Article Information

Evangelia G. Dafni1,2

1Department of Ecclesiastical and Social Theology, Faculty of Theology, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

2Department for Old Testament Studies, Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria, South Africa

Note: Professor Evangelia Dafni is a Research Associate of Professor Dirk Human in the Department of Old Testament Studies at the Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria. In 2014 she was a Visiting Professor in the same department. This article was originally a public lecture given at the University of Pretoria on 14 October 2014.

Correspondence to:
Evangelia Dafni


Postal address:
Private Bag X20, Hatfield 0028, South Africa

Received: 04 Apr. 2015
Accepted: 07 Apr. 2015
Published: 17 June 2015

How to cite this article:
Dafni, E.G., 2015, ‘Euripides’s Helena and Pentateuch traditions: The Septuagint from the perspective of Ancient Greek Tragedies’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 71(1), Art. 2902, 11 pages.

Copyright Notice:
© 2015. The Authors. Licensee: AOSIS OpenJournals.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Euripides’s Helena and Pentateuch traditions: The Septuagint from the perspective of Ancient Greek Tragedies
In This Original Research...
Open Access
The myth of Helena
The narrative principle of double naming and double nature
Theonoe’s double name
The double Helena
Teucer’s perspective
Menelaus’s perspective
Helena’s perspective
   • Competing interests

In some cases discussed below, the present form of the Septuagint is not representative of how Ancient Greek Tragedies were received by the LXX translators, but of how Old Testament traditions in Greek form were received by the tragedians.


In the Ancient Greek tragedy, a great number of linguistic and conceptual elements affecting gender relations in the context of marriage, family and society, remind of the language and thoughts of the Greek Old Testament, the so-called Septuagint. How did it come to such similarities, has been answered inadequately up to now. All too often the cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean point to common traits or to general human or cross-cultural language and ideas, dressed in similar or comparable structures and reasoning patterns, widely used among the nations. The Ancient Jewish and Christian apologetic literature presented the thesis that Greek poets and philosophers knew Moses or were inspired by him. A more modern view is that a cultural exchange between Hebrews and Greeks took place not first in the Hellenistic period but already in the classical age. This proposal is often regarded with some hostility. However, it seems for those who are inclined to go the difficult path to survey the original documents that the possibility opens up to seek traces of an exchange (Dafni 2006a; 2006b; 2007; 2009a; 2009b; 2010).

On the basis of Euripides’s tragedy Helena1, performed for the first time in the year 412 BC in Athens, this article would like to address the question of the influence of biblical thinking on Greek literature and, based on the original texts of Euripides2 and of the Old Testament in its Hebrew and Greek version, to gain insights into the cultural exchange between Hebrews and Greeks in the classical age. These could open paths to discussions about gender relations and gender equality.

The myth of Helena

It is opinio communis that the Euripidean tragedy Helena3 represents the most radical transformation of the well-known aetiological myth of the Greeks about the cause of the Trojan War. This myth also forms the basis of the Homeric poetry (Lange 2002:115–151), standing at the beginnings of Ancient Greek literature. Helena, whose beauty was a stumbling block and rock of offence under the Greeks and Phrygians,4 provided for Euripides as well as for his predecessors Homer, Stesichorus and Herodotus narrative material to which they all referred back. But criticism and evaluation of this figure by each of these authors is different (Allan 2008:18–28; Kannicht 1969a:21–71).

In the form of a genealogy, well known not only from Ancient Greek mythology, but especially from the Ancient Near Eastern context and the context of the Old Testament, Homer describes the proud pedigree of a demigoddess of immortal beauty, who owes her good relationship to procreation and not to creation or adoption. Herein is reflected the most important distinction between the Ancient Greek and the Old Testament God-likeness and/or similarity-concept, which plays an important, albeit subtle, role in Euripides’s tragedy to be discussed. In Ancient Greek mythology, from which Euripides borrowed motives, the physical kinship or the natural union of divine and human in the person of Helena is clearly emphasised. For this most beautiful among women was the daughter of Zeus and Tyndareus’ wife, Leda. It is noteworthy, that, in the Old Testament context, the term ‘son’ or ‘sons of God’ expresses neither genealogical attribution nor biological kinship between God and human, but it is connected, also with respect to a king or the Messiah and the chosen people, indelibly with the concepts of election and adoption.5

The plot of Euripides’s tragedy presupposes the Homeric myth about the abduction of the beautiful Helena: In a beauty contest between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite on Mount Ida Aphrodite wins, and she promises Paris-Alexandros, the son of king Priam of Troy, Helena as prize, although Helena was already the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Helena then cheats on her husband, marries Paris and follows him to Troy. So the Trojan War is kindled, for Menelaus, the betrayed and abandoned husband, will not permit or tolerate that his wife breaks the conjugal covenant with him, which brings shame and disgrace to him and destroys the social order and integrity in Greece. Claiming the collective sense of honour and awareness of the Greeks for solidarity and retaliation, Menelaus and his allies go to war against the Phrygians, to recover the most famous and most beautiful wooer of Greece, but this leads to mutual bloodshed and loss of life. In this unique way Homer connected the physical beauty and the spiritual wickedness of a woman, which has led to violent clashes.

For a better understanding of this Homeric evaluation of Helena’s figure, one must, in my view, not start from a general contrast between nature and culture, but from the specific question of what is moral and gender equality, as it already occurs in the Odyssey and the counter example of the faithful and patient Penelope. This suggests that the Homeric ethics could probably have been inspired and guided by similar thoughts about moral behaviour and conjugal morality, as presented in the prohibition of adultery and desire in the Decalogue (Ex 20:14–17 with its parallel in Dt 5:18–21; cf. Hossfeld 1982; Noth 1961:134; Schmidt 1993; Veijola 2004:168), even if the everyday experience rather speaks of continuous violations of the Divine Law and human missteps. Even Homer’s epic emphasises that one actually should not commit adultery and not covet another man’s wife.

