Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Helen to Paris: Appraising the goods (I)

The oldest known surviving carpet in the world belonged to a Scythian prince, and dates back to the 5th century BC.

Pazyryk carpet 
Hundreds of years earlier, another weaver was at work:

[Iris] found Helen in the hall, where she was weaving a great purple double-folded warp, sprinkling thereon many contests of the horse-taming Trojans and the bronze-clad Achaeans which they suffered for her sake under the hands of Ares. (Iliad 3.125-29)
The Helen painted by Homer is a mature, regal presence who remains mostly distant and unknowable. In Heroides 17 Ovid gives us a younger Helen, already a queen, at the moment she confronts the ardor of the most dashing prince in the world with remarkable clarity and shrewd appraisal.

Helen's letter to Paris offers yet another example of how much fun Ovid could have responding to the imaginative possibilities of a luminous cast of Greek men and women. Her unabashed riposte gamely serves up a rich stew of protest-too-much indignation, acute moral reasoning, and wily sophistication. If we wished to find the roots of the vital, dignified and witty women of Shakespeare, the characters of Ovid's Heroides provide a good a place to begin.

It's also worth noting the allegorical interpretation of the Judgment of Paris that gained currency in the ancient world and remained commonplace in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. According to that tradition (invoked later by Hannah Arendt), the young man is facing a choice among three kinds of lives, or vitae: activa, contemplativa, and voluptuaria. 

Judgment of Paris, Cranach

Continued here

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