According to Homer’s famous rendition of the Trojan War story, the victorious Greek coalition splintered not long after successfully capturing Ilium, with some sailing immediately home and others loitering to offer sacrificial thanks to the gods. Menelaus, the king of Sparta, and his recently freed wife, Helen, were on board one of the ships that left early. Their decision not to offer thanks, however, was said to have caused great annoyance among the gods. As a result, although Menelaus briskly left Troy to return home quickly, the gods sent him on a seven-year detour to the southeastern Mediterranean as punishment for his lack of respect.
In a conversation from The Odyssey (book 4), Menelaus claims that he visited Cyprus, Phoenicia, Sidon, Arabia, Libya and Egypt during those seven years. The last of these regions was where Menelaus experienced the most drama. On the one hand, he became stranded on the island of Pharos, where he wrestled with the mysterious wiseman/god, Proteus, otherwise known as The Old Man of the Sea. In addition to that odd encounter, he and Helen made some wealthy Egyptian friends who gave the Greek couple various luxurious gifts. From a certain Polybus in Egyptian Thebes, Menelaus was said to have received two silver baths, two cauldrons and ten talents of gold. Helen fared even better—not only did she receive an ornate gold-trimmed silver basket and a golden spindle from Polybus’ wife, Alcandre, but she also obtained an assortment of strange drugs and potions from another Egyptian woman named Polydamna.
One of the drugs that Helen received seemingly forced the taker to be happy, or at least to not feel any negative emotions. While that may seem cheery, the drug had some nasty side effects. The substance was so powerful that Homer’s description of it began to spiral into dark and twisted wording. In one scene where Helen gave the drug to some guests, Homer wrote: “Into the bowl in which their wine was mixed, she slipped a drug that had the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories” (The Odyssey, book 4, around line 220). Everything seems fine so far, but Homer quickly suggests that the substance was no mere feel-good drug. He continued, “No one that swallowed this, dissolved in wine, could shed a single tear that day, even for the death of his mother and father, or if they put his brother or his own son to the sword and he were there to see it done.” With effects like that, hopefully Helen used the mystery drug carefully.
Written by C. Keith Hansely.
Picture Attribution: (Helen of Troy painted by Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.