The title of this paper takes as its cue Blondell et al’s Women on the Edge: Four Plays by Euripides,  which argues in its introduction that “[w]omen in tragedy often disrupt ‘normal’ life by their words and actions: they speak out boldly, tell lies, cause public unrest, violate custom, defy orders, even kill.” (Blondell, Gamel, Rabinowitz, Sorkin and Zweig. 1999, x) The four plays selected by the editors – Alcestis, Medea, Helen and Iphigenia at Aulis offer “examples of women who support the status quo and women who oppose and disrupt it.” (Blondell, Gamel, Rabinowitz, Sorkin and Zweig. 1999, x) Sometimes, however, it is enough that a woman merely be present for ‘normal life’ to be not only ‘disrupted’, but irrevocably altered. Further, a woman’s transposition from one sphere to another, and her corresponding transition from one state to the next, may change the very nature of the cosmos itself. This article will discuss several shared characteristics in the myths of Pandora, Persephone and Helen as presented in some of our earliest ancient Greek literary sources. Specifically, I shall look at those dating from the 8th to 6th centuries BCE: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days; the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite; and finally, the Greek epic fragments.
Pandora, Persephone and Helen have been chosen because their stories reflect the ongoing mythic preoccupation regarding the role of women within Greek society. It is possible to view the progression of the three as conforming to the rites de passage as described by Van Gennep in 1960 (10-11, 116 ff): We witness rites of separation, operating on two levels. First, despite their shared descent from, or creation by, the Olympian gods, they exist in the realm of mortals. Secondly, their partnerships are instigated either against or despite their will, and are marked by a concurrent development in the type of space they occupy. Rites of transition may be interpreted in the corresponding change of status that these women undergo – from daughters, virgins and legitimate spouses, to brides, wives and consorts. Finally, rites of incorporation occur once Pandora, Persephone and Helen are reintegrated into what the myths depict as a new world. This is achieved through aetiological explanations for the state of the cosmos and/or the institution of a new era of the human condition. Through the prism of these myths, it is therefore possible to understand the interaction between the mortal and the divine as metamorphosing into an increasingly complex, and finally fragmented, relationship.
I commence with Pandora, who we may interpret as the first human woman.  In both Works and Days and the Theogony, Hesiod describes Pandora as being formed after Prometheus twice transgresses against Zeus; first through deceitful sacrifice and secondly through the theft of fire. As a consequence of these actions, Zeus decrees that he “shall give them [men] an affliction in which they will all delight as they embrace their own misfortune.” (West 1988, 57-8) And now Pandora is created, Hephaistos making “from earth the likeness of a modest virgin,” (Caldwell, 571-2) and Athena dressing her in silver clothes, giving her a veil and garlands in her hair as well as a “golden diadem” (Hesiod. Theogony. West trans. 577). made by Hephaistos. In Works and Days, the Graces, hallowed Persuasion, the Seasons and Hermes are also involved in this undertaking, the latter naming her Pandora, “All gift, because all the dwellers on Olympus made her their gift – a calamity for men who live by bread.” (Hesiod. Works and Days. West trans. 81-3) Importantly, Hermes places in her heart “lies and wily pretences and a knavish nature.” (Hesiod. Works and Days. West trans. 68). The introduction of Pandora into the mortal realm may be viewed as a continuation of the civilising of mankind. Through the duplicitous actions of Prometheus, a precedent has been set regarding sacrificial ritual, and the use of fire further elevates humans above the other beasts inhabiting the earth. Pandora’s presence will continue this trend through the institution of the marriage rite; or as Vernant writes, “the female creature fashioned by the gods for the human beings is described as a parthenos [virgin] adorned to celebrate her marriage.” (Vernant190-1). Thus from the first, she appears as daughter, virgin and bride; this intimates not only her future role in procreation, but also the need for women to enter unions both sanctioned and legitimised by men – be they mortal or otherwise. This theme will also recur in the discussion of Persephone and Helen.
