Reading HD’s Helen in Egypt while in Egypt is a special treat. Of course, how I got here is not nearly as fascinating as how Helen got here. Helen’s first trip to Egypt ended up taking more than a few lifetimes. And not just any lifetimes. In chronological order, it took the lifetimes of Stesichorus, Herodotus, Euripides, and Dio Chrysostom–a stretch of 745 years (630 BCE – 115 CE!)–to document the arrival of Helen in Egypt.
But, we couldn’t ask for better travel guides. Following in the footsteps of such great and ancient poets, philosophers, historians, and wanderers, we see the world as they saw it; we see what they loved as they loved it.
We see how great and ancient is the love affair between Greece and Egypt! It seems both ancient and unending. It is enchanting, impenetrable, unfathomable. But never unapproachable–it is a relationship at once seductively enigmatic and unambiguously palpable–almost too hot to touch and too compelling to resist.
So I took the path of least resistance. I changed my middle name to Aisha, chose death by chocolate, and eloped with an Egyptian I met online.
Some may insist I married Egypt to live beside Greece. Perhaps my first love led me to my last, or maybe they are inextricable lovers imprinted on the velvet fabric of my fate.
Perhaps I share a few threads of DNA with Helen in Egypt. I share her bewildered fascination when I contemplate my surroundings as I sit in my lushly vined and leafy garden here in the heart of Egypt and wonder how I got here.
It was God, as HD posits of Helen’s introspective observations, who brought me to this place. “Fear nothing of the future or the past,” advises Helen, “He, God, will guide you, bring you to this place.”
Here, “the old enchantment holds. Here there is peace.” I don’t understand it, but I know exactly what she means.
HELEN IN EGYPT
Do not despair, the hosts
surging beneath the Walls,
(no more than I) are ghosts;
do not bewail the Fall,
the scene is empty and I am alone,
yet in this Amen-temple,
I hear their voices,
there is no veil between us,
only space and leisure
and long corridors of lotus-bud
furled on the pillars,
and the lotus-flower unfurled,
with reed of the papyrus;
Amen (or Zeus we call him)
brought me here;
fear nothing of the future or the past,
He, God, will guide you,
bring you to this place,
as he brought me, his daughter,
twin-sister of twin-brothers
and Clytaemnestra, shadow of us all;
the old enchantment holds,
here there is peace
for Helena, Helen hated of all Greece.
Hated Helen in Homer’s Iliad
Homer posits the same anguish in his ‘hated’ Helen while in Troy. Speaking in the presence of both men, Helen follows up the scolding between Hektor and Paris by voicing her deep distress:
Hector of the flashing helm answered him not a word,
but unto him spake Helen with gentle words:
“O Brother of me that am a dog, a contriver of mischief and abhorred of all, 
I would that on the day when first my mother gave me birth an evil storm-wind
had borne me away to some mountain or to the wave of the loud-resounding sea,
where the wave might have swept me away or ever these things came to pass.
Howbeit, seeing the gods thus ordained these ills,  would that I had been wife to a
better man, that could feel the indignation of his fellows and their many revilings.
But this man’s understanding is not now stable, nor ever will be hereafter;
thereof I deem that he will e’en reap the fruit.
But come now, enter in, and sit thee upon this chair,  my brother,
since above all others has trouble encompassed thy heart because of shameless me,
and the folly of Alexander; on whom Zeus hath brought an evil doom,
that even in days to come we may be a song for men that are yet to be.”
[Homer’s Iliad, Book VI, 345-360 A.T. Murray Translation]
Was Helen in Egypt, Troy, or Both?
Considered the first great lyric poet of the West, Stesichorus (Στησίχορος, Stēsikhoros, ca. 630 – 555 BCE) composed his verses in units of three stanzas (strophe, antistrophe, and epode). He was a contemporary of Sappho and Alcaeus, and similarly held a negative opinion of Helen’s moral character that was common in his time.
