Post #23: Project Leda and Helena of Troy in ‘Orphan Black’

Post #23: Project Leda and Helena of Troy in ‘Orphan Black’

By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Sunday June 14 2015

ETHAN: It's all in the past.
SARAH: No, it's not! This is my life!

--"To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings" (Orphan Black 2.6)

In the BBC television series Orphan Black, a group of scientists began a human cloning experiment in 1976 named “Project Leda.” In the present day four of them (Sarah, Helena, Alison, and Cosima; header image) get together to try and find out why the cloning experiment was created. When Sarah discovers the name of the experiment on the back of a mysterious photo, the science geek clone, Cosima, explains its significance:

Figure 1: In this third-century A.D. Roman mosaic from Cyprus, Leda is seduced by the Zeus-swan, who tugs aggressively at one of the queen’s garments. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 1: In this third-century A.D. Roman mosaic from Cyprus, Leda is seduced by the Zeus-swan, who tugs aggressively at one of the queen’s garments. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

COSIMA: You know the mythology of Leda and the swan?
SARAH: Must've missed that class.
COSIMA: Okay, so Zeus, the big guy of the gods, he comes down from Mount Olympus in the guise of a swan, and he gets it on with this human queen called Leda. Um, they have twins, and the kids are half-human, half-god. Weird, right?
SARAH: Yeah, very weird. What does that have to do with anything?
(“Governed as It Were By Chance”, Orphan Black 2.4)

Nerd alert! Leave it up to the geek to explain a myth reference. Sarah’s skepticism mirrors the audience’s response to Cosima’s re-telling of this admittedly very strange myth. "Greek myths are cool, and so the producers chose it so they could squeeze in some discussion of it," we say to ourselves. "That’s what it has to do with anything." We have to resist this knee-jerk reaction, though. When we compare and contrast the Leda myth with Project Leda, we can see how the series understands the relationship between the ancient Greek past and the modern present.

In her thumbnail sketch of the Leda myth, Cosima doesn’t mention how Leda gave birth to female twins: Helen and Clytemnestra. Although all of Orphan’s Leda clones share striking physical similarities, different women carried each of them to term, with the exception of the two clones who truly are twins. Sarah Manning, the central character of the series, finds out at the end of the first season that she and the dangerously unstable Helena share a birth mother.

According to the Greek mythographer Apollodorus (3.10.7), the Zeus-swan fertilizes one of Leda’s eggs and the Leda’s mortal husband Tyndareus fertilizes another. Zeus’ contribution produces Helen, while Tyndareus’ contribution results in Clytemnestra. (And, yes, in case you’re wondering this is a thing.) Helen goes on to become Helen of Troy, the putative reason for the bloody Trojan War. Clytemnestra is no less notorious for her murder of her husband’s concubine with an axe. Peas in a pod!

Figure 2: In “Governed As It Were By Chance” (2.6), Helena sits on a bench in a police station, her mouth bloodstained from her barroom brawl. Photo credit: screen capture (Temple Street Productions),

Figure 2: In “Governed As It Were By Chance” (2.6), Helena sits on a bench in a police station, her mouth bloodstained from her barroom brawl. Photo credit: screen capture (Temple Street Productions),

Orphan Black’s first twist on this myth is Helena, the Latinized version of the Greek name “Helen.” Even though the ancient Greek Helen is a destructive force, she doesn’t commit the murders herself; her beauty is what motivates the warriors to kill each other. Helena, by contrast, is a sadistically unhinged murderer. Raised by nuns (!) in the Ukraine, Helena is more like Clytemnestra. Exhibit A: her savage attack on a man for getting a little too pushy in a bar (“Governed As It Were By Chance”, 2.6) (figure 2). OK, so that guy definitely deserved what he got. And Helena, despite her unpredictably bizarre behavior and spooky make-up, sometimes does the right thing: she lets Sarah’s daughter Kira go soon after she tries to kidnap her, she helps Sarah locate Leda’s lead scientist, and she burns the Proletheans’ compound. The series is also careful to suggest that Helena’s savagery results from an abusive childhood as well as her treatment by male figures like Tomas in season 1 and Hank Johanssen in season 2. By transposing the image of Helen of Troy with the murderous Helena, the series is putting the audience on notice that Orphan Black’s version of Leda is quite different than the ancient version.

Just as the Orphan Black clones were made for a purpose, so too Helen was made for a purpose. According to the Cypria, a now-lost ancient Greek poem, Zeus decided to beget Helen as part of his plan to pare down the human population:

There was a time when the countless tribes of mortals, though spread out, oppressed the
surface of the deep-bosomed earth. Zeus saw it and had pity. In his wise heart he resolved to relieve the all-nurturing earth of humans by causing the great struggle of the Trojan War, so that these deaths might empty the world. And so the heroes were killed in Troy, and the plan of Zeus came to pass. (translated by Evelyn-White with my modifications)

Helen, and to a far lesser extent Clytemnestra, are the original weapons of mass destruction, objects engendered by the king of the universe to fulfill his schemes. Similarly, Project Leda was initiated by the military, and so all of the clones demonstrate remarkable “powers”: regeneration (Helena), heightened intelligence (Cosima and Sarah), and fighting skills (Alison). These abilities imply that the military engineered the Leda clones to be weapons, much like Zeus’ creation of Helen as a “weapon.” But while the ancient Helen must more or less accept her role in the universe (the power of the ultimate patriarch and all that), Sarah, Helena, and the other clones fight back against their genetic destiny. In the season one finale Cosima stumbles across a patent on the DNA of the Project Leda clones--“We're property. Our bodies, our biology, everything we are, everything we become, belongs to them.”--but they refuse to submit to this patriarchal claim on their bodies.

On the surface it’s ironic for a show with themes as cutting edge as cloning to be connected to anything in the ancient world, much less to a myth about a randy god in the shape of a swan. But as the essays in the recent Classical Traditions in Science Fiction reveal, the thematic connections between ancient Greece and Rome and modern science (fiction) are often much more robust than we might expect. Orphan Black is an example of this; it demonstrates that the ancient world shapes modern thinking pervasively, but that we have the power to make those inherited meanings our own.

Header image credit: orphanblack.wikia.com.

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