Although Pandora may not be the actual ‘daughter’ of any one god, she – the “molded woman” – has been touched, in her creation, by many. As with the deceitful sacrifice of Prometheus, she appears as a gift to “set against the fire,” (Hesiod. Works and Days. West trans. 57). though her function will prove to be very different. She is given as wife to Epimetheus (Afterthought), who has been expressly warned by his brother Prometheus (Forethought) not to accept any gifts from the Olympians “for fear it might prove to be an evil for mankind.” (Hesiod. Works and Days. Lattimore trans. 88) In Works and Days, Pandora unstops a jar that she herself has received from the gods, and this action releases “grim cares” (Hesiod. Works and Days. West trans. 39. Cf. Lattimore trans.: “sad troubles.”) and henceforth “countless troubles roam among men.” (Hesiod. Works and Days. West trans. 100. Cf. Lattimore trans.: “other troubles by thousands that hover about men.”). If formerly the “tribes of men on earth lived remote from ills, without harsh toil and the grievous sicknesses that are deadly to men,” (Hesiod. Works and Days. West trans. 90-93) the double hybris of Prometheus concludes such an era. Hesiod describes it thus:
. when he [Zeus] had made the lovely evil to pay for good,
he led her where the other gods and men were;
. awe filled immortal gods and mortal
men when they saw the sheer trick, irresistible to men.
For from her is the race of female women,
[from her is the deadly race and tribes of women]
a great plague to mortals, dwelling with men.(Hesiod. Theogony. Caldwell trans. 585-93)
But Pandora functions as more than this. Although she may be directly responsible for releasing misery upon her people, we must recall that she has been designed expressly for this purpose. Moreover, her creation is the direct result of the interaction between Zeus and Prometheus; arguably representative of the intelligence exhibited by gods and mortals respectively. I have already referred to the institution by Prometheus of the sacrifice ritual and his theft of fire, and how this uniquely positions humans vis-à-vis the gods. In her analysis of the myth, Blundell argues that through incorporating into Pandora “elements of all three levels of being [bestial, human and divine], she helps to determine the intermediate status of the human race, poised between the gods and the beasts” (Blundell, 23). But in highlighting this division through both her presence and her actions, Pandora likewise operates to further emphasise the separation between realms.
The arrival of Pandora heralds another fundamental change for humankind. For though she (and thus all women) may operate as a “bane for mortal men . . . conspirators in cau
sing difficulty,” (Hesiod. Theogony. West trans. 600-1) the rejection of womankind leads to a different class of misfortune. To exist entirely without women will leave a man with no one to care for him in his old age, and, on dying, “distant relatives share out his living” (Hesiod. Theogony. West trans. 606-7). By implication, the closest a man may come to immortality is through the propagation of his line. In avoiding women, he is doomed to the shortest kind of reknown and remembrance. Pandora is indeed both a pawn and the final gift in this reciprocal trickery. As Zeitlin argues, Pandora is – in all versions – “the outcome of a game of wits between Prometheus and Zeus that revolves around a series of deceptions and counter-deceptions in connection with the exchange of gifts” (Zeitlin, 58-74. 59). She is formed in order to serve as bride, and as explicitly stated in both the Theogony and Works and Days, also as wife and mother. Regardless of whether a man embraces or rejects this bequest of Zeus, it is impossible for there to be no repercussion. Thus in the creation of Pandora, and womankind with her, a new age commences. As will be discussed below, this will ultimately bring with it the cessation of intercourse between gods and mortals.
We turn now to Persephone, her abduction by and into Hades and her transition from Korê (girl)  into queen of the Underworld. Our most comprehensive archaic source for this myth is the Homeric Hymn To Demeter, one of a number of extant hymns that are thought to have functioned as “preludes to the recitation of other epic poetry” (Foley, 27). Persephone, the “slim-ankled daughter” (HHD. 2) of Zeus and Demeter was in a “beautiful meadow” (HHD. 417) with other virgin goddesses when Hades – with the consent of his brother Zeus – “snatched the unwilling maid into his golden chariot and led her off lamenting” (HHD. 19-20. Cf. 363-4). Demeter learns what has happened to her daughter and “sharp grief seized her heart” (HHD. 40). Throughout her ordeal Persephone cries for her father, who meanwhile sits on Olympus “aloof . . . accepting fine offerings from mortals” (Cashford, 28-9). On the tenth day of her search, Demeter is aided first by Hekate and then Helios, who are the only witnesses to the abduction; the latter remarking somewhat nonchalantly that “Aidoneus [Hades] is not an unsuitable bridegroom . . . as for honour, he got his third [the Underworld] at the world’s first division and dwells with those whose rule has fallen to his lot.”  Demeter, angered by the actions of Zeus, withdraws “from the assembly of the gods and high Olympus” (HHD. 92). Disguising herself as an old woman, “cut off from child-bearing and the gifts of Aphrodite” (HHD. Cashford trans. 102-3), she embraces a parallel role to her daughter Persephone, who has now been relegated to the uniquely human realm of death.