Mysteriously punished with blindness for blaspheming Helen in one of his poems, Stesichorus was the earliest writer to compose an alternate version of Helen’s involvement in the Trojan War.
Following the blinding of Stesichorus, Pausanias (ca. 110 – 180 CE) reports, Helen sent Stesichorus an explanation for his malady via a man from Croton. The man happened to be on the pilgrimage to Leuke’, or White Island, visiting the famous sacred island home of Achilles in the Black Sea near the mouth of the Blue Danube:
 A story too I will tell which I know the people of Crotona tell about Helen. The people of Himera too agree with this account. In the Euxine at the mouths of the Ister is an island sacred to Achilles. It is called White Island, and its circumference is twenty stades. It is wooded throughout and abounds in animals, wild and tame, while on it is a temple of Achilles with an image of him.
 The first to sail thither legend says was Leonymus of Crotona. For when war had arisen between the people of Crotona and the Locri in Italy, the Locri, in virtue of the relationship between them and the Opuntians, called upon Ajax son of Oileus to help them in battle. So Leonymus the general of the people of Crotona attacked his enemy at that point where he heard that Ajax was posted in the front line. Now he was wounded in the breast, and weak with his hurt came to Delphi. When he arrived the Pythian priestess sent Leonynius to White Island, telling him that there Ajax would appear to him and cure his wound.
 In time he was healed and returned from White Island, where, he used to declare, he saw Achilles, as well as Ajax the son of Oileus and Ajax the son of Telamon. With them, he said, were Patroclus and Antilochus; Helen was wedded to Achilles, and had bidden him sail to Stesichorus at Himera, and announce that the loss of his sight was caused by her wrath.
[Pausanias, Description of Greece, 3.19.11-13, Translation by Jones and Ormerod]
Upon learning the reason for his blindness, Stesichorus immediately wrote his Palinode as a recantation of his previous writing and as a rejection of the myth that Helen had ever been in Troy.
A fifty-line fragment is all we have; no full version of the Palinode(s) of Stesichorus exists today. However, we have the strong word of Plato (ca. 427 – 347 BCE), as credible evidence in Phaedrus, 243a:
[243a] they put on airs as though they amounted to something, if they could cheat some mere manikins and gain honor among them. Now I, my friend, must purify myself; and for those who have sinned in matters of mythology there is an ancient purification, unknown to Homer, but known to Stesichorus. For when he was stricken with blindness for speaking ill of Helen, he was not, like Homer, ignorant of the reason, but since he was educated, he knew it and straightway he writes the poem: “That saying is not true; thou didst not go within the well-oared ships, nor didst thou come to the walls of Troy” Stesichorus Frag. 32 Bergk
[Plato, Phaedrus, 243a from Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by Fowler, 1925]
For a first-hand witness of Helen’s alternative activities according to Stesichorus’ Palinode, we must turn to Dio Chrysostom (ca. 40 – 115 CE), a Greek orator, writer, philosopher, and historian. in his Orations, Dio Chrysostom summarizes two accounts of Stesichorus’– one in which Helen never sailed to Troy, and the other in which she wound up in Egypt and only her image traveled to Troy:
Dio Chrysostom, Orations 11:40
 οὕτως δέ, ἔφη, γελοίως ἀπὸ τούτων διάκεισθε ὑμεῖς ὥστε ποιητὴν ἕτερον Ὁμήρῳπεισθέντα καὶ ταὐτὰ πάντα ποιήσαντα περὶ Ἑλένης, Στησίχορον, ὡς οἶμαι, τυφλωθῆναί φατε ὑπὸ τῆς Ἑλένης, ὡς ψευσάμενον, αὖθις δὲ ἀναβλέψαι τἀναντίαποιήσαντα. καὶ ταῦτα λέγοντες [p. 126]
 οὐδὲν ἧττον ἀληθῆ φασιν εἶναι τὴν Ὁμήρου ποίησιν καὶ ἀκούοντες τὸν μὲνΣτησίχορον ἐν τῇ ὕστερον ᾠδῇ λέγειν ὅτι τὸ παράπαν οὐδὲ πλεύσειεν ἡ Ἑλένηοὐδαμόσε, ἄλλους δέ τινας ὡς ἁρπασθείη μὲν Ἑλένη ὑπὸ τοῦ Ἀλεξάνδρου, δεῦρο δὲπαρ᾽ ἡμᾶς εἰς Αἴγυπτον ἀφίκοιτο καὶ τοῦ πράγματος οὕτως ἀμφισβητουμένουκαὶπολλὴν ἄγνοιαν ἔχοντος, οὐδὲ οὕτως ὑποπτεῦσαι δύνανται τὴν ἀπάτην
[Dio Chrysostom 11:40, Dionis Prusaensis quem vocant Chrysostomum quae exstant omnia, Vols I and II. J. de Arnim. Weidmann. Berlin. 1893]
(click individual words for translation, and continue to  if you are so inclined–it’s fascinating).
