5. Helen’s “Good Drug” [1]


Were someone to formulate a Foucaultian epistêmê for archaic Greek thought, it might be some version of “polarity.” [3] To begin to study Greek is to learn of its pervasive antitheses, built around the particles, μέν, “on the one hand,” and δέ, “on the other hand.” Supported by such syntax are the dualities of myth, philosophy, and social organization, pairs so various, subtle, and interconnected by opposition and analogy that the principle of analogous bi-polar oppositions would seem to be the mental paradigm of the age. From the magisterial study of G. E. R. Lloyd, Polarity and Analogy: Two Types of Argumentation in Early Greek Thought, come vivid examples: the Pythagorean “Table of Opposites” listing ten pairs of opposite principles—limited and unlimited, odd and even, one and plurality, right and left, male and female, at rest and moving, straight and curved, light and darkness, good and evil, square and oblong; the various pre-Socratic theories of what determines the sex of the child—for Parmenides, the position in the womb (right for males, left for females), for Empedocles, the temperature of the womb at conception (hotter for men, colder for women), and for Anaximander, the side from which the father’s seed came (right for males, left for females); and the repeated claim in the Hippocratic corpus that disease is caused by an imbalance in a pair of opposites and that, as a result, counterbalancing opposites effect cures: τὰ ἐναντία τῶν ἐναντίων ἰήματα “opposites are cures for opposites.” [4] To Lloyd’s data from philosophy and science, we may add the evidence of Homeric epic.
Structuralist analysis shows how the Homeric world is based upon systems of analogical oppositions. [5] In his study of Odyssean poetics Norman Austin concludes that “whatever the original impulse, it is clear that Homeric man sees the world through the structure of polarity” and that “analogical thought is fundamental to Homer; it is through analogy that the various phenomena and experiences are attributed to one or the other of the polar oppositions.” [6] This declaration is borne out by technical studies of the Homeric Kunstsprache, the artificial and traditional diction of which the epics are composed. Here formulations of structuralist linguistics, such as marked vs. unmarked pairs and the fundamental tenet that the meaning of a word resides in its differential relations with other words, intersect with such insights of Milman Parry as the economy of formulas (the tendency to use only one form to fill a given metrical and semantic function) and the generation of formulas by analogy. To cite one elegant instance, Leonard Muellner demonstrates in the economy of their formulaic usage a marked vs. unmarked pair of the verbs, φημί “to say,” vs. εὔχομαι “to say with sacral, legal, or heroic force.” [7] At all levels, from diction to theme, Homeric epic reveals fundamental analogous polarities and nowhere more so than in the opening of Odyssey iv.


When with Telemachus at the start of Book iv, we come to the palace of Menelaus and Helen, we enter a world of dualities. The first evening there is divided into two movements: the one, extending from the start of the banquet up to Menelaus’ attempt to put an end to the after-dinner speeches, and the other, from Helen’s re-introduction of speeches up to the retirement of everyone for the night (Odyssey iv 1–218, 219–305). Each of these movements is itself divided into two. The first, presided over by Menelaus, begins as a wedding feast for his children and ends as a funeral with eulogies and lamentation for the Greek losses, chiefly the absent Odysseus. In the second, governed by Helen, her story about Odysseus is matched by another by Menelaus. And within these units, the polarities proliferate.
The wedding celebration keynotes this evening in Sparta. With it we encounter the original locus of the Trojan War, the marriage of Menelaus and Helen, as it is now recreated and about, it would seem, to reduplicate itself in the marriages of its children. For this is a double wedding. Not only are there two weddings, that of Hermione, the daughter of Helen and Menelaus, to Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, and that of Megapenthes, the son of Menelaus and a slave woman, to the daughter of Alector, but one is present, taking place in Sparta, and one is absent, taking place at Achilles’ home (Odyssey iv 3–14). The existence of war is acknowledged—it was at Troy that Menelaus promised Hermione to the son of “man-breaker” Achilles—but it is kept absent, in the past. Now Neoptolemus has returned home from Troy and is joined not in battle but in marriage to the lovely (ἐρατεινή) Hermione, the incarnation of golden Aphrodite (Odyssey iv 8–9, 13–14). The erotic reigns, and amid the banqueting neighbors and the dancer-acrobats, the poet stations another poet singing what must be epithalamia (Odyssey iv 15–19). But then, following a declaration of the function of ξενία “guest-friend exchange,” this marriage song changes into a funeral dirge.
In the midst of the wedding feast arrive Telemachus and Peisistratus, two who are ξεῖνοι, that is, “guests” or “others” than those who belong at Sparta. This fundamental opposition of “friend, own” vs. “guest, other” (φίλος vs. ξεῖνος) is mediated by the principle and practice of ξενία “guest-friendship.” Menelaus’ reply, when asked if the two strangers should be received, encapsulates the norm:
“οὐ μὲν νήπιος ἦσθα, Βοηθοΐδη Ἐτεωνεῦ,
τὸ πρίν: ἀτὰρ μὲν νῦν γε πάϊς ὣς νήπια βάζεις.
ἦ μὲν δὴ νῶι ξεινήια πολλὰ φαγόντε
ἄλλων ἀνθρώπων δεῦρ᾽ ἱκόμεθ᾽, αἴ κέ ποθι Ζεὺς
ἐξοπίσω περ παύσῃ ὀιζύος.”