Demeter retires in her grief to Eleusis where she is welcomed into the home of Keleos by his daughters. She is offered a position there as nurse to their infant brother Demophoön. The young women inform her that should she raise him to adulthood, she will be greatly rewarded by their mother. Demeter, however, attempts to make him immortal: anointing the child with ambrosia, breathing on him, and burying him within fire: “And the goddess would have made him ageless, deathless.” (HHD. Cashford trans. 242-3). Metaneira witnesses the fire ritual and protests at the actions of the stranger. Demeter responds by speaking of the ignorance of humans, for they do not “forsee the destiny that is coming toward them” (HHD. Cashford trans. 257). The tragedy of Demeter is that her own divine child has been snatched to Hades, effectively dying.  When the goddess finally proclaims her identity, she commands the people of Eleusis to build her a temple there, in which she
remained sitting apart from all the immortals,
wasting with desire for her deep-girt daughter. . .
She would have destroyed the whole mortal race
by cruel famine and stolen the glorious honour of gifts
and sacrifices from those having homes on Olympus,
if Zeus had not seen and pondered their plight in his heart. (HHD. 303-13. Cf. 351-4).
It is worth noting that the hymn relates the potential of a female deity to bring ruin upon the gods through the destruction of humankind. Lord suggests that the Hymn “shares an epic pattern that is discernible also in the Homeric poems” (Lord, 241). Following both the symbolic death of her own daughter due to a marriage she was not consulted about, and the thwarted attempt to deify Demophoön (implying his inevitable death), Demeter is prepared to be responsible for the death of all mortals. It is through the removal of sacrifice, which as we have seen in the myth of Pandora was the result of deceitful behaviour, that the goddess holds Zeus hostage. It is not until Hermes successfully retrieves Persephone from the Underworld that Demeter relents her wrath. By this time, however, Persephone has been fed the pomegranate seeds that, unbeknownst to her, will force her return to Hades for a third of every year. The reversal of the ambrosial motif, fed to the child Demophoön, reinforces the importance of appropriate behaviours to those belonging to different yet complementary spheres. This has already been witnessed in the interaction between Zeus and Prometheus, and will be seen again in the myth of Helen.
Persephone remains an eternally liminal figure in that she oscillates between Korê – the maiden – and bride of death in her movement between her husband’s realm and that of her mother. Her removal from the Olympian realm into the Underworld, and its consequences, are mirrored by the removal of her mother Demeter from Olympus into the mortal sphere. Perhaps then, we may surmise that a god’s prolonged transition from Olympus to earth is parallel to the shift between life and death for humans.  In this sense, Persephone’s movement is not only similar to that undergone by Demeter and eventually one such as Demophoön, but is also exacerbated in a most extreme sense: an immortal goddess fated to ‘die’ annually, descending in/to Hades and surrounded by the human dead. Persephone’s role, however, will not be limited to merely appearing by her husband’s side, for she will become mistress of the Underworld, with “power over all that lives and moves.” (HHD. 365). Through her ‘death’ she becomes elevated once again.