Noteworthy is that Helena is not viewed by Homer as the property of her husband, that can be quietly sacrificed to the family or to the country, but as his graceful counterpart in holy matrimony, whom he has lost and must necessarily regain. Despite her guilt, Menelaus does not call the Greeks to punish the adulterous woman, as, in the sense of Exodus 20:14–17 with its parallel in Deuteronomy 5:18–21 (prohibition of adultery) or Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22ff., compared with Numbers 5:11–31 (death of both parties to the adultery) one would have expected, but to recover the seduced and to prosecute her seducer and his people, who not only tolerates this moral failure, but also declares it to be legitimate and thus makes himself an accomplice.

Euripides knows the Homeric narrative perspective and Stesichorus’s original damning judgement of Helena and his a posteriori withdrawal.6 The price Stesichorus had paid for his allegations against Helena was to lose his eyesight. In the palinode, instead of reviling the adulteress, he has composed a hymn to the faithful wife, who was wrested by force from her husband and had just arrived with her kidnapper in Egypt, where the righteous king Proteus places her under protection for her rightful husband, and so Stesichorus got his sight back. Only a silhouette of Helena accompanied Paris to Troy and the murderous Trojan War had broken out in reality only for the sake of a mirage. Also Herodotus knows a similar version in the so-called Proteuslogos (Hist II. 112–120; Cf. Kannicht 1969a:41–48), which relates that Paris and Helena had fled to Egypt together.

Talking of an image or illusion of Helena in an ancient Egyptian context is probably no coincidence, because, as is well known, similar terminology was used in the context of royal ideology and theology of creation (Janowski 2004:183–214; Maag 1954:85–106; Maag 1955:15–44; Schmidt 1967:127–148). Already since the 18th Dynasty, the Pharaoh was considered and worshiped as ‘the image resp. as the living image, in the place of the god Re on earth’ (cf. Westermann 1974:210ff.). But this question exceeds the limit of the present investigation.

Euripides is even more radical than his predecessors, Stesichorus and Herodotus. His tragedy starts with a patrilineal genealogy of the royal house in the Nile Delta and on the island of Pharos, which granted Helena protection – a spatial condition, specifically reminiscent of the origin of the Septuagint. Egypt is not only the place of refuge for the beloved son of Jacob in the Old Testament (Gn 39ff.), but also the refuge for Helena. And the house of Proteus, the wisest of all men, gives asylon7 to her conjugal covenant (Hel. 61), like Moses, once an Egyptian prince, who highlights in the Decalogue the holiness and the divine protection of marriage.

By determining the ratio of Helena’s external appearance to her inner essence, Euripides emphasises that at the arrival of Paris, Helena had already been brought up from Sparta to Egypt by Hermes, the messenger of the gods and herald of Zeus. Paris had only stolen Helena’s living silhouette which had been created by Hera, and which had no intellectual merits to show over the original. The Greek term here used is εἴδωλον ἔμπουν (Hel. 34.584). Thus, the Homeric myth is completely turned on its head. From the beautiful unscrupulous wooer a second Penelope is made, who is patiently waiting 17 years for her husband, so that the divine promise comes true and her marriage with Menelaus, prearranged by Hera, can certainly exist until eternity.

Helena’s replacement by a shadow image expresses not only the anger and vengeance of Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus, who was not Paris’s first choice in the beauty contest, but it should be pointed out that Hera still may be considered the patron of the sacred matrimony because Helena, in reality, has been a pious and faithful wife after the example of Penelope. Thus, the idea – allegedly standing behind the Homeric Helena – that for beautiful women it is preordained, or that it characterises their true nature, not to belong to one man, but to be conquered by the most powerful should be strongly rejected (cf. Sophocles Antigone 61ff.).

In Euripides, Helena is again threatened after Proteus’s death. Theoclymenus, his son and successor, wants to espouse her. Her fate is reminiscent of Penelope, who was besieged by suitors to marry one of them. But after the Euripidean view, Menelaus and Helena will find each other just like Odysseus and Penelope. It is noteworthy that the motif of a wife’s risks for her beauty occurs also three times in the Old Testament, specifically in the so-called duplicates in Genesis 12:9–20; 20:1–18; 26:1–13. These three parallel stories could be traced back to longer orally transmitted legends, in which the main characters and the narrative perspectives visibly or invisibly converge (cf. Auerbach 1959:9–27; Koch 1989:149f.). In Genesis it is about the finessing or outwitting of (1) Pharaoh, (2) Abimelech, the king of Gerar, by Abraham and Sarah, and (3) Abimelech, the Philistine king, by Isaac and Rebekah. In all three cases, the beauty of the ancestress puts her husband’s life in danger. By a trick of the ancestor, his wife’s honour and his own life are protected and sealed by God through a promise of blessing. Noteworthy here is that the foreign-born kings unexpectedly hear God’s voice, who reveals his will in their conscience in a mysterious way (Dafni 2001a:306ff.). In Euripides’s tragedy, Theoclymenus is outwitted by Helena with the help of his sister. But, at last, he listens to the divine will, revealed to him by his sister and the Dioscuri, and did not die. Penelope’s suitors, however, because of their arrogance, meet their death. Helena’s rescue, compared to Penelope’s, runs bloodless; because of her living silhouette the blood in her family and in Troy has already flowed in torrents (Hel. 273–309).

Euripides thus contemplates the figure regarded by the Greeks as the cause of the Trojan War from different points of view, apparently not discussed by Stesichorus and Herodotus. It is not the intention of this article to treat the perspectives of Stesichorus, Herodotus and Euripides in detail (Kannicht 1969a:21–71; cf. Hose 2008:141–151), but to respond to the question: What has Euripides – usually claimed to be a woman hater (Harder 1993; cf. Assael 1985:91–103; March 1990:32–75) – to do with the Old Testament? What does the Euripidean narrative and figural perspective (Schmid 2008) contribute to the understanding of Old Testament ethics or Aretology and to the modern conception of gender justice (cf. Foley 2001; Pomeroy 1984; Zelenak 1998)?