Chrysostom’s witness that there were two accounts by Stesichorus is corroborated by Theocritus (ca. 315 – 260 BCE). In an introduction to one of his poems, Theocritus refers to “the first book of Stesichorus’ Helen.”
Euripides & Herodotus Agree with Stesichorus
Euripides (ca. 480 – 406 BCE), in his play Helen (ca. 412 BCE), has Zeus command Hera to create a likeness, or eidolon (εἴδωλον), of Helen from clouds. It is this eidolon that Paris takes to Troy–thwarting Aphrodite’s cunning, Hermes has already taken the real Helen to Egypt, where she spends the entire war as a guest of King Proteus.
Euripides’ play, Helen, progresses with the death of Proteus, the unwanted courtship of Helen by Theoclymenus, son of the late king, and the arrival of Menelaus in Egypt.
Herodotus (ca. 484 – 425/413 BCE) states that he heard the old account himself, regarding Helen in Egypt (probably of Stesichorus because this was about 30 years prior to Euripides’ Helen). So he travels to Egypt and interviews the priests of the Temple of the Foreign Aphrodite at Memphis, to which he directly attributes the worship of Helen in Egypt.
Herodotus writes in The Histories 2:113-120 that the temple priests report Helen arrived in Egypt soon after being abducted by Paris. Strong winds blew the ship off course, and they wound up in Egypt rather than Troy.
Learning that Paris has abducted King Menelaus’ wife and stolen his treasure, King Proteus recovers the treasure, places Helen safely in his palace, and sends Paris home defeated and empty-handed.
Herodotus further reports that, upon commencing the war against the Trojans, the Greeks refused to believe that Helen was not in Troy and fought until they took the city.
Let us sidetrack for a moment to follow this scene as it plays out in HD’s Helen in Egypt:
Lethe, as we all know, is the river of forgetfulness for the shadows, passing from life to death. But Helen, mysteriously transposed to Egypt, does not want to forget. She is both phantom and reality.
The potion is not poison,
it is not Lethe and forgetfulness
but everlasting memory,
the glory and the beauty of the ships,
the wave that bore them onward
and the shock of hidden shoal,
the peril of the rocks,
the weary fall of sail,
the rope drawn taut,
the breathing and breath-taking
climb and fall, mountain and valley
challenging, the coast
drawn near, drawn far,
the helmsman’s bitter oath
to see the goal receding
in the night; everlasting everlasting
nothingness and lethargy of waiting;
O Helen, Helen, Daemon that thou art,
we will be done forever
with this charm, this evil philtre,
this curse of Aphrodite;
so they fought, forgetting women,
hero to hero, sworn brother and lover,
and cursing Helen through eternity.
Returning to Herodotus, he continues with his report. Once Troy was taken, the Greeks again demand the surrender of Helen. As in the beginning of the war, they are told that Helen is not in Troy, but is in Egypt at the palace of King Proteus.