Persephone is also of particular interest because although she becomes a wife, she does not become a mother. The only other goddesses in mythology who remain childless are the virgin goddesses: the most prominent being Athene, Artemis and Hestia, (Cf. The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. 7-33) each of whom is specifically associated with a beneficial influence on both the polis and the oikos (household). Blundell writes that women who bore children were “supposed to come under male domination and any female who tried to evade this social truth . . . was clearly up to no good” (Blundell. 44). It is therefore women who are either infertile or denied propagation that may be permitted “to be both powerful and benevolent.” (Blundell. 44). This may partly account for Persephone later being considered a more sombre figure. Further, the HHD clearly demonstrates the wrath exhibited by a mother on the illicit removal of her child (and therefore Demeter’s lack of control over future propagation of her line), and the dangers posed by the consequences of her anger. The case
of Persephone may be said to encapsulate that great fear of divine parents: the impending death of their mortal children. The withdrawal of these children into a realm beyond reach, is something that divine parents must contend with not only during the lifetime of the child, but for all eternity. This is epitomised in the concern exhibited by Thetis for Achilleus, as well as Zeus for Sarpedon throughout the Trojan war, as described in the Iliad. Perhaps this most conclusively demonstrates the inherent liminality of the progeny of divine parents who inhabit the mortal realm.
Having discussed Pandora and Persephone, I turn now to the famous Helen of Troy, and her representation in the epic fragments and Homer’s epics. In the Cypria, Helen’s conception is described thus:
But some say that Helen was the daughter of Nemesis and Zeus. For Nemesis, fleeing from intercourse with Zeus, changed her form into a goose, but Zeus too took the likeness of the swan and had congress with her, and as a result she laid an egg. A shepherd found this among the trees and brought it and gave it to Leda, who put it away in a chest and kept it; and when in time Helen was born from it, she raised her as her own daughter. 
However, the rival and more famous tradition for Helen’s origin is Zeus’ seduction of the mortal woman Leda, in which she is raised by the latter and her similarly mortal husband, Tyndareos. In both versions we once again witness the theme of women being forced into partnerships against their choosing. Although neither tradition is directly alluded to in the Homeric epics,  there are references to the ambiguity of her lineage. In the Iliad Helen refers to her (semi-)mortal brothers,  and further emphasising her connection to the divine is Priam, who proclaims that “[t]errible is the likeness of her face to immortal goddesses.”  In the Odyssey she is described as “Helen, who was descended of Zeus”  and as “Zeus’ daughter.” (Odyssey. 4.227).
Helen has already once been abducted, by the Athenian hero Theseus. (Cypria, Fragment 12). For this reason Tyndareos exacts an oath from her Achaean suitors that they must fight on her behalf should a second abduction occur. In the Cypria, Aphrodite promises Helen to Alexander in exchange for naming her the most beautiful goddess over Hera and Athena. (Cypria, Argument 1). He does so, and on arriving in Argos is received by Helen’s husband Menelaos during which “hospitality Alexander gives Helen presents” (Cypria, Argument 2). Once again, we have an exposition on inappropriate behaviour, this time with regards to xenia (guest-friendship). Leaving his wife in what proves to be a vulnerable position, Menelaos departs for the funeral of his maternal grandfather, “instructing Helen to look after the visitors until their departure. Aphrodite then brings Helen together with Alexander, and after making love they put most of Menelaus’ property on board and sail away in the night.” (Cypria, Argument 2). Dowden writes that the “accumulated sense of the intertext is based upon, and illustrates, the views of a male society concerned at the difficulties in controlling female sexuality . . . in preserving the oikos against this danger to male hegemony” (Dowden, 53). Not surprisingly, the absence of Helen provokes an extreme response: the abduction/seduction is followed by ten years of war, an entire generation of Greek and Trojan warriors killed and Troy being decimated. These events lay the groundwork for the final separation between gods and men.