The narrative principle of double naming and double nature

The most noticeable characteristic of Euripides’s tragedy Helena is that the speeches of the individual figures do not purely imitate oral traditions, but they incorporate artfully sealed narratives referring to Helena in the context of the Trojan War and in the Egyptian context. The principle which determines the development and the interdependence of the tragedy is the difference between a true and a false Helena, between archetype and image or silhouette, illusion, delusion, cloud or aerial or murder-seducing imagination, between phenomenon and reality, form and content, external and internal nature. Euripides adopts from his predecessor Stesichorus the motif of a double Helena (Hose 2008:141f.). At the same time, he also invents a double theophoric name for the prophetic daughter of Proteus, a marine deity, who could change his shape and foresee the future. Thus Euripides combines the motives of (1) the double Helena, as the original and its copy, and (2) the double name of the prophetess Eido-Theonoe with the multifaceted deity, believed to have passed the hereditary prophetic gift, and indicates completely new paths of understanding and explanation of the relationship between divine will and human action.

As is apparent from the study of the figure-specific wording of Euripides, material and spiritual aspects of the double Helena are marked linguistically. Her name and appearance are quite separate from her mental or spiritual essence. With Eido or Theonoe, the daughter of Proteus, however, only the name that reveals her character plays a decisive role. With the help of the Euripidean language and narrative perspective, other thoughts subordinated to this principle (linguistic marking and revelation of nature) are already recognisable in the stories of the so-called Yahwist (Gn 2–3) and the priestly source (Gn 1) of the creation of man and woman, and have left echoes in the Old Testament understanding of prophecy (Dafni 2000). These are most clearly recognisable in the so-called Greek Bible, namely the Septuagint, specifically in qualitative differences from their Hebrew original which result from translation equivalents with interpretive character. In particular:

1. The basic aim of the tragedy Helena seems to be summarised in the second song (stasimon), where the Euripidean concept of God is clearly expressed (Hel. 1137–1150):

This text expresses not only the Euripidean scepticism confronting the values and belief crises of his time but also his own proposal for the interpretation of the present and future management due to his focus on knowledge of God, knowledgeability and distinctiveness. To some extent this reminds of the Old Testament exilic and post-exilic beliefs of priestly provenance, even if they are told from a different theological point of view.

In Helena 711f. it is said: ‘how changeable and inscrutable is the divine!’ (… θεὸς … τι ποικίλον δυστέκμαρτον) with regard to the manifestations and the detectability of the divine. And in 1688f.: ‘ What heaven sends has many shapes and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation’ (πολλαὶ μορφαὶ τῶν δαιμονίων / πολλὰ δ’ ἀέλπως κραίνουσι θεοί) which make clear the polymorphism, as well as the diversity and unpredictability of words and ethos of the Greek gods. But differently expressed is the will of the One and the sole God of Israel in the Decalogue, and clearly and memorably made known to the disposition and attitude of the chosen people (Ex 20:3f. with its parallel in Dt 5: 7f.):

It should be noted that the wordplay used by the Exodus translator in Exodus 20:3f. with its parallel in Deuteronomy 5:7f. is exactly equivalent to the terms (LXX εἴδωλον – ὁμοίωμα for תמונה – פסל) in Genesis 1:26 (LXX εἰκών – ὁμοίωσις for צלם – דמות) to distinguish between the true and false god image and likeness. The Hebrew text, however, uses different vocabulary that does not indicate exactly the same content and calls up other latent ideological perspectives, which cannot be discussed in this context.

Euripides, influenced by a polytheistic concept of God, is in radical contrast to the Old Testament claim of Yahweh’s exclusivity and the prohibition of images (Ex 20:3f. with its parallel in Dt 5:7f.), although this is expressed by similar or comparable linguistic means. This fact alone points out that the Greek Old Testament and Euripides’ Helena cannot be strangers to each other, but that they should have come in touch in a general-intellectual historical as well as in literary-specific sense.

2. Euripides’ understanding of God-man-relationship is revealed by the statement (560) θεὸς γὰρ καὶ τὸ γιγνώσκειν φίλους, literally: ‘God is to recognize the friends’. Kovacs (2002:73) translated this: ‘To recognize your own is also something divine.’ Compare Helena 760: τοὺς θεοὺς ἔχων τις ἂν φίλους ἀρίστην μαντικὴν ἔχει δόμοις – ‘If a man has the gods’ friendship, that is the best prophecy his house can have’ (Kovacs 2002: 97). According to Kannicht (1969b:158), here lies a ‘conventional predicate’, which became possible since the 5th century BC. It epitomises and emblematises ‘overwhelming mental states or external circumstances’ and stands out ‘from the more or less conventional style of the other evidence by their clear internal credibility.’ But the whole statement strongly reminds of an expression found in Exodus 33:11 and Deuteronomy 34:10, which briefly and succinctly summarise the meaning of the encounter of God and Moses in the Pentateuch narratives:

We encounter all these phrases (ἐνώπιος ἐνωπίῳ, πρόσωπος κατὰ πρόσωπον) in conjunction with the verbs λαλεῖν [‘speakor talk’] and γιγνώσκειν [‘know or recognise’], not only in the Septuagint, but also in the Hebrew original, probably due to redactional work of priestly circles, in the form פנים אל־פנים or פנים בפנים [‘face to face’] in connection with the verbs דבר [’speak or talk’] and ידע [‘know or recognise’]. As elsewhere shown (Dafni 2001b; Dafni 2009a:475–490), similar and comparable linguistic constellations are found in the fragments of the Presocratics and Plato. In the Septuagint, they constitute, in my view, a semantic bundle which can lead to comparable language and thoughts about the God-man-relationship as expressed by the idiomatic phrase ‘in our image and after our likeness’ (LXX-Gen 1:26 κατ’ εἰκόνα ἡμετέραν καὶ καθ’ ὁμοίωσιν) (see below). For the close proximity of God and man is depicted here in a unique way without the boundaries between the divine and human spheres being changed or moreover, abolished.