With no choice except to set sail, Menelaus boards his ship and heads for Egypt. Upon arriving, he recovers Helen and his goods, and finally sails home to Sparta– but not before offending the Egyptians by sacrificing three native children.
So How Did Helen Wind up Married to Achilles in Leuke?
This is where it gets complicated–as if it was as easy as spinach pie (spanakopita) so far.
A thoroughly ludicrous book ascribed by Photius to Ptolemy Hephaestion (ca. 1st cent. CE) is known as New History. Preserved in Photius’ Biblioteca (cod. 190), Photius notes that in Book 4 of New History is the following passage:
There was born of Helen and Achilles in the fortunate isles a winged child named Euphorion after the fertility of this land; Zeus caught him and with a blow knocked him to earth in the isle of Melos, where he continued the pursuit and changed the nymphs there into frogs because they had given him burial.
This is the only other known mention of the marriage of Helen and Achilles besides Pausanias 3.19.11-13 (and HD). However, the entire New History is discredited by Photius, sarcastically noting that he found it “a work really useful for those who undertake to attempt erudition in history,” for “it abounds in extraordinary and badly imagined information.”
Even HD is a little iffy on the subject of Helen’s marriage to Achilles, although the subject of her love is never in question. Helen in Egypt is divided into three sections, “Pallinode,” “Leuke’,” and “Eidolon” and the entire book is devoted to Helen’s profound love for Achilles:
…Is it possible that it all happened, the ruin–it would seem not only of Troy, but of the “holocaust of the Greeks,” of which she speaks later–in order that two souls or two soul-mates should meet? It almost seems so.
Alas, my brothers,
Helen did not walk
upon the ramparts,
she whom you cursed
was but the phantom and the shadow thrown
of a reflection;
you are forgiven for I know my own,
and God for his own purpose
wills it so, that I
stricken, forsaken draw to me,
through magic greater than the trial of arms,
your own invincible, unchallenged Sire,
Lord of your legions, King of Myrmidons,
unconquerable, a mountain and a grave,
few were the words we said,
nor knew each other,
nor asked, are you Spirit?
are you sister? are you brother?
are you alive?
are you dead?
the harpers will sing forever
of how Achilles met Helen
among the shades
but we were not, we are not shadows,
as we walk, heel and sole
leave our sandal-prints in the sand,
though the wounded heel treads lightly
and more lightly follow,
the purple sandals.
From the temple of Amun in Egypt in “Pallinode,” HD has Helen transition to the White Island, or “Leuke’.” Does she marry Achilles? Without spoiling anything, let me just say that she goes to Leuke’ at Thetis’ insistence that “Achilles waits.”
Exploring the Epic Cycle: Achilles & Helen in Cypria & Aithiopis
Why Leuke’? The answer to this question hides in the Epic Cycle, obscured by literary sources more fraught with controversy than Homer’s Iliad. Glossing over the issue, we can say there is great uncertainty regarding the date of the Epic Cycle, but it is generally accepted that the legends are post-Homeric, perhaps composed in the late seventh century BCE.
However, the legends narrated in the Epic Cycle, as well as the Iliad and Odyssey, are considered to be far older gems of Mycenaean Bronze Age oral tradition, well known long before they were written.
We won’t consult Plato’s Socrates to ask if the invention of writing was a blessing or a curse, but he had a strong argument. With the oral tradition lost, and the Epic Cycle surviving only in fragments, the few details we know of the Epic Cycle come to us from an unknown “Proclus,” in a prose summary contained within his Chrestomathy.
Attributed to Stasinus of Cyprus, the first epic in the cycle is the Cypria (another name for Aphrodite). In the final passages of Cypria, Proclus gives only a dry mention of what is perhaps the earliest meeting between Achilles and Helen:
 …and send an embassy to the Trojans, demanding Helen and the valuables.
But since the Trojans do not comply, they besiege them at once.
