Helen Gets a Fair Hearing

// 27 May 2006

If anyone is going to the Guardian Hay festival (incidentally – jealous here!), they might want to check out an interesting talk on Helen of Troy tomorrow. A historian named Bettany Hughes is set to demolish our understanding of the “face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Illium”.

“She walks through history for 28 centuries holding up a mirror to the way men think of women,” Hughes argues, but there may be a real queen of Sparta behind this misogynistic fantasy.

Hughes claims that archaeological evidence suggests a real woman. But, on top of that, we shouldn’t lift our impressions of how she was regarded in ancient Greece straight from the male canon at face value.

In addition, Helen became important as a semi-divine figure. “From 600BC to AD 400 she was worshipped ardently as a quasi goddess,” according to Hughes.

Adolescent girls venerated her in order to capture Helen’s sexual power, singing homoerotic hymns describing each other’s golden hair and delicate ankles. “This aspect of Helen has been completely ignored. People have wanted to keep her as a pretty-pretty, chocolate-box girl, instead of a fear-inspiring, venerated cult figure.”

I’m not sure I’d agree that the personification of bitchy, duplicitous womanhood that Helen has become really counts as a “chocolate-box girl”, but you get the point.

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