3. The question of God’s knowledge, likeness and image is not first raised in the Hellenistic period, but it was already discussed in the Greek world since Homer. It is significant that in the prologue of the Odyssey (1.21) Odysseus is designated as ἀντίθεος (literally [Odysseus] as a god’s mirror image or reflection, instead of a god, i.e. godsimilar or godlike), not because of his physical form or his external appearance, but because of his fear of the gods, his reason and his universal knowledge, which he owed due to his extensive intercultural learnability (1:3ff.). A comparable idea is pronounced in the anthropomorphism of LXX-Genesis 1:26a, which precisely at this point is formulated differently from the Masoretic Text:

The Masoretic Text speaks of צלם and דמות, while the Septuagint renders the Hebrew words into Greek as εἰκών and ὁμοίωσις (Bratsiotis 1964–1967:227–306; cf. Barr 1968:11–26; Westermann 1974:203–214).

The verbal abstractum 8דמות occurs in priestly, exilic and post-exilic texts and is understood by the meaning of ‘illustration, copy, reproduce, design, appearance’ (Gesenius & Buhl 1962:165) or ‘replica, form, likeness’ (HAL I, 217), but the Septuagint renders it as ὁμοίωμα, ὁμοίωσις, εἰκών, ἰδέα and ὅμοιος. Preuß (1977:273–277) pointed out that the word in question is used in Ezekiel 1:10 for the sight of the form of God, while in Isaiah 40:18 it expresses Yahweh’s incomparability. The uncertain derivation from a verb צלם [‘cut off’] not occurring in the Hebrew Bible, as well as the derivation from the noun לצ [‘shadow’] suggested by Bordreuil (1966:389) and Schmidt (1967:133 n. 1.), let main and secondary meanings of 9םלצ as ‘plastic image, males, idol’ (Gesenius & Buhl 1962:684) or ‘statue, statue, idol, image, figure, likeness’ (HAL II 963f.) appear to be hypothetical (Stendebach 1989). Of particular importance is the connection in Gesenius and Buhl (1962) with Psalms 39:7 and 73:20 (only in these cases), which he suggested as examples for the meaning ‘unsubstantial image, in contrast to reality.’ The Septuagint translates that as εἰκών, εἴδωλον, ὁμοίωμα and τύπος and thus points beyond the detection of the concept of representation ability of the divine reality. The Septuagint translation is especially meaningful for associations evoked by the Hebrew words in the Greek-Hellenistic readership. םלצ and תומד in the meaning of ‘image and likeness’ are considered to be two objectively not different, but equally significant terms. Since Irenaeus they are understood as a hint ‘to the double image of God in human beings, in a natural and a supernatural sense’ (Westermann 1974:205). Preuß (1977) noted:

Was konkret in Gen 1,26 gemeint ist, ist aber dann auch hier nicht durch eine Untersuchung der verwendeten Begriffe allein zu erschließen, sondern wird erst durch den weiteren Kontext ausgeführt (1,28) und als partnerschaftliche Anteilgabe an Herrschaft expliziert. (p. 276)

It should be mentioned with Heinisch (1930:101), that the priestly author or editor, who uses the anthropomorphism in Genesis 1:26, is aware that Yahweh is not רשב [‘flesh’], and his theological thought is led by the prohibition of images.10 If he had represented God in a picture, as a statue, as it was the case in the environment of the Old Testament, then it would be as if he wanted to pull down ‘God from the spiritual realm into the sensual.’ Nevertheless, he dared to move the anthropomorphism by ‘the similarity of man with God not in a physical but in a spiritual sense’, because of human reason and will of freedom. Unlike the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint makes a distinction between εἰκών and ὁμοίωσις by addition of a καί that – even if it came originally from a mistake of the writer – gave rise to the later exegetes to see in εἰκών (θεοῦ) the starting point and in ὁμοίωσις (θεοῦ) the goal of human existence (Bratsiotis 1964–1967:227–306; cf. Kosmala 1963:38–85; 1964:65–110).

4. Why precisely has this expression become possible about 600–400 BC under Greek and Hebrew speaking peoples, if an intellectual and linguistic exchange had not taken place, the traces of which we find in the literary legacy of both nations? If the biblical formulations in question have been made very late, then it is most likely that the Old Testament Pentateuch redactors knew the works of the Presocratics, Euripides or Plato. In the case of an early exchange, they were more likely to be regarded as evidence of mutual loan translations in Greek and Hebrew literature. But the respective direction of influence would still have to be determined.

Euripides seems to have made a selection of Old Testament motives from improvised Greek translations circulated in the diaspora, so that he could provide fundamental questions of philosophy and come nearer to his central theological problem. He makes recourse to both already formed linguistic tools – with which one could render Old Testament statements into Greek, requiring precursor translations to the Septuagint – as well as newly formed linguistic forms. His theological and anthropological concern arises from the most casual observations of the individual characters in the drama. For him, it is actually about the knowledge of God, which is linked insoluble with the question of God-man-likeness. A similar concern arises from the above-mentioned relevant exilic or post-exilic Old Testament passages.

Theonoe’s double name

The question: Who can distinguish between true and false, and how – that is really the most basic question of Old Testament prophecy. Euripides answers this by introducing the figure of the prophetess Theonoe and thus the weight of the narrative is shifted from the outside into the inner world of man.

