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Helen's Many Voices

In Odyssey 4.274-289 Menelaus recounts a story from the time that he and other leaders of the Greek forces at Troy were hiding in the famous decoy wooden horse which they used as a stratagem to win the Trojan War. He says that the Trojans used Helen to test whether the horse might in fact be concealing enemy combatants within it. The means of this test was for her to simulate the voices of the wives of the men hidden inside the giant horse.

Reminding Helen of the occurrence, Menelaus says to her:

"You circled our hollow hiding-place, striking the surface, calling out the names of the Danaan captains, in the very voices of each of the Argives’ wives."

The trick was so convincing that both Menelaus and Diomedes

"were ready to answer within, and leap out, but Odysseus restrained us, despite our eagerness. The rest of the Achaeans kept silent too,"

although there was one warrior named Anticlus who had to be pinned down by Odysseus, who "'clapped his strong hands over his mouth'" until Helen left the scene.

Anticlus is known only from this story, which Tryphiodorus expands upon in The Taking of Ilios [Ilium], telling us that Odysseus had to apply so much strain upon Anticlus to keep him from giving the big plan away, that this warrior died there and then. The other chieftains mourned him quietly, "with secret tears", wrapped his corpse in a coverlet and "hid him away in the hollow flank of the horse," performing an instant and silent funeral!

There are a few significantly remarkable elements in the story. The number of men hidden in the horse ranges from as low as twenty-three to as high as fifty (the standard figure landing roughly near the middle at forty).1 Helen must have known each of these men well enough to, additionally, know their wives in order to remember them all and have a ready reference-point to work from in order to imitate the women's voices as impeccably as the story tells us that she did.

The only alternative to this that I can think of is that Helen somehow had the ability to spontaneously assume the voice of practically any woman that she wanted to, using perhaps... some kind of magic? Incidentally, in the same passage of the Odyssey from which we get the story (Lines 219-232 of Book 4), we are told that Helen has in her possession powerful healing drugs which can wipe away one's cares and sorrows for an entire day, which she had received as a gift from a certain Egyptian woman. Drugs and sorcery are, in cultures the world over, including in Greek myth, very closely associated (and in fact the words for "drugs" and "witchcraft" are the same in Ancient Greek).2

What is the source of Helen's stunning facility with vocal mimicry? Did she spend a good chunk of her life honing her voice-acting skills (listener beware: she's not just a pretty face)? Or does the story mean for us to understand this as something more supernatural which not just anyone can achieve?

Is there a link between this and what comes later in the poem (Book 12), wherein Odysseus will encounter the Sirens, the monster sea-nymphs whose singing is so beautiful that it causes sailors to wreck their ships and lose their lives upon the rocks of the Sirens' island as they steer towards them?

Paralleling Helen's prodigious knowledge of the Greek soldiers' wives, the Sirens, who presumably have never met Odysseus before, see his ship approaching in the distance and beckon him specifically by name in their song. Certainly the Sirens are supernatural creatures; is Helen just as "super" in a similar vein?

Stentor's Megaphonic Voice

Iliad 5.785-786 says that Stentor, the herald of the Greeks during the Trojan War, was "bronze-voiced", his voice being louder than those of fifty other men. A couple of Iliad scholia say that he died after losing a shouting contest with the herald-god Hermes. This story seems to understand the character's description in the Iliad as something beyond mere hyperbole, considering that Stentor is in a position to compete with the god of message-relay himself in the use of his vocal chords. Or is there a more mundane way to interpret this?


1. Apollodorus' Epitome 5.14, which supplies us the figure of fifty, also cites the Little Iliad as numbering the hidden men at three thousand(!), which to me sounds particularly implausible (even in this fantastical setting).

2. For some reason this section of the Odyssey passage is careful to point out that the soil from which Helen's gift was derived, in addition to being rich in curative herbs, contains harmful ones as well.


  • Odyssey quotes taken from A.S. Kline's Poetry in Translation
  • The Taking of Ilios quotes taken from Oppian, Colluthus, Tryphiodorus, with a Translation by A.W. Mair. 1928. William Heinemann Ltd, London, & G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York
  • sorry isn't Menelaus Helens husband? – Hao S Jul 30 at 23:56
  • Uhh... Yes... Why do you ask? – Adinkra Jul 31 at 9:37
  • The trick was so convincing that both Menelaus .. were ready to answer within, and leap out Menelaus saw/heard Helen so he was ready to leap out whats the trick??? – Hao S Jul 31 at 16:40
  • Helen used her voice to pretend that she was the wives of the men hidden inside the wooden horse. Obviously in the case of Menelaus she didn't need to pretend, since she really was Helen. – Adinkra Jul 31 at 20:05

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