Stealing Helen: The Myth of the Abducted Wife in Comparative Perspective, by Lowell Edmunds

A search for shared motifs in folklore and Classics is impressively broad-ranging, says Barbara Graziosi

December 3, 2015
Venus Preventing her Son Aeneas from Killing Helen of Troy, by Luca Ferrari
Sound familiar? Venus Preventing her Son Aeneas from Killing Helen of Troy by Luca Ferrari, c.1650

As Lowell Edmunds begins by stating, there is little interaction between Classics and folklore studies. There are obvious reasons for this, as he points out, not least the fact that there are almost no folktales in classical literature, apart from animal fables. Occasionally, classicists recognise folktale motifs while commenting on specific texts or passages, but their observations remain circumscribed; folklorists, for their part, hardly ever mine Greek and Latin sources in search of materials relevant to their purposes. In Stealing Helen, Edmunds sets out to strengthen interdisciplinary dialogue by focusing on Helen of Troy: Greek tales about her belong, he argues, to a type of story that can be found the world over, and which he calls “the myth of the abducted wife”.

Edmunds identifies eight specific motifs that make up the wider “myth” or “tale” (he uses the terms interchangeably):

1. The future wife has a preternatural birth

2. The childhood and marriage of the wife are omitted when telling her story

3. The abductor becomes aware of the beauty of the wife

4. The abductor is more powerful than the husband

5. The abduction takes place, without involving physical conflict between the abductor and the husband (who is often absent)

6. The husband sets out to recover the wife, and succeeds (usually with the help of a ruse)

7. Sometimes the abductor is punished; sometimes he is not

8. Sometimes the reunited husband and wife live happily ever after; sometimes the wife is killed or punished in some other way.

The book’s appendix collects 40 examples of “the abduction of the beautiful wife” from around the world, including five from sub-Saharan Africa, five from India, seven from China, three from Ireland and three from North America (Tlingit, Yupik, Blackfoot). Edmunds is upfront about the relationship between the typology and the catalogue: an initial study of ancient Greek accounts of Helen inspires a search for similar stories, which in turn help to construct a typology, which in turn helps to determine whether a particular tale is or is not an example of the type. This is, as Edmunds admits, no exact science. One of the book’s strongest aspects is that the author is candid about his methods: as he puts it, he commits his acts of abstraction “in broad daylight”. For this reason, readers will learn a lot about folklore studies and related disciplines (including linguistics, anthropology and, indeed, Classics).

Clarity of method need not, however, lead to acceptance – and I, for one, disagree with some aspects of Edmunds’ analysis. For example, I fail to understand his arguments against classicists who investigate the characterisation of Helen: “this kind of scholarship begins by forgetting that Helen was to Greeks a real, not a fictional, person” (real people also, arguably, have characters – characters that can be imagined and recreated in texts, as ancient rhetoricians and literary critics well knew). I also worry about Edmunds’ insistence that some motifs set apart Indo-European versions of the myth, and how that insistence relates to his claim (made with repetitive insistence) that he is uninterested in the origins of the Greek Helen.

Ultimately, the book’s greatest merit may lie not in Edmunds’ methods but in his broad horizons – in his delight at discovering similarities between classical literature and the tales and experiences of people across the globe.

Barbara Graziosi is professor of Classics, Durham University. She has just completed a European Research Council-funded project on ancient and modern biographies of classical poets.

Stealing Helen: The Myth of the Abducted Wife in Comparative Perspective
By Lowell Edmunds
Princeton University Press, 448pp, £34.95
ISBN 9780691165127
Published 21 October 2015

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