(Art design: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli)
Have you ever heard about Cassandra’s brother, who shared his sister’s gift of prophecy but not her curse?
Could this legend, as other ancient myths, facts and histories, give us some clues to make our delivery and communication of strategic foresight and early warning products more efficient? Could it tell us something about improving the fate of strategic foresight and early warning practitioners and risk managers?
After telling the story of Helenus, we highlight the lessons we can learn from the tale.
The Tale of Helenus
The story of Helenus comes from weaving together the texts of different Greek and Roman authors, each bringing light to a part of our hero’s life. We use here:
- Homeric poems possibly created in the 8th century BC (between 8th and 6th century for their written form). English translation as in the text. Traduction française (FR) par Charles-René-Marie Leconte de L’Isle.
- Virgil: Roman poet, 70 BC – 19 BC. English translation as in the text. Traduction française (FR) Anne-Marie Boxus et Jacques Poucet, 2009.
- Conon: Greek grammarian and mythographer, 63 BC – 14 AD/CE.
- Dictys Cretensis: fictitious account probably created in Greek around the 1st or 2nd century CE (e.g. “Dictys Cretensis“, Luwian Studies, 2005?).
- (Pseudo-)Apollodorius, Library (or Bibliotheca): a compendium of Greek myths and legends: 1st, 2nd or 3rd century CE (e.g. Stefano Acerbo, “Anonymous: Apollodorus Bibliotheca [The Library of Apollodorus]. The Literary Encyclopedia“, January 2019, Researchgate).
- Pausanias: Greek geographer, 110 AD/CE – c. 180 AD/CE.
Helenus was a Trojan Prince, the son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba and the twin-brother of Cassandra. One day, the two children fell asleep in the temple of Apollo Thymbraeus and were found in the morning with serpents at their side licking their ears. From then on they could see and tell the future, as they had received the gift of prophecy (Apollodorus, Library, Sir James George Frazer, Ed, 9.fn 20 Scholiast on Hom. Il. vii.44; Tzetzes, Scholiast on Lycophron, Introd. vol. i. pp. 266ff., ed. C. G. Müller).
Helenus became “far the best of augurs” (Homer, Iliad, vi. 76).
As Troy was attacked by the Greeks and the battle raged, during the first years of the war, Helenus went to Aeanas, a second cousin, son of goddess Aphrodite and favoured by Apollo, and to Hector, his eldest brother, and foretold them in detail how they could turn the tide in the battle and obtain a victory. His prophecy included seeing Hector advising the Queen their Mother that she should lead the offerings of the Trojan wives to “flashing-eyed Athene” so that the goddess would remove the feared most valiant Greek warrior Diomedes from the battle. The Goddess had to be won to the Trojans’ side as she was siding with the Greeks. Hector was wise enough to carefully listen to his brother and do as advised. As a result,
“… and they [the enemy] deemed that one of the immortals had come down from starry heaven to bear aid to the Trojans, that they rallied thus.  And Hector shouted aloud and called to the Trojans:Homer, Iliad, vi. 76
“Ye Trojans, high of heart, and far-famed allies, be men, my friends, and bethink you of furious valour, the while I go to Ilios* and bid the elders that give counsel, and our wives  to make prayer to the gods, and promise them hecatombs.”
Some time later, as “flashing-eyed”, “daughter of great Zeus” Athene wanted to act to favour the Greeks and stop too many Trojan victories, Apollo, supporter of Troy, rushed to meet her. The god “king Apollo, son of Zeus” had to find a way to stop her meddling, thus preserving Troy, yet to also satisfy her. The gods finally agreed on a plan contenting them both and postponing a costly battle for singular combats against the most valiant Hector,
“… And Helenus, the dear son of Priam, understood in spirit  this plan that had found pleasure with the gods in council; and he came and stood by Hector’s side, and spake to him, saying: “Hector, son of Priam, peer of Zeus in counsel, wouldst thou now in anywise hearken unto me? for I am thy brother. Make the Trojans to sit down, and all the Achaeans,  and do thou challenge whoso is best of the Achaeans to do battle with thee man to man in dread combat. Not yet is it thy fate to die and meet thy doom; for thus have I heard the voice of the gods that are for ever.” So spake he and Hector rejoiced greatly when he heard his words… “Homer, Iliad, vii. 44
Helenus was also an accomplished warrior and he fought against the Greek besides his brothers (e.g. Homer, Iliad, xii. 94).
