Bettany Hughes: “Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore”

Helen of Troy  Helen of Troy

Exhibit no. 13396 in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens is a slightly larger-than-life-size statue of Paris, frozen at the moment the Trojan prince stretches out to offer the golden apple to Aphrodite. Even in the bustle of Athens’ busiest museum the Trojan prince commands attention. He challenges one to stop; a proud expression, perfect features. When I have been in the museum before opening hours, cleaners, fags dangling, who have swept past Paris at 5:00 a.m. for years, still pay him their respects with a nod and a sigh.

Non-fiction
Pages: 343
First Published: 2005

Synopsis: As soon as men began to write, they made Helen of Troy their subject; for close on three thousand years she has been both the embodiment of absolute female beauty and a reminder of the terrible power that beauty can wield. Because of her double marriage to the Greek King Menelaus and the Trojan Prince Paris, Helen was held responsible for an enduring enmity between East and West. For millennia she has been viewed as an exquisite agent of extermination. But who was she?

Helen exists in many guises: a matriarch from the Age of Heroes who ruled over one of the most fertile areas of the Mycenaean world; Helen of Sparta, the focus of a cult which conflated Helen the heroine with a pre-Greek fertility goddess; the home-wrecker of the Iliad; the bitch-whore of Greek tragedy; the pin-up of Romantic artists.

Focusing on the “real” Helen – a flesh-and-blood aristocrat from the Greek Bronze Age – acclaimed historian Bettany Hughes reconstructs the context of life for this elusive pre-historic princess. Through the eyes of a young Mycenaean woman, Hughes examines the physical, historical and cultural traces that Helen has left on locations in Greece, North Africa and Asia Minor. Vivid and compelling, this remarkable book brilliantly unpacks the facts and myths surrounding one of the most enigmatic and notorious figures of all time.

Homer’s poetry roars and whispers. He talks of passion and revenge and duty and disloyalty, of loss and love … At its most complex, [the Iliad] is an exploration of the relationship between gods and mortals, women and men, sex and violence, duty and desire, delight and death. It asks why humanity chooses paths it knows to be destructive; why we desire what we do not have.

Review: · According to the huge number of overwhelmingly positive reviews quoted on the cover of my copy of this book, more than a few people felt they knew Helen better after reading it. My experience was the opposite: after reading this book, I felt I knew Helen less. But I also think maybe that’s closer to the book’s point. If its focus were actually the Helen who might have existed in ancient Greece, as the synopsis above claims, then why would Hughes talk about any of the fictional Helens who were created long after she was gone? To me, this book was much more about exploring the way the Helen character has been portrayed across time, cultures, and media. I finished this book after a full evening of reading, and spent the rest of the night feeling as though all of these Helens who had been created truly existed, and all of them were the real one.

· I’m actually surprised I wasn’t left with that haunting impression more often, as I basically binge-read my way through this book. It’s clear that Hughes has spent years and years thoroughly researching this topic, but the result is that there is SO MUCH information on every page that I found it easier to keep reading than to stop and try to remember everything that had happened for when I picked the book up again later. The amount of knowledge on display here is impressive but for me personally it made for a tough reading experience. I often felt that the book moved on too quickly — before I’d had time to digest a point or figure out how it tied into everything else (or, on occasion, what it had to do with Helen at all), we were already on to something else. The short chapters in this book make for quick reading but I would not have minded at all if they had been longer, allowing more time for their arguments to develop.

· It isn’t until almost the very end of the book that Hughes clarifies her position on Homer. I wish she had done this much earlier, as I spent most of the book getting the vibe that she believed Homer to be the ~one true bard~ with an intimate knowledge of the real Helen and if only he’d written a little more about her we would be able to understand her completely.

· The book begins with the Minoans and ends in the Elizabethan Era. Two more modern interpretations of Helen — The Private Life of Helen of Troy and Troy — are mentioned, but only in the footnotes, and while the first receives vague praise the second is simply brushed off. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not about to claim that Troy is a cinematic masterpiece. But in ignoring the majority of the Helens created after 1700, Hughes seems to agree with a sentiment that I absolutely can’t agree with: that modern media is unworthy of serious study. Now, I admit that I might be reading something into this book that isn’t there at all, but as Hughes’ decision to end her book where she did goes unexplained it leaves me wondering. Why is every Helen up to a certain year worth exploring, but after that they’re not? Why are modern versions of Helen less valid or worthy of comment than the Helens of the past?

· Now that I’ve got my criticisms out, let’s round up what I enjoyed. I loved that Hermione got an entire chapter to herself, as did the portrayals of Helen in Elizabethan theatre. And Paris’s hotness got itself at least two pages, which was amazing. I very much enjoyed Hughes’ descriptions of her visits to the sites she mentions, as well as the museums where certain artifacts are kept. If she ever put out an entire book of these travel journal-type sections, I would definitely read it. I don’t really mean to be so negative about this book; I enjoyed it enough that one night I stayed up till four a.m. reading it. If you’re at all interested in Helen of Troy and the different ways she’s been portrayed throughout the centuries, you should definitely seek this book out.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

So Helen in her lifetime could well have walked the earth, light-footed. And after her death, memories and tales of this incandescent creature kept her spirit alive. Now that she is established as an immortal in the popular imagination, though, she becomes many things in the minds of men – a princess, a queen, a wife, a lover, a whore, a heroine, a star, a goddess of sex. And whatever her guises there is one constant – she is for ever Helen – ‘Eleni,’ the shining one.

Advertisements

One Trackback to “Bettany Hughes: “Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore””

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s