So I have set myself the somewhat arduous task of writing a weekly post, which is all very well in theory, but requires a degree of inspiration to which I simply do not have access, despite regular pleadings to the nine muses and all that. However a thought did occur to me this morning, not too regular an occurrence, and something which is often celebrated in the empty cavern like nothingness of this particular blogess’s mind. I said to myself, as you do, I will open up my ‘Who’s Who of the Classical World’ each weekend and stick a metaphorical pin in it. Problem solved. So I did just that this afternoon, full of hope and expectation, and who did I get but Menelaus. Oh no, I thought, back again in that empty recess where all the ideas and stuff should happen, not Menelaus, the most boring of all the Homeric characters. Because in my opinion Menelaus might just be the dullest hero in the history of heroes. But at least I have a chance to explain why…
First some background on Menelaus, well-known character of the Trojan legends. You see, most people know this guy from the great Homeric epics: he is king of the Mycenaean Sparta, and husband of Helen, who fled with Trojan Prince Paris when he came over on some Bronze Age diplomatic mission. Now given that Paris’ family and the Atreus boys were what is known as guest-friends, running away with the missus is really going to set the cat amongst the pigeons, and I think we can all understand Menelaus’ frustration at this particular predicament. Guest friendship means something in the Homeric world. It involves establishing political alliances and then firming these up through a nice ritual which includes an exchange of gifts. But disrespecting your host is soon going to turn a friend into an enemy, and this is essentially what happened in the case of the Trojan War.
Fair enough then, Menelaus has grounds for a grievance, I think we can all agree on that. What does he do though in order to expel the insult to his honour? Well, he calls on big bro Agamemnon, and the king of Mycenae comes to the rescue. This is where all of my sympathy instantly vanishes. I’m a northern girl, and encountered my fair share of ‘our kids’ in the school playground when I was just a young whipper snapper. What I respect is a person who takes responsibility for their own life. Come on Menelaus, man-up. So, Agamemnon accomplishes a feat never before known, he brings together all the Achaeans, the leaders and armies of the people who lived in the region of the Mediterranean generally or roughly thought of as Greece. He convinced them all that they should fight on behalf of him, and of course, ‘our kid’.
Now, I think there is a not so small matter which gives a very clear impression of Menelaus’ character, which needs to be discussed. As the armies were due to set sail from Boeotia, Calchas, prophet to the gods and advisor of their general demeanour, claimed that Artemis demanded a sacrifice, and not just any old ram, sow, or fatling calf would do, oh no. What Artemis wanted was Agamemnon’s young unmarried daughter Iphigenia. This might have been a good point for Uncle Menelaus to step in. ‘It’s gone too far our Bro, to be fair, we were having problems before Paris came along.’ Erm no. This is not how that story ends, and needless to say, the weather perked up a bit (after Iphigenia bit the mythological dust), and off they went for a merry old sail across to Troy. But I think what I’m getting at here is that already you can see the story is not really about Menelaus. He’s sort of lurking in the background somewhere, sulking and kicking the sand, wondering why no one’s been to tie his tunic up yet. Did I mention how I think Menelaus needs to man-up?
Anyway let’s ponder on Helen for a moment, over at Troy, possibly unaware that her sulky useless irresponsible ex-husband has passed the matter over to brother-in-law Agamemnon. Ex-husband? Not sure where we stand on that one. Possibly ex-husband in Helen’s eyes, so let’s roll with that. It’s fair to say that Helen tends to get a bad rap, but I’m not so sure. In a fragment of an epic which some have attributed to Hesiod, it’s suggested that Menelaus won Helen, and however Menelaus’ victory is portrayed, Helen doesn’t have a much of a choice in her husband. She’s essentially property in this scenario, and Menelaus’ pride has been hurt because Paris came along and stole from him. Now this is a tricky concept to be fair, because we’re anachronistically applying modern 21st century values where women are autonomous in western civilisation, to the Homeric mythological world where women are synonymous with cattle. But I tell you, I don’t care. Good for you Helen, make a run for it.
Back to Menelaus, easy to get distracted, since he’s so boring. He does have his moment though, so to speak. In book three of the Iliad, Paris offers Menelaus out in a fabulous Homeric fight scene, which (hypothetical drum roll please) Menelaus actually wins! I know, right? Menelaus, you did something all by yourself, you clever boy! But Aphrodite manages to secret Paris away just before the death blow strikes, and off to safety. Imagine if you will, the hapless Menelaus stood scratching his head, saying ‘he was here a minute ago’, and big bro Agamemnon inwardly groaning because he promised his old dad that he’d take good care of the kid. Give it up Menelaus, you’re just boring us now.
Now I kind of like Herodotus’ little anecdote in book two of his histories, where Paris never actually made it back to Troy with Helen, but had a detour to Egypt because of bad weather (forgot to sacrifice a virgin), and ended up leaving Helen there with all her marriage goods. Apparently, Menelaus just collected her on the way back from Troy. ‘It’s okay our Bro, I’ve found her!’ We’ve all got relatives like this.
Anyway, I don’t know if my particularly negative opinion of this mythological hero comes from reading the actual Homeric epics, or from the countless modern receptions of them, which I absolutely love, but I’d be very happy to hear a different point of view.