Going into the countryside, the Achaeans destroy the surrounding cities.
After this Achilles longs to have a look at Helen and
Aphrodite and Thetis arrange a place for them to meet.
 Then when the Achaeans are eager to return home, Achilles holds them back.
He drives off the cattle of Aineias
and destroys Lyrnessos and Pedasos and many of the surrounding cities
and he kills Troilos.
Patroklos takes Lykaon to Lemnos and sells him
 and from the ransom Achilles takes Briseis as his prize and Agamemnon, Chryseis
Then there is the death of Palamedes
and Zeus’ plan to relieve the Trojans by pulling Achilles out of the Achaean alliance
and a catalogue of all those who fought together against the Trojans.
[The Epic Cycle, Cypria 60-73, Translated by Nagy]
The very first meeting between Achilles and Helen is short, dry, and hardly noteworthy. But the real Cypria must have been a bit juicier because imaginations have been actively pursuing the love affair between Helen and Achilles ever since.
Did Achilles meet the real Helen? Or do you think he met Helen’s eidolon?
Standing on the ramparts, viewing the battlefield and her fellow countrymen, carefully concealing her fascination for the heroic exploits of the legendary Achilles, was it she, really? Or was she just a wraith, a dream, a hallucination?
HD addresses this question in an early scene between Achilles and Helen in Egypt, together in the darkness, on a lonely beach beside the Nile:
…But he turns, he speaks to me,
“Helena, which was the dream,
which was the veil of Cytheraea?”
…What does he mean by that?
must I summon Hellenic thought
to counter an argument?
must we argue over again,
the reason that brought us here?
was the Fall of Troy the reason?
can one weigh the thousand ships
against one kiss in the night?
Helena? who is she?
Was it possible that the entire Trojan War occurred purposely to bring Helen and Achilles together? The possibility is tossed and turned and gnawed on endlessly in Helen’s introspective probing, clearly influenced by HD’s complicated relationship with Sigmund Freud throughout the 1930s.
By the way, did you notice that in Cypria, Thetis was actively engaged as a match-maker? HD is on to something fundamental when she spirits Thetis in and out of Egypt, enticing Helen with “Achilles waits.”
The Epic Cycle poem, Aithiopis, attributed to Arctinus of Miletus, immediately follows the Iliad in chronology. Here, in the final passages of Proclus’ summary we find out why Leuke’ is Thetis’ desired location for the marriage of Helen to Achilles:
…But Achilles, while routing the Trojans and rushing into the citadel, is killed by Paris and Apollo.
When a heated battle starts over the corpse,
 Aias [Ajax] picks it up and carries it off to the ships
while Odysseus fights off the Trojans.
Then they hold funeral rites for Antilochos
and lay out Achilles’ corpse;
Thetis comes with the Muses and her sisters and makes a lament [thrênos] for her son.
 After that, Thetis snatches him off the pyre and
carries him over to the island Leuke.
But the Achaeans heap up his burial mound and hold funeral games
and a quarrel breaks out between Odysseus and Aias over the armor of Achilles.
[The Epic Cycle, Aithiopis 13-23, translated by Nagy]
Leuke’, or the White Island, is also known as the Island of the Blest. It is described as an Elysium beyond the borders of Hades to which only heroes may gain admittance. Arrian of Nicomedia (ca. 86–160 CE) tells us in Periplus of the Euxine (130 CE):
…the goddess Thetis raised this island from the sea, for her son Achilles, who dwells there. Here is his temple and his statue, an archaic work.
So now we’ve come full circle in our journey guided by the ancient travel guides. We find ourselves back in Leuke’, the White Island, exactly where we started in the beginning with Pausanias’ report of Helen’s explanation for Stesichorus’ blindness.
In all my journeying through legends, myths, and summaries, nothing more specific regarding the love affair between Achilles and Helen has come to light until HD’s delightfully introspective exploration of Helen in Egypt.
