Sep. 6th, 2011 02:19 pm
helens_daughter: (Default)

Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Sparta, is the heroine of my novel Helen's Daughter.  All that is known about her is that she spent the duration of the Trojan War at Mycenae with her aunt Clytaemnestra, and was later married to both Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, and then to Orestes, to whom she bore a son, Tisamenus.  The reason I have not posted an image of her is because there are none to be found.  Beside her infamous mother and aunt, Hermione is a non-entity, an also-ran.  If she existed--and there is no reason to assume she did not--she must have lived a very quiet life.

There is more than one version of the Hermione-Orestes-Neoptolemus triangle.  In Books 4 and 5 of Homer's Odyssey, the Spartan court celebrates the wedding of Hermione and Neoptolemus; the marriage to Orestes is never mentioned.  Other sources state that Neoptolemus stole Hermione, either from her grandfather's house, or from Orestes himself.  Hermione herself is simply a commodity to be given away, stolen, or reclaimed.  Like their fathers, Orestes and Neoptolemus are reduced to fighting over a woman.

Euripides in his Andromache portrays Hermione and her father Menelaus as spiteful and murderous, plotting against Andromache and her newborn son; Jean Racine took up this thread many centuries later in his Andromaque, with Hermione as a treacherous and capricious cock-tease, goading a lovesick Orestes into murdering Neoptolemus, then changing her mind, rejecting Orestes, and killing herself.

Keep in mind that Euripides was an Athenian playwright working at the height of the Peloponnesian War, and Andromache is a piece of anti-Spartan propaganda.  Later, in his Orestes, he would portray Hermione as a docile creature who ends up a hostage as Orestes puts a knife to her throat while the palace of Sparta burns around them.

Ovid wrote about Hermione in his Heroides (the Heroines), a collection of "letters" written by fourteen heroines from mythology to their absent lovers.  In Epistle VIII, Ovid's Hermione writes to Orestes, urging him to save her from her forced marriage to Neoptolemus.  In these excerpts, Hermione complains that it is the lot of the women in her family to be abducted:

Hermione speaks to one lately her cousin and husband,

now her cousin. The wife has changed her name.

Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, proud, in his father’s image,

holds me imprisoned contrary to piety and justice.

I have refused what I could, so as not be held against my will,

a woman’s hand has not the power to do more....


Deafer than the sea, he dragged me under his roof,

my hair unbound, and I calling on Orestes’s name.

How could I have endured worse, as a slave in a captured Sparta,

if a barbarian horde were to seize a daughter of Greece?

Andromache was less abused by victorious Achaia,

when Greek flames might have burnt the wealth of Troy.

But you, Orestes, if my affectionate care for you moves you,

take possession of me, without cowardice, as is your right!

You’d surely take up arms if someone snatched your cattle

from the closed stable, will you be slower for a captive wife?


Don’t ready a thousand ships with swelling canvas

or hosts of Greek warriors: come yourself!

Yet if I too were won back in this way, it’s no shame for a husband

to have endured fierce war for his dear marriage bed.

Why, since Atreus, Pelop’s son, is our mutual grandfather,

even if you weren’t my husband, you’d still be my cousin.

Husband, I beg you, aid your wife, cousin aid your cousin:

both titles urge you to perform your duty.


I am violated, and my face swells with feeling,

and my inflamed emotions grieve me with hidden fires.

Who has not taunted Orestes in Hermione’s presence:

I have no power, there’s no cruel sword here!

Truly I can weep: I diffuse anger in weeping,

and tears flow like streams over my breast.

I have only these, always, and always I pour them out:

they wet my neglected cheeks, from a perennial fountain.

Surely, by the fate of my race, that tracks us through the years,

the mothers of Tantalus’s line are suited to be prey?



In this epistle, Hermione also reveals her feelings toward her mother:


Why must I complain that a troubled destiny harms me?

My childhood was motherless: father was at the war:

and while both lived, I was bereaved of both.

Not for you, my mother, the charming lispings of those tender years,

spoken by your daughter’s uncertain mouth.

I did not clasp your neck with tiny arms,

or sit, a welcome burden, on your lap.

You didn’t tend my dress, nor on my marriage

did I enter a new marriage bed, prepared by my mother.

When you returned I came out to meet you – I confess the truth –

my mother’s face was not familiar!

Yet I knew you were Helen, as you were the most beautiful:

you yourself asked which child was your daughter.


Such dramatic potential was what drew me to Hermione as a heroine.  There were many places where I had to fill in the blanks, or compromise between contradictory versions, but the result is, I think, a convincing portrait of a Mycenaean noblewoman who has known her share of resentment and love, and has had to fend for herself.


Aug. 14th, 2011 10:08 pm
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Menelaus, king of Sparta, and husband of Helen, is often portrayed as a gooseberry.  He's considered a fool for leaving Helen alone with Paris, not to mention he ends up as the biggest cuckold in Aegean because of it.  Moreover, he's a second-rate warrior, though certainly not lacking in courage.

To give the king of Sparta his due, he's actually one of the most sympathetic characters in the story of the Trojan War, and not such a fool as people think.  Of course, he shouldn't have left Helen and Paris alone, but his Cretan grandfather's funeral called him away at the most inopportune time.  And, true, Helen may not have been happy as his wife, seeing as the marriage was a political one arranged by their families, and Menelaus certainly had his infidelities with the palace slave women.  But he left her in the care of her parents and two brothers, and had no reason to think Paris would violate the sanctity of his guest-right, or that Helen would abandon their children to take up with a young foreigner who wasn't even heir to the Trojan throne.  

In The Odyssey, Homer portrays Menelaus as generous and good-natured, and remorseful over the war's human cost.  Menelaus doesn't share the same interests as Agamemnon and the rest of the Greek coalition; his goal throughout the war is to regain his wife, the treasure Paris stole, and his personal honor.  He risks his life to accompany Odysseus on the diplomacy embassy to Priam's court to ask for Helen's release and return of his treasure.  Had the Trojans capitulated then, the Spartan contingent most likely would have withdrawn from the fighting, and taken a number of other contingents with it, thus bringing the Greek offensive to an early end.

Menelaus has not fared so well on film, however.  Filmmakers tend to forget that he is a redhead.  While Wolfgang Petersen got it right in 2004's Troy, with the casting of Brendan Gleeson, 2003's dreadful TV miniseries Helen of Troy got it wrong by miscasting a dark haired James Callis next to Rufus Sewell, who is probably the sharpest, best-looking Agamemnon I have ever seen.  Even Hallmark's 1990's miniseries The Odyssey, which does such a marvelous job portraying the Mycenaean palace of Sparta, gives Menelaus elaborate black corkscrew curls.

Brother, what is this new brunette look you're sporting?

Don't mess with redheads.

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