He did not invent this figure but adopted it from Homer. Interesting is that he transforms the Homeric theophoric name of the seer in a special way. Homer speaks of Εἰδoθέα [‘she who looks like a goddess’]. But Εuripides breaks the name up into its components and forms two theophoric names of one and the same person: Eἰδώ and Θεονόη. While Eido refers to the sensory perception of the eye, Theonoe indicates first the mental perception, that is, ‘the mind of God or the mind of God-knowing’ (Kannicht 1969a:20). Noteworthy is that also in the LXX-Genesis 32:30f. the place where Jacob has seen God face to face and was rescued is called εἶδος θεοῦ [‘vision of God’]. The Masoretic Text speaks of פְּנִיאֵל [‘face of God’]. Similar to Theonoe the name of her brother Theoclymenus is formed, referring to the senses of hearing and – with regard to his change of mind it means ‘he who hears god’. His name indicates the turn in the drama. Despite the hardening of his heart, which is reminiscent of the Pharaoh of Exodus, he repents, because he heard the voice of his sister and the Dioscuri telling him the divine will. The theophoric name Theonoe recalls LXX-Isaiah 40:13:

τίς ἔγνω νοῦν κυρίου,

καὶ τίς αὐτοῦ σύμβουλος ἐγένετο,

ὃς συμβιβᾷ αὐτόν;


Who has known the mind of the Lord,

And who has been his counselor

to instruct him?

The Euripidean statements presuppose a similar problem and imply a rational response.

1. Euripides’ Helena explains the double name Eido-Theonoe after the pattern of the Old Testament Namengebungen and Namensätiologien (Hel. 10–15):

Just as Jacob-Israel carries two different names, one before and one after the theophany or vision of God and the struggle with God at Jabbok, the daughter is called differently in youth and age of marriage. Literally taken her theophoric names indicate a process of development in the knowledge of divine things. The name Εἰδώ on the one hand could be compared with εἰκών within the meaning or in the sense of God’s vision and εἴδωλον with idol. Θεονόη on the other hand could allude to the indwelling of God or the divine spirit in the inner man or in man’s heart, that the LXX-Genesis 1:26 calls to mind. It is interesting to note that the name Θεονόη receives two explanations in the above text. In the first explanation, Θεονόη is she who knows in advance and foretells the present and the future things (τὰ θεῖα γὰρ τά τ ‘ὄντα καὶ μέλλοντα πάντ’ ἠπίστατο), in the manner of an Old Testament prophet who receives God’s revelation. The name of God ὁ ὤν in the LXX-Exodus 3:15f. calls this in our memory and flows into the New Testamental ὁ ὤν ὁ ἤν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος (Rv 1:4–8; 4:8). In the second explanation, this fact is explained in more detail: This charisma, this gift was inherited from her ancestor Nereus, a god with mantic skills. In contrast to the extra-biblical divination, the Old Testament prophecy owes its interpretations of the past, present and future not to a hereditary property of the prophet, but to divine election, appointment and revelation. For in the tragedy Helena says ‘Theonoe realized the reason/mind of the gods, because she has inherited Nereus’ charisma of prophecy’; but in the Old Testament Moses and the prophets have been chosen and called by God, who revealed to them his will.

2. Euripides puts Menelaus an interpretation of the name Theonoe into the mouth (822):


While the Greek text indicates the oracle, the German translations (‘Prophetic sounds like the name’) interpret the text according to the Bible and recognise Theonoe as a true prophetess. Kannicht (1969b:224) distinguishes between ‘a mysterious prophetic voice’ and ‘a Fama’, that is, a demonic helper of the power of Φήμη who since Kimon had been worshiped in Athens’, and opts for the second.

3. Euripides’ Helena paints the portrait of Theonoe as follows (819f.):


In Euripides, Helena’s and Menelaus’ appropriate helper or comrade-in-arms who seeks the restoration of their ancient, divinely ordained marriage, was a godlike being (θεοῖς ἴση). This must be understood as a response to people’s disparaging opinion that the exact match ally to the void target of the Greeks chasing the most beautiful woman of Greece and for her sake shedding human blood, was an imagination as vain as the wind.

Although he did not say it explicitly, Euripides makes from the seer a female figure comparable to the Old Testament prophets, with a theophoric name.

4. In Helena [757], Euripides expresses very aptly what other people think of true visionaries and what Theonoe thinks of herself:

[… Θε. γνώμη δ ‘ἀρίστη μάντις ἣ τ’ εὐβουλία.]

[… The best way to tell the future is to be intelligent and plan ahead.]

Reasonable opinion (γνώμη) precedes emotionally controlled will (εὐβουλία), which otherwise can fall to superstition with devastating consequences.

The double Helena

Even Helena’s statement σκέψαι∙ τί σοι δεῖ πίστεως σαφεστέρας (578 literally as: ‘Think what credible evidence you should still like to have?’, Kovacs [2002:75] Just look! Why do you need clearer proof than that?’ –), raises the question: What is the relation of thinking and faith in connection with the possibility of differentiation between true and false, authentic and spurious, if the appearance is the same and the invisible nature differs? No other testimony than rationality, Helena stresses, may give a clearer answer. The problem is apparently that Helena’s true essence has fallen victim to her bad reputation, so that even her beloved husband could not recognise her.

