Helen’s phantom

A myth variant I’ve always found interesting, originally from a fragment of Stesichorus reported by Plato (Phaedrus 243a):

For those who have sinned in their telling of myths there is an ancient purification, known not to Homer but to Stesichorus: when he was blinded because of his slander of Helen he was not unaware of the reason like Homer, but being devoted to the Muses recognised the cause and immediately wrote:

That story is not true, and you did not go on the well-benched ships and you did not reach the citadel of Troy;

and having composed all the Palinode, as it is called, he at once regained his sight.


ἐστὶν δὲ τοῖς ἁμαρτάνουσι περὶ μυθολογίαν καθαρμὸς ἀρχαῖος, ὃν Ὅμηρος μὲν οὐκ ᾔσθετο, Στησίχορος δέ· τῶν γὰρ ὀμμάτων στερηθεὶς διὰ τὴν Ἑλένης κακηγορίαν οὐκ ἠγνόησεν ὥσπερ Ὅμηρος, ἀλλ᾿ ἅτε μουσικὸς ὢν ἔγνω τὴν αἰτίαν καὶ ποιεῖ εὐθύς·

οὐκ ἔστ᾿ ἔτυμος λόγος οὗτος,
οὐδ᾿ ἔβας ἐν νηυσὶν ἐϋσσέλμοις
οὐδ᾿ ἵκεο πέργαμα Τροίας,

καὶ ποιήσας δὴ πᾶσαν τὴν καλουμένην Παλινῳδίαν παραχρῆμα ἀνέβλεψεν.

Some other references to the same story:

Isocrates, Helen (64):

She (Helen) displayed her power to the poet Stesichorus also: for when at the beginning of his song he uttered a blasphemy against her, he stood up deprived of his sight; but when he had realised the cause of his plight and had composed the Palinode, as it is called, she restored him to his original condition.

Plato, Republic (9.586c)

. . . just as Helen’s phantom, according to Stesichorus, was fought over by the warriors at Troy in ignorance of the truth.

Aelius Aristides, Orations (1.128)

. . . just as some of the poets say Alexander took Helen’s phantom but was unable to take her.

Scholiast: Stesichorus in his poetry tells that when Alexander had seized Helen and was making his way through Pharos1 he was robbed of her by Proteus and received from him her portrait painted on a panel, so that he could assuage his passion by looking at it.

Aelius Aristides, Orations (2.234)

. . . just like the Trojans of Stesichorus, who have Helen’s phantom, believing it to be Helen herself.

Dio Chrysostom, Discourses (11.40s)

These men, he said, have had such a ridiculous effect on you Greeks that you say that another poet who was persuaded by Homer and gave in full the same account of Helen—Stesichorus, I believe—was blinded by Helen for telling lies and got his sight back when he told the opposite story . . . Stesichorus, you allege, said in his later song that Helen never sailed anywhere, whereas others say that Helen was carried off by Alexander but came here to us in Egypt.

Papyrus commentary on lyric poets (2nd c. a.d.,  P.Oxy. 2506 fr. 26 col. i)

. . . (in one Palinode) he blames Homer because he put Helen in Troy, not her phantom; and in the other he blames Hesiod: for there are two different Palinodes, and the beginning of one is

Hither again, goddess, lover of song and dance,

and of the other

Golden-winged maiden,

as Chamaeleon wrote. Stesichorus himself says that the phantom went to Troy while Helen remained with Proteus.

He made such innovations in his stories that he says that Demophon, son of Theseus, was brought to Egypt with the Thestiadae in the homecoming from Troy, and that Demophon was Theseus’ son by lope, daughter of Iphicles, Acamas his son by Phaedra, Hippolytus by the Amazon . . . Helen . . . Agamemnon . . . Amphilochus. . .

