Helen of Troy and the Trojan Cloak
In my last post, I talked about the beautiful Helen of Troy and her incredible weaving skills. Homer may have just intended to show her as a proper woman, industriously weaving, but his short description piqued my curiosity. To answer my questions, I looked up three different translations of these lines about Helen. (Did you know there are all kinds of different versions? I didn’t.)
Here are the original lines as I read them in Caroline Alexander’s book, The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War.
She [Iris] came on Helen in the chamber: she was weaving a great web,
a double folded cloak of crimson, and working into it the numerous struggles
of Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armoured Achaeans,
struggles that they endured for her sake at the hands of the war god.
Iliad Book 3
Alexander said that the translation she used in her book was Richmond Lattimore’s from 1951. But when I checked this passage in Lattimore, I saw that she made a change here. Lattimore says, “a red folding robe,” instead of “a double folded cloak of crimson.” Alexander has a footnote that says the text is adjusted, but she doesn’t say why. Her choice of words is more specific. I wonder if translation advances made in the last 50 years have given us a better idea of what the Greek terms mean.
Next I looked at the Mitchell translation, which is what we are reading together as a blog group. The version I have is the Pocket Books e-reader version from 2006, and it is not formatted as poetry, just as regular paragraphs. It says:
She [Iris] found her [Helen] in her own room, working at a great web of purple linen on which she was embroidering the battles between Trojans and Achaeans, that Mars had made them fight for her sake.
Ah-ha! I knew it! Purple!!
But wait – linen? For a cloak? I would think a cloak would be wool. But I really don’t know.
And embroidering the battle scenes? That makes much more sense to me. If I had to stand up to weave, I would weave as basic a cloth as possible, and then sit down to embroider all the fancy details. Also, if the embroidery was on stand-alone bands of cloth, I could remove it later and put it to another use. I know the Coptics did this, and it seems like a more efficient way to make use of such a labor-intensive creation.
But, as I understand it, Mitchell did not even go back to the original Greek. He has just restated other people’s translations to fit modern audiences. The 2006 e-reader version does not have all the introductory material and appendices that the new print version has – there is nothing about his procedure, so I can’t tell how picky he would be about such detail. It is just one sentence, after all, in a book full of armor – greaves and corslets and bronze helms. So I am not going to lose much sleep over his word choice here.
The last translation I looked at was by Stanley Lombardo (1997, Hackett Publishing Company) – again, I have the e-reader version.
She found Helen in the main hall,weaving a folding mantle
on a great loom and designing into the blood-red fabric
the trials that the Trojans and Greeks had suffered
 for her beauty under Ares’ murderous hands.
Okay, so here we have weaving again, and the folding aspect is mentioned again. Now the cloth is blood-red, but is that the original Greek connotation, or Lombardo’s artistic license, since she is weaving scenes of battle. Not much detail about the design.
But weaving “in the main hall?” That is very different than “in her own room.” To me, if Helen was in the main hall, she’d be in the middle of things, ready to receive messengers or go somewhere at a moment’s notice. If she was off in a room of her own, she’d be more removed from the action of the household. (If you’re interested, here is a analysis of an archaeological site of one town in Greece, comparing floor plans in 35 houses, showing which rooms were used for weaving. It’s part of Nicholas Cahill’s book, Household and City Organization at Olynthus. ) Again, I would love to know what the original says, and if you can even determine which room was meant.
Lombardo says that he prepared his translation as a performance script, over 10 years, and then used Monro and Allen’s Oxford Classical Text (which is in Greek) and a six-volume commentary while getting the poem ready to print. So apparently he stuck close to the original.
I would like to know more about the “blood-red” term, and if it was meant to give another layer of meaning. Herodotus wrote about the use of madder plants to get red dye, around 450 BC. Madder gives a more orange-y red. Another possibility is kermes, a scale insect, which gives more of a blue-red. It was used in Old Testament times, so possibly the Greeks had access to it. But the men of Phoenicia, the area that produced purple dye from murex mollusks, were called the “blood-red men” by the Greeks. I haven’t been able to find much other mention of red in the epic itself. I wonder if red is associated more with one side than the other – is Helen’s color choice announcing the outcome she hopes for? Is she on Team Troy or Team Achaea? Does she even dare to have a preference?
If you are interested in the history of textiles, you might want to check out these books – The Book of Looms by Eric Broudy, Brown University Press, and The Red Dyes: Cochineal, Madder, and Murex Purple by Gösta Sandberg, Lark Books. And if you could answer any of my questions, or if you can correct any misconceptions I have, I would love to hear from you! In the meantime, I’ll be over here, trying to figure out a few more Iliad mysteries – like what an “aegis” is, why it has 100 tassels, and why anyone would think that a horsehair crest on a helmet is “menacing.”
This is really fascinating. I am sorry I can’t contribute any information but look forward to your further posts. Thanks!
Seriously – these are fantastic questions that I haven’t seen raised by academics, most of whom aren’t also weavers. (Not that I’ve read all the bibliography on the Iliad or anything, but I’ve never seen a technical discussion of these things, so never even thought to wonder about it much.) I’ll spend some time tonight and check up on the Greek in this passage, among other things – look for a post shortly 🙂
I read Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s book Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years shortly after it came out – it was amazing, but I thought she could have saved herself a lot of time if she had just asked an actual weaver how they would have woven the prehistoric cloth fragments she was studying. 🙂
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