of Zeus' boule (Zeus gar hode bouletai, 1669): her bouleumata (1418) correspond to or are aligned with Zeus'. The synchronicity of Zeus' and Helen's plans confirms Helen's eugeneia on the cosmic level, while Theonoe's cooperation vindicates Helen's Actions on the moral mortal level.

If we identify the subject as the driver of the narrative plot, the hero, we may see a certain discrepancy here between a subjective Helen and a Helen who conforms to the boule of Zeus. But we must also remember that in Greek epic, the subjective hero is the hero precisely because he fulfills the will of Zeus; those who oppose Zeus, who try to assert a subjectivity which does not lead to the fulfillment of his plan, are excluded from the plot and do not become subjects. We see this movement of exclusion occur in the Dios Apate of Iliad 14, where Hera's boule is explicitly in conflict with Zeus' boule for the Iliad and is eventually overcome, and we see it again in the figure of Penelope.(47) Furthermore, the boule of Zeus can be equated with the boule of the poet, who determines how subjectivity will be represented and constructed according to his, tradition and cultural imperatives. So despite the fact that Helen is constructed by the poet as the subjective hero of Euripides' play, her heroism is essentially conservative and in fact it must be. Her heroics reside in her single-minded devotion to Menelaus, which enables the happy reunion of husband and wife, and her efforts at bringing them home to Sparta, where one assumes they will reestablish their oikos.(48) This is the only way that a female can be a hero: Euripides needs Helen to achieve her subjectivity by reaffirming unambiguously these social values: otherwise she runs the risk of sliding into the negative stereotype of the female.

Euripides' manipulation of Helen's epic story, female subjectivity, and heroism produces a strange new type of Greek tragedy. My interpretation of Helen as a female subject created to contrast directly with the epic Helen and Penelope may persuade us yet again to reconsider Euripides as a proto-feminist. Certainly his tragedies present many formidable women in addition to Helen. I would, however, like to offer some speculations in another direction which will not mitigate the importance of Helen's female subjectivity, but which may indicate why Euripides chose such a controversial figure for such a radical revision.

I suggest that even though he created a uniquely female subject, the playwright was not interested in the topic of female subjectivity. What Euripides was interested in was tragedy, and he was especially interested in pushing the limits of the genre, some might say subverting it.(49) He challenged the tragic tradition on two major fronts: in his rejection of the tragic hero, and in his treatment of female characters.(50) In the surviving plays we can see Euripides experimenting with the notion of a tragic hero taken to the extreme, most particularly in Orestes and Bacchae, both late plays like Helen.(51) Women as topics for tragedy also provided Euripides with nontraditional material.(52) Michelini has noted that the early Euripides seemed to find explicitly erotic stories about women "particularly provocative and suited to his purposes" but that he eventually modified his program.(53) Traces of these more provocative stories may still remain in such plays as Hippolytus, which was apparently a revision of a much racier play, and Medea, which represents a powerful female. These types of representations of the female still seem to conform to traditional views of the female: highly sexed, uncontrollable erotic beings such as Phaedra and Sthenoboia, or strong, rather threatening females such as Medea, who cannot be reintegrated into society, and who are in opposition to social norms.

The creation of Helen solves two problems for Euripides: she is the most antithetical hero in that she is female, and she is a positive representation of a female.(54) Two other plays of Euripides almost accomplish this: Alcestis and Iphigeneia in Tauris, the latter written close to Helen. Alcestis, remarked upon in the Symposium as a true female hero, fails because of her passivity: she is heroic by annihilating herself, not by asserting her will.(55) Iphigeneia in Tauris indeed presents a planning, plotting, successful female, and many find it a more pleasing play than Helen. Yet Iphigeneia, although an unlikely candidate for heroism, does not pack the same wallop as the generally reviled Helen, a truly antithetical choice for heroism. More importantly, Iphigeneia has no bad example of herself which Euripides can manipulate as he does the eidolon. With Helen, Euripides not only takes on tragedy, but epic as well. In the course of this project involving tragedy and epic, Euripides creates a play which has not entered the ranks of those considered among his greatest (Bacchae, Medea, Hippolytus, Alcestis), a play which has been studied comparatively little, a play which tells a new myth, the myth of female subjectivity.(56)


1 For the late plays as melodramatic or romantic see Arrowsmith, "A Greek Theater of Ideas"; Conacher, Euripidean Drama 265-339; Kitto, Greek Tragedy 314; Michelini, Euripides and the Tragic Tradition 39; Whitman, Euripides and the Full Circle of Myth 138-39. Burnett in Catastrophe Survived comments on how the action of Helen "demolish[es]" what should be Helen's tragic role (80) and remarks that Euripides in Helen "is not simply dancing on the grave of the genre he has outraged, but looking for a new mode of expression for another kind of thought" (85). For an incisive discussion of Euripides' supposed departure from the genre of tragedy see Knox, "Euripidean Comedy" esp. 250-56.