“You were never a fool, Eteoneus, son of Boethous,
before, but now indeed you babble foolishness, like a child.
Surely it was by having eaten many gifts of guest-friendship
from other men that we two came back here. May Zeus
only make an end of misery hereafter.”
Odyssey iv 31–35
Because Menelaus received hospitality when he was a wanderer, he, too, should give it, now that he is home. His suffering may recommence at any time, whenever Zeus so moves. Life oscillates between suffering and safety, and to counterbalance the system for all, those in times of good fortune must aid those who are not by treating them as “own” (φιλεῖν “to treat the ξεῖνος as a φίλος”). [8] Such aid consists, as we notice, of a bath by servant women and a generous share of the feast (Odyssey iv 48–67).
By mediating the social opposition between ξεῖνος and φίλος, Menelaus’ act of ξενία “guest-friendship” moves his portion of the evening from one ritual with its particular kind of song to its antipode. For it is the welcomed ξεῖνος “guest,” Telemachus, who initiates the modulation from marriage song to funeral dirge, when he compares the glittering wealth he sees all around him—the gleam of bronze, gold, electrum, silver, and ivory—to the palace of Zeus on Olympus (Odyssey iv 71–75). Menelaus replies with the first of two speeches (another doublet) that end by arousing lamentation. He acknowledges his riches, but then exposes the economy by which they were bought with irremediable loss: his brother Agamemnon murdered while he was away wandering and collecting the wealth, and before that, the deaths of the Greeks who fought at Troy (Odyssey iv 80–99). Thus he has no joy in his wealth, but only the delight of lamentation that alternates with its opposite, the surfeit of lamentation.
“ἀλλ᾽ ἔμπης πάντας μὲν ὀδυρόμενος καὶ ἀχεύων
πολλάκις ἐν μεγάροισι καθήμενος ἡμετέροισιν
ἄλλοτε μέν τε γόῳ φρένα τέρπομαι, ἄλλοτε δ᾽ αὖτε
παύομαι: αἰψηρὸς δὲ κόρος κρυεροῖο γόοιο.”

“But nevertheless mourning all these men and sorrowing
over and over as I sit in our halls
at one time I delight in my heart in lamentation, and at another time again
I stop. For surfeit of gloomy lamentation is quick.”
Odyssey iv 100–103
In particular he laments for Odysseus, who, when remembered, divides Menelaus’ life into food and sleep, on the one hand, and mournful recollection on the other:
“τῶν πάντων οὐ τόσσον ὀδύρομαι, ἀχνύμενός περ,
ὡς ἑνός, ὅς τέ μοι ὕπνον ἀπεχθαίρει καὶ ἐδωδὴν
μνωομένῳ, ἐπεὶ οὔ τις Ἀχαιῶν τόσσ᾽ ἐμόγησεν,
ὅσς᾽ Ὀδυσεὺς ἐμόγησε καὶ ἤρατο.”

“For all of these I do not mourn so much, despite my sorrow,
as for one, who makes sleep and food hateful to me
when I remember him, since no one of the Achaeans toiled so much
as Odysseus toiled and endured.”
Odyssey iv 104–107
In like manner, as if mourning is contagious, by recollecting these sorrows of the past, Menelaus arouses in the son of Odysseus ἵμερος γόοιο “desire for lamentation” (Odyssey iv 113). A few minutes later Menelaus answers his first eulogy with another memory of the war gone by—how he wanted to settle Odysseus upon their return in one of his client cities, where “we would mingle together (ἐμισγόμεθ᾿), and nothing would separate us, loving and delighting ourselves two together (note the duals: φιλέοντέ τε τερπομένω τε), until the blood-dark cloud of death covered us over” (Odyssey iv 178–180). Again his recollection excites ἵμερος γόοιο, and all weep, even Peisistratus who remembers his brother killed at Troy (Odyssey iv 183–188).
It is now Peisistratus, however, who moves to close the occasion, to switch it back from funeral to feast.
“οὐ γὰρ ἐγώ γε
τέρπομ᾽ ὀδυρόμενος μεταδόρπιος, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἠὼς
ἔσσεται ἠριγένεια.”

“For I myself
take no delight in dinner mixed with tears, but indeed dawn
will be early-born.”
Odyssey iv 193–195
The alternation of night and day forbids suspending animation in prolonged mourning. Menelaus readily accedes: he and Telemachus can exchange more stories in the morning (Odyssey iv 212–215). Upon his direction, water is poured and all the men, their hands now washed of these Iliadic recollections of war, turn back to the feast (Odyssey iv 216–218).
In its two-part structure, in its contrary rituals and in its detailed dualities, this first portion of the evening at Sparta enacts, it would seem, the working of the world and of language as mediation or exchange or alternation of opposites. Two rituals, wedding/funeral; two poetic genres, epithalamium/dirge; two sexes, male/female; two times, past/present; two places, present/absent; two categories of person, own/other; of economy, gain/loss; of activity, remember and weep/sleep and eat. Between the members of each pair there exists a relation variously named in this portion of the text as marriage (γάμος), exchange (ξενία) and alternation (ἄλλοτε . . . ἄλλοτε). Such is the constitution here of both κόσμος “order” and λόγος “speech.” And when Helen intervenes, inaugurating the second half of the evening and delaying the closure upon speeches, this character of the Homeric λόγος is initially confirmed.