Henceforth, myths involving semi-divine individuals are generally limited to foundation myths, or what Kirk has termed “later inventions of the historical period” (Kirk, 113). The outcome of the Trojan War also coincides with the end of Hesiod’s fourth race: “a more righteous and noble one, the godly race of the heroes who are called demigods, our predecessors . . . and as for them, ugly war and fearful fighting destroyed them . . . and others it led in ships over the great abyss of the sea to Troy on account of lovely haired-Helen” (Hesiod. Works and Days. West trans. 158-65). At this point it is appropriate to refer to the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. Zeus, as means of avenging himself on the goddess for her uniting him with mortal women “whenever she pleased,”  places within her “sweet longing to be united with a mortal man” (HHA. 45). Interestingly, Clay writes that like the HHA, the HHD “ultimately presents a diminution of limitiation of the power of Demeter” (Clay, 265). Following her successful seduction of Anchises, Aphrodite reveals herself and proceeds to recount the unions between Ganymede and Zeus, and Eos and Tithonos. She continues,
.old age will soon enfold you,
remorseless, the same for everyone.
deadly, dispiriting – even the gods abhor it.
As for me, there will be great shame.
Up until now they [the immortal gods] were afraid of my love affairs
and my wiles since, sooner or later,
I mated all the immortal gods with mortal women
. but now I shall not dare to open my mouth
on these matters among the immortals
because I fell into a very great madness.(HHA. 244-53).
Aphrodite bears to Anchises a son, Aeneas, and he will survive the Trojan war, going on to found a new city and establish a new people. But more important for our purposes is the other result of this union between the goddess and her mortal lover: Aphrodite’s eternal shame that she succumbed to that which previously had so amused her. From this time forth, there will be no more propagation between gods and humans. (Cf. Clay, Jenny Strauss. 1989. 14; 268). However, as Walcot argues, “the Hymn to Aphrodite does not stand in isolation but must be related to the Homeric and post-Homeric evidence of which itself forms a vital part” (Walcot, 138). Thus the title of this paper, ‘Helen on the Edge’, refers to the crucial moment when intercourse between the divine and mortals ceases. The gods existed first, “and mortal men have come from the same starting-point,” (Hesiod. Works and Days. West trans. 108) but the time finally arrives when there will no longer be interaction between the two. Helen, against a backdrop of the Trojan war, is situated on the cusp between one era and the next.
Having examined archaic Greek literary representations of Pandora, Persephone and Helen it becomes apparent that the myths share certain key features: Firstly, the women are either made by, or descended from, the Olympian gods. In the instance of Pandora, Zeus is the instigator in her creation. He is the father of both Persephone and Helen. Secondly, there is a progression in the space from which these women are moved: Olympus, the mother’s realm and husband’s oikos. This can, of course, be affected by the order in which one presents the myths. Nonetheless, it seems that this particular order coincides with the progression of movement with regards to mankind’s involvement with the gods. In each case, we may interpret the removal of the women as falling into Van Gennep’s category of rites of separation.  Thirdly, the women are utilised as both gifts and
punishments. There is a didactic motif regarding behaviour that is either suitable or unsuitable. Indeed, there is a recurring theme of gift giving and sacrifice being used for illegitimate purposes. Fourthly, Pandora, Persephone and Helen undergo such movement either against or despite their will. The most ambiguous, as the tradition demonstrates, is Helen. Pandora, one could argue, does not possess will until she unstops the fateful jar, but this has been predetermined by Zeus.  Persephone struggles against her fate, but is powerless to stop it in the face of the joint venture between Zeus and Hades. Van Gennep suggested that due to the “number and importance of groups affected by the social union of two of their members, it is natural that the period of transition should take on considerable importance” (Van Gennep. 116). In each case, the liminal period is a crucial episode within the myth, and this leads us to our concluding point: The outcome of the transitional period results in an end shared by all mortals.  With Pandora and Persephone we find aetiological explanations for the state of the cosmos – the hard lot suffered by humankind and an account for the seasons. Helen’s myth pre-empts the final separation between gods and men.
