The British Museum has announced an exhibition on the myth and reality of Troy running from November 21st, 2019 to March 8th, 2020. The legends surrounding the Trojan War involved many familiar names; Achilles, Paris and Odysseus, for example. But none have captured the imagination and fantasy throughout the ages like the face that launched a thousand ships, Helen of Troy.
Greek mythology tells that Helen was the daughter of Zeus and Leda and was the only mortal daughter of Zeus on Earth. The fascination with Helen starts with the ‘Judgement of Paris’. A beauty contest between the three most powerful goddesses, Aphrodite, Hera and Athena, was judged by Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy. Each goddess bargained with Paris to receive the golden apple, the prize for winning the beauty contest. Aphrodite offered Paris something he could not refuse, the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. Helen left her husband Menelaus and ran off with Paris to Troy caused the Trojan War.
Throughout the ages and many civilisations debate over Helen has been centre stage in the narrative. In Ancient Greece, contemporaries portrayed Helen in many different ways. Euripides in Trojan Women portrays Helen as a murderous whore who caused pain and suffering due to her adulterous ways. While in Euripides later work, Helen, she is described as in Egypt and the Helen that ran off with Paris was fake. As Helen was the latter of the two plays, possibly Euripides fell for the myth, beauty and fantasy of Helen hundreds of years after she supposedly lived.
The Middle Ages can be seen to be a very anti-Helen period, perhaps due to the deeply patriarchal and devout Christian ideologies of the time. In the 12th century, Joseph of Exeter described Helen as not a figure of empowerment but as a whore. In Dante’s Inferno, Helen finds herself consigned to the second layer of Hell alongside Cleopatra in an area saved for adulterers, seductresses and unfaithful women. The Middle Ages were, of course, a deeply religious time, so there is no doubt why Helen is portrayed like this in that period. Any instance of unfaithfulness by women would have been emphasised significantly to deter adulterous behaviour and heresy, possibly explaining why Helen relegated herself to the second layer of Hell.
Interestingly, however, the artwork of the Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe show a different story. In many works of art depicting the Trojan War, the Judgement of Paris of the abduction of Helen, Helen is shown to be abducted unwillingly by Paris. Helen is shown to be scared in such paintings, portraying the idea that she is not to blame for the Trojan War. This, of course, conflicts with the ancient narrative wherein many circumstances Helen was seen to be willing to go. An example of this made by Sappho who told that Helen willingly left Menelaus for Paris as she fell in love with him. This is one of the only pieces of writing we have by Sappho as most have been lost. Helen is seen as the one who feels for Paris and willingly left with him in many plays and poems in Greek literature.
But what is the modern perception of Helen? Once again, there are differences in opinion. On the one hand, Helen can be seen as a strong woman who topples the patriarchy and enhances the role of women. Homer does not describe Helen as Paris’ lesser but as his equal. This is a perception of Helen that has been adopted actively by feminists. Sappho’s narrative of Helen is another instance where feminists can use Helen as a way of the empowerment of women. It shows that in Mycenaean Greece, women could pull their own weight and society was not totally dominated by men.
However, modern perceptions of Helen also tell a different story. It is not only about empowering women. Helen can also be seen a similar way as she was in the Middle Ages and in many Greek plays. For example, in the BBC’s Troy; Fall of a City, Helen who is played by Bella Dayne is portrayed to be a deceptive and cunning individual who interacts with the Greeks while within the walls of Troy and is the person who gives away vital information and eventually lets the Greeks into the city. This attaches well to Euripides’ Trojan Women account of Helen. Both show her as deceptive. So, Helen in modern society is still very divisive; she can be seen as an empowering figure but also an ambiguous figure.
Helen is one of the only figures who has never left the human imagination in almost 3,000 years. From oral stories passed through generations in the Greek Dark Ages and Classical Greece, through the Roman era, through the Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe and in modern and contemporary periods, Helen has always been a divisive person who has drawn debate. There is no right or wrong answer regarding her personality as there are numerous narratives and perceptions regarding her. Whether one would see her as the deceptive whore who ran off with Paris causing the Trojan War, or whether one would see her as the woman struck with love from Aphrodite, there will always be opposition to that viewpoint.
I would encourage anyone interested in Helen of Troy or indeed the Trojan War to read Euripides’ Helen and Trojan Women, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Or if one would wish to read an excellent book about Helen, Bettany Hughes’ Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore.
By Thomas Nurcombe