What was Helen weaving?
We’ve all heard of Helen of Troy or perhaps, Helen of Sparta, and we all probably know her for her beauty, being the face who had “launched a thousand ships”. Those who are vaguely familiar with Homer and Greek Antiquity may also add that she, a Queen in her own right, had allegedly “caused” the Trojan War as those ships were after all launched so as to get her back from Troy after Paris had abducted her. This account of the story however undermines her agency, her voice and her telling of her own story. Beyond the role she played in starting the decade-long war, an often-overlooked aspect of Helen’s role in Homer’s epic poem was how her first appearance therein shows her engaged in the act of weaving a “double-folded cloak of crimson” no less.
[Iris] came on Helen in the chamber: she was weaving a great web, a double folded cloak of crimson, and working into it the numerous struggles of Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armoured Achaeans, struggles that they endured for her sake at the hands of the war god.
The Iliad, Book 3
As such, even though the discourse surrounding Helen emphasizes her beauty and how she must be possessed, they obscure how she is a skilled weaver who is both able and willing to use her skills as the ekphrasis — being, the use of detailed description of a work of visual art as a literary device — here suggests.
If this has yet to change your perception of Helen, perhaps we can also consider how the cloak Helen is weaving is a work of tapestry such that she herself, is also telling her own version of the story through the cloak she weaves. As Helen takes on the position of a bard working in a visual medium as opposed to oral verse, we see within the words of The Iliad a hint towards a gap in the myth being Helen’s own untold story of the Trojan War which remains elusive for it is a textile artefact that must be seen and felt in order to be understood. Considering how Homer who tells the story of the Iliad is also supposedly blind, the impossibility of grasping Helen’s story through words alone is further emphasized.
Interestingly, The Iliad builds upon this gap by showing how starkly different Helen’s story was from the stories told about her by the rest of the men. Even though she acknowledges that the armies were fighting for her, she retorts Homer’s blaming of her by attributing their sufferings to Ares, the god of war.
Between a god and a beautiful woman, the question now then is whose story do we believe?
Further to The Iliad, Helen also demonstrates the the significance of textiles to female narratives in The Odyssey as she gifts Telemachus with a cloak while mentioning the potential for handcrafted objects to immortalize those who have made them.
“And I too, dear child, have this gift to you, a monument to the hands of Helen, for your wife to wear, on the day of her very lovely wedding”
The Odyssey, Book 15
Aside from transgressing her husband’s position by bestowing upon Telemachus the last gift, she also outdoes him for this cloak is the only garment in either epic to have its commemorative function expressly articulated. More importantly, her gift is also a medium of exchange between her and another woman, demonstrating her capacity to navigate invisibly through the gaps within the established structures of power.
As Helen neither returns to her weaving nor is the historical web mentioned again, questions arise as to whether the image of war she had created in The Iliad is literal or metaphorical. Nonetheless, considered in tandem with The Odyssey, the doubleness of Helen’s hands — possessed of the skill to commemorate and to destroy — may be observed. Altogether, even though these aspects of Helen are often downplayed or undermined, the power she wields as a female character in both of the Homeric texts cannot be ignored. Instead of seeing Helen as nothing more than a pretty face, Helen can instead be read as a charged figure that is particularly potent at breathing life into submerged voices.