2 For Helen's literary self-reflexivity see most recently Downing, "Apate"; for fifth-century sensibility see Arrowsmith, "A Greek Theater of Ideas"; Pippin, "Euripides' Helen"; Segal, "The Two Worlds of Euripides' Helen" 560: Solmsen, "Onoma and Pragma"; Kannicht, Euripides: Helena I 57-60.

3 For the negative interpretation of Homer see Vellacott, Ironic Drama 127-48. Euripides seems to derive most of his specific treatment of Helen from stories represented in Homer, although plays which feature the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War may draw upon the Cycle. Generalized statements about Helen as the cause of the Trojan War, of which there are numerous examples throughout all of his plays, probably cannot be ascribed directly to any particular source. Both Homer and the Cypria identify Helen as the cause of the war but soften the blow by also blaming the gods or Aphrodite. Euripides follows both patterns: blaming Helen (Cyc. 280-81), but then Odysseus says the war was caused by a god (285); Andr. 248, 602-4, 680, but here too the gods are identified as the ultimate cause: Hec. 266, 441-43: Tr. 357, 369, but in 914-65 the gods are blamed by Helen; El. 213-14, 1083; IT 14; Or. 19-20, but then at 1639 Apollo blames the gods. Only Menelaus at Tr. 862 blames Paris for the seduction. As part of the devastation of the Trojan War, Helen in Euripides is blamed for the deaths of Astyanax (Tr. 1214) and Iphigeneia (IT 8, 14, 356; IA 76, 467, 494, 683, 881-82, 1168, 1237, 1253; El. 1027). Neither Cypria nor the Little Iliad blames Helen directly for these two deaths. Various other incidents in Euripides are mentioned by neither Homer nor the Cycle as we have them: the suitors who wooed Helen (IA 50-51); Odysseus (with the Greeks in general?) taking Helen back to the Greek ships (Cyc. 177) and Helen's capture with the Trojan women (Tr. 35), although the Iliou Persis says briefly that Menelaus took Helen back with him; Helen's betrayal of the disguised Odysseus to Hecuba during his raid on Troy (Hec. 243), although the raid itself is narrated in both Odyssey 4 and the Little Iliad. Euripides does seem particularly interested in the reconstitution of the relationship between Menelaus and Helen whose aftermath we see in Odyssey 4. In addition to the information provided by the Iliou Persis about Menelaus' taking Helen away from Troy, the Little Iliad tells us that Menelaus cannot kill his wife after she reveals her breast to him. The expansive treatment by Euripides in Trojan Women, Iphigeneia in Tauris, and Orestes is found in neither. After the war Helen is generally reviled, and everyone including Menelaus wants her to be killed (see Hecuba at Tr. 890-94; the army agrees at Tr. 901-2: Or. 59). Menelaus promises to kill her at home (Tr. 877), but despite the animosity towards her he brings her back home and she lives in comfort (IT 521; Or. 56-58, 86-87, 246). In Orestes, which is generally acknowledged to be an extremely bizarre and difficult tragedy, the poet presents us with the death of Helen not by Menelaus, but by the demented Orestes. Helen is then deified by her brothers the Dioscouroi (Or. 1629-32, 1684). This turn of events has no precedent that I know of in Homer or the Cycle. To sum up the evidence that we have available, when (and it is a big "when") Euripides follows traditional versions of a myth or story involving Helen, he seems to rely primarily on Homer.

4 For the main outlines of the Euripidean reliance on the Odyssey see Steiger, "Wie Entstand die Helena des Euripides"; Eisner, "Echoes of the Odyssey"; Foley, "Anodos Dramas" 136; Downing, "Apate" 3.

5 For Helen as the embodiment of "the image of feminine perfection" see Whitman, Euripides and the Full Circle of Myth 43; Foley, "Anodos Dramas" 133, 136, 143. Suzuki (Metamorphoses of Helen 60) and Katz (Penelope's Renown 8, 12, and chapter 5) have both recently commented on the comparison between Helen and Penelope.