Euripides, who concludes his Helena tragedy with the words of the chorus leader that the gods can appear in many shapes and unexpected prophecies and predictions (πολλαὶ μορφαὶ τῶν δαιμονίων/πολλὰ δ’ ἀέλπως κραίνουσι θεοί, 1688f.), opens it with the narrative of the twofold form of the demigoddess, Helena. Euripedes takes the motif of the double shape or figure from Homer and redesigns it. Homer speaks namely of the sea god Proteus who could change his shape wonderfully (Od 4:384ff.). Euripides explains exactly how it came to the double figure, or to the simultaneous existence of a true and a false Helena. Exactly this state of affairs is also taken up by all acting or narrative characters of the drama and explicated in detail due to their positions and possibilities of perception for each given situation. In the wording of each figure and in the authenticity or inauthenticity of speaking can, in my opinion, be recognised the constant reference to the Old Testament pattern of image and likeness (Gn 1:26), not in its Hebrew form בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ, but in the Greek of the Septuagint κατ εἰκόνα ἡμετέραν καὶ καθ ὁμοίωσιν. Βy the addition of a καί, the Greek version distinguishes clearly between εἰκών and ὁμοίωσις, and by the choice of the equivalents εἴδωλον and ὁμοίωμα for the idols as degenerate forms of εἰκών and ὁμοίωσις in Exodus 20:4 with its parallel in Deuteronomy 5:8 it emblematises the sharp contrast between authentic (true) and inauthentic (false). In this way, the Septuagint points to the divine prohibition of images in the Decalogue. Its transgression causes the death, in a moral-ethical sense, and in a physical sense as well. It is noteworthy that Euripides uses the same and comparable terminology to illustrate the relationship of the image to the original. Thereby, the image (the wrong Helena) is the total degeneracy of the original (the true Helena).

Teucer’s perspective

The words εἰκών or εἰκώ, -οῦς and ὄψις, μίμημα instead of ὁμοίωσις or ὁμοίωμα are used by Teucer, who gets completely shocked at the sight of the real Helena and totally confused; he holds the genuine for the fake. Therefore, he screams and curses her (72–77):

Teucer seems to transfer the bad properties of the image, held to be genuine, on the original, and wishes its destruction. He defines the relationship between image and original (prototype) by using of the adjectives ὅμοιος versus διάφορος in the frame of thanksgiving and benediction (160f.):


The choice of terminology here is to point out that the woman standing in front of Teucer, although she has the same appearance as Helena, whom he knew, is mentally completely different. However a further distinction is also made, namely between body and mind (σῶμα vs. φρένες) or interior and exterior elements, although it is not clear why beautiful appearance and bad attitude represent necessarily Helena’s true nature.

Menelaus’s perspective

Menelaus brought from Troy to the Greek ships a Helena as a dishonourable slave, and finds in Egypt another, enslaved, but dignified and pleading protection, before the tomb of the honourable and righteous king Proteus. Now he wonders, upset, if he has not to do with a lookalike (doppelgänger), but he is in fact husband of two women, that is, he had entered into a bigamous marriage, not like Jacob in the Old Testament, involuntarily and unavoidably, but unknowingly (571–577):

The theme of double marriage of a man or a woman seems to be Euripides’ favourite theme corresponding to his own experience and knowledge of and engagement with the Old Testament Jacob narratives, as it has been discussed in detail elsewhere (Dafni 2010:105–136). The dilemma, whether he knowingly or unknowingly commits an offence, arises not only in the Genesis narratives of the ancestor’s threat (see above), but also in Euripides, here, and especially in his tragedy Hippolytus.

Helena’s perspective

Due to her perception and attitude, two different aspects in the words of Helena can be recognised, one before and another after her encounter with Teucer: a sober on one hand and a self-reflective aspect on the other.

1. Eἴδωλον ἔμπνουν (34,584) calls Helena the phantom, the shadow image, the living fallacy of her, which went to Troy with Paris. Euripides uses the determination ἔμπνουν programmatically to distinguish the Homeric idea of εἴδωλον from his own conception connected with δέμας [‘body’].11 When Euripides speaks here of εἴδωλον he means certainly not a simple air structure. This is the reason why he used the adjective ἔμπνουν <ἐμπνέω [‘to breathe into it’] with the meaning of a figure with body and soul. LXX-Genesis 2:7 uses the cognate verb ἐνφυσάω, -ῶ [‘blow in’] to express a comparable state.

καὶ ἔπλασεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν ἄνθρωπον χοῦν ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς

καὶ ἐνεφύσησεν εἰς τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ πνοὴν ζωῆς,

καὶ ἐγένετο ὁ ἄνθρωπος εἰς ψυχὴν ζῶσαν.


And God formed man, dust from the earth,

and breathed into his face a breath of life,

and the man became a living being.

2. The spiritual and the material aspect of the true and the false Helena are characterised by Helena herself with the following terms: αἰθήρ12 [‘etheric material or air’] and σῶμα [‘body’]. For this purpose, Euripides juxtaposes the term ὄνομα [‘name’] with the term σῶμα [body]. Unlike αἰθήρ and σῶμα that are material, ὄνομα expresses the insubstantiality, the immaterial, the ephemeral, the untouchable. The term may also mean reputation. Therefore Helena responds to the legitimate question of Menelaus, how it is possible that she was also in Egypt and Troy, as follows (588):


This means that the name or reputation is omnipresent, but not the body. Hera had her name reviled everywhere among the barbarians, but not her body (1099f.):


Because her body and her personality as a whole were caught up by Hermes at the request of Zeus, her rapture did not mean that she was transformed, that she had been transferred from the materiality to an immaterial state, but that she was simply replaced, such as the use of the word διαλλαγή shows (33–36):

The formulation ὁμοιώσασ’ ἐμοὶ εἴδωλον ἔμπνουν and the associated thoughts remind of the LXX-Genesis 1:26 (κατ’ εἰκόνα καὶ καθ’ ὁμοίωσιν) and the LXX-Genesis 2:7 (καὶ ἔπλασεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν ἄνθρωπον χοῦν ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς καὶ ἐνεφύσησεν εἰς τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ πνοὴν ζωῆς, καὶ ἐγένετο ὁ ἄνθρωπος εἰς ψυχὴν ζῶσαν). Both Genesis verses about the creation of humankind seem to be compressed and linked in three words, now referring not to humankind as a whole or even to a single man, but to Helena’s silhouette created by the goddess Hera to enter into a sham marriage with a predetermined man, Alexander-Paris (32). Thus, Genesis 2:23–24 comes into play.