As time went on, the heroes, both Greek and Trojan, were slain one after the other, the death of one leading to grief, retribution and the death of another. Patrocles, Hector, Achilles, and then Paris were killed. The gods were not in rest and fully battled and argued among themselves for their favoured side.
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As Paris had died, Helenus sought to marry his widow, Helene. Alas, his younger brother Deiphobus was preferred through manipulations and “by the favour & faction of the Great” (Conon, Narrationes, 34).
In different and posterior version of the tale, Helenus and Aeneas were outraged to see sacrilege behaviour taking place in Troy, as Alexander, a son of Priam had tricked Achilles and wounded him in the temple of Apollo (Dictys Cretensis iv. 18).
In these two accounts, Helenus decided to leave Troy and take refuge on Mount Ida.
“…He [Helenus] feared not death but the gods, whose shrines Alexander had desecrated, a crime which neither Aeneas nor himself was able to bear. As for Aeneas, he, fearing our anger, had stayed behind with Antenor and old Anchises,…Dictys Cretensis iv. 18
… During the same time, the sons of Antimachus (whom we have mentioned above) came to Helenus as representatives of Priam. But he refused to do as they begged, that is, to return to his people; and so they departed.
The Greeks learning about Helenus retreat then either made him prisoner and forced him to speak, or enticed him in doing so.
While [Helenus] was living there quietly, Calchas persuaded the Greeks to set up an ambush for him, and to make him a prisoner of war, in which they succeeded. Helenus, intimidated, prayed to, caressed, and driven also by his resentment, revealed to the Greeks the secret of the state; that the fate of Troy was that it could only be taken by means of a wooden horse, & that it was necessary moreover to remove a statue fallen from Heaven, called the Palladium, which of all the statues preserved in the citadel, was the smallest. “Conon, Narrationes, 34 – Note: The Palladium is a wooden statue of Pallas Athena, “Athene the wise“.
And thus the fate of Troy was sealed. Troy fell.
Helenus destiny was now linked to the Greeks. He foretold Pyrrhus the elder that he would settle in Epirus, which Pyrrhus did. Pyrrhus granted Helenus the kingdom of Chaonians. Thus, Helenus became king. Helenus married Andromach, Hector’s then Pyrrhus’ widow (Pausanias, Description de la Grèce, Tome premier, l’Attique, i. 11, ii. 23, fn 139 and 140). Aenas, fleeing from the twice fallen Troy as the gods had ordered him, his father Anchises on his back, discovered thus described the surprising situation:
 “Here the rumour of a tale beyond belief fills our ears, that Priam’s son Helenus, is reigning over Greek cities, having won the wife and kingdom of Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, and that Andromache has again passed to a husband of her own race.Virgil, Aeneid, iii. 294-490
King Helenus welcomed his cousin as he arrived. Then, Aenas, worried about his trip and his destiny, took the opportunity to seek the prophecy of the great seer.
 “… ‘O son of Troy, interpreter of the gods, who know the will of Phoebus, the tripod and laurel of the Clarian, the stars, and tongues of birds and omens of the flying wing, come, tell me – for every sign from heaven has uttered favourable words to me about my journey, and all the gods in their oracles have counseled me to make for Italy and explore lands remote; only Celaeno the Harpy prophesies a startling portent, horrible to tell of, and threatens baleful wrath and foul famine – what perils am I first to shun? And by what course may I surmount such suffering?Virgil, Aeneid, iii. 356.
