The Mortal Deity: Helen and the God-like Trait

The Mortal Deity: Helen and the God-like Trait

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The relationship between the gods and mortals of ancient Greece is one of the most interesting topics to analyze. These gods watch over their favorite mortals, meddle in their business, and have love affairs with them. At times selfish and conniving, the gods often appear to be as flawed as the humans who worship them are. There is, however, still a distinct separation between deity and mortal. From the evidence I have seen in The Iliad, I believe that this distinction is based on something I call a god-like trait. If a human reacts towards this trait in the wrong way, and believes he embodies this trait at the level equal or surpassing to that of the gods, tragedy occurs to the human. This mistake in self-recognition will lead to severe consequences unless the mortal repents and accepts his humanity. In The Iliad, Helen makes the mistake of false divinity, and it is her error in associating herself as the paragon of a god-like trait and in refusing to repent that leads to her ruin.

The definition of a god-like trait must first be established before the analysis of Helen’s behavior can be entirely understood. The gods in The Iliad present themselves as having at least one specific trait that they alone can boast of. These gods are the standard for excellence for whatever trait it may be. For example, Zeus was the model of strength, Aphrodite the standard for a beautiful woman, and Apollo the master of archery. For a human to display god-like behavior, the human declares he is the best, conflicting with the premise that the gods are the best at what they do. If the human tries to step beyond his status in his declaration or display, the gods would be offended and severe consequences usually follow. Hubris also plays a large role in god-like behavior, intertwining with it and causing a vicious circle. A god-like trait causes hubris because the mortal thinks that he displays the standard of excellence actually found in the gods. This hubris then would cause the trait to become even more divine and less mortal, leaving the man believing that he is above the gods due to this outstanding trait. Because of the trap this trait creates, it is important to be able to identify it.

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The trait is created by three ways. First, the mortal must recognize it himself. If he is unaware of his magnificent gift, then no hubris—self-pride—can be created. Second, the mortal’s peers must recognize the trait and see him as god-like. If Agamemnon had not recognized Achilles’ strength by feeling threatened by it, Achilles would have never realized his own power against Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s reaction to Achilles’ strength showed that Achilles had a gift even the king of all Argives was afraid of. Without this reaction, Achilles may have never known his power because he may not have recognized it in himself to that extent. Finally, the gods must recognize the trait. If the gods do not see the mortal going beyond his proper bounds, then there is no way they can be offended by them. If Apollo does not recognize Patroclus’ strength as god-like, then he cannot punish Patroclus for acting like a god.

These three conditions are satisfied in the case of Helen of Troy. Helen’s god-like trait is her outstanding beauty. This beauty alienates her from the rest of the mortal women. The recognition of the trait by Helen and her peers is obvious; the battle for Troy would not have started without Helen’s beauty to cause the Achaean alliance or to tempt Paris. In a dialogue with Priam, Helen appears to curse herself and her actions. She wishes she had died when she ran away with Paris, but like a goddess, death did not come to her (3.210-14). The old chiefs of Troy also call Helen a goddess, likening her to an angry deity who makes mortals suffer by striking from above. This comparison is appropriate, not only because of her god-like trait, but because her actions caused so much suffering in so many people.

Ah, no wonder

The men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered

Years of agony all for her, for such a woman.

Beauty, terrible beauty!

A deathless goddess—so she strikes our eyes! (3.187-91)

Aphrodite chooses to recognize Helen’s beauty and not take offense from it because Helen serves as a reward for Paris. As long as Helen obeys Aphrodite’s wishes, she will fall under her favor. Thus, with recognition of the trait by the three parties, Helen can be described as having the god-like trait. By simply having this trait, Helen is able to elevate herself to new levels of respect.

