Searching for Helen
This week on Facebook: I could have given this post the title ‘Everything you wanted to know about Helen but were afraid ask’, however Helen’s escape in Woody Allen’s film vignette has nothing to do with the Helen of Troy, which is what this post is about. Although it has just occurred to me that it may do! Woody Allen asked in his film, ‘Are the Findings of Doctors and Clinics Who Do Sexual Research and Experiments Accurate?’. If we change ‘doctors and clinics’ to ‘writers and historians’, the interpretation of Helen’s role in the Trojan War may have more in common with Woody Allen’s question than we would like to think.
It was the first article (1) that reminded me of a book from my youth, one which I have never forgotten but have not been able to reference. Nevertheless, I have memories from the book of the Trojan War and remember the main characters from the book. The 1956 film of the ‘Helen of Troy’ (trailered below), like Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film ‘Troy’, were both cinematographic epics with both films embellishing their sources. Then I think that people go to the cinema to be entertained, not educated. Hmm! While that last remark may be generally true, I’m sure that having watched a film (or read a book), every factoid gleaned is treated as knowledge.
Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
The Trojan War¹ and Helen as the whore and curse of beauty, may be an historic distraction from the real message about the fall of Troy². Even in Homer’s Iliad, Helen’s precise role in Paris’ abduction is unknown since the event is a matter of legend rather than historical fact³.
1. Helen the Whore and the Curse of Beauty: Although we now tend to think of Helen as a passive figure, a feeble thing swept along to Troy on the tide of Paris’ libido, the simpering shell immortalised in Wolfgang Peterson’s movie Troy (2004), a close study of representations of Helen through the centuries yields a feistier figure. She is a woman who is at times applauded, but more often damned, for being sexually active – and is, furthermore, branded a whore. Helen of Troy is a telling icon: a woman who impacted on the world around her — as one of the earliest named authors of the West, Hesiod declared in his Works and Days: ‘[there was] a god-like race of hero men … grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them … [war] brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen’s sake’ — but whose impact has to be explained away in terms of a shabby sale of sex.
2. Who was Helen of Troy? Is she fake or for real? Was she brutally abducted or did she elope? Could she really have been the most beautiful woman in the world?? For 27 centuries, Helen of Troy has been one of the most exciting and the most contested of female figures. She’s also one of the most tenacious; from the moment when Helen first enters the record in Book 2 of Homer’s Iliad back in the Iron Age, there isn’t a single decade when she leaves the human radar. East and West alike have used Helen’s story to explore the conflict between duty and desire, between women and men, between delight and death, and between ideas of what is right and wrong.
3. Helen of Troy in the Iliad of Homer: Helen has mixed feelings because she feels some complicity in her own abduction and realises how much death and suffering has been the result. That her Trojan husband is not terribly manly compared with his brother or her first husband only increases her feelings of regret. However, it is not clear that Helen had any choice. She is, after all, a possession, one of many Paris stole from Argos, although the only one he is unwilling to return. Helen’s fault lies in her beauty rather than in her acts, according to the old men at the Scaean Gate.
4. Slut-Shaming Helen of Troy: She was (and is) the locus for exploring the questions of whether beautiful women are always necessarily bad, and whether female sexual desire is always a force of destruction. She is also—unlike modern versions of the promiscuous or adulterous woman—always presented as at least semi-divine, the ever-young, ever-beautiful daughter of Zeus, worshipped at cult centers all over Greece, especially in her native Sparta. Modern versions of misogyny usually do not account for the possibility that “bad” women might also be goddesses.
5. Was Helen really to blame for the Trojan Was or just a scapegoat? The question of Helen’s involvement in such a significant conflict clearly poses difficult questions – and has done ever since the age of Homer. In the Iliad, the cause of the war is ambiguous. Homer offers listeners (the poem would have been performed orally) no easy explanation as to why the Greeks were willing to participate in such a lengthy conflict. While Helen repeatedly acknowledges her role in igniting the conflict, other characters, such as Priam, refuse to blame her. The Greek gods — who are accused of staging this great conflict — and the Trojan prince Paris are also held responsible.
Referenced Articles & Books:
- A text subscript above and preceding the title here, refers to a book, pdf, podcast, video, and a download that is usually free.
- A long read url* is followed by an asterisk.
- Occasionally an Open University (OU) free course is cited.
- JSTOR lets you set up a free account allowing you to have 6 (interchangeable) books stored that you can read online.
¹Trojan War (url/podcast): Zeus, King of the Gods, hosts a wedding. An uninvited guest crashes, bringing an unwelcome gift. In mere moments, all Hades breaks loose. And the wheels of Western culture’s most awesome epic – the Trojan War – are set in motion.
²Economic collapse — The real message of the fall of Troy (url*): The fall and sack of the city of Troy at the hands of an avenging Greek army is one that has been told for some 3,000 years, but contained within it are clues to a much wider global collapse – with lessons for our own 21st Century.
³Introducing Homer’s Iliad (url/OU): This free course, Introducing Homer’s Iliad, focuses on the epic poem telling the story of the Trojan War. It begins with the wider cycle of myths of which the Iliad was a part. It then looks at the story of the poem itself and its major theme of Achilles’ anger, in particular in the first seven lines. It examines some of the characteristic features of the text: metre, word order and epithets. Finally, it explores Homer’s use of simile. The course should prepare you for reading the Iliad on your own with greater ease and interest
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