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Isocrates’ Encomium of Helen

And the Cult of Helen and Menelaus at Therapnē

By Lowell Edmunds

The main sources in Greek literature for the cult of Helen and/or Menelaus at Therapnē are Herodotus (6.61.3), Isocrates 10 (Encomium of Helen), and Pausanias (3.19.9-10). Isocrates is the one who speaks of joint-worship of Helen and Menelaus (10.63). He suggests, furthermore, that Helen was a goddess at Therapnē, and his Encomium is routinely cited for her divine status in this cult, and not only by scholars of myth and literature. Archaeologists, too, have appealed to the Encomium as a documentary source for their interpretation of the site, the so-called Menelaion (first by Polybius 5.18.4). Much disagreement prevails, within the two fields of classical studies just mentioned, and also between them. The present article does not attempt to adjudicate. It focuses on a single source, returning to the text, reading the passages customarily cited for the divinity of Helen, and asking: what, according to Isocrates, is the cult status of Helen at Therapnē? The answer to this question will not, of course, immediately affect other kinds of evidence and other arguments for the divinity of Helen.

The title of the work to be discussed is somewhat misleading. Helen is almost incidental to Isocrates’ program, which includes his dispute with Plato and the Academy (1-13) and a long passage on Theseus (18-37). He also desires to go Gorgias one better (14-15). He expatiates on Paris’ decision to abduct Helen (39-51) and on the power of beauty (54-60). The relatively short passage on the cult at Therapnē comes toward the end of the oration and displays a device that Isocrates has already used in this oration. A new motive or cause, flattering to his object of praise, is attached to an old datum concerning this object. Isocrates has thus explained Paris’ abduction of Helen by his desire to become the son-in-law of Zeus and in this way to see to it that his descendants will be the descendants of Zeus on their mother’s as well as their father’s side (43). Isocrates has also explained, to take another example of the device, that the Trojans did not fight to support Paris nor did the Greeks to support Menelaus. The former fought on behalf of Asia, the latter on behalf of Europe, “believing that in whichever the person of Helen resided this land would be more prosperous” (51).

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(H/T History of the Ancient World)

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