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Who was Helen of Troy?

Bettany Hughes is an historian, broadcaster, and author of Helen of Troy, Goddess, Princess, Whore (Pimlico 2013). Here, she writes about the myth of Helen as explored through the ages, and her continued relevance.

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.

She is of course, actually, Helen of Sparta. The epic poets tell us that Helen was a gorgeous and feisty princess, heir to the lush and fertile Spartan kingdom in the Greek mainland. Her hand was fought for ferociously by the greatest heroes of Greece – the most splendid of all, Achilles. Eventually she was claimed by Agamemnon’s younger brother Menelaus as his bride. This was not a match made in heaven. Lured, the Greeks told us, by the ‘golden riches of the East’ Helen left behind her cuckold-husband and girl-child Hermione, and a few years later ran off to Troy with the Trojan Prince Paris – himself super-pretty, crowned, as Homer puts it with ‘glistening love-locks’. As a guest in Menelaus’ Spartan home (Menelaus was conveniently away in Crete at his father’s funeral at the time) Paris’s hubris broke all codes of honour - and all hell broke loose. Greece’s heroes then spent ten long, bloody years fighting to get Helen back. Helen was cursed for her beauty, ‘beauty like that of a goddess’ as Homer puts it – (meaning a ferocious vitality that changed men’s lives). Helen’s physical perfection spawned suffering and rage and ugly death.

Now Homer was not composing a history – it is clear this epic poem, spanning 15693 lines, was a rip-roaring tale of derring-do, it is myth. But myth at this time didn’t mean pure fantasy, rather ‘things that were spoken of, the transfer of information’. And the exciting truth is that every time there is an excavating season of Bronze and Iron Age sites in the Eastern Mediterranean or Near East, the details of the story of Helen and Paris edge just a little bit further from fairy-tale and a little closer to fact.

The delight of Helen’s story... is that it offers a glimpse of actual women in Europe and Asia who enjoyed status and standing and agency. When women were generally written out of history, Helen of Troy was written in.

We now know for example that there were indeed high-ranking female aristocrats whose infidelity was enough to spark threats of war between states in what is now Lebanon and Syria. That women did oil themselves with oil to make their hair and clothes and skin shine, that they mixed druggy brews of opiates in their palace homes, that Troy was a crux of international trade and diplomacy, that golden spindles and boars’ tusk helmets – minutely described by Homer - were indeed trophies, that marriage alliances across the Mediterranean stitched together this macho, beauty-obsessed world; and that the Greeks really were at Troy sometime around 1200 BC – close to the traditional date of the war. A ten-year siege seems to be, from the archaeology, total nonsense.

And Helen herself seems to be a gorgeous confection, a combination of real flesh and blood women of the day, and salivating fantasies about female sexuality combined with a sharp fear of female power. But the delight of Helen’s story, if you read Homer carefully, is that it offers a glimpse of actual women in Europe and Asia who enjoyed status and standing and agency. When women were generally written out of history, Helen of Troy was written in. As her story passed down the generations it held up a mirror to the prejudices of society and to some of its truths. Helen in the Iliad declares, ‘on us has been sent an evil destiny, that we should be a singer’s theme for generations to come.’ How prophetic. Helen might not be real – but she never loses her relevance.

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