As during the beginning of the Trojan war, Helenus offered a foresight that was detailed and full of advice, even though incomplete as mortals cannot know all and the gods always hide some of their designs.
Then Helenus, first sacrificing steers in due form, craves the grace of heaven and unbinds the fillets of his hallowed brow; with his own hand he leads me to your gates, Phoebus, thrilled with your full presence, and then with a priest’s inspired lips thus prophesies:
 “’Goddess-born, since there is clear proof that under higher auspices you journey over the sea – for thus the king of the gods allots the destinies and rolls the wheel of change, and such is the circling course – a few things out of many I will unfold to you in speech, that so more safely you may traverse the seas of your sojourn, and find rest in Ausonia’s haven; for the Fates forbid Helenus to know more and Saturnian Juno stays her utterance…. Moreover, if Helenus has any foresight, if the seer may claim any faith, if Apollo fills his soul with truths, this one thing, Goddess-born, this one in lieu of all I will foretell, and again and again repeat the warning: mighty Juno’s power honour first with prayer; to Juno joyfully chant vows, and win over the mighty mistress with suppliant gifts….These are the warnings that you are permitted to hear from my voice. Go, then, and by your deeds exalt Troy in greatness unto heaven!’…”Virgil, Aeneid, iii. 356-374
Aenas listened to Helenus and founded Rome. Helenus went on ruling wisely and with foresight over the kingdom of the Chaonians in Epirus.
What can we learn from Helenus?
Successful foresight is precise and actionable
In the tale of Helenus we find most of the elements usually stressed as key in terms of foresight, which thus stresses their timeless importance.
First of all, Helenus’s foresights are each time very detailed and precise.
Those who receive them can thus use these foresights very practically for action. We are not in the realm of generalities nor of vagueness, on the contrary.
Obviously and relatedly, the Trojan seer’s foresight is fundamentally actionable. Actually, it is more than actionable.
Foresight means advice for successful action
Helenus prophecies are concrete advice on what to do to obtain a desired aim in harmony with the forces at work.
Advice and not neutrality
On the contrary from the option chosen by intelligence services, where foresight and policy recommendations are separated (see From Cassandra’s Curse to the Pythia’s Success), with Helenus we are definitely in the realm of advice for the future.
Save if we are working for intelligence then, and still treading carefully not to create resentment, we may have to abandon the idea of separating foresight from policy recommendations. On the contrary, we may have to fully accept that we must also provide policy advice.
Indeed, Homer also shows that if people listen to Helenus and do as prophesied then success follows.
As a result, even though as strategic foresight and warning practitioners we must envision all possible scenarios, probabilize and monitor them, what we must give to policy-makers and decision-makers are advice for a victorious or winning response. Warning is necessary, but might be better received if it is accompanied by or transformed in “foresight and warning for success”.
Accessorily, nowadays, considering the propensity to be anxious and fearful when faced with reality and the wish for a happy end and “positivity”, such approach may save the strategic foresight and warning practitioner from many unpleasant situations.
However, being able to not only do exploratory foresight, as well as warning, but also to transform them in normative foresight for successful policy demands almost twice as much work. Thus, it remains to be seen if decision-makers and various actors are ready to give the resources necessary and pay the price to achieve this result (of course here I do not consider suboptimal and botched analysis and work).
Foresight and the gods
Very interestingly, and in a way that is related to what we saw with the Pythia (see Helene Lavoix, “From Cassandra’s Curse to the Pythia’s Success“, The Red Team Analysis Society, May 2021), the tale of Helenus tells us that successful foresight cannot be separated from listening to and then enlisting specific gods. How can we interpret this aspect in the 21st century?