In opposition to her husband’s attempt to regulate the production of speeches, Helen ἄλλ’ ἐνόησε “thought otherwise” (Odyssey iv 219). Her counter-action divides this evening into two parts, but parts that match, insofar as each is made up of speeches and actions that exemplify a world of polarities. It is to continue the exchange of μύθοι “stories” that Helen intervenes, to imitate, thereby, her husband’s portion of the evening. Her action differs from that of her husband by being described in terms that cast the wife as a poet, one who works, like the poet of the Odyssey, within a poetics of analogous polarities. For tracing the terms of her action reveals another double opposition: two contrary poetic genres parallel to two contrary kinds of drugs.
Here is the description of Helen’s intervention:
αὐτίκ᾽ ἄρ᾽ εἰς οἶνον βάλε φάρμακον, ἔνθεν ἔπινον,
νηπενθές τ᾽ ἄχολόν τε, κακῶν ἐπίληθον ἁπάντων.
ὃς τὸ καταβρόξειεν, ἐπὴν κρητῆρι μιγείη,
οὔ κεν ἐφημέριός γε βάλοι κατὰ δάκρυ παρειῶν,
οὐδ᾽ εἴ οἱ κατατεθναίη μήτηρ τε πατήρ τε,
οὐδ᾽ εἴ οἱ προπάροιθεν ἀδελφεὸν ἢ φίλον υἱὸν
χαλκῷ δηιόῳεν, ὁ δ᾽ ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρῷτο.
τοῖα Διὸς θυγάτηρ ἔχε φάρμακα μητιόεντα,
ἐσθλά, τά οἱ Πολύδαμνα πόρεν, Θῶνος παράκοιτις
Αἰγυπτίη, τῇ πλεῖστα φέρει ζείδωρος ἄρουρα
φάρμακα, πολλὰ μὲν ἐσθλὰ μεμιγμένα πολλὰ δὲ λυγρά:
ἰητρὸς δὲ ἕκαστος ἐπιστάμενος περὶ πάντων
ἀνθρώπων: ἦ γὰρ Παιήονός εἰσι γενέθλης.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ᾽ ἐνέηκε κέλευσέ τε οἰνοχοῆσαι,
ἐξαῦτις μύθοισιν ἀμειβομένη προσέειπεν.

At once into the wine they were drinking she cast a drug,
both grief-less and anger-less, a forgetfulness of all evils.
Whoever should drink it down, once it was mixed in the bowl,
for that day indeed would not let a tear fall down his cheeks,
not if both his mother and father should die,
not if right before him men should slay with the bronze
his brother or his own son, and with his eyes he should see it.
Such were the crafty drugs the daughter of Zeus possessed,
good ones, given to her by the wife of Thon, Polydamna,
of Egypt, where the fertile earth bears the most
drugs, many good when mixed and many baneful,
and every man there is a doctor, with knowledge beyond all
humankind. For indeed they are of the race of Paeëon.
Now when she had cast in the drug and ordered the wine to be poured,
beginning again the stories she spoke.
Odyssey iv 220–234
The contexts of the word φάρμακον “drug” in hexameter diction depict drugs in their capacity to cure or to destroy as analogous to two faces of poetry. Parallel terminology displays the following corresponding doublets:
two genres of φάρμακον “drug”
Helen’s φάρμακον “drug” Circe’s φάρμακα “drugs” [10]
νη–πενθές “grief-less”  
ἐσθλά “good” (vs. λυγρά “baneful”) [11] λυγρά “baneful” (vs. ἐσθλόν “good”) [12]
produces makes one
“forgetfulness (ἐπίληθον) of all evils” “forget (λαθοίατο) the fatherland” [13]
two genres of poetry
κλέος “fame” [14] λυγρός “baneful” [15]
about κλέεα “famous deeds” [16] about λυγρά (“baneful deeds”)
makes one produces
ἐπιλήθεται κηδέων “forget cares” πένθος ἄλαστον “unforgettable grief”
(vs. πένθος “grief” in a νεοκηδέι θυμῷ “spirit with fresh care”)  
Helen’s φάρμακον “drug” is, then, like the poetry of κλέος “fame.” It is so effective an antidote to grief that at the tragedy of your family, you would sense only glory and would not weep. With this drug Helen can now supply what the banquet has lacked heretofore, remembrance of the past without pain. For indeed, just as she adds a φάρμακον “drug” with the power of poetic κλέος, so she will now supply a μύθος “story” with the properties of her “good drug.” [20] Unlike Menelaus’ earlier recollections, Helen’s μύθος will be a painless painful memory. By this drug-like narrative supplement, events naturally tragic for some of the audience will be detoxified. A song of the λυγρός “baneful” genre for some will sound like κλέος and will be heard by all without loss or suffering. By thus describing her drug and its verbal counter-part, the poet casts Helen in the role played by himself and by the Odyssean tradition he repeats—the role of making past deeds present with κλέος for the actors and τέρψις “delight” for the audience. Helen’s φάρμακον “drug”/μύθος “story” will be, therefore, the opposite of Menelaus’ part of the evening—just as female is the opposite of male, wife of husband, and Odyssey of Iliad—but it will be the equal of its mate in constitution. For both are based upon the assumption of analogous polarities, controllable and mutually exclusive, to which poetry and drugs offer no exception.
At least initially, the content of Helen’s drug-story maintains this identity. After naming her audience, she abruptly invokes the alternation of opposites at the heart of the universe:
“Ἀτρεΐδη Μενέλαε διοτρεφὲς ἠδὲ καὶ οἵδε
ἀνδρῶν ἐσθλῶν παῖδες: ἀτὰρ θεὸς ἄλλοτε ἄλλῳ
Ζεὺς ἀγαθόν τε κακόν τε διδοῖ: δύναται γὰρ ἅπαντα.”