23 καὶ εἶπεν Αδαμ

Τοῦτο νῦν ὀστοῦν ἐκ τῶν ὀστέων μου

καὶ σὰρξ ἐκ τῆς σαρκός μου·

αὕτη κληθήσεται γυνή,

ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ ἀνδρὸς αὐτῆς ἐλήμφθη αὕτη.

24 ἕνεκεν τούτου καταλείψει ἄνθρωπος

τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ

καὶ προσκολληθήσεται πρὸς τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ

καὶ ἔσονται οἱ δύο εἰς σάρκα μίαν.


23 And Adam said,

‘This now is bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

this one shall be called Woman,

for out of her husband she was taken.’

24 Therefore a man will leave his father and mother

and will be joined to his wife,

and the two will become one flesh.

But the fact is, even in the background, that the abduction of the true Helena wanted to change her predestination to belong to a single, very specific man, Menelaus of Sparta.

In the New Testament, the Old Testament statement καὶ ἔσονται οἱ δύο εἰς σάρκα μίαν is complemented by ὃ οὖν ὁ Θεός συνέζευξε ἄνθρωπος μὴ χωριζέτω (Mt 19:6 with its parallel in Mk 10:9). That is to say: ‘And the people united by God in the covenant of marriage, may not be separated.’ The New Testament topos seems to presuppose both the Old Testament and the Euripidean statement. In Euripides, Hera has destined Menelaus and Helena to be together forever. But Paris, who preferred Aphrodite over Hera, tried to separate them. Hera comes now to restore artificially the broken covenant. She creates a silhouette as due price for Paris, who ignored her. Two interpretive ideas are here formulated: (a) the silhouette is of etheric material, and (b) it is about a living entity as opposed to lifeless idols,13 or a deceased person who appears to the bereaved.14

3. In the prologue of the tragedy, Helena says (44–48):

The word αἰθήρ (44) describes not only the element from which the silhouette was created, but also the way in which Helena was raptured. Helena’s rapture as a sudden and traceless disappearance recalls the eschatological descriptions of Enoch’s and Elijah’s rapture in Genesis 5:21–24 and 2 Kings 2:1–15 respectively (Schmitt 1982:34–49). This is a process limited in time, in this world, because Helena is only temporarily brought to a place, Egypt, which remains hidden from the Greeks and Phrygians, from which the return is possible and even divinely ordained.

The rapture motif was first combined with Iphigenia’s fate. Homer lets the offering for the Trojan War be raptured. Euripides, who makes Helena the actual victim of the same war, speaks also of her rapture.

The Euripidean description of Helena’s rapture to Egypt plays with the metaphorical, allegorical and literal meaning of air and mist, reminiscent of the theophany at Sinai and in the wilderness where God in the mist leads the people from the Egyptian house of bondage to the Promised Land.15

4. In the stichomythia between Helena and Theoclymenus, he asks where her mirage body went from Troy. She gives the answer (1219):

Ἐς αἰθέρ’ … οἴχεται.  Gone up into the sky.

This statement (in its Greek form and not in German or English interpretive reproductions) is found in another stichomythia of Menelaus and Helena paired with statements about the creation of her silhouette (583ff.), reminiscent of LXX-Genesis 3:19:

ἕως τοῦ ἀποστρέψαι σε εἰς τὴν γῆν,

ἐξ ἧς ἐλήμφθης·

ὅτι γῆ εἶ

καὶ εἰς γῆν ἀπελεύσῃ.


until you return to the earth

from which you were taken,

For you are earth

and to earth you will depart.

The air or cloud image returned to the element from which it was created, namely to the air. For it was from air and vanished into air. Helena, however, returns to him from whom she was torn: her predetermined husband. In particular, the statement about the creation of the false Helena by Hera from ether (thus heaven and not earth, from air and not the breath of life) implies a rather deliberate parody of the biblical narratives (Gn 2:7 and 3:19). Yahweh takes the woman from the rib of man. The Hebrew God created a man out of earth and breathed into his nostrils the divine breath of life. The Greek goddess creates a lively female figure alone from air. The Hebrew God is the creator of the woman who drags her husband into the transgression of the divine command and the expulsion from paradise. Hera’s work, a murderous seducing image, which became the cause of war, is of air and vanished into the air.

While also the spiritual element of man in the Old Testament returns to him from whom it was taken, the Euripidean eschatology in the mouth of Theonoes is different (1013–1016):

It remains a mystery, what the eternal ether ‘upper air’ is, if it is obviously not identical to the air from which comes the air shape of the false Helena. Is it to be understood in the sense of the Old Testament as divine breath of life from which the Deuteronomist and Ecclesiastes say that it is separated from man’s body after physical death and returns to the well from which it was awarded, namely to Yahweh?

5. Given the renewed threat, the real Helena provides the basic existential question (56):


She replies to herself (56–59):

The Euripidean statement ἢν μὴ λέκτρ’ ὑποστρώσω τινί is made basically in line with LXX-Genesis 2:24 and the goal here is the reunification in life with the legitimate husband, from whom she was separated abruptly (and arbitrary).

Euripides’ aim is certainly not simply to rehabilitate Helena’s individual character, but rather to transfer to this ambiguous figure motif constellations beyond Homeric and Stesichorus’ myth. His tragedy seems to mediate and reveal to the attentive reader covert references to Old Testament language and thoughts. Euripides presumably adopts the schema ‘image and likeness’ (Gn 1:26), taking into account the ban on images according to Exodus 20 with its parallel in Deuteronomy 5 and applies it in order to re-interpret Stesichorus’ palinode. He plays with language and thoughts of Genesis 1–3 with reference to other relevant Old Testament motifs, especially from the Jacob narratives of Genesis in order to describe the marriage relationship. The tragic irony, Euripides highlights, is that all Greeks were willing to engage in a senseless war with Troy for the mirage of the harlot Helena. Their goal was pointless, their purpose bottomless, void. The idea that it was god’s will that the legitimate husband would search the world to find his loyal Helena again, would make sense and be compatible with the Old Testament ethics.


