As soon as men began to write, they made Helen of Troy their subject; for nearly 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 both the Trojan War and 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 and places her alongside the heroes and heroines of myth and history. 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.
Helen of Troy has been a part of the Western cultural consciousness for thousands of years, an often troubling figure of female sexual power. Now British historian Hughes investigates the history and myth of Helen, using a mix of archeological evidence, literary sources and personal observation to flesh out this archetypal creature. Acknowledging that Helen has long served as a lens through which male thinkers have projected their views of women, Hughes traces the uses to which the ancient princess has been put, from the prehistoric Mycenaean world, in which she would have been admired for her beauty and strength, through the Elizabethan age, when she was reviled as a demonic harlot. Although the resulting book could use a generous dollop of editing, and there are too many instances in which the author has to step back and state that "there is no way to know for sure" whether the narrative she builds is accurate or not, the resultant tale is fascinating and illuminating. The elucidation of prehistoric social, political and religious systems is especially interesting and serves as a needed corrective to Christian-influenced constructions of Helen and, through her, all women. (A PBS documentary on Helen of Troy featuring Hughes will air on October 12.) 32 pages of illus., 616 in color. 60,000 first printing.