“Son of Atreus, god-nourished Menelaus, you and these
children of good men: however, the god at one time to one and at another to another,
Zeus, gives both good and evil. For he has all power.”
Odyssey iv 235–237
And after this invocation, she declares herself a bard:
“ἦ τοι νῦν δαίνυσθε καθήμενοι ἐν μεγάροισι
καὶ μύθοις τέρπεσθε: ἐοικότα γὰρ καταλέξω.”

“Now indeed feast yourselves, seated in the hall,
and delight yourselves with stories. For I will narrate the likely.”
Odyssey iv 238–239
Her tale will consist of ἐοικότα: things like to the truth, fitting for the occasion, and not hard to believe. [21] From this sphere of the persuasive comes the μύθος “story” of Odysseus that Helen now tells:
“I could not tell you all the number nor could I name
how many are the struggles of enduring-hearted Odysseus,
but such a thing as this the strong man endured and accomplished
in the Trojans’ country, where you Achaeans suffered woes.
He beat himself with unseemly blows,
then threw a cheap sheet around his shoulders, and in the likeness of a servant,
he crept into the wide-wayed city of the enemy men.
By hiding himself he looked like another man,
a beggar. Never was there such a man beside the ships of the Achaeans.
Like to this one he crept into the Trojans’ city, and they were taken in— 
all of them. I alone recognized him even so disguised,
and I questioned him. But he by his craftiness eluded me.
But when indeed I was bathing him and anointing him with olive oil
and I put clothing upon him and swore a great oath
not to reveal to the Trojans that this was Odysseus
until he reached the swift ships and the shelters,
then at last he told me the whole plan of the Achaeans.
Then after killing many Trojans with the thin-edged bronze,
he returned to the Argives and brought back much intelligence.
At that the other Trojan women were crying out shrill, but my heart
was happy, since already my heart had turned to going
back home again, and I was mourning over the delusion that Aphrodite
gave, when she led me there from my own fatherland,
forsaking my child and my bedroom and my husband,
a man who lacks nothing either in sense or in appearance.”
Odyssey iv 240–264
With this account of his exploit in Troy, Helen becomes a poet of Odysseus’ κλέος “fame.” And indeed, as is often noted, her tale, while concerned with the Trojan War, forecasts as well the “fame” Odysseus attains in the Odyssey itself, when he again enters a city covertly and kills those he succeeds in tricking with his disguise as a beggar. [22]
Besides praising Odysseus, Helen’s story is perfectly concocted to present an image of herself that will impress and delight her audience of Greek partisans. As the only one to have recognized Odysseus, she shows herself even more than he, a master of disguise. The revelation of her heart’s own reaction to the murder of the Trojans sets her apart as a true ally of the Greeks, only an apparent collaborator with their enemy. How appealing for Menelaus, Telemachus, and Peisistratus to be able to see Helen, the object of all the sacrifices they were just lamenting, as a victim of Aphrodite’s machinations. How flattering to her husband to conclude with these compliments. Her aim, it appears, is not only the κλέος of Odysseus, but also her own “fame” among the assembled men.
Yet Helen’s recollection is oddly elliptical and when questioned, its foundations slip. [23] How did this mendicant Odysseus come to be received in the royal house and bathed by none other than Helen herself? Earlier it was servant women who bathed Telemachus and Peisistratus. What was Helen doing bathing a naked beggar? Why did Odysseus permit himself to be bathed, anointed, and clothed by a woman whose earlier recognition and questioning he had to elude? Why is it necessary to omit the answers to these questions, if Helen’s “good drug” can cure any negative side-effects of the story? And, indeed, what in Helen’s story would be λυγρός “baneful” without the “good drug” and for whom? Would Odysseus’ victory by violation of ξενία “guest-friendship” be shameful to Telemachus? Would Helen’s intimacy with Odysseus be painful to Menelaus? And if so, why does she include it? Is she trying not only to enhance her glory and to flatter her husband, but to seduce her young guest with glimpses of a sexual scene with his father? Recollections in the Odyssey are modes of characterization. Is the poet here showing how Helen does it, how she once seduced Paris, another young guest, and can ever re-seduce her husband by representing reality as these men want to hear it? This would be a magnificent κλέος “fame” for Helen, comparable to Odysseus’ victories through deceit.
If such a κλέος “fame” is the aim of Helen and of the poet, too, it does not last for long. It is as brief as Menelaus’ previous attempt to end the recollections of the past. For to the supplement of Helen’s φάρμακον “drug”/μύθος “story” comes the supplement of Menelaus’ antiphonal reply. The “good drug” of Helen’s representation of the past engenders a doublet that is also a rival. Menelaus’ μύθος “story” is a product of the same φάρμακον “drug,” the same power to recall the past without pain. But now by its very working, this drug loses its positive valence and poisons the κλέος “fame” of Helen that it has just produced. [24]
Menelaus’ tale is clearly marked as the doublet of Helen’s. He opens by repeating her line, “but such a thing as this the strong man endured and accomplished” (Odyssey iv 271 = iv 242). His tale, too, is a glorification of Odysseus, another victory through disguise:
“Inside the wooden horse we who were greatest of the Argives were all sitting
and bringing death and destruction to the Trojans.
Then you came there; you will have been ordered
by some divine spirit, who wished to extend glory to the Trojans.
And godlike Deiphobus followed beside you as you came.
Three times you circled the hollow ambush, feeling it all around,
and you called out to the best of the Danaans by name,
likening your voice to the voices of the wives of all the Argives.
Now I myself and the son of Tydeus and shining Odysseus
were sitting in the middle of them and heard you as you cried out.
Diomedes and I started up, both determined
to go outside or to answer at once from inside,
but Odysseus pulled us down and held us, for all our desire.
Then all the other sons of the Achaeans were silent,
but Anticlus alone wanted to answer you with words;
but Odysseus pressed his mouth
mercilessly with his strong hands and saved all the Achaeans,
and he held him thus, until Pallas Athena led you back away.”
Odyssey iv 272–289
In this addition to the addition, however, the element of disguise has reduplicated, for now Helen, too, is an imitator and Odysseus, the one who sees through the ruse. Here the bi-polar opposition collapses, as both Odysseus and Helen fill the same category of “disguiser”—he by means of the horse and she by the voices—while Odysseus simultaneously occupies the contrary category of “discerner.”
Similarly, the sign, “recollection without pain,” slips from the status of a “good” producer of κλέος “fame” to that of a κλέος-deconstructor, for it permits Menelaus to recall the one fact that belies Helen’s previous self-portrait and retroactively renders her μύθος “story” yet another fictitious imitation of the voice of a Greek wife. As if he caught it from the end of her tale, Menelaus opens his own with the same explanation for Helen’s anti-Greek activity, the interference of a god. But inserted between this defense and his full account of her trick, as if recollected by accident along the chain of associations, is the crucial detail: “and godlike Deiphobus followed beside you as you came” (Odyssey iv 276). This Deiphobus is Helen’s second Trojan husband, the man she married after the death of Paris, a figure who belies her claim that even back when Odysseus infiltrated the city, her allegiance was already with the Greeks. [25] Helen’s φάρμακον “drug” has recoiled upon its practitioner. By permitting Menelaus to recall without pain what pain might have kept beyond recall, Helen’s “good drug” and her “good tale” have reminded Menelaus of another, similar feat of Odysseus, one that violates her claim to κλέος and to narrating ἐοικότα “things like to the truth.”
Yet by counteracting the effect of Helen’s μύθος “story,” Menelaus also de-activates his own, for they share the same pharmacology. Both result from the same attempt to recall the past without pain, to divide drugs and poetry into governable opposites. But the opposite of Helen’s φάρμακον–μύθος “drug–story” is a double with a difference, both drug and antidote (just as inside Menelaus’ tale, Helen is disguiser and Odysseus both disguiser and discerner). Once invoked, in a manner that forecasts the patterns of tragedy, the power of drugs and poetry defeats all attempts to divide and control it: in both speeches, by its successful operation the “good drug” fails. Here the recollection of Iliadic traditions about Odysseus in order to produce Odyssean pleasure imperfectly represses Iliadic pain. Such is the testimony of our counterpart, Telemachus. In response to both tales he says, “It is all the more painful (ἄλγιον), for even these exploits did not guard my father from baneful (λυγρόν) destruction” (Odyssey iv 292). Come, he says, let us turn to sleep. And with that, the couples return to the earlier polarities and sleep apart, the men outside, and the man and woman inside, beside one another (Odyssey iv 294–305).