Euripides uses essentially the same version but Herodotus adds another (2.113-120):

And the priests told me, when I inquired, that the things concerning Helen happened thus:—Alexander having carried off Helen was sailing away from Sparta to his own land, and when he had come to the Egean Sea contrary winds drove him from his course to the Sea of Egypt; and after that, since the blasts did not cease to blow, he came to Egypt itself, and in Egypt to that which is now named the Canobic mouth of the Nile and to Taricheiai. Now there was upon the shore, as still there is now, a temple of Heracles, in which if any man’s slave take refuge and have the sacred marks set upon him, giving himself over to the god, it is not lawful to lay hands upon him; and this custom has continued still unchanged from the beginning down to my own time. Accordingly the attendants of Alexander, having heard of the custom which existed about the temple, ran away from him, and sitting down as suppliants of the god, accused Alexander, because they desired to do him hurt, telling the whole tale how things were about Helen and about the wrong done to Menelaos; and this accusation they made not only to the priests but also to the warden of this river-mouth, whose name was Thonis.

Thonis then having heard their tale sent forthwith a message to Proteus at Memphis, which said as follows: “There hath come a stranger, a Teucrian by race, who hath done in Hellas an unholy deed; for he hath deceived the wife of his own host, and is come hither bringing with him this woman herself and very much wealth, having been carried out of his way by winds to thy land. 95 Shall we then allow him to sail out unharmed, or shall we first take away from him that which he brought with him?” In reply to this Proteus sent back a messenger who said thus: “Seize this man, whosoever he may be, who has done impiety to his own host, and bring him away into my presence, that I may know what he will find to say.”

Hearing this, Thonis seized Alexander and detained his ships, and after that he brought the man himself up to Memphis and with him Helen and the wealth he had, and also in addition to them the suppliants. So when all had been conveyed up thither, Proteus began to ask Alexander who he was and from whence he was voyaging; and he both recounted to him his descent and told him the name of his native land, and moreover related of his voyage, from whence he was sailing. After this Proteus asked him whence he had taken Helen; and when Alexander went astray in his account and did not speak the truth, those who had become suppliants convicted him of falsehood, relating in full the whole tale of the wrong done. At length Proteus declared to them this sentence, saying, “Were it not that I count it a matter of great moment not to slay any of those strangers who being driven from their course by winds have come to my land hitherto, I should have taken vengeance on thee on behalf of the man of Hellas, seeing that thou, most base of men, having received from him hospitality, didst work against him a most impious deed. For thou didst go in to the wife of thine own host; and even this was not enough for thee, but thou didst stir her up with desire and hast gone away with her like a thief. Moreover not even this by itself was enough for thee, but thou art come hither with plunder taken from the house of thy host. Now therefore depart, seeing that I have counted it of great moment not to be a slayer of strangers. This woman indeed and the wealth which thou hast I will not allow thee to carry away, but I shall keep them safe for the Hellene who was thy host, until he come himself and desire to carry them off to his home; to thyself however and thy fellow-voyagers I proclaim that ye depart from your anchoring within three days and go from my land to some other; and if not, that ye will be dealt with as enemies.”

This the priests said was the manner of Helen’s coming to Proteus; and I suppose that Homer also had heard this story, but since it was not so suitable to the composition of his poem as the other which he followed, he dismissed it finally, making it clear at the same time that he was acquainted with that story also: and according to the manner in which he described the wanderings of Alexander in the Iliad (nor did he elsewhere retract that which he had said) it is clear that when he brought Helen he was carried out of his course, wandering to various lands, and that he came among other places to Sidon in Phenicia. Of this the poet has made mention in the “prowess of Diomede,” and the verses run this:

“There she had robes many-coloured, the works of women of Sidon,
Those whom her son himself the god-like of form Alexander
Carried from Sidon, what time the broad sea-path he sailed over
Bringing back Helene home, of a noble father begotten.”
And in the Odyssey also he has made mention of it in these verses: 99 “Such had the daughter of Zeus, such drugs of exquisite cunning,
Good, which to her the wife of Thon, Polydamna, had given,
Dwelling in Egypt, the land where the bountiful meadow produces
Drugs more than all lands else, many good being mixed, many evil.”

