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Helen of Troy and Her Indo-European Sisters: Women's Vocal Agency and Self-Rescue in Greek, Indian, and Irish Epic

John McDonald

University of Missouri

Helen and Priam’s curious conversation in Book 3 of the Iliad, the so-called Teichoskopia, is a perpetual puzzle for students of Homeric poetry. In a seminal 1994 article, Stephanie Jamison, a scholar of Sanskrit literature, endeavored to explain some of the oddities of the question-and-answer exchange between the captive Spartan queen and her Trojan abductor’s father by comparing it to a corresponding episode in the Mahabharata, the primary Indian poetic equivalent of the Greek Epic Cycle (Allen 2002b, West 2005–2006, 2006, and 2009). In the scene in question, the captive princess Draupadi, whose mythology extensively intersects with the biographies of both Helen and Penelope (Allen 2002a, Jackson 2006, Jamison 1999), is asked by her abductor Jayadratha to identify the men coming to her rescue. The pursuers turn out to be Draupadi’s five husbands, the Pandava brothers, all of whom to varying degrees possess precise and complex similarities with some of the more prominent characters of the narrative of the Trojan War, including Helen’s twin brothers the Dioskouroi (Allen 2014). Draupadi, predicting Jayadratha’s imminent defeat, gloatingly proceeds to comply with his request and does so at considerable length, describing each of her husbands in detail, and in so doing verbally dominating a situation that quickly leads to her own recovery, a recovery that Jamison conceives of as having been vocally initiated and sanctioned by Draupadi’s potent speech act.

The details of the Teichoskopia to which Jamison’s essay draws attention include her observation that Helen subtly seizes comparable control of her dialogue with Priam, identifying and describing several of her currently visible intended rescuers beyond those indicated and asked about by Priam, and additionally referencing the conspicuously absent Dioskouroi. This presentation seeks to confirm and expand on the validity and essential significance of Jamison’s perspective by combining her Greco-Indian material with what appears to be a related medieval text that is a constituent of the Ulster Cycle, the Irish interpretation of the same inherited narrative from which those of the Trojan War and the Mahabharata have been fabricated (Bader 1980). In the Irish text, the abducted heroine Blathnat is asked by her captor Cu Roi to identify some figures he spies approaching his fortress. These figures are a mounted troop led by Blathnat’s lover Cu Chulainn, who has much in common with the Dioskouroi and several other key players in the mythology of the Trojan War and the Mahabharata (Allen 2000 and 2001, Clarke 2009). Blathnat, however, despite the fact that she recognizes them and knew to expect their arrival, deliberately mistakes the men for members of Cu Roi’s staff and their horses for cows. The result of Blathnat’s calculated falsehoods is that she commands the outcome of this rescue mission: Cu Roi is tricked into thinking himself safe, obliviously enters into his fortress, and, with further crucial help from Blathnat, becomes the victim of a successful surprise invasion.

When inspected from a comparative and diachronic vantage point, this trinity of cognate narratives and the triad of textual sisters that propel their plots reveal a shared focus on abducted women who substantially contribute to their own rescues by means of remarkably consonant vocal performances. Although Draupadi and Helen to one extent or another submit to the requests of their abductors, they both blend superficial obedience with subversion of their anticipated verbal roles by enhancing their responses in ways that are empowering and reflective of reclaimed autonomy. The Irish storytellers have magnified the ideology that sculpts this hereditary lore by creating Blathnat, who, in an act of narratological defiance, advantageously undermines Cu Roi’s expectations of her, and whose male rescuers are virtually superfluous embellishments in a narrative dictated by female vocal agency. 

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