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Goddess, princess, whore: Helen of Troy

Helen of TroyI found Bettany Hughes very beautiful and couldn’t take my eyes off her in this program as she explored sources of information about Helen of Troy, a reaction that seems very appropriate given Helen’s reputation. Hughes has done a previous program on Sparta which rehabilitates them somewhat and is rumored as making another one on Socrates.

This 2005 PBS broadcast runs for two hours and covers a lot of ground. Hughes states she is interested in exploring how a Bronze Age Queen such as Helen might have lived. Her premise is that there was really a Helen and that the story of the part she played in the Trojan War is based on fact. This approach, which ignores Helen’s mythological roles, enables Hughes to restrict herself to the archaeological record, where the life of the Bronze Age elite of Greece has left some trace.

The written record is not too helpful. Homer contents himself with calling Helen the most beautiful woman without giving further details, knowing his audience will fill in the blanks themselves. But, examining Homer closely, it is possible to see how many details he writes about were of an earlier time than his own and reflect the passing down of an oral tradition from as early as the 12th century BC, the time of the War. Just as Michael Wood did in In Search of the Trojan War, Hughes finds experts who can reconstruct Bronze Age weaponry from Homer’s descriptions. It seems there is a lot of recoverable detail about how people lived in those times. But all this is supporting detail and doesn’t help much where Helen is concerned.

Hughes drives from Mycenae to Sparta, crosses the Aegean to Troy, travels up the Hellespont to Istanbul for a taste of what Troy might have seemed like in its heyday, then travels east to explore the Hittites, the dominant political power of the Bronze Age in western Asia. While filling in a lot of social and political detail, Hughes is not able to fully demonstrate one of her major points, the relative freedom and access to power accorded to women in many societies of that time. There’s really not enough evidence to make more than conjectures.

There is another aspect to Helen that Hughes does not really explore, as her search is for a historical figure. Helen is a daughter of Zeus, king of the Greek gods. She and her sister Clytemnestra were hatched from an egg, even though her mother, Leda, was of human form (though divine). Her brothers were the gods Castor and Pollux. Both Helen and Clytemnestra were to prove fatal to the Greek forces through their involvement with the brothers Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army and married to Clytemnestra, and Menelaus, married to Helen.

The Greeks often gave divine honors to their ancestors. If the involvement of Zeus and Aphrodite in Helen’s tale are seen as part of this process, then the bloody feud of the Atridae, detailed in Aeschylus’ Oresteia and which was an indirect cause of the Trojan War, as well as the story of the Seven against Thebes and of Oedipus, of Perseus, of Jason and Medea and of the Trojan War itself can be read as history, with the very large qualification that the stories, based on fact but created to gain tribal and clan renown, were passed on as part of songs in honor of the ancestors and in rituals enacted at family shrines. In this process the ancestors became heroes, the heroes became gods and children of gods. Five hundred years after these Bronze Age societies had passed away a gifted poet named Homer, who definitely did not ascribe to the religious beliefs of the age he depicted, recreated one such story: so tale became legend, became ritual, became ceremonial song and then became one of the world’s greatest poems. Finding the historical elements in this is not an easy job.

Had Hughes wished to she could have looked at Bronze Age rituals that evidently did give status and authority to women and which can be seen on the surviving frescoes from Minoan Crete, thought to be the parent civilisation to that of Mycenean Greece. Women were bare breasted, their femininity was honored, they predominated in ceremonies below ground to invoke the snake goddess who gave wisdom and the bull god who gave life (I can’t help thinking of the Canaanite Eve who might have been once such a priestess/goddess). Medea could have been another such figure, as was the Pythoness who gave way to Apollo at Delphi.

The trouble with looking at the past is that other societies had vastly different ways of looking at things than we do. We notice skin color, many ancient societies didn’t (which Roman Emperors were black?) We like facts, ancient societies didn’t think facts were nearly as important as clan honour. We separate concepts such as patriotism and religion, the Greeks didn’t. Nobody’s going to find a biography of Helen or a history of the Trojan War surviving on clay tablets because nobody in the Bronze Age had thought of such things.

From the remains we have: a few battered artifacts, an excavated city’s outline, deductions from a few lines of poetry, historians such as Hughes try to interpret a vanished way of life. The lack of evidence means there can be more than one such interpretation, and none conclusive. This is the fascination of the past.

One sad fact Hughes is able to confirm is that the scale of things was much smaller than we imagine. Smaller cities, smaller populations, fewer soldiers and ships, raids more common than battles, deaths (despite Homer’s gruesome descriptions) more often among the peasantry than the nobility. “The face that launched a thousand ships” was said of Helen almost 3000 years after her time, the tale having grown with the telling.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, 22 September, 2009 by in films and tagged , , , .
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