Euripides’ Helen is a bold experiment in the flexibility of tragedy, one that features a number of elements (e.g., humor, metatheater, a happy ending) more akin to comedy than to tragedy. Direct influence of comedy on tragedy has been difficult to identify, but this paper suggests that such influence is found in the Helen. Specifically, I argue that Euripides has woven into the play’s mythological framework Cratinus’ treatment of Helen’s conception and birth in his comedy Nemesis. In the beginning of the Helen, the titular heroine skeptically relates the supposed story of her birth (16-21, 256-59). According to these rumors, Zeus, as a swan, raped her mother Leda, who then bore an egg from which Helen was hatched. While this account seems familiar to us, some of these details may have been created by Cratinus in Nemesis, as Henderson has suggested. This comedy features the first attested treatment in which Zeus, as swan rather than as goose, seduces Nemesis, who retains her human form.
Although Euripides has not taken the myth wholesale from Cratinus (the tragedian eliminates Nemesis and depicts the affair as a rape rather than seduction), I argue that Euripides has adapted Cratinus’ treatment of the myth as part of his expansion of the tragic repertoire. Much as Aristophanes adapted Euripides’ Telephus in Acharnians to expand the comic repertoire, Euripides signals his debt to comedy with a nod to the Nemesis. For example, the egg, although it was not invented by Cratinus, must have been one of the most memorable props of his drama. The egg certainly appears onstage since Leda is told that she must “play the part of mother hen and incubate this here (ὅδε) egg” (fr. 115 K-A). The memorability of the egg can be inferred from a vase-painting that depicts a subsequent scene, or a similar scene from another comedy, in which Leda’s husband Tyndareus, wielding an ax, is poised to whack the egg just as Helen emerges (Apulian red-figure bell-krater, c. 380-370 BCE, Bari, Museo Nazionale 3899; see recently Walsh 135-37). Helen’s absurd hatching from an egg certainly seems more at home in a comedy than a tragedy, and, in fact, Kannicht, who excises the reference to the egg from Helen, suggests that a comic parody has crept into Euripides’ text (ad 257-9). Allan, however, rightly defends retaining the lines because Helen’s skepticism about the tale reflects her sense of abandonment by Zeus (ad 257-59). Additionally, I argue that here Euripides has adapted a comic myth to foreshadow the comic tropes and scenes used in the tragedy. In the Helen, some comic elements retain their humorous potential (e.g., the door-knocking scene), but others, like the egg, are transformed into true tragedy. In the Nemesis, the audience could laugh at the enormous egg and the characters’ puzzled reactions to it, and its hatchling is promised to be beautiful (καλόϲ, fr. 115.3 K-A) and marvelous (θαυμαϲτόϲ, fr. 115.4 K-A). In the eyes of Euripides’ Helen, on the other hand, the egg is a grotesque monstrosity (τέραϲ, 256) that she cannot even name, relying on the circumlocution τεῦχοϲ νεοϲϲῶν λευκὸν (258). The egg symbolizes the atrocities committed because of her and is a focal point of her horror at her own reputation. The egg’s humorous potential magnifies her disgust.
Thus, in offering a new interpretation of the mythological framework of the Helen, this paper builds upon and bridges recent scholarship on Cratinus’ mythological plays (Bakola, Bowie, Henderson) and on the atypical features of Euripidean tragedy (e.g., Mastronarde, Torrance, Wright). The Helen pushes the boundaries of the genre in numerous ways, including in Helen’s seeming awareness of literary treatments of her involvement in the origins of the Trojan War. Helen seems to be an aficionado not only of Homer, Cyclic epic, and Stesichorus, but of Cratinus as well.