Homer creates Helen as a complex and suffering figure with a good mind, who strives for autonomy, expression, and belonging, within and despite the many constraints to which she is subject.Helen appears in only six encounters in the Iliad, with a different audience in each. As the encounters progress, she reveals more and more aspects of her personality and becomes increasingly assertive, increasingly her own person, and increasingly a part of the society in which she is an outcast.
In the Iliad, as in the Odyssey, Helen is repeatedly referred to as the woman for whose sake the Trojan War was fought.But Helen is something more than that.She is depicted within a framework of multiple constraints in the Iliad. She is a captive and possession in a world in which women are possessions. She is subjected to the wishes of the gods in a world ruled by the gods. And she is an abhorred foreigner viewed as the cause of suffering and strife, a disadvantage she shares with no one else in the epic.
Women as Possessions
In the environment of the Iliad, women are possessions, to be bartered or fought over, but are not free agents. This does not mean that they are all literally slaves. Andromache and Hecabe are obviously not, and Helen’s formal status, like theirs, is that of a free woman and wife. Despite this, women’s existence as possessions is established in Book 1.3 Most of the book concerns two quarrels over the possession of women taken in wartime. The first is over Chryseis, whom Agamemnon had taken in battle and initially refuses to return to her father in exchange for ransom. The second, between Agamemnon and Achilles, erupts when Agamemnon is compelled to return Chryseis and, in compensation for his loss, appropriates Briseis from Achilles. Briseis, for her part, had been given to Achilles as a "geras", war prize, after Achilles had killed her parents. The quarrels, notably, are between men. Neither of the women has a say about whose hands she falls into. The idea of woman as possession is reinforced , when Agamemnon tells Odysseus to offer Achilles his choice of the most beautiful Trojan women second to Helen and when
Odysseus relays the offer to Achilles. In short, the Iliad presents a world in which women are property, to be taken, traded, quarreled over.The goddesses (e.g., Hera, Aphrodite, Iris) are obvious exceptions. Helen, however, is situated in the same category as mortal women, despite her descent from Zeus. In her first mention in the epic, Nestor presents her as an unhappy captive longing to escape from Troy. Addressing the Akhaians troops who had run to the ships, he urges every soldier to stay on and fight “until after he has lain in bed with the wife of a Trojan to avenge Helen’s struggles and her groans” By analogy to the type of vengeance that he proposes, Nestor
seems to be implying that Helen has been abducted and raped.6 This is an exaggeration that the Homeric muse herself does not support. In 6.292, Helen says that Paris “led” (énÆgagen) her to Troy, using the same verb that Akhilles uses to describe Agamemnon leading the Akhaians to Troy (9.338). In 3.174, Helen tells Priam that she “followed” (•pÒmhn) Paris to Troy, using the language of a wife who follows her husband (cf. Od. 22.324). In other words, Helen depicts her coming to Troy as more of an elopement than an abduction. Nonetheless, the description of her suffering implies that, even if she had once wanted to be in Troy, she no longer does.
This depiction of Helen as captive recurs when the poet explains Menelaos’ motives for fighting using the same terms as Nestor had: “and above all others was he eager in heart to avenge both Helen’s struggles and her groans” (2.589–90).7 In this connection, it is of interest to note the ambiguity of Helen’s account of her history in her speech at Hektor’s funeral, where she says that “my husband, godlike Alexandros, . . . led (êgage) me to Troy”