But do the myths speak of more than the final cleaving of cosmic realms? Dowden writes that mythology demonstrates “the power of particular attitudes if they can achieve the prominence of being incorporated into common societal fiction, though it offers no completely new evidence”(56). I believe that the myths of Pandora, Persephone and Helen – representative of a general trend in Greek mythology – clearly suggest that a woman may be acted upon simply due to her presence, or even her potential existence: because her gender and youth make her beautiful, vulnerable and therefore desirable. In The Beauty Myth, Wolf wrote that:
Women are mere “beauties” in men’s culture so that culture can be kept male. When women in culture show character, they are not desirable, as opposed to the desirable, artless ingénue. A beautiful heroine is a contradiction in terms, since heroism is about individuality, interesting and ever changing, while “beauty” is generic, boring, and inert. While culture works out moral dilemmas, “beauty” is amoral.(59)
But such ‘amorality’ operates both in terms of acting, or, in the case of the myths analysed above, being acted upon. Perhaps for this reason, the beauties of these three myths remain mute and the objects of surrounding action – they are perfect beauties due to their silence and their passivity. In such a way they may remain both desirable and distant. Richlin, in a paper examining the relationship between classics and feminism, writes “it is not part of the traditional practice of classics to care so much about the social implication of texts . . . [this] is not a responsible or honest way to read . . . that is one reason classicists need feminist theory” (273). Thus when we ask who are the protagonists in these myths, the answer is rarely the women discussed above.
What agency, then, do Pandora, Persephone and Helen exhibit? Pandora is created in response to Prometheus’ one-up-manship with Zeus, and given in punishment to his brother Epimetheus. She is crafted, not born. Persephone as Korê has power only to call for her mother, and even this she does ineffectually. It is only later that we see her gain status as queen of the Underworld. Thus in the Nekuya of Odyssey 11, Odysseus speaks of the “green fear” (Odyssey. 11.633) that takes hold of him, “with the thought that proud Persephone might send up against me some gorgonish head of a terrible monster out of Hades” (Odyssey. 11.644-5). In the HHD, it is Demeter who drives forth the momentum in order to regain her abducted daughter, and that in the guise of an old woman. Helen, both in the epic fragments and in Homer, is similarly propelled along by the desire of others. It is Aphrodite who initiates, Alexander who seduces, and Menelaos and the Greeks that pursue. Several centuries later, as in the plays of Euripides, Helen is either complicit in her ‘abduction’ as in The Trojan Women, or absolved of guilt by being entirely absent from Troy. In Euripides’ Helen, she has been substituted at Troy with a phantom by the goddess Hera, and patiently waits ten years for Menelaos in Egypt.
Prior to the existence of Pandora, then, there can be no socially defined roles for women simply because there are no women. The interaction of Pandora with both gods and mortals lays foundations for all mythological women – both human and divine. Zeitlin has suggested that one of the key aims of Hesiod’s Theogony is to account for the supremacy of Zeus. This is achieved through establishing his ascendancy over the other gods, and – more importantly in the context of this paper – on the “decisive separation of gods from mortals . . . [which] combine in the circumstances of Pandora’s manufacture.” (Zeitlin, 72). This is further emphasised in the demonstration of the gulf that exists between the (limited) lifespan of humans and the cosmic influence of immortals in the HHD. Another of the issues that the Persephone myth addresses is the question of women’s roles within the home, their transition from parthenos to gyne (woman/wife), and the role of parents and husband in maintaining such status. The myth of Helen further extrapolates on women’s roles within the oikos by examining a woman’s expected loyalty to her home, as well as her value as status symbol to her husband and his community. If “[w]oman is a mobile unit in a society that practises patrilocal marriage,”(Carson, 136) then controlling her movement is of fundamental importance to the successful perpetuation of the hegemony of male dominance.
The three mythological figures of Pandora, Persephone and Helen present us with important perspectives on the role that women play – if not in Ancient Greek society itself – then in the archaic literature we have inherited from that society. Indeed, the function of each woman becomes apparent only through her interaction with, firstly, those from whom she originates and her separation from them, and secondly, her selected husband and her integration into his community. Thus the daughters of gods – as opposed to sons, such as Herakles and Akhilleus, who often embody a form of hyper-masculinity – may appear as reference points for the place which mortal women ought to occupy. Each of these examples raises a multitude of questions, but this exemplifies the problems inherent in attempting to categorise women in Greek myth, who have a tendency to appear as elusive as the three discussed above. One way we may approach them is as ciphers through which to view ancient Greek women as they were perceived and as they may have perceived themselves. We must remember that in such a dynamic mythology it is impossible that women were not affected by the telling of such stories and vice versa – for these myths existed likewise through the impact real women had on their telling.
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