Saturday, July 16, 2011


image from

Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda thought.
She ached with their sorrow, she straightaway threw
Into the wine charming herbs. Then they would be
Drinking soothing sorrows, allaying anger
And the forgetting of all evil.
She in the krater mixt and all gulped down
The wine. And not for the whole day through
Would tears fall down their cheeks. Not even
If his Mother or Father fell down to death,
Nor is his bother, nor his beloved son were
Hacked to pieces shining blades in front his eyes.
Such was the knowledge of herbs the daughter
Egg hatched of cloud gathering Zeus, learnt from
Poludamna, she who overcomes many,
Wife of the Egyptian Thonos. A great many
Sorts of herbs bring forth the corn bearing land.
Many are mingled and overcome disease,
Others overcome and bring misery.

All the Egyptians understand and are healers
For they are all of the time of Paieon.

Remains of the temple to Menelaus and Helen in Sparta - image from

Helen is a favourite character of mine, not because of her alleged beauty, although I must admit that would surely be part of it. She was the daughter of Leda and Zeus. The cloud gatherer raped Leda and she gave 'birth' to two eggs. Out of one egg came the twins Castor and Polydeuces or the Dioskouroi. From the other egg came Helen and her sister Clytaemnestra. Clytaemnestra is an even more interesting character than Helen, and will hopefully be the topic of a later piece. Suffice to say she is one of the strongest women in Greek mythology, and her tale is the subject of the wonderful Orestia trilogy of Aeschylus, who died in Sicily when an eagle, mistaking his bald head for a rock, dropped a tortoise on it, hoping to crack the thick shell open.

We all know the tale of Helen. How Zeus wished to kill off the humans, and so allowed Eris, the personification of Strife, to roll the apple of discord inscribed with the one word Kalliste (the dative, or indirect object superlative of the word fair or beautiful, so it means to the fairest) amid the three goddesses Hera, Aphrodite and Athena. To settle the argument Paris was asked to be the judge. He was bribed with the hand of Helen in marriage. And this lead to the Trojan war.

What intrigues me in all this, is the tale told by Herodotus (book 2, 120) that Helen was never in Troy, but rather in Egypt. Ten years of war and sorrow and death followed. Much like the WMD and the war in Iraq. (As an aside I hope I live long enough to see the secret papers of the Australian cabinet released, petty maybe - but we all need a goal.)

This section I have translated is from the Odyssey, Book 4 starting at line 219. It tells of Telemachus searching for information about his long absent father. He goes to Sparta to speak with Menelaus, and the discussions of what happened during and after the war make them sad. Helen then adds some drugs to their wine, and this seems to be some type of opiod which defeats their sorrow. So strong it is that one would not even shed a tear to see their children hacked to pieces in front of them. Pretty strong stuff indeed.

Some points to consider. Poludamna means 'she overcomes many' - overcoming disease or overcoming life. The Greek word used has many meanings, but they seem to revolve around the idea of taming, and is used to describe making a wife. The word Nepenthes is something like soothing sorrows. I used the word charming, as it is one of the epithets Homer uses to describe Troy. The word Chalko (the ch is pronounced like in the Scottish loch, and the O at the end is the letter omega, long or big O - so it is the long O sound) means copper, but is used in this situation in the same way we would say a person was gunned down.

Unless you are a Greek geek you will probably not enjoy this as much as I enjoyed translating, but either way I hope you enjoy.