6 See Campbell's Greek Lyric III 92-97 for these fragments and the other references to Helen (Rep. 586c, Isoc. Helen 64, et al.). Not all scholars agree, however, on the exact relationship between Euripides and Stesichorus: e.g., Eisner ("Echoes of the Odyssey" 36), who thinks that Euripides altered Stesichorus' version specifically to make Helen more similar to the Odyssey: Conacher (Euripidean Drama 286), who thinks that there were not many versions of the myth circulating at the time Euripides was writing: and Kannicht (Euripides: Helena I 25), who claims that Euripides' familiarity with Stesichorus' version can be postulated from references to Helen in other late fifth-century texts such as Aristophanes.

7 Although the scholiast on Lyc. Alex. 822 says Hesiod first did it, protos Hesiodos peri tes Helenes to eidolon paregage (Hes. fr. 358 Solmsen, and Merkelbach and West = fr. 266 Rzach).

8 See also Histories 1.3 and 6.61 for Helen as the cause of the Trojan War which is part of the continuous hostility between Greece and the Persians. See also Histories 9.73 for a reference to Helen's abduction by Theseus. For a summary of the evidence for Helen's eidolon see Conacher, Euripidean Drama 286-87.

9 Two other categories of Homeric eidola are ghosts and the dead: the ghost of Penelope's sister Iphthime made by Athena (Od. 4.796, 824, 835); ghosts of the dead (Od. 11.83, 213, 476, 602, 20.355, 24.14; Il. 23.72, 104). See Vernant, "Figuration de l'invisible" for kolossoi and eidola as doubles for the dead.

10 Bassi, "Helen and the Discourse of Denial" 51-53, 58-59. See Suzuki, Metamorphoses of Helen 14, also for the palinode containing and repeating the tradition; and Walsh, The Varieties of Enchantment 99, 101.

11 Clader, Helen 2, although Clader is keen to emphasize that the character of Helen in Homer is "translated into new terms peculiar to the epic genre" (2) and that Homer selects aspects of her nature and history which relate to his themes (5).

12 Alcaeus 42 and 283 in Campbell, Greek Lyric I; Ibycus 282 in Greek Lyric III. Alcman, a Spartan poet, refers to Helen's cult at Therapnae (Greek Lyric II, Alcman 7, POxy. 2389.1) and addresses her relationship with the Dioscouroi and her abduction by Theseus (Greek Lyric II, Alcman 21-25).

13 Euripides first introduces the notion of the eidolon at Electra 1279-84 through the Dioscouroi. The Dioscouroi seem to play significant roles in more than one Euripidean play in rescuing Helen: one can look to their importance at the end of Helen itself, and their deification of Helen at the end of Orestes (1629-84). Helen blames herself, while the Trojan elders at least do not: see the Teichoskopia at II. 3. 156-80. Helen calls herself kunopis at Il. 3.180, Od. 4.145; she calls herself a dog at Il. 6.344, 6.356. See Kannicht, Euripides: Helena I 22, for Helen as the cause of the Trojan War being questioned in the Iliad by allusion to the Judgment of Paris.

14 Suzuki, Metamorphoses of Helen 16, 19. See also Clader, Helen II, for Helen as the "heroic quest" and 17 for Helen as an "image": "in the epic action Helen is beautiful but empty."

15 Martin (The Language of Heroes 88 n. 73) comments that Helen is the only female who is described as using the authoritative speech - act of muthos, but he does not elaborate upon any significance this may have for Homer's representation of her character. See also Clader, Helen 6-11, for Helen's association with poetry.

16 See Il. 3.125-29 for Helen's weaving. Weaving has important connections in ancient Greek culture and society with the art of poetry itself, in addition to being associated with the female: see Bergren, "Language and the Female" 71-75, and Clader, Helen 7-8, for Helen's weaving. Il. 3. 182-242 is Helen's description of the Achaean warriors in the Teichoskopia: Suzuki (Metamorphoses of Helen 40) reads Helen's act of description as the act of a poet. In Il. 6.354-58 Helen says to Hector that both will be an object of song for men in the future, and it is Helen who sings the last lament for Hector at the end of the Iliad. Suzuki (55) includes Helen's lament as a poetic act which "accurately predicts her literary afterlife." Clader comments that the "laments of the three women at Hektor's funeral represent the beginnings of the memorial of oral poetry that the heroes have won. Coming at the very end of the epic, they are also a reference to the composition which has just been performed" (11).

