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Ancient Greek culture is pervaded by a profound ambivalence regarding female beauty. It is an awe-inspiring, supremely desirable gift from the gods, essential to the perpetuation of a man's name through reproduction; yet it also grants women terrifying power over men, posing a threat inseparable from its allure. The myth of Helen is the central site in which the ancient Greeks expressed and reworked their culture's anxieties about erotic desire. Despite the passage of three millennia, contemporary culture remains almost obsessively preoccupied with all the power and danger of female beauty and sexuality that Helen still represents. Yet Helen, the embodiment of these concerns for our purported cultural ancestors, has been little studied from this perspective. Such issues are also central to contemporary feminist thought.
Helen of Troy engages with the ancient origins of the persistent anxiety about female beauty, focusing on this key figure from ancient Greek culture in a way that both extends our understanding of that culture and provides a useful perspective for reconsidering aspects of our own. Moving from Homer and Hesiod to Sappho, Aeschylus, and Euripides, Ruby Blondell offers a fresh examination of the paradoxes and ambiguities that Helen embodies. In addition to literary sources, Blondell considers the archaeological record, which contains evidence of Helen's role as a cult figure, worshipped by maidens and newlyweds. The result is a compelling new interpretation of this alluring figure.
The face that launched a thousand ships has inspired just as many if not more stories and interpretations of what exactly happened between Helen and Paris, and how it drove Troy to war. Even today, third-wave feminists, postfeminist intellectuals, and contemporary pop culture engage with the enduring reputation of Helen. In this scholarly work, Blondell (The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues) casts the real Helen by the wayside, focusing instead on the ways in which the mythical beauty has been depicted in Greek literature, including the Iliad and the Odyssey, Sappho's poetry, the tragedy Agamemnon, and Herodotus's Histories. The University of Washington classicist's primary concern, expounded upon in thematic chapters, is how these stories depicted, promoted, and transformed ideals of beauty and female agency. This is a fine work of scholarship, but it has limited attraction for a general readership Blondell declines to connect with modern-day interpretations, though it's clear she isn't a hermit of the ivory tower: chapter epigraphs comprise snippets from pop culture, such as a few lines from the Eagles' song "Lyin' Eyes." In tracing her development, it would've been interesting to see how the Helen of today holds up to the Helen of old. 19 b&w illus.