But Helen reacts to the trait in a different manner, and soon her god-like trait of beauty leads her to hubris. Her initial display of hubris is not directly seen in the events of The Iliad, but is remarked upon in Helen’s anguished criticisms of herself. In The Iliad, Helen has moved somewhat beyond her original stage of hubris. Seeing the terrible war around her, it appears that she regrets her actions that displayed her initial hubris. These acts were running away with Paris and leaving her husband and family. By breaking the laws of society, she put herself above the law and made herself a god. By making herself a god, she acquired hubris, and the circle began. In The Iliad, she repeatedly curses herself, calling herself names such as “whore,” “bitch,” and “slut.” With such passionate passages as the following, does Helen feel guilty for triggering the war and want to end the circle?

Oh how I wish

That first day my mother brought me into the light

Some black whirlwind had rushed me out to the mountains

Or into the surf where the roaring breakers crash and drag

And the waves had swept me off before all this had happened! (6.409-13)

The apparently sincere plea for mortality reveals itself to be a false show of airs in the next lines.

But since the gods ordained it all, these desperate years,

I wish I had been the wife of a better man, someone

Alive to outrage, the withering scorn of men. (6.414-16)

Speaking to Hector, Helen makes a mockery of her suffering by flirting with him. Evidently, Helen is interested in men, but only honorable ones. She is ashamed of Paris, whom she calls a coward. Hector on the other hand, is respected for his bravery in battle. She tries to persuade Hector to sit with her by using her guilt to tempt his sympathy and, she hopes, ensuing passions. “Oh the two of us!” she says, “Zeus planted a killing doom within us both, so even for generations still unborn we will live in song” (6.423-6). Hector repels her Aphrodite-like advances and chooses instead to see his family. That Helen only thinks of herself even during this unstable, sorrowful time of war suggests that Helen’s hubris has caused her to no longer see war as a mortal would, but as a god would. Gods do not appreciate the severity and finality of war because death does not apply to them.

More evidence that Helen still considers herself a goddess can be found in her quarrel with Aphrodite over sleeping with Paris after Menelaus almost defeated him. Her hubris remains and manifests itself into rage against Aphrodite, whom she blames for her misfortunes:

“Maddening one, my Goddess, oh what now?

Lusting me to lure me to my ruin yet again?” (3.460-1)

Helen’s exasperation with Aphrodite has overtones of criticism and superiority, much like how a rebelling teenager complains disrespectfully to her mother’s face about some “unreasonable” demand. By resisting Aphrodite’s orders to sleep with Paris, Helen promotes herself from the subordinate mortal status to be above that of the goddess.

Helen will not become human again until she reacts to her suffering as a mortal would. Achilles is another character in The Iliad who demonstrated a god-like trait and fell into the trap of hubris and false divinity. He does repent though, and says to Priam, “we wretched men live on to bear such torments—the gods live free of sorrows,” accepting the sorrow he is entitled to as a mortal (24.613-4). Until Helen genuinely feels sorrow for triggering the war, she will not accept the mortal’s sorrow, and will remain god-like and be hated by both gods and humans. The Iliad ends with Helen giving a speech in honor of Hector. In her speech, there is no indication of her repenting or feeling true sorrow for her actions. Instead, she mourns for herself.

And so in the same breath I mourn for you and me,

My doom-struck, harrowed heart! Now there is no one left

In the wide realm of Troy, no friend to treat me kindly

All the countrymen cringe from me in loathing! (24.909-12)

That her emotions centralized on self-pity and the absence of men to pay attention to her shows how Helen has not regained her humanity, even at the end of the poem. Thus Helen is doomed to be hated by her countrymen for starting the devastating war.

Although Helen’s mistake is related to a religion many people do not believe in literally, it still applies today. There must be a limit to what human beings are able to do and be. Being mortals, the nature of human life is restricted and contained within certain parameters that are established by the mortals’ gods or god. Sometimes humans are endowed with gifts or talents that are so wonderful that they must be used and shown to the world. But if, like Helen’s beauty, they are used incorrectly, the human risks overstepping his bound. As shown in The Iliad, such an error would lead to severe consequences and wrath from both mortals and immortals alike. Helen’s plight should be seen as warning to others against such an error, for even something in such close likeness to divinity can cause its own destruction.
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