17 Suzuki (Metamorphoses of Helen 68) acutely points out that Helen's story, beneath its representation of her favorable behavior to the Greeks, signifies betrayal of and death for the Trojans with whom she has been living for twenty years. Menelaus' story also represents Helen's affinity with a poet in its portrayal of her capacity to assume the voice and identity of another, as the Homeric poet does in the many speeches in both epics.

18 Suzuki, Metamorphoses of Helen 40.

19 See Bergren, "Language and the Female" 69, for the male appropriation of female speech.

20 In essence, her stories are not public property. Helen also does not have access to that other defining component of heroism and subjectivity in epic. battle. See Martin, The Language of Heroes 22-26, 228, for word and deed defining the hero, and the authority and power underlying the act of creating a muthos: "real muthoi require action" (111).

21 See Bergren, "Helen's Good Drug," and Clader, Helen 33-35, on this scene. See also Olson. "The Stories of Helen and Menelaus" 387-94 for this scene as part of a larger discussion of "the proper relationship between male and female, husband and wife" (388).

22 Suzuki, Metamorphoses of Helen 16, 19, describes Helen's perception as a type of inwardness.

23 See Katz, Penelope's Renown 61, 63, for Penelope's marriage being attracted to the stories of Clytemnestra and Helen, and the construction of marriage as betrayal.

24 See Katz, Penelope's Renown 28, 52, for the model of Clytemnestra ultimately displacing Penelope in the Odyssey, despite Penelope's individual qualities, which results in a refusal of closure for Penelope's faithfulness.

25 Cf. Roisman, "Penelope's Indignation" 60-62, 68, who argues that Penelope is using the comparison to indicate her difference from Helen, not her understanding: Penelope does not sleep with anyone else because she fears Odysseus will come home. Roisman sees no sympathy for Helen in Penelope's statement (60 n. 6). Marquardt ("Penelope Polutropos" 45) reads Penelope's statements as a defense of any perceived weakening in her resolve to wait for Odysseus in addition to an emphasis on her fidelity; Felson-Rubin ("Penelope's Perspective" 66-67) sees this passage as highlighting the theme of potential infidelity.

26 See Katz, Penelope's Renown 12, 187, for Penelope's simultaneous differentiation from Helen and the undermining of that differentiation; cf. Clader, Helen 37 (this passage strengthens our understanding of Penelope's fidelity) and 38 (Helen in the Odyssey as foil for Penelope). See Morgan, "Odyssey 23.218-224," for the position of this passage in the text.

27 The poet himself rejects recognition by having Amphimedon comment that Penelope was part of Odysseus' plot (Od. 24.167-69), which is patently wrong, and is further proved to be wrong by the fact that it is uttered by one of the suitors, who are notoriously unable either to perceive proper behavior or to interpret signs correctly. The poet seems to be acknowledging the possibility of a variant while indicating clearly that his story is different.

My stance on the question of Penelope's recognition of Odysseus is certainly not the only possible defensible interpretation. as the extensive bibliography indicates. On recognition. see Amory, "The Reunion of Odysseus and Penelope," for Penelope's recognition of the beggar as Odysseus (106) through "intuition" (104, 113); Harsh, "Penelope and Odysseus in Odyssey XIX," for the portents which arouse Penelope's suspicion, her "feminine intuition" (7), and the poet's need to avoid a "tedious and awkward" explanation of the "turmoil" in Penelope's breast (10) as the reason for the poet's obscurantism about Penelope's knowledge and reaction; even van Nortwick ("Penelope and Nausicaa") slips down the slippery slope of recognition when he reads a "preoccupation" with the beggar as a sort of subconscious recognition by Penelope in Odyssey 18 and when he compliments Penelope on her "instinctive rightness" (276). In the nonrecognition camp see Murnaghan, "Penelope's Agnoia" 105, for the "uncertainty" of Penelope's actions due to lack of knowledge; Marquardt, "Penelope Polutropos" 45; and Emlyn-Jones, "The Reunion of Penelope and Odysseus." Although I am firmly committed to nonrecognition, I do not believe that assuming recognition mitigates my argument. Recognition of Odysseus, which would necessarily mean that Penelope is acting in concert with Odysseus and is knowingly part of his plan, lessens her subjectivity even more by depriving her of any decision on her own behalf. All of Penelope's actions are then consciously part of Odysseus' plan, and never express autonomy.

28 For the tension created by Penelope's lack of knowledge and the movement of the story see Emlyn-Jones. "The Reunion of Penelope and Odysseus" 5. Van Nortwick ("Penelope as Double Agent" 24) reads this tension as a conflict between Penelope's decision to remarry and Athena's plans for the plot of the Odyssey.

29 For Penelope's decision to remarry see Emlyn-Jones, "The Reunion of Penelope and Odysseus" 11; van Nortwick, "Penelope and Nausicaa" 274.

30 Penelope's intent, other than what she says, is as opaque here as it is in most of the latter half of the Odyssey. Penelope has told Odysseus in 19.157-58 that after the trick of weaving the shroud she had no more metis; thus one is left with the conclusion that she speaks the truth here: so Katz, Penelope's Renown 84; but cf. Winkler, "Penelope's Cunning and Homer's" 147, who disbelieves Penelope's statement that Odysseus told her to remarry.

The reason for Odysseus' interpretation remains vague too. The most common explanation for his pleasure is that he admires Penelope for yet again holding the suitors in abeyance. His interpretation, however, is based on Athena's advice to him in Odyssey 13; since it is Athena who is credited with instigating this scene, her statement still tells us little about Penelope's intent. See Katz, Penelope's Renown 118-19, for Odysseus' interpretive act being at variance with what seems to be going on in the scene.

31 See Amory, "The Gates of Horn and Ivory" 54 for Penelope acting in accordance with the true situation without recognizing overtly the truth in both books 18 and 19.

32 Roisman ("Penelope's Indignation" 63) points out that Odysseus actually "provides the sign for formal recognition when he asks the maid to prepare his couch for the night (23.171-72)."

33 My interpretation of Penelope is in direct contrast to such recent scholars' as Felson-Rubin ("Penelope's Perspective") and Winkler ("Penelope's Cunning") who see in Penelope an early example of an empowered female. Winkler reacts against what he sees as the "victimage theory" (142, 155) by suggesting that readers of the Odyssey should "avoid being misled by Penelope's expressions of helplessness" (143). Winkler seems to me to be practicing a type of feminism which seeks to reinterpret texts to show the latent power of the female even where neither those texts nor the societies which produce them suggest such an interpretation. Felson-Rubin deconstructs the subject and exults in Penelope's multivalency in her interpretation of Penelope as a woman who has several different options to choose and several possible roles to play. I have a much more constricted reading of Penelope's options and roles, as does Murnaghan (Disguise and Recognition 129-38). While Penelope does indeed fend off the suitors, she is always acting from a defensive position: her responsibility is to remain and to protect the house. She fulfills the female role to perfection - hence her kleos. But she does not behave proactively; she does not move forward, as the subject/hero of the narrative must. The Homeric poet entices the reader by representing Penelope as on the verge of acting on her own by remarrying, but he does not allow it to happen. See also Holmberg, "The Odyssey and the Denial of Female Subjectivity," for a more detailed articulation of Penelope's subjectivity.

34 Baksis (224), mapsidion . . . phatis (251), and the phemai . . . kakoi (614-15) from the disappearing eidolon. "It is her social and public being which she must bear like an imposed necessity (cf. 254, 1163)." Her struggle to keep herself chaste "is expressed in the language of reputation and judgment in the eyes of others" (Wolff, "On Euripides' Helen" 79).

35 See, e.g., Hel. 199-200.

36 For this story as a paradigm for the impossibility of true knowledge and the duality throughout the play see Whitman. Euripides and the Full Circle of Myth 37, and Downing, "Apate" 5, 6.

37 See Helen's prologue (16-67) for the story of the eidolon, its first mention in this play (34), and its conflation with Helen's name (43 and 66, onoma dusklees). See Downing, "Apate" 2-6, for an excellent analysis of Helen's opening lines, which begins with observations on the duality in the word kalliparthenoi. He argues that the two halves of this word incorporate the beauty which is the "visual form of apate," the eidolon, while the parthenos represents its opposite, purity. For the many other instances of gemination in this play see Segal, "The Two Worlds of Euripides' Helen" 562, and Wolff, "On Euripides' Helen" 62. See also the two logoi about Castor and Pollux (138) and Helen's response, which is to inquire which is the kreisson (139). The eidolon as cause of the war is blamed on Hera at 31 and again at 610, where Trojans and Greeks died Heras mechanais.

38 See also Cypria fr. 1, schol. Il. 1.5.

39 See 540, where Helen laments omoi, poth' ekseis hos potheinos an molois; later she reassures Menelaus that his bed has been athikton . . . sesosmenen (795). For Helen's purity (48, 795) and self-sacrifice (835 et seq.) see Whitman, Euripides and the Full Circle of Myth 52.

40 Theoclymenous had told Penelope in Od. 17.151-61 that Odysseus is still alive, although she does not seem to believe him.

41 Menelaus and Helen enact a double recognition, during which Helen sees past her husband's rags to his true identity. and Menelaus acknowledges Helen after the eidolon he carries in his boat ascends to the sky with some particularly mean-spirited and pithy remarks. In Euripides' play, of course, the perceptive Helen is the first to make the connection, and it is she who must convince Menelaus of her identity (566-624).

42 Whitman (Euripides and the Full Circle of Myth) comments that "Helen takes the lead" (61) and that her plan is "the real action, the real vehicle for achieving wholeness and form" (67); see also Downing, "Apate" 6; Segal, "The Two Worlds of Euripides' Helen" 582. for Helen's manipulativeness; and Foley, "Anodos Dramas" 140-41.

43 See 1091 for Helen technomene; 1370 and 1626 for Theonoe.

44 Downing ("Apate" 2) notes that the supposedly pure Helen still retains much of the eidolon in her beauty and deceit; Juffras ("Helen and Other Victims" 55) sees this reliance upon deception as a return to the Homeric character of Helen; and Wolff ("On Euripides' Helen" 64, 70) notes the merging back and forth of the two notions of Helen and comments (76-78) on the positive valuation attributed to her wiles and deceptions and the affinity with sophism.

45 See Downing, "Apate" 5, for how deceptive appearances lead to divine knowledge, knowledge of the "protean, polytropic nature of the god and reality itself (711, 1137, 1138)." Foley ("Anodos Dramas" 151) points out that Helen (and Alcestis) cross gender boundaries but "in the service of their marriage and their husbands." See Walsh, The Varieties of Enchantment 106, for the "positive value" achieved by sexual deception in moderation as practiced in Helen.

46 See Whitman, Euripides and the Full Circle of Myth 56, 62: "Truth works in the service of deception"; also Pippin, "Euripides' Helen" 158, for Theonoe's suppression of truth because it would cause further violence and injustice, and her human moral responsibility. Walsh (The Varieties of Enchantment 103) notes that Theonoe's deceit is a sort of counterdeceit to the eidolon which corrects the imbalance created by the falsity of the eidolon.

47 See Bergren, "Helen's Web" 26-30, on the Dios Apate.

48 Foley ("Anodos Dramas" 141-42) describes this reunification with the husband as a guarantee of heroic kleos for Helen.

49 See Arrowsmith, "A Greek Theater of Ideas" 38-40, for Euripides' "critique of tradition."

50 See Michelini, Euripides and the Tragic Tradition 63-64, 78-79, 81, for Euripides' almost absolute refusal to represent a "Sophoclean heroic achiever or sufferer" and his representation of the female: Arrowsmith. "A Greek Theater of Ideas" 40, for the disappearance or division of the hero, which we may see in the eidolon.

51 See Arrowsmith, "A Greek Theater of Ideas" 43, 45-47 for heroic traits turning bad in the extreme.

52 Euripides' representation of Helen may also reflect an interest in women and their world which is also evident in such works as Aristophanes' Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae.

53 Sthenoboia and Hippolytus Veiled were apparently quite "explosive." Michelini (Euripides and the Tragic Tradition 78-79) argues that although the audience's rejection of Hippolytus Veiled forced Euripides to modify his sexually explicit tales about women, he pursued his dramatic program in a more "complex and less controversial" way.

54 This sense of problem solving may explain why many modern readers find Helen peculiarly flat for a Euripidean play.

55 See Smp. 179b4-d7 for Alcestis' heroism.

56 This essay originated as a colloquium presentation at the University of Victoria in the spring of 1993 and appeared in various metamorphoses as a paper at the annual meetings of the Classical Association of Canada and the Classical Association of the Pacific Northwest, also in the spring of 1993. I thank the members of the audience at those events, whose comments led me to a further consideration and understanding of Helen.

After this article was completed for publication, two studies on Helen appeared whose analyses I am unable to address presently in this piece. The first is Norman Austin's Helen of Troy and Her Shameless Phantom (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), which covers much of the same material from a different perspective; the second is Simon Goldhill's "The Failure of Exemplarity," in Modern Critical Theory and Classical Literature, edited by Irene J. F. de Jong and J. P. Sullivan (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994), which focuses on the exemplarity of Helen.


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Author:Holmberg, Ingrid E.
Publication:American Journal of Philology
Date:Mar 22, 1995
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