Helen’s legend & history

Not Helen, but potentially a contemporary face. Found near the cult worship site at Mycenae. National Archaeological Museum of Athens, c 1250 BC.
© Simon J Kyte

If Helen existed as a mortal human (and that is very open to dispute), then she was not born into a society in which one might expect to live long. In the late Bronze Age the average life expectancy for a woman would have been about 25. But it was also a hugely polarised society and much depended on the class into which you were born.

Helen had unusual parentage to say the least. Her mother was Leda, wife of the King of Sparta. But her father was the god Zeus, who had disguised himself as a swan to rape Leda. Throughout history there are traditions of a clutch of eggs left to hatch on Mount Taygetas. Helen’s brothers are the Dioskuri. [These brothers are the ones known in Roman times as Castor and Pollux (the Gemini), almost always shown accompanied by horses and the equivalents of the reputed founders of Jutish Kent, Hengest and Horsa.] The image of the swan’s egg reflects in Helen’s snow white skin and albuminous beauty. [There was something on my mind all along which, finally, gets a brief mention in one of the appendix chapters: this all has echoes of the Dawn Goddess in Indo-European cultures. But there is something worth emphasising here: Mycenaean religion does not look like this stereotype of Indo-European religion. Are we dealing here with some elite faith or one which filtered in after?]

Like her mother, Helen becomes a victim of rape at the age of 12. She is described as ‘golden’ – what does it mean? In excavations in 1962 on Thera, recovered images revealed head shaving rituals. After adolescence, the razor was put away. But the most amazing depiction was of a girl with red hair – something completely unforeseen.

Had events been different Helen of Troy might well have been remembered as Helen of Sparta. The nine years which Helen spent as Queen of Sparta are largely undocumented by poets. She would have spent her time in the palace, her clothes brushed with oil – radiant and shining, ‘blazing a trail’ through the Palace as Hughes describes her. But the gods had other ideas.

Paris, Prince of Troy and the connection with Aphrodite

Helen has a gift from Aphrodite: xάρις – not simply the ‘grace’ for which the word would later be used, something even more than ‘charisma’. Aphrodite is not just Helen’s muse but also her alter ego and mortal surrogate. ‘Where will you drive me next?’ she asks of the deity. Since Hughes’ latest book is about Aphrodite, I will come back to her at the end.

Enter Paris, son of Priam, the King of Troy or Wilusa in Anatolian speech [Note that one may be a region; the other a city]. He is chosen to judge between the beauty of Hera, Athena and Aphrodite at the mythical Garden of the Hesperides and awards the golden apple inscribed with ‘thi kallisthi’ (for the fairest) to the last of these because she promises him Helen. He chooses her over victory in war. Paris would have looked nothing like Exhibit 13396 in the National Archaeological Museum, made around 340 BC and rescued from the sea off Antikythera. [The name is perhaps Luwian – a branch of the early Anatolian break-off from Indo-European.]

Paris – National Archaeological Museum, Athens

𒌷𒃾𒇻𒊭 Wilusa in Hittite

Paris sails from Turkey (the place the Hittites called Wilusa, probably on the edge of Hittite influence / control) to the Greek Mainland and is entertained under the code of conduct known as ‘xenia’ (friendship towards guests – the opposite is effectively the now more familiar word, xenophobia). This involved luxurious gift exchange. But in Sparta, the edifice of xenia is about to be breached – the first time in European literature that it is. By stealing Helen, Paris defiled the fundamental principles of hospitality, the international rule book tacitly agreed by all Eastern Mediterranean societies.

There is the additional pathos that Menelaus has to attend his father’s funeral in Crete – and he dallies one night too long there with a Cretan concubine. [Menelