Fandom: Greek Mythology/The Iliad
Spoilers: The Iliad, general Greek Mythology/Trojan War myth cycle.
I have loved Greek Mythology for a long time, but the thought of shipping characters from mythology didn’t occur to me until a particular lecture in my “Women in Ancient Greece” class. The lecture was about Sparta and the homoerotic relationships between women. My professor went on and on about the gayness of Spartans and I thought, “Helen is Spartan; she must be a little gay.” Which was amusing considering the whole Trojan War and all the men she’s usually associated with. For the longest time, I couldn’t think of Helen outside of femslash, but once I started considering Helen het, Hector/Helen seemed to be the most overlooked and the most natural pairing. There is so much subtext and so much angst to be had there. Even the scholars have noted the sexual tension between Helen and Hector, and despite the fact that they’re both married to other people, they seem to maintain a close relationship in canon and there’s plenty of subtext to suggest that the relationship is not completely platonic.
Hell to cities and hell to men: Helen
It’s hard to think of Helen as being anything other than the face that launched a thousand ships. She occupies a prominent position in the epic story of the Trojan war, but she’s often a passive figure. It’s not easy to look behind that passivity, especially when one is only looking at the stories related directly to the Trojan war, which was, in fact, not the first war fought for Helen’s sake.
Helen was born to Leda, the queen of Sparta. Zeus, the king of gods, fell in lust with Leda and raped her in the form of a swan. In time, Leda gave birth to an egg, out of which emerged Helen. Helen was usually considered to be half immortal, but there are stories that claim that she was the daughter of Zeus and Nemesis and not of Leda at all. She was born and raised in Sparta, a place that was historically associated with powerful women. Helen herself ascended to the status of a queen, and Menelaus received kingship because of her.
When Helen was ten years old, she was kidnapped and raped by the hero Theseus. This led to the first war fought in Helen’s name. Helen’s brothers, upon finding out about this, attacked the city of Theseus and brought Helen back. Helen was then given in marriage to Menelaus, with whom she remained for the next ten years. Some time after she was married, she was used by Aphrodite as a bribe to win an Olympic beauty pageant. Aphrodite promised Paris the love of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, in return for the Golden Apple meant for the fairest goddess. When Paris came to Sparta, Helen was persuaded by Aphrodite to run away with Paris, or in some versions, she was kidnapped and raped again.
Helen’s life is filled with violence. She’s a product of rape, and subjected to sexual violence numerous times throughout her life. While in Troy, she is persecuted by the women of Troy and claims that Hector is her only friend. After Paris’ death, she is forced into marriage by Deiphobus, Paris’ brother.
Through all this warfare and violence, there are glimpses of Helen’s personality. She is creative; she weaves and she is a storyteller. While the heroes fight outside, she recreates their battles in tapestries in an attempt to transmit her own story. She is highly intuitive and is one of the very few people in the Iliad who could recognize gods even when they’re disguised. She’s also attributed with magical powers in some versions, and she’s somewhat of a seer in others. She’s also clever and resourceful. She understands the significance of the war, and she knows that in the future, she’ll be a legend along with the other heroes. She‘s the only woman in The Iliad who puts the war in those terms . There’s a scene in the Iliad where Helen is allowed to sit among the elders of the city and tell them about the Greek heroes. This is a prominent position for a woman, and Helen seems to know a lot more about these men than a proper woman should. In other versions of the stories, Helen is sometimes seen scheming to help the Trojans (or the Greeks, depending on the version.) Either way, she’s exceptional in her participation in these efforts.
Her life after the war is not very clear and accounts differ. When the war ended, Menelaus attempted to kill her, but was unable to because of her incredible beauty. In some versions, Helen reveals her breasts to him in an effort to change his mind. This is significant because it seems that if the war taught her one thing, it was that her beauty is extraordinarily powerful, and she learned to use it to her advantage. She’s also seen in the Odyssey, restored to her former position as the Queen of Sparta.
Helen seems to have had many deaths. She hung herself by a tree in one version, and was crucified in another. In one variant, she ascended to Olympus before her death. All accounts, however, agree that Helen was made immortal in some form. While in recent times, Helen has come to be viewed as a whore who caused a city to fall, it’s important to remember that Helen was worshipped both as a heroine and a Goddess by the people of ancient Greece.
The Pillar of Troy: Hector
The greatest of the Trojan heroes, Hector’s life was ordinary before Helen came to Troy. He is as normal and mundane as Helen is special. Nothing of his life is known before the Trojan War, and Cassandra in “The Trojan Women” says that if not for the war, no one would have ever known Hector to be the hero he became. So Helen is responsible for bestowing immorality on Hector.
Hector has a family and a home to protect, and he wants the war to end. However, while the war is raging, he sees no other choice than to fight, and at times, he seems to even enjoy it. I think that most people tend to remember Hector as a family man who is almost being forced to fight, and that’s true to an extent. But seeing Hector in that light, people also tend to forget the parts of the Iliad where Hector is threatening to kill his own people for failing, or trying to mutilate bodies of the fallen warriors. But that’s warfare, and he does what has to be done. Hector the Man and Hector the Warrior seem to exist almost separately. He could kill men on the battlefield, and come in to the city later to give moral support to others. His behavior towards Helen is also extraordinary: in Helen’s own words, of all Trojans, Hector has suffered the most because of her and Paris’ mistake. Even so, Hector is kind to Helen and quick to criticize people who blame Helen for the war in Troy.
A few years after Helen comes to the city, Hector marries Andromache. In most versions of the story, they only have a single son. During the course of the war, Hector kills Patroklos, and this seems to be his downfall. Achilles, enraged by the death of his friend, vows to kill Hector and he does so shortly. Having killed Hector, Achilles drags his lifeless body around the walls of Troy for days before he is willing to give it up. The Iliad ends with the funeral of Hector. Hector is lamented by his mother, his wife, and Helen. Helen’s presence here is interesting, and seems to imply that Hector and Helen have a close relationship in terms of the epic tradition.
Love and War: Canon interaction
There’s a certain amount of sexual tension that exists between Hector and Helen in their interactions in “The Iliad”. Hector is the oldest and the noblest of his brothers, and he is generally wiser than the rest. He’s the only one in Troy who has never said a single word of reproach to Helen. He actually defends her when others blame her, and he lays the blame on Paris. It’s certainly possible that he blames Helen to a degree, but he seems to have a certain respect for her that keeps him from accusing her outwardly. Helen reciprocates this respect, and she is more open in her affections for Hector. She understands the danger she has put all of Troy in, and she knows that Hector has to carry most of the responsibility for the actions of Paris and herself. In a scene where Hector is waiting for Paris to come out and fight with him, Helen engages him in a conversation and strongly implies that she wishes she had married Hector instead of Paris.
According to Van Nortwick, when Hector comes to Troy on a break from battle to seek Paris, he is confronted by things that are being threatened by this war. He meets first with his mother, who offers comfort, but Hector refuses it. He then meets with Paris and Helen, and Paris represents sibling rivalry. Lastly, he meets his wife and his son, who represent the security of a family. He's tempted by all of these things to stay out of battle, but he returns to war as is his duty. Helen, while he's in her room, invites Hector to sit with her a while and take a break from the battles. It is here that Helen admits that she wishes she had married a better man than Paris (read: Hector). Among other things, Helen is certainly represented as a temptation. Outwardly, she's offering him the comfort of her own surroundings in inviting him to sit with her. However, Helen also represents sexual temptation. The whole scene is highly suggestive: It takes place in Helen's and Paris' bedchamber, where Paris is spending time with his wife instead of fighting. Helen invites Hector to sit with her when Paris goes to get his armor. She's alluring and seductive and she flatters him, which puts Hector on guard and he refuses her offer gently and points out that he has other responsibilities. Furthermore, Hector enters Helen's room with a shield, as if in battle. Critics have suggested that this shield represents protection, and Hector's resolve to resist what Helen is offering. But what is Helen offering here? Is it really just a break from the battle or more? There is so much that can be read into this exchange, and not all of it would be speculation.
