Skip to main content. Log In Sign Up. Superlative Beauty and Value in the Iliad Intertexts, Superlative Beauty and Value in the Iliad. Rynearson c olumbia Universit y Was this the face that lancht a thousand shippes? And burnt the toplesse Towres of Ilium? No marvel tho the angry Greekes pursude with tenne yeares warre the rape of such a queene, whose heavenly beauty passeth all compare.
The only sense of scale the third scholar can offer is the expansive effort to win her back. But in this mor- alizing tale even the most Superlatively valuable males beautiful prize is of course no fair exchange for the immortal, Christian soul.
The play Superlatively valuable males that the soul, in much the same terms as Helen herself, whose famous visage it evokes for exactly this end, is incomparably valuable, a possession so precious that is exceeds any system of exchange. When the old men see her approaching they remark 3.
No wonder the Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans suffer pains for so long for the sake of such a woman: Just before, when the goddess Iris summons her to the wall, Helen has been weav- ing her own commentary on this same theme of many sufferings 3.
She was weaving a great purple web of double thickness and representing on it the many struggles of Superlatively valuable males horse-taming Trojans and the bronze-clad Achaeans, struggles which they were suffering at the hands of Ares because of her.
This diction is connected in turn with both the scale and the central thematic elements of epic, the many-ness polus and suffering that the pro- grammatic openings of both the Iliad and Odyssey bring to the fore. As Nestor tells Telemachus in Odyssey 3, looking back on all they endured at Troy, the best of the Achaeans died in numbers past counting After a short catalogue of the best and brightest of the dead, the usually long-winded hero marks another, grimmer failure of language in a well- known recusatio: In book 2, when Agamemnon raises the possibility of flight for home to test the men, Hera intervenes, to prevent the lives thus far lost in pursuit of Helen from becoming sunk cost.
What determines the limits of value set on an individual, living or dead, for the ones who want her or him back? And how can Superlatively valuable males value be converted into other terms or goods, or fixed at Superlatively valuable males price and thereby integrated into a comprehensible economy?
The excess of the epic struggle for Helen explores these questions, taking her as an extreme case wherein there may be, as the old men on the wall suggest, no limits.
Just how striking this limit case is can be seen by stepping outside the frame of the Iliad and Odyssey. Removed from the economy of epic, this excess becomes inexpli- cable. Herodotus, for example, from his historicizing perspective, cannot make sense of paying for one woman with so Superlatively valuable males lives.
If Helen were in Troy, she would have been given up to the Greeks whether Paris was willing to do so or not. For neither Priam nor the other leading Trojans were so deranged that they would be willing to risk their lives, their children and their city so that Paris could live with Helen.
Herodotus continues by putting his objection in precisely the terms of excess that structure the epic struggle, juxtaposing many lives for one woman: In order for the epic to make sense of itself, it must grant credibility to the as- tonishment expressed by the Trojan elders in the Teichoscopia. We have to believe that Helen is somehow worth it all because she is simply that beautiful. This is not beauty of any normal order: She is the most beautiful and there is no other beauty with which she can be compared; if no other woman measures up, she cannot be replaced.
This Superlatively valuable males exactly what Herodotus finds impossible to believe, a con- cept antithetical to the historicizing logic behind the sequence of kidnappings of wom- Superlatively valuable males at the opening of Superlatively valuable males work, which manifests the cyclical hostility between east and west: The Iliad itself recognizes this credibility gap, since it depicts a social world where little distinction is made between individual women as currency in an economy of honor among men.
Later, when Agamemnon tells Achilles that he will in fact take his prize, Briseis, the language he uses suggests an interchangeability of these women that verges on complete elision of difference: This possibility is foreclosed if there is simply no woman who can properly be described as antaxios with respect to Helen. Let him choose twenty Trojan women, whichever are—after Argive Helen—most beautiful kallistai.
The application of the superlative kallistai requires immediate qualification: For Superlatively valuable males, the loss of something so highly valued and the concomitant loss of status cannot go unredressed. Hence the expedi- tion, ten years of toil, countless griefs, innumerable lives: But one need only scratch the surface of the text to uncover an anxious doubt.
Helen and Achilles, the two figures at the Superlatively valuable males of the problem of superlative and singular value in the Iliad, pose, in different ways, significant chal- lenges to the economy that values them so highly. Regret As we have already seen in her first appearance in the Iliad, weaving at the loom, Helen is acutely aware of her position as a prize for which much suffering is endured.
This is only one manifestation of the highly self-reflexive characterization of Helen in the poem. Elsewhere, Superlatively valuable males shows herself uniquely able to consider her fate from a perspec- tive other than her own.
Would that death had pleased me at that time when I followed your son here, leaving behind my marriage chamber, my relatives, my late-born child, and my lovely age-mates!
But that is not what happened and I am worn out with weeping over it. In other words, she valued Paris highly enough to compel her to abandon the multiple objects of value she enumerates here in exchange for the single object of desire he represented, making her personal tragedy parallel to the greater epic catastrophe that surrounds her. Helen sacrifices many for one Parisjust as individual Greeks Superlatively valuable males their other objects of care wife, parents, home for her sake; the expedition as a whole, in turn, sacrifices many lives for the pursuit of a single woman.
The difference is that Helen, unlike those now fighting for her, recog- nizes this exchange of many for one as folly. But I Superlatively valuable males it is whatever one desires.
In order to substantiate this assertion, Sappho adduces Helen as an exemplum. Sappho is interested in this psychological effect of the desired object: Doubt If the Homeric Helen looks back on her own choice as a terrible mistake, what prevents the possibility that the Greeks might do the same?
Of course other incentives are held out to the Greeks at Troy, both Superlatively valuable males plunder and immaterial kleos. That it may be a mistake to value Helen above wives and children left at home, above nostos homecom- ingabove life itself, is the repressed thought of the Greek warriors that erupts in their attempted flight Superlatively valuable males Agamemnon imprudently tests them in book 2.