There is mystical conversation between Euripides and the Old Testament. Euripides does not emulate the Old Testament. Neither citation nor paraphrasing, known in the handling of the Jewish scribes with older biblical traditions, characterises Euripides’ approach to the Old Testament, but perspectivation according to the way oral and/or written traditions were delivered to posterity and adapted in the Ancient World.

Euripides’ use of Old Testament linguistic patterns and motifs – presumably in improvised Greek translations circulated in the Jewish diaspora before the Septuagint – is eclectic. He picks up on essential components of the biblical traditions about gender relations and gender equality, viewed from the perspective of critically thinking Greeks of his time, who had received an important impetus from the Sophists. He transfers them to various figures of ancient Greek mythology, which he mostly restructured and reinterpreted. In this way, he makes here from the wretched wooed a victim, a suppliant. But on one point, Euripides remains faithful to the old myth: It was the divine will that Helena and Menelaus for all eternity belong together. Therefore, he changes everything else in myth and applies this Old Testament principle.

The present form of the Septuagint in the cases discussed above is in my opinion not representative of how Euripides was received by the LXX translators. It indicates that there were Greek translations of the Pentateuch going around prior to the Septuagint translation. Old Testament traditions in Greek form were received by Euripides as a means of expression, which the classical Greek world offered to the understanding of important Hebrew words and thoughts. If this basic assumption of our article is correct, then its importance for the Old Testament, Comparative Religious and Cultural Studies would be seen in the possibility that it allows an answer to the burning question of the tradition-historical horizon of the Septuagint, namely: The Septuagint presupposes other oral or written translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. These mostly improvised preliminary Greek translations of important Old Testament traditions were known to Greek philosophers and poets and enabled a unique dialogue between Hebrews and Greeks (Dafni 2008:85–95). Therefore, the decisive encounter of Greeks and Hebrews, who would change the world, would have taken place not only after Alexander the Great, but already very early would have inspired the thinking of poets and philosophers and fertilised their language, especially in matters of religious belief for man-woman-relations in marriage, family and society.


Competing interests

The author declares that she has no financial or personal relationship(s) that may have inappropriately influenced her in writing this article.


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1.I quote the translation of Helena by Kovacs (2002); cf. Ebener ([1979] [2006] 2010); Kannicht (1969a, 1969b), Allan (2008).

2.Cf. Nestle ([1901] 1969), Decharme (1906); Lesky (1972:275–538); Hose (2008).

3.Text-history by Kannicht (1969a:78–129).

4.See for example, Homer, Illiad 2:177f.; 3:156–160; 7:357f.; 24:759–775; Odyssey 11:438; 14:68f.; 17:118f; Hesiod, Opera 164f.

5.For example, Genesis 6:2–4; Exodus 4:22; Psalms 2:7; 81[82]:6; 88[89]:6; Isaiah 2:2; 45:11; Wisdom 2:18; 5:5.

6.Euripides, Helena 1278–1283. Plato, Politeia IX 586c; Phädros 243a–b; Isokrates, Helenes Enkomion 64. POxyr 2506 Fragment 26 I 2–16; cf. Kannicht (1969a:30–33).

7.Cf. (1) ἀσυλία (2 Macc 3:12) and ἄσυλος (Pr 22:23; 2 Macc 4:33f.). (2) φυγαδευτήριον resp. πόλεις φυγαδευτηρίων in Exodus 21:13ff.; Deuteronomy 4:41ff.; Joshua 20:1ff.

8.Genesis 1:26; 5:1–3; 2 Kings 16:10; 2 Chronicles 4:3; Psalms 58:5; Isaiah 13:4; 40:18; Ezekiel 1:5–6, 10, 13, 22, 26, 28; 8:2; 10:1–10, 21, 22; 23:15; Daniel 10:16.

9.Genesis 1:26–27; 5:3; 9:6; Numbers 33:52; 1 Samuel 6:5(K); 6:17; 2 Chronicles 23:17; Psalms 39:7; 73:20; Qumran-Ezechiel 23:14; Amos 5:26.

10.Jacob (2000:57f.) against Gunkel (1964:112). Christian reception: see Bratsiotis (1951–1952:289–297). Rabbinical perspective: see Rottzoll (1994:59ff.).

11.For example Odyssey 4:796ff.: ἔνθ’ αὖτ’ ἄλλ’ ἐνόησε θεὰ γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη· / εἴδωλον ποίησε, δέμας δ’ ἤικτο γυναικί, / Ἰφθίμῃ, κούρῃ μεγαλήτορος Ἰκαρίοιο, / τὴν Εὔμηλος ὄπυιε, Φερῇσ’ ἔνι οἰκία ναίων. / πέμπε δέ μιν πρὸς δώματ’ Ὀδυσσῆος θείοιο, / εἷος Πηνελόπειαν ὀδυρομένην γοόωσαν / παύσειε κλαυθμοῖο γόοιό τε δακρυόεντος.

12.The word does not occur in the LXX but only in Symmachos Deuteronomy 33:26; Job 36:28; 37:18–21; Psalms 35(36):6; 76(77):18; 88(89):7; Proverbs 8:28; Jeremiah 51(28):9.

13.Cf. Isaiah 42–44 and Epistel Jeremias.

14.1 Samuel 28:11ff.

15.Exodus 13f.,16,19, 24, 33f, 40. Leviticus 16; Numbers 9–12, 14, 16 ; Deuteronomy 1:31.

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