Lastly, scholars have suggested that “The Iliad” uses something called ‘an ascending scale of affection,’ meaning that in certain situations where the hero is entreated or addressed by a series of people, the last speaker is the one closest and the dearest to the hero. This pattern is seen several times throughout the epic. However, in a seeming defiance of this pattern, Helen is the last person to lament Hector’s dead body. Hecuba is the first to go, and then Andromache. Given that Helen is arguably the (indirect) cause of Hector’s death, her presence at his funeral alone is unexpected, and not only is she present but she is given the position of the most prominent speaker. While Hecuba and Andromache lament about their own personal losses, Helen praises Hector’s character, his nobility, and alludes to his epic status. Helen gets Hector on a level that his mother and wife couldn’t. She understands not only his significance to the royal family, but also his importance to all of Troy and to the epic tradition itself.
No one is untouchable: Why it works
Helen is one of the most elusive characters ever, and it's incredibly hard to get a grasp on her psyche. Poets of every age have told stories about her beauty, her legend, and her destructive powers, but few have ever explored her personality. Even in the stories themselves, few people get Helen. She’s desired, fought over, and passed from one man to another, but no one understands her and she never seems to have loved any of the men she’s with. She’s raped by Theseus, given in marriage to Menelaus, given to Paris by Aphrodite, and then taken by force by Deiphobus. In the miniseries “Helen of Troy,” the character of Helen says, “They can look all they want, but they’ll never see me” about the men who desire her. That line is very significant in the light of the legend of Helen, because in the stories seeing Helen is always an issue. According to one version of the story, Helen never goes to Troy and the gods create an image of Helen out of clouds to fool the Greeks and the Trojans alike. It’s a disturbing little story if one thinks about it. It says that for ten years, the Greeks and the Trojans fought over a phantom with only the form of Helen, and no one realized that it wasn’t the real Helen. I think that it’s important that whoever is with Helen needs to not care about her beauty, because otherwise he would not be able to look through it and see Helen as a person. I had no idea who this person would be until I read Elizabeth Cook’s “Achilles” and her wonderful summing of the Hector/Helen relationship in a single line: “Only Hector saw her; saw loneliness instead of beauty.” Of course, Hector would be the one to see Helen. I think part of it has to do with Andromache. He’s happily married and not actively looking for someone to sleep with, so his mind doesn’t register Helen as a sexual object. Rather, he sees her as a person, and he understands her.
There are three scenes in the Iliad arranged and written to give the readers a sense of the relationships between Paris/Helen and Andromache/Hector. Paris is rescued from battle by Aphrodite, who forces Helen to have sex with him. Helen’s passions for Paris have run out by now, and she’s reluctant to sleep with him. Later, when Hector comes to their room, Paris admits that Helen wants him to go fight rather than hiding like a coward. Andromache, on the other hand, wants Hector to stay inside the walls and to not fight. The implication is that Helen is not in love with her husband, while Andromache wants hers to stay safe. But it makes me think that Helen and Hector are better suited to each other than to their current partners. Helen is Spartan, and Spartan women were famed for saying to their warring sons and husbands, “Come back with the shield or upon it.” She’s from a culture that values warriors, and she could appreciate Hector’s war efforts. Andromache is such a strong character, I think, but all of her strength comes after Hector’s death. While she’s with Hector, she’s just his wife. In describing her relationship to him, she says that he’s father, mother, brother, and husband to her. All of these relationships, in ancient Greece, were of inequality. Hector is a hero, a warrior, and he has no choice but to fight this war. Andromache doesn't support him in it. She's simple, vulnerable, and almost childlike. She doesn't understand the heroic code, but Helen does. Helen is older than Andromache, and closer to Hector’s age. She seems to also have more in common with Hector. Helen and Hector are both isolated in The Iliad. Hector because of his heroism and Helen because of her beauty. Hector’s isolation is self-inflicted; he keeps people at a distance so he would be able to die for them if need be. Helen is isolated because she’s an outsider and doesn’t quite fit in. She is also the only woman in “The Iliad” who stands on the same ground with the heroes: she’s just as divine as any of them. Helen can understand Hector on a level Andromache can’t. She could be his friend, his equal. And I think the attraction that Hector feels for Helen comes out of respect for her talents, an understanding of her character as much as it does out of his admiration for her outward beauty. Because Hector sees Helen, she’ll never be an object for him, and because he sees her as a person, Helen could love Hector the way she couldn’t love other men in her life.