Is such a return to the earlier model of meaning by polarity open to the audience? We have seen Helen attempt to apply to painful recollection a remedy defined, according to an ontology of governable opposites, as “good” (vs. “baneful”) and watched the drug (re)assert its ambivalence against this attempt at logical domination. We have seen Homeric language change from a structure of analogical opposites into differing doublets, whose difference is not stable. The “good drug” of Helen’s story becomes the “good-baneful drug” of its non-identical twin: in repeating itself it reverses itself, leaving each tale an indistinct “gain-loss.” With such a constitution, Helen’s half of the evening no longer appears to be the equal opposite of her husband’s. Rather, like Menelaus’ complement to Helen’s story, Helen’s half of the evening comes as a double with something different, something in excess. It now appears that the text has changed from working according to structuralist semiotics to enacting the operation of the sign as described by Derrida. [27] Yet, this appearance is deceiving. No such change could occur, or at least not in these terms. If it ever worked by pure oppositions, no text can be an allegory of the Derridean analysis of language. If the polarities of Menelaus’ part of the evening are mutually exclusive, all we may see, after Helen adds her “good drug” to the wine, is a temporarily inebriated text. For the text to exemplify the Derridean analysis of language, any return to the earlier polarities must reveal them to have been “always already” imperfect.
After observing the effects of Helen’s “good drug,” we may notice its traces in the first part of the evening. None of the earlier terms now gives the impression of unalloyed identity. First, marriage. In the names of the couples, this union is occupied by adversaries. War is not successfully kept in the past, for even as a groom, “Neo-ptolemus” (Νεο-πτόλεμος) is the one to whom not a wedding, but “war (πτόλεμος) is new (νέος).” To his marriage “Mega-penthes” (Μεγα-πένθης) contributes “great grief,” that πένθος “grief” supposedly absent from Helen’s drug (νη–πενθές “grief-less,” Odyssey iv 221) and forgotten upon hearing a song of κλέος “fame.” This double wedding does and does not reproduce the marriage of Menelaus and Helen, for this “Great-Grief” is the child of Menelaus and a slave woman, a union within and without the legitimate family. While uniting opposite sexes for legitimate procreation, marriage here imperfectly excludes war, grief, and illegitimate intercourse with an extra female. Within the epithalamium sound the notes of a dirge. [28]
The funeral-like recollections by Menelaus that follow the announcement of this double marriage are similarly impure. Here terms belonging to the discourse of sexuality and the κλέος “fame” genre of poetry are coupled with the language of lamentation. By using the verb τέρπομαι “I delight” with γόῳ “in lamentation” (Odyssey iv 102), Menelaus says, in effect, that he gains from mourning the pleasure produced by poetry or by “golden Aphrodite.” [29] In his second recollection Menelaus applies the diction of sexual intercourse to the relationship he longed for with Odysseus, limiting its span to their lifetimes: “and going there we would mingle together (ἐμισγόμεθ᾿), and nothing would separate us, loving and delighting ourselves two together (duals: φιλέοντέ τε τερπομένω τε), until the blood-dark cloud of death covered us over” (Odyssey iv 178–80). [30] Yet by the litany that follows each of Menelaus’ speeches, “and he aroused the desire for lamentation (ἵμερος γόοιο)” (Odyssey iv 113, 183), this separation between sex and death is bridged. For in addition to its unmarked sense of “desire,” ἵμερος bears in hexameter diction the marked meaning of “sexual urge,” a meaning brought to mind now by the earlier focus on marriage, by Menelaus’ own use of erotic terminology, and, in retrospect, by the sexual relations described in the speeches of Helen and Menelaus. [31] In this context, the phrase ἵμερος γόοιο becomes, like γόῳ τέρπομαι, an oxymoron. Just as Helen’s imitation of the voices of the Greek wives aroused in the Greeks the sexual urge to break open the horse and meet certain death, so Menelaus’ recollections arouse a “lust for lamentation.” As a ritual to separate opposite states of being, this funeral imperfectly represses the erotic bond between the living and the dead. Within this dirge are heard the strains of delight.
Within the first half of the banquet, therefore, and particularly within these two funereal recollections by Menelaus, we now see that the oppositions are as unstable as they are within the second half. We see that the terms there—life and death, lust and lamentation, sexual and poetic delight over against mourning, the ritual of marriage with its music over against a funeral with its song—are in motion, with one inhabiting, however temporarily, the territory of the other. This first movement of the banquet is, indeed, structured upon analogous polarities—in detecting them we are not deceived. But the opposites are not fixed forever, their exclusion of one another is not total or permanent, and we are moved to notice their movement and admixture—to supplement our first reading with its insufficiently close attention to the potential for the dynamic—through the working of Helen’s “good drug.” We are similarly not mistaken to analyze Homeric language and thought in structuralist terms. The “post-structuralist” theory of language supplements, rather than cancels, Saussure. The structures of polar and analogous oppositions should be discovered, along with their movements as well. As structuralist methodology elucidates the one, so the Derridean critique uncovers the other.


