THE STORY (50:00 minutes) A dispute over honour leads to a leadership shift (and a profound tragedy) in the Greek army. Meanwhile, Paris Prince of Troy discovers that “nemesis” is a word of particularly Greek origin.
THE COMMENTARY THE OENONE STORY: A PATRIARCHAL MARRIAGE PRIMER (20 minutes; begins at 50:00) I devote this post-story commentary to an exploration of the “Paris and Oenone” story. I begin by reviewing the basic details of the story that seems to be agreed upon by all tellers down through the ages. In short: Paris is hit by Philoctetes’ poison arrow. The Trojan priests discover that only the healing arts of a particular forest nymph can save Paris from painful and certain death. Paris realizes that the nymph in question is Oenone, his former wife, who he abandoned some twelve or so years ago, having been promised (by Aphrodite) a much hotter and sexually obliging woman (Menelaus of Sparta’s wife Helen). At the time, Oenone had uttered some appropriately “fore shadowy” words: “Someday you will need me Paris…”. Paris, now dying of aforementioned arrow wound, asks Oenone (either via an embassy acting on his behalf, or, in some accounts, in person) to save him and Oenone says something to the effect of: “No. Let your current wife save you.” And Paris dies.
I briefly review the minor variations in this basic plot line, including: embassy begs for Paris’ life; Paris goes to Mt. Ida and begs for his own life; Helen – can you believe it! – begs for Paris’ life; Oenone travels to Troy, where the full royal family begs for Paris’ life. But I note that in all cases, Oeneon says “No”.
Then I outline the scene that follows, and that appears in ALL versions of the story. A scene, I note, that I find both implausible and deeply troubling. In all accounts of the Oenone story, following her initial rejection of Paris’ plea for help, Oenone relents, and goes searching for Paris, in order to save his life. And when she arrives too late, and finds Paris dead, Oenone, in all accounts, then takes her own life. Oenone commits suicide: sometimes by throwing herself off of Troy’s walls, sometimes by hanging herself, but in most accounts by throwing herself into Paris’ arms as his dead body burns on the funeral pyre.
I spend the balance of the post story commentary exploring why storytellers through the ages – from Classical Greek times up through Victorian England – seem to adore the image of Oenone throwing her live body into her faithless ex-husband’s dead arms. And though I acknowledge that I cannot help but see the Oenone story through my own culture’s values lens, I then go on to make my case. I argue that the Oenone suicide appears to be a patriarchal society’s “polemic” or “primer” on the appropriate behaviour of wives, even the wives of faithless (and profoundly inadequate) husbands. Instead of a more plausible plot line – that Oenone, an immortal, ageless forest nymph, would have “gotten over” the loss of her faithless/clueless husband twelve years after he had walked out on her – we are expected to believe that Oenone, on seeing her ex-husband dead, would have responded, to quote Tennyson as follows:
“ and all at once
The morning light of happy marriage broke
Thro’ all the clouded years of widowhood,
And muffling up her comely head, and crying
‘Husband!’ she leapt upon the funeral pile,
And mixt herself with him and past in fire.”
THE DEATH OF OENONE, 1829
I conclude the post-story commentary by reviewing the cultural values of Bronze Age and Classical Greek society concerning the appropriate roles and accepted behaviours of both married men and married women. And I highlight the profoundly double standard. Finally I argue that Oenone, fulfilling her role in a “patriarchal primer story”, is required to suicide after she allows her husband Paris to die, because that is the only way she can atone for the marital sin that she has committed, in not having dutifully healed (and hence remained true) to her husband, in spite of his philandering ways. So ultimately, because she suicides, Oenone is redeemed as one of the “good” women of Greek myth; her tragedy being only that she realized too late the error of her marital ways. But by throwing her body into her dead husband’s arms, Oenone, the good wife, publically reaffirms a woman’s place in a patriarchal world.
“Stand by your man” Oenone, and someday they might write a song for you…..