And thus too Menelaos says to Telemachos:

“Still the gods stayed me in Egypt, to come back hither desiring,
Stayed me from voyaging home, since sacrifice was due I performed not.”
In these lines he makes it clear that he knew of the wandering of Alexander to Egypt, for Syria borders upon Egypt and the Phoenicians, of whom is Sidon, dwell in Syria.”

By these lines and by this passage it is also most clearly shown that the “Cyprian Epic” was not written by Homer but by some other man: for in this it is said that on the third day after leaving Sparta Alexander came to Ilion bringing with him Helen, having had a “gently-blowing wind and a smooth sea,” whereas in the Iliad it says that he wandered from his course when he brought her.

Let us now leave Homer and the “Cyprian” Epic; but this I will say, namely that I asked the priests whether it is but an idle tale which the Hellenes tell of that which they say happened about Ilion; and they answered me thus, saying that they had their knowledge by inquiries from Menelaos himself. After the rape of Helen there came indeed, they said, to the Teucrian land a large army of Hellenes to help Menelaos; and when the army had come out of the ships to land and had pitched its camp there, they sent messengers to Ilion, with whom went also Menelaos himself; and when these entered within the wall they demanded back Helen and the wealth which Alexander had stolen from Menelaos and had taken away; and moreover they demanded satisfaction for the wrongs done: and the Teucrians told the same tale then and afterwards, both with oath and without oath, namely that in deed and in truth they had not Helen nor the wealth for which demand was made, but that both were in Egypt; and that they could not justly be compelled to give satisfaction for that which Proteus the king of Egypt had. The Hellenes however thought that they were being mocked by them and besieged the city, until at last they took it; and when they had taken the wall and did not find Helen, but heard the same tale as before, then they believed the former tale and sent Menelaos himself to Proteus.

And Menelaos having come to Egypt and having sailed up to Memphis, told the truth of these matters, and not only found great entertainment, but also received Helen unhurt, and all his own wealth besides. Then however, after he had been thus dealt with, Menelaos showed himself ungrateful to the Egyptians; for when he set forth to sail away, contrary winds detained him, and as this condition of things lasted long, he devised an impious deed; for he took two children of natives and made sacrifice of them. After this, when it was known that he had done so, he became abhorred, and being pursued he escaped and got away in his ships to Libya; but whither he went besides after this, the Egyptians were not able to tell. Of these things they said that they found out part by inquiries, and the rest, namely that which happened in their own land, they related from sure and certain knowledge.

Thus the priests of the Egyptians told me; and I myself also agree with the story which was told of Helen, adding this consideration, namely that if Helen had been in Ilion she would have been given up to the Hellenes, whether Alexander consented or no; for Priam assuredly was not so mad, nor yet the others of his house, that they were desirous to run risk of ruin for themselves and their children and their city, in order that Alexander might have Helen as his wife: and even supposing that during the first part of the time they had been so inclined, yet when many others of the Trojans besides were losing their lives as often as they fought with the Hellenes, and of the sons of Priam himself always two or three or even more were slain when a battle took place (if one may trust at all to the Epic poets),—when, I say, things were coming thus to pass, I consider that even if Priam himself had had Helen as his wife, he would have given her back to the Achaians, if at least by so doing he might be freed from the evils which oppressed him. Nor even was the kingdom coming to Alexander next, so that when Priam was old the government was in his hands; but Hector, who was both older and more of a man than he, would have received it after the death of Priam; and him it behoved not to allow his brother to go on with his wrong-doing, considering that great evils were coming to pass on his account both to himself privately and in general to the other Trojans. In truth however they lacked the power to give Helen back; and the Hellenes did not believe them, though they spoke the truth; because, as I declare my opinion, the divine power was purposing to cause them utterly to perish, and so make it evident to men that for great wrongs great also are the chastisements which come from the gods. And thus have I delivered my opinion concerning these matters.

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