Through the action of Helen’s “good drug,” this banquet in Sparta becomes an allegory of the movement of opposing terms within two opposing forms of relationship, “marriage” and “funeral.” By neither of these relations, either marriage that joins or death that separates, are countervalent forces excluded. Neither unification nor division is final. Marriage and the marriage song include πόλεμος “war”—in the form of “Neo-ptolemus” (Νεο-πτόλεμος), the one to whom “war (πτόλεμος) is new (νέος)” and πένθος “grief”—in the form of “Mega-penthes” (Μεγα-πένθης), the one who contributes “great (μέγας) grief (πένθος).” Αnd in funeral and dirge there is ἵμερος “sexual desire” and τέρψις “erotic and poetic delight.” The lamentation and its poetic counterpart, Menelaus’ painful, Iliadic recollections, do not expel their lustful impulses and satisfactions. And when Helen attempts to separate recollection from pain by the dividing of drugs and of poetry, her “good” drug–story moves against her, (re)forming itself as “good-baneful.” Her impulse toward creating a pure κλέος “fame” from the Iliadic past results in comic, Odyssean tales that do not exclude pain.
When it (re)turns upon Helen, the text turns upon itself, for the division of drugs and of poetry belongs, as we have seen, to Homeric diction as a whole. Indeed, the words that attempt to separate drugs belong not to a character in the epic, but to the poet alone, and, like Helen’s μύθος “story,” they contain their own contradiction:
φάρμακα, πολλὰ μὲν ἐσθλὰ μεμιγμένα πολλὰ δὲ λυγρά.

drugs, many on the one hand good mixed, many on the other baneful.
Despite the construction with μέν “on the one hand” . . . δέ “on the other,” the order of the words here imitates what the operation of Helen’s drug–story proves: between the two kinds of φάρμακα “drugs,” there is not exclusive division, but “mixture” (μεμιγμένα “mixed”) that moves with its semantic force in either direction, both toward the ἐσθλά “good” before and the λυγρά “baneful” thereafter. The two categories are opposites—indeed, exclusive—but the relationship between them is one of potential movement and ambivalent combination.