Helenus, as all the characters of the Iliad, is first and foremost living in a place that has not yet been victim of the disenchantment of the world brought about by modernity, as Max Weber (1917) explained. Their behaviour, including their foresight, cannot be comprehended if we do not try to understand their interactions with the gods and with a world where the gods play an all powerful part.
Transposing the tale and its wisdom in our age and century does not mean simply transforming a past sacredness and reverence for the gods by a present blind enslavement to science and technology believed to be free and laic.
To “re-enchant foresight” properly, we must use an understanding of the symbol and essence of the archetypes the gods of Homer and Virgil embody, following Jung (Man and His Symbols, 1964). As a result, we shall fully benefit from Helenus’ tale.
Bowing to the interweaving of greater forces
The foresight Helenus gives stems from comprehending evolving complex situations resulting from forces most often unseen and triggered by both humans and the gods. The gods indeed are an embodiment of these forces.
This corresponds to considering the interplay and interweaving of various dynamics – the “forces” – at work in the world. To understand this interplay, we must thus pay attention to and understand the underlying processes out of which phenomena result. This is what I would call true classical proper foresight analysis, which leads us to develop a model for each issue (see Course 1 on Analytical Modeling).
It is vital here to highlight that such understanding can in no way be obtained by a juxtaposition of multiple disconnected trends, as we often find nowadays (e.g. for some of the dangers and inadequacy of such approaches H. Lavoix, The Key Technologies of the Future (1), The Red Team Analysis Society, June 2021). The inability to create hierarchical taxonomies that is displayed by many in our field and more broadly increasingly in society is puzzling at best, dangerous at worst. Similarly the inability of individuals to understand transitivity in factors (if A implies B and B implies C, then A implies C) is as worrying.
What could result from such approaches, at best, is a patchy outlook completely unsuited for successful action.
To explain the spread of such unsatisfying perspectives, we may have, among other factors the Dunning Kruger effect (“Unskilled and Unaware of It… 1999, see Course 1 on Analytical Modeling, Course 3 on Mitigating biases). Worse still, we may worry that a general lowering of intelligence – measured through IQ scores – in developed countries – starts manifesting here (Evan Horowitz, “IQ rates are dropping in many developed countries and that doesn’t bode well for humanity“, Think, May 2019; Peter Dockrill, “IQ Scores Are Falling in “Worrying” Reversal of 20th Century Intelligence Boom“, Sciencealert, 13 June, 2018). Should such research be correct, then the drop would possibly be of 7 fewer IQ score points per generation starting after 1975, with variations according to various variables. Of course we can also break the thermometer but this would be a very destructive attitude.
If the spread of unsatisfying approaches, unable to consider complex interplays, were an established trend, then we would have to find ways to compensate and to convince people to use these ways.
Indeed, Helenus’ tale tells us that foresight must consider the forces, even unseen, that are at work and that it is a necessary condition for success.
It is however not enough.
The gods to honour
The story of Helenus also shows that human beings must accept and bow to these forces, which are greater than them.
In that condition, those listening to proper foresight will be successful.
In turn, this means that foresight must also include advice related to the best behaviour to adopt to be successful considering these forces greater than us.
For example, in the context of war, Helenus explains to Hector what must be done to cajole and please Athene. This is all the more important that Athene sides normally with the Greeks. Nonetheless Helenus’ foresight is right and the Trojans succeed. In other words, the qualities that Trojans had then to seek in war was wisdom as Athene is the goddess of wisdom and war strategy, the second being impossible without the first. They listen to Helenus and win.
In the third prophecy given to Aeanas, the goddess who must be please is Juno, Zeus consort. Juno, however, was the enemy of Trojans in general and of Aenas in particular. A straightforward transposition to our century is more difficult. We may hypothesise that Helenus’ advice was related to the need for Aenas to pay particular attention to those people still obeying to the great-goddess, which Juno may represent. The advice may also suggest that Aenas had not to marry until he had reached the end of his journey. In any case, what matters for us is the type and scope of advice Helenus gives.