Besides being elusive, Helen is also one of the most universally disliked characters, and this is part of her appeal, I think. I have been through a phase where I hated her, but having gotten over it, I have become very protective of Helen. The poor woman has been blamed for everything from seducing men to cheating on her husband to the end of the Golden Age of heroes. Her story, however, has always come down to us from biased sources. No one is interested in redeeming her without actually taking away her claim to fame. In the stories, Helen is hardly ever given a voice. She's a rather sad figure, passed on from man to man throughout her life, and drifting from one place to another. She's a passive object, subjected to rape, brutality, and violence. In her relationships even, she's passive. As seen in “The Iliad”, she has to be almost forced into having sex with Paris. She also comes off as just utterly bored with life. She's seen everything from death to war to gods in disguise, and there just isn't anything left to do. She's jaded and just going along with everything, unwilling to take charge because people are ready to seduce her, make her decisions for her, and pass her off as a prize for battles between gods and men.
Hector is almost the opposite. He has led an uneventful life before the war, and he's idealistic. He wants to live and to enjoy life. He's willing to fight (and to die) to preserve the life he has known. He's also too noble to ever seduce another man's wife, even if he is attracted to her. And I think that for Helen, that has to be appealing. There are not many men who are indifferent to her beauty or who could resist her, and certainly not many who care whether she is willing to sleep with them or not. Hector is protective of Helen and he respects her, but he’s also able to resist her charms. She invites him to sit with her, and he refuses her. In a relationship with Hector, Helen could be the active partner. Hector would not fall into her arms just because she’s beautiful, and if there is ever anything between them, I think Helen would have to initiate their interactions. With Hector, Helen could be a person instead of a prize or a pawn. She would be forced to make things happens, instead of waiting for them to happen.
Beyond the myth: Fandom and fanfic
Greek mythology, as a fandom, is pretty newish, and as a result, fanfic about non-canon ships is scarce. I have not been able to find any Helen/Hector fic to date, but if anyone else knows of any, you’re welcome to leave links and I’ll edit the post and add them. The fandom is small, but growing so I suspect that Helen/Hector stories will eventually show up. The potential for fanfic is endless. Andromache, in Euripides’ play, says that Hector did not sleep with her exclusively and had illegitimate children by other women. So Hector and Andromache as a couple are not as perfect as they seem, and there’s potential for Hector/Helen interaction. Helen was in Troy for twenty years, and that’s nineteen years of subtext “The Iliad” does not cover. And for at least seven of these nineteen years, Hector was single. Even if one ships Hector with Andromache, there’s room here for angst-y, unrequited Helen point of view stories.
Thousand-ships.net: A Greek mythology fanfic archive. If there’s any Hector/Helen fanfic written, it’s likely to show up here. Along with fanfic, the site also features reviews of fiction based on myths and essays on writing myth fanfic.
Thousand Ships LJ community: LiveJournal community for Greek Mythology fanfic. Het, gen, slash are all welcomed.
Mythosdrabble: LJ community for mythology-based drabbles.