Iliad: Book 3

Deacon Harrison Garlick welcomes Dr. Karl Schudt to Ascend to discuss Book 3 of the Iliad – Helen Reviews the Champions

In this episode Dcn. Garlick and Dr. Karl Schudt will discuss:

  • What happens in the third book of the Iliad?
  • What is the story of Helen and Paris?
  • What are Trojan politics concerning Helen and Paris?
  • What is guest-friendship?
  • What else should be noted in book 3?

Book Three

Helen Reviews the Champions

Paris’ spirit shook, backing into his friendly ranks he cringed from death…

dreading Atrides—magnificent, brave Paris.

Iliad 3.35, 41

21. What happens in the third book of the Iliad?

The Achaean and Trojan armies line up against one another, and Paris, son of Priam and brother of Hector, struts out and challenges the best of the Argives (i.e., the Achaeans) to single combat (3.21). Menelaus, King of Sparta, answers the call, and Paris, upon seeing Menelaus, “cringed from death” and hides back amongst the Trojans (3.36). Hector chastises Paris, and Paris then agrees to single combat against Menelaus (3.84). The “challenge of Paris” is issued and accepted with the terms being that Helen and her treasures go to the victor, and friendship will be sealed in blood between the Achaeans and the Trojans (3.105). King Agamemnon and King Priam seal the challenge with an oath and sacrifice to Zeus (3.129). When it is clear that Paris has lost the duel, Aphrodite swoops in and transports Paris to his “bedroom full of scent” (3.439). Aphrodite coerces Helen to go to Paris, and Helen, at the longings of Paris, makes love to him (3.460, 517). Meanwhile, Menelaus, Helen’s former (or actual) husband, is outside Troy “like a wild beast,” and his brother, Agamemnon, declares Menelaus the winner (3.527, 536). Helen and her treasures should go to Menelaus and the Achaeans; friendship should be bound in blood between Troy and the ancient Greeks; and the war should be over.

22. What is the story of Helen and Paris?

Homer continues to unravel slowly the narratives that brought about the Trojan war. As noted above (Question 18), Menelaus was now the king of Sparta and husband to Helen, daughter of Zeus. Paris and a contingency of Trojans visited Sparta and were welcomed warmly by Menelaus. Menelaus left his guests in good care to visit Crete, and in his absence Paris absconded with Helen to Troy. Given the oath secured by King Tyndareus (Question 18), Menelaus turned to all of ancient Greece to help him return Helen to Sparta. Homer presents several references to Helen departing with Paris: Paris “carried off a woman” (3.55); why Menelaus will not trust the oaths of the princes of Troy (3.129); Helen’s emotions for Menelaus, her “husband long ago” (3.169); and Paris’ own account of sweeping Helen away from the “lovely hills of Lacedaemon,” i.e., ancient Sparta (3.520). Notably, Homer introduces Helen in book three weaving a “growing web, a dark red folding robe” as a clear analogue of the war (3.151).

23. What are Trojan politics concerning Helen and Paris? 

As book one revealed the complexities of Achaean politics, so too does book three reveal the internal politics of the Trojans. In short, almost no one likes Paris. After Paris hides from Menelaus, Hector chastises him saying, among other things, that it be better if Paris had never been born (3.45), he’s a “curse” to his father, and a “joy” to the enemies of Troy (3.57-8). Moreover, the people of Troy seem to want to give his new bride, Helen, back the Achaeans (3.191). Helen also laments that if she shares “that coward’s bed once more” the women of Troy scorn her (3.476). Helen later wishes Paris had died at the hands of Menelaus (3.500). She seemingly sleeps with Paris primarily out of fear of Aphrodite (3.486). When Menelaus is looking for Paris after Aphrodite swept him away, it is mentioned that no one in the Trojan army would help hide Paris (3.531). 

It is remarkable that despite the hatred everyone else shows Paris, King Priam of Troy explicitly tells Helen she is not to blame for the war (nor does he blame Paris) but rather blames the gods (3.199). What is Helen’s culpability for the war? Homer presents her as showing contrition for leaving Menelaus (3.218) and being forced into relations with Paris (3.460, 86). Such emotions would leave us with the initial impression that Helen sees herself as culpable for leaving Menelaus but is now coupled with Paris against her will by Aphrodite. 

Whether King Priam’s statement to Helen is a father’s inability to lay blame on his own son or a more penetrating insight than the rest of Trojans is left to be resolved. It is not unremarkable that Priam cannot stay and watch his son Paris duel Menelaus (3.360). The character of King Priam continues to unfold.

24. What is guest-friendship?

When Menelaus appeals to Zeus to help him crush Paris, he references, in part, that an example should be made of men who betray their host (3.412). An important concept amongst ancient Greece was what may be called guest-friendship—an unwritten code of hospitality under the patronage of Zeus. A stranger who presented to a house would be met with an overwhelming amount of warmth and generosity, to the degree that many times guests were bathed and feasted long before the host even asked their name. The guest, in a spirit of reciprocity, would often tell his host a story—often his own story. At the guest’s departure, the host would often give the guest a magnificent present. Similar to the New Testament belief that a man who hosts a stranger may be entertaining angels in disguise, the Greeks held that the stranger at the door may be a god. An example of this in Greek mythology is the story of a poor couple that generously offer what food they have to two guests—not knowing said guests were Hermes and Zeus in disguise. Guest-friendship will play a prominent role in the narrative of the Odyssey.

The generosity given and received creates a certain intimacy and vulnerability between the host and guest; thus, if one or the other betrays that trust, he is condemned and cursed by Zeus. It is a human relation cared for by the divine. It is this relation, amongst others, that Paris violated in absconding with Helen.

25. What else should be noted in book three?

After Paris hides from Menelaus, Homer refers to Paris as “magnificent, brave Paris” (3.41). It is an obvious use of irony that should alert us to be watchful for Homer’s more subtle uses of humor and irony. When Helen describes the Archaean heroes to Priam, she says of Odysseus: “he’s quick at every treachery under the sun—the man of twists and turns” (3.243-4). The latter half of Helen’s description will be used later by Homer to open the Odyssey. She also reveals that Odysseus led a prior delegation to the Trojans to try and resolve the war (3.247). In the tragic comedy that is Paris, we are left to wonder whether Paris has his own armor, as he wears his brother’s in his duel with Menelaus (3.389). In the classical era of Greece, tragic plays would often have such complicated, hopeless plots, that the only resolution was for a god to come down at the end and resolve it. This was later known as deus ex machina or god of the machine given the fact the actor involved would be lowered onto the stage by some mechanism. The rescue of Paris by Aphrodite seems an ancient precursor to this plot device (3.439).

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