To summarise, the lessons learned for us is thus to not only consider carefully those forces at work, but also the best way to address them.
The Seer and the Just Heroes
Helenus as a seer cannot be separated from those who seek his prophecies, listen carefully to him and then apply scrupulously his recommendations.
The two main heroes who listen to Helenus are not any character. They are Hector, the most valiant Trojan prince, meant to succeed King Priam, and then Aenas, half god, considered as very valiant and of high moral standard and then the founder of Rome. Despite their status and qualities, both listen to Helenus, as the seer is, at the end of the day, merely the one who unveils part of the gods’ plans. They are not interacting though narcissism, competition, and will to dominate another but at a higher level, which is to act together in a just way to achieve a greater goal.
Thus what we must retain here is the importance of cultivating as much as possible a primacy given to the objective and the world in both the strategic foresight practitioner and the user of foresight.
Then and exactly as we saw previously in the story of Tigranes, the disappearance of the heroes also somehow goes hand in hand with the absence of foresight that is delivered (Helene Lavoix, “Why the Messenger Got Shot and how to Avoid this Fate“, The Red Team Analysis Society, April 2021).
Furthermore, according to later accounts, the adverse attitude of Trojans themselves is stressed. It is this very attitude that causes Helenus to withdraw on Mount Ida.
It would thus appear, as we had deduced from Plutarch (Why the Messenger got shot, ibid.), that when a society or civilization decays, then both heroes and foresight disappear. It could be that only heroes can listen to foresight. If heroes are nowhere to be found anymore, then people practicing foresight have no other choice than to withdraw.
However, here, thanks to Roman Virgil and Greek Pausanias, there is an interesting twist to the story that brings us beyond Plutarch’s understanding.
When a civilization or a society decays, then, so far in humanity history, others take over, would it be only temporarily. This is exemplified in our tale by Troy as the decaying power and the Greek cities as the ascending one.
Once the ascending power has achieved supremacy, then it can use anew the foresight of those seers who have withdrawn, as did Pyrrhus. Showing wisdom, as one cannot win without it, they then reward the seer. This is how Helenus became King.
The later accounts try to further involve Helenus in playing a role in the fall of Troy. According to them, as the ascending power as it is still competing for supremacy, it then starts looking for the advice of those seers who have had to withdraw from their own societies. Getting these advice gives the ascending power the final elements necessary to usher a new age.
In these stories, at the end, the foresight practitioner is a winner, because the line of conduct s/he followed was to be true to greater forces, to the just values and wisdom that animated Troy until the fall of the heroes and not to the shell of what Troy became.
Then, and this can be found throughout the accounts, with more or less stress, by refusing to accept the decay of their own civilisation, not only Helenus but also Aenas, and even Hector, through his widow Andromach, the true representatives of Troy continue to exist and to thrive. Helenus not only rules over a kingdom but also thanks to his foresight, helps a Trojan found the next power, Rome.
Thus, the tale of Helenus ends on a twin message of hope for strategic foresight and warning practitioners. If they truly consider the forces at work, if they obey the spirit of these forces, of foresight and the values of their society, then, at the end, not only will they be personally rewarded but also contribute to see a better and more powerful civilization built.
To conclude I shall leave you with a question to ponder: why did our societies choose to remember Cassandra, her curse and tragic fate rather than Helenus, his benediction and glorious destiny?
*Ilios and Troy were traditionally considered as synonymous in Homer Iliad (see María Del Valle Muñoyerro, “Troy and Ilios in Homer: Region and City”, Glotta, 74. Bd., 3./4. H. (1997/1998), pp. 213-226.
Homer, The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924.
Jung, Carl Gustav, Man and His Symbols, 1964.
Kruger, Justin, and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments“, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 77, no 6, p 1121-1134, American Psychological Association (1999).
Weber, Max, “Science as Vocation” 1917.
Very interesting, thanks for sharing!
You are most welcome!
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