Mysteriously guiding the reader through Helen’s conscious thoughts as she drifts between the lotus-decorated columns of Amun-Zeus, through the blinding white snow falling on Leuke’, and the chaotic battle scenes on the ramparts of Troy, HD offers an epic journey of not just a lifetime, but of many great and ancient lifetimes.
Yes, reading HD’s Helen in Egypt while in Egypt has been a special treat–perhaps surpassable only by reading it while lounging like Helen herself in the privileged shade of Karnak’s Amun Temple.
HD’s Helen in Egypt is as seductively enigmatic and unambiguously palpable as the great and ancient love affair between Greece and Egypt. It is a classic in its own right, an eloquently concentrated expression of epic vision and truly poetic imagination.
But, is Helen in Egypt a Love Story?
But, in the end, is Helen in Egypt a love story? This is another complicated question. The couple’s first encounter, according to HD, includes Achilles grabbing Helen by the neck and throttling her–and Helen loves every minute of it.
Helen then spends the rest of the book introspectively obsessing over Achilles while replaying his attempt to kill her–as though it was their first kiss!
(I guess the reason Helen doesn’t die like Penthesilea is that she is already dead…or deathless?)
Yes, But It’s Complicated
So, in the final analysis, yes, but like everything about Helen in Egypt, it’s complicated. HD presents an unexpected love story, not so deeply devoted to Helen and Achilles as it is to Achilles and Thetis. I was especially impressed with HD’s key treatment of the love Achilles carries for his mother while he is a child under the tutelage of Chiron.
Achilles crafts a token, an eidolon, in the romanticized form of Thetis and hides it in a tree. Often, at the end of the day, he comes to her in his secret tree, remembering the love of his mother.
Later, leaving for Skyros under his mother’s command, Achilles forgets his eidolon, abandoned in the tree near Chiron’s abode. Then, deserting Thetis’ command at the arrival of Odysseus bringing news of war at Troy, Achilles’ abandonment is complete. Thetis loses her beloved child to a fate stronger than a mother’s love.
In HD’s obviously Freudian-influenced psychoanalysis, Achilles’ disloyal and heartbreaking choice of glorious death instead of a long and boring life with Mom is tantamount to abandonment:
she fought for the Greeks, they said,
Achilles’ mother, but Thetis mourned
like Hecuba, for Hector dead.
Then, HD introduces a surprising and innovative twist by ultimately avenging Achilles’ dereliction of filial duty through the agency of Paris. Specifically, by the death-arrow Paris shoots at Achilles.
Even more ingeniously, HD discloses the final service and destination of Paris’ death-arrow as a solitary feathered tribute of love on an altar dedicated to the sacred cult of Thetis!
…it lies at her feet
with torn nets and the spears,
the fishing-nets and the chariot-staves,
mixed offerings of rich and poor,
of peace and of war;
I see the pitiful heap of little things,
the mountain of monstrous gear,
then both vanish, there is nothing,
nothing at all, a single arrow;
what had Paris to give her, or Eros?
for even the aim of Achilles
was not so sure, his bow so taut,
and even the arrow of Chiron
might sometime fail the mark,
but this one, never.
…Paris before Egypt, Paris after,
is Eros, even as Thetis,
the sea-mother, is Paphos;
so the dart of Love
is the dart of Death,
and the secret is no secret;
…only Achilles could break his heart
and the world for a token,
a memory forgotten
What an incredibly well-psychoanalyzed end for Achilles! Simply stunning, isn’t it?
Bravo, HD, Bravo!
But, is that it? Is that the end? I swear it slapped me in the face and deliciously took my breath away at the same time. I spent a week obsessively brooding over it, wanting more, smiling like a cat, and feeling mysteriously just like Helen in Egypt, loving it while HD throttles me. In Egypt!
[Top image: Detail from the Hellenistic Roman-era Nile Mosaic of Palestrina. ca. 100 BCE. Source]