Helen of Troy: The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Bettany Hughes (Vintage Books, paperback $16.95)
I think my fascination with Helen of Troy began when I first saw her picture in my beloved copy of D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths in third grade. She’s in the foreground, indolently combing out her beautiful, long blond locks, not really paying attention to the warriors in the middle ground, one of whom is impaling the other with a long spear for her sake, while in the background, sitting on the walls of a burning Troy, are more interested spectators, the gods, cheering on their individual favorites. But this image of Helen as sort of the original femme fatale is just one of the many ways she has appeared throughout history, a fantastically prismatic and resonant character, as is made evident in the fascinating new book by Bettany Hughes called Helen of Troy: The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (interestingly enough the hardback subtitle was Goddess, Princess, Whore – I guess that last word didn’t work for some people). It’s just the kind of book I like, a multi-disciplinary exploration of a single theme, a combination of history, travel narrative, literary criticism and art history, all the muses analyzing the image of Helen.
Hughes seems to have read everything ever written about Helen, scrutinized every artwork portraying her and traveled to every spot associated with her, and weaves in the factual, the interpretive and the personal to produce a most compelling narrative. I read it slowly because I was so interested in every page. I learned quite a few things, even though I’ve been a Helen fan for quite a while.
One the first things that stuck me was that even though we think of her as Helen of Troy, she wasn’t a Trojan native, and, in fact, the whole Trojan episode was just an isolated part of her life. She was really Helen of Sparta, a late bronze age ruler, and I was surprised to learn that Spartan woman were relatively emancipated, active and vocal, called “thigh flashers” by the other Greeks for their love of outdoor exercise, much more like the modern American gal than the favorites of modernity, the Athenians, whose women were domesticated, kept indoors and silent. I ran across a quote from Plato’s report of Socrates’s defense of himself from the Apology which expresses this “enlightened” society’s view of the female: I think such men would bring dishonor to our state, so that any stranger would suppose that the Athenians, who excel in virtue, and who are chosen by their fellow-citizens for public offices and other dignities are no better than women.
In contrast Hughes presents an alluring picture of the young adolescent girls of Sparta gathering saffron, playing games, singing in lyric choruses and taking part in various cultic celebrations of the female spirit. There’s a photograph in the book of a lovely bronze statue from 500 B.C. of a Spartan girl dancing that looks very much like one of the field hockey players you may see in the UBUART to the right.
Another factor I hadn’t thought of was Helen’s divinity. Her father was, after all, Zeus, who appeared in the form of a swan to knock up her mother, Leda. Of course back then (and not that long ago) royalty was often conflated with divinity, especially in a society which was almost certainly matrilineal and perhaps even goddess centered. Hughes reports that Helen has been honored as a fertility and love goddess in the region, and is still respected in folk religion as a bringer of beauty and germination. Barbara G. Walker in The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets claims that “she was worshiped as an orgiastic deity,” and finds a White Goddess explanation for the Trojan War:
Trojan Helen married Menelaus, “Moon-king,” who was promised immortality because he made a sacred marriage. However, Helen left him and went home with her new Trojan lover Paris, so Menelaus lost both his immortality and the Trojan fiefs that Helen’s “matrimony” brought. He sailed with his armies to get her back, and this was the start of th legendary Trojan War which pitted patriarchal Greeks against matriarchal Trojans.
Be that as it may, Helen was certainly was, as Hughes says, “a prism through which Aphrodite’s power shines,” an emanation and avatar of the love goddess.
It’s interesting to also see her as a variety of La Belle Dame sans Merci Barbara Fass wrote of in the book of the same name (see the A Mused essay which graced RADIOFREEUBU for much of December), a superhuman entity who tries to lure men into a foreign, timeless realm, with the Greeks being the Tannhauser of the tale and Troy being the Magic Mountain. Certainly, as Hughes delineates, she has acted as an inspirational muse throughout history, inspiring a plethora of pictorial and written works, with her role in the Faust legend as a prime example. I’ve also always been fascinated by her role in the theology of my all time favorite religious figure, SIMON MAGUS, a bit of which was quoted in Wednesday’s installment of this blog. Interestingly as I web searched some of the concept of Ennoia, the “first thought,” which Simon held was incarnate in both Helen of Troy and his companion, the prostitute Helene, I came across a book called Eunoia by one Christian Bok. Eunoia, “well mind” the shortest word in English that contains all five vowels, doesn’t mean the same thing as ennoia, but the book is about – can you guess? – Helen of Troy. I guess that’s freaky enough, but I found a portion of it on – dig this – a web site called UBUNET. Too bad the book itself, a contemporary avant garde novel based on using words limited to a single different vowel in each chapter, is basically unreadable, and, like most of its ilk, more an academic concept than a living breathing work of art.
Helen of Troy isn’t a perfect book – sometimes it seems a little choppy, as if all the pieces of the puzzle Hughes found don’t quite fit together, and, indeed, there are a couple of shards she awkwardly sticks on at the end as appendices. I also wish the artwork had been better coordinated with the text, if not next to the reference at least with a parenthetical figure number pointing to the discussed work. But all in all it was a excellent, absorbing, intelligent read, and I highly recommend it.
Of course along with the hook up of Leda and her swan swain, the mythological even that most affected Helen’s life was the Judgment of Paris, in which he chose between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite in a sort of Miss Olympus contest with a golden apple as tiara. This was another story and D’Aulaire’s illustration that preoccupied me mightily as a child. Which would I choose? As presented in D’Aulaire’s, in a way it’s a choice we all make, between worldly success (Hera), love (Aphrodite) and wisdom (Athena). (Hughes, with probably more authenticity, says Athena in her more martial aspect, offers invincible prowess in war, but I prefer the children’s version). When I was in grade school I was sure Athena was my girl, that I would go for wisdom, but, after puberty, when I came across my own Helen, and got shafted by that guy Eros, I could hear, as many men have, the snickers of Aphrodite, and have since been a fool for love. As Helen proved, it’s in some ways the strongest force on earth. The great modern mystery writer William Kent Krueger sums it up beautifully at the end of his excellent forthcoming novel Thunder Bay:
The biggest word in the human vocabulary has only four letters and no definition that’s ever been adequate. We love our dogs. We love our children. We love God and chocolate cake. We fall in love and fall out of love. We die for love and we kill for love. We can’t spend it. We can’t eat it when we’re starving or drink it when we’re dying of thirst. It’s no good against the bitter cold of winter, and even a cheap electric fan will do more for you on a hot summer day. But ask most human beings what they value above all else in this life and, five’ll get you ten, it’s love.