[ back ] 1. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Contemporary Literary Hermeneutics and the Interpretation of Classical Texts, edited by S. Kresic, Ottawa, 1981:200–214.
[ back ] 3. For Foucault’s use of epistêmê to designate the mental paradigm of a period, see Foucault 1971b.
[ back ] 4. Lloyd 1971:16, 17, with bibliography, 20–23.
[ back ] 5. See, for example, the studies of myth and ritual by Vernant and Detienne (Vernant 1965, Detienne 1967 [= 1996], 1972a [= 1977b], 1972b [= 1981], 1977a, Detienne and Vernant 1974 [= 1978]) and the anthropologically informed analyses by Vidal-Naquet 1970, Redfield 1975, and Foley 1978.
[ back ] 6. Austin 1975:90, 105.
[ back ] 7. Muellner 1976. For other studies that combine the methodology of comparative structural linguistics with the formulaic analysis pioneered by Parry, see Boedeker 1974, Nagler 1974, Nagy 1974, 1979, Shannon 1975, Clader 1976, and Frame 1978. For the distinction, “marked vs. unmarked,” see Trubetzkoy 1969 and for its status as a “language universal” that applies to phonology, grammar, semantics, and kinship terminology, see Greenberg 1966.
[ back ] 8. For the opposition between φίλος and ξεῖνος and the meaning of the verb φιλεῖν, see Benveniste 1969: I.341–342.
[ back ] 10. For Circe’s drugs, see κακὰ φάρμακ᾽ “evil drugs” (Odyssey x 213), φάρμακα “drugs” (x 290), φάρμακον “drug” (x 317), φάρμακ᾽ “drugs” (x 326–327), φάρμακον “drug” (x 392), φάρμακον οὐλόμενον “accursed drug” (x 394).
[ back ] 11. For φάρμακα ἐσθλά “good drugs,” see Iliad XI 830–831 where Eurypylus begs Patroclus to heal his wound with “gentle drugs, the good ones they say you have been taught by Achilles.”
[ back ] 12. For Circe’s drugs as λυγρά “baneful,” see Odyssey x 235–236. To counteract the force of Circe’s drugs, Hermes gives Odysseus a φάρμακον “drug” that is ἐσθλόν “good” (Odyssey x 287, 292).
[ back ] 13. Odyssey x 235–236: “In their food she [Circe] mixed baneful drugs (φάρμακα λύγρ᾽), in order that they might forget their fatherland (λαθοίατο πατρίδος αἴης).”
[ back ] 14. For κλέος “fame” as what the bard relates, having heard it from the Muses, see Iliad II 484–487:

ἔσπετε νῦν μοι Μοῦσαι Ὀλύμπια δώματ᾽ ἔχουσαι:
ὑμεῖς γὰρ θεαί ἐστε πάρεστέ τε ἴστέ τε πάντα,
ἡμεῖς δὲ κλέος οἶον ἀκούομεν οὐδέ τι ἴδμεν:
οἵ τινες ἡγεμόνες Δαναῶν καὶ κοίρανοι ἦσαν.

Tell me now, Muses, having homes on Olympus,
for you are goddesses and are present beside and know all things,
but we hear only the fame and know nothing:
who were the leaders and the lords of the Danaans.

Compare Nagy 1974:244–261
[ back ] 15. The adjective λυγρός “baneful” designates a song by modifying either the ἀοιδή “song” or the subject of the song that produces πένθος “grief,” as in the case of the ἀοιδή “song” of the περικλυτὸς ἀοιδὸς “famous singer,” Phemius, who “sang the baneful homecoming (νόστον ἄειδε λυγρόν) of the Achaeans.” Upon hearing this song, Penelope pleads: “Cease from this baneful song (ἀοιδῆς λυγρῆς) which ever wears away the heart in my breast, since upon me most of all has come unforgettable grief (πένθος ἄλαστον)” (Odyssey i 325–327, 340–342). For the νόστος λυγρός “baneful homecoming” of the Achaeans, see also Odyssey iii 132. Compare the ἄτη λυγρή “baneful folly” of Helen in sleeping with Paris that brought πένθος “grief” to the Achaeans (Odyssey xxiii 223–224). Note also the λυγρὸς ὄλεθρος “baneful destruction” of the Greeks, heard of by Telemachus (Odyssey iii 87), that of Odysseus which he asks first Nestor and then Menelaus to “narrate” (Odyssey iii 92–93, iv 323), and that of Agamemnon at the hands of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra (Odyssey iii 194–198, xxiv 96). Compare the death of Agamemnon as λυγρά plotted by Aegisthus (Odyssey iii 303) and Clytemnestra (Odyssey xi 432), and the revenge of Orestes, the κλέος “fame” of which the Greeks will spread “widely even for men of the future to learn” (Odyssey iii 203–204), and the κήδεα λυγρά “baneful sorrows” of the Greeks narrated by Odysseus ὡς ὅτ᾽ ἀοιδὸς ἐπισταμένως “as does a singer, with knowledge” (Odyssey xi 368–369).
[ back ] 16. See Hesiod Theogony 98–103:

εἰ γάρ τις καὶ πένθος ἔχων νεοκηδέι θυμῷ
ἄζηται κραδίην ἀκαχήμενος, αὐτὰρ ἀοιδὸς
Μουσάων θεράπων κλέεα προτέρων ἀνθρώπων
ὑμνήσῃ μάκαράς τε θεούς, οἳ Ὄλυμπον ἔχουσιν,
αἶψ᾽ ὅ γε δυσφροσυνέων ἐπιλήθεται οὐδέ τι κηδέων
μέμνηται: ταχέως δὲ παρέτραπε δῶρα θεάων.

For if someone who has even grief in his spirit afflicted with fresh care
is parched with sorrowing in his heart, yet a bard,
the servant of the Muses, hymns the famous deeds of men gone by
and the blessed gods, who hold Olympus,
at once this man indeed forgets his anxieties and none of his cares
does he remember: and swiftly the gifts of the goddesses turn them aside.
[ back ] 20. The identification of Helen’s μύθος “story” with her φάρμακον “drug” is an ancient interpretation found in Plutarch Quaestiones Conviviales 1.1.4, 614c and Macrobius Saturnalia 7.1.18; see Dupont-Roc and Le Boulluec 1976:35.
[ back ] 21. For these meanings of ἐοικότα see Dupont-Roc and Le Boulluec 1976:37n13.
[ back ] 22. See Andersen 1977:5–18, with bibliography.
[ back ] 23. Dupont-Roc and Le Boulluec 1976:31, 37n11, correlate this speech with the rhetorical figure of “enigma”: specifically, with the kinds of enigma listed in the ancient treatise of Trypho, “la seconde, kat’ enantion, pourrait s’appliquer à Hélène, amie des Achéens tout en étant leur ennemie,” “the second, the one ‘in accordance with the opposite,’ could be applied to Helen, friend of the Achaeans, all the while being their enemy.”
[ back ] 24. Dupont-Roc and Le Boulluec 1976:37n13, claim that the force of Helen’s drug applies only to her tale and not to that of Menelaus, but do not explain why. The two speeches are marked as doublets by the same opening line (iv 242 = iv 271) and by their similar themes of role-playing, unmasking, and divine manipulation of Helen. There is no reason to think that Menelaus did not drink the wine that Helen mixed and that his speech is not thereby covered under its analgesic powers. What is true is that the drug does not work as advertised in the case of Menelaus’ speech and that this dysfunction then claims Helen’s speech as well.
[ back ] 25. See Andersen 1977:10–12; Dupont-Roc and Le Boulluec 1976:30–31, and Kakridis 1971:45.
[ back ] 27. For the critique by Derrida of Saussure’s structuralist linguistics, see Derrida 1967:46–64. The version of Derrida’s own views most relevant to this Homeric text is “La pharmacie de Platon” [= Derrida 1972a:71–197].
[ back ] 28. Other archaic Greek wedding songs also fail to suppress the war and death that counteract marriage. Sappho 44 LP, the wedding of Hector and Andromache, ends with indirect allusions to the death of Hector in the Iliad through the agency of Apollo and Achilles; see Nagy 1974:135–139. Similarly, in Alcaeus’ hymn to Helen and Thetis, 42 LP, the wedding of Peleus and Thetis is framed by descriptions of the deaths in the war at Troy over Helen, the losses that result from and include the child of that marriage, Achilles.
[ back ] 29. For τέρπειν “to delight” and τέρψις “delight” as produced by poetry, see Odyssey i 346–347, 421–422, viii 45, 91, 367–368, 429, xii 52, xvii 385, xxii 330; Iliad IX 186–189, XVIII 603–604; Hesiod Theogony 36–37, fr. 274 MW; and by sex, see Mimnermus, 1.1 West: τίς δὲ βίος, τί δὲ τερπνὸν ἄτερ χρυσῆς Ἀφροδίτης “What is life, what is delight without golden Aphrodite?” For the opposition between τέρπειν and mourning, see Odyssey xix 513.
[ back ] 30. In addition to being the regular term for sexual intercourse, the verb μείγνυμι “to mix” is also used of “mixture” in hand-to-hand combat (Iliad XV 510) or in ξενία “guest-friendship” (Odyssey xxiv 314). Ιn context with the dual forms, φιλέοντέ τε τερπομένω τε, and the collocations, γόῳ τέρπομαι “I take poetic and sexual delight in mourning” and ἵμερος γόοιο “sexual urge for lamentation,” however, the erotic connotation of the verb is paramount. With regard to the relationship between Menelaus and Odysseus, note also the subtle distinction between how Menelaus and Helen regard the Trojan war: for him it was the Greeks fighting for him, a case of “men and a man,” while for Helen it was a case of “men and a woman,” the Greeks fighting for her (Odyssey iv 145–146, 170). Love among men who fight together is not un-Homeric: Achilles and Patroclus are the paradigm, as Plato recalls in the Symposium 179e–180b.
[ back ] 31. When Hera begs from Aphrodite the girdle with which she can seduce Zeus, she says, δὸς νῦν μοι φιλότητα καὶ ἵμερον “now give me love and sexual desire,” and the same terms are used by the poet to describe what the love charm contains (Iliad XIV 198, 216). Compare also Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 2, 45, 53, 57, 73, where the essential nature of the goddess is the power to arouse ἵμερος, a power that threatens Zeus and that he must reappropriate. The adjective, ἱμερόεις modifies χορός “dancing place,” when it is the scene of sexual arousal or rape: Boedeker 1974: 46–48, 50–51. For the collocation of ἵμερος and death, compare Sappho 95 LP, evidently concerning the beloved Γογγυλα (4), in which the speaker says, κατθάνην δ᾿ ἴμερός τις [ἔχει με] “a kind of erotic urge to die possesses me” (11). Note also the adjective modifying the face of a groom suffused with eros (ἔρος δ’ ἐπ’ ἰμέρτῳ κέχυται προσώπῳ) in the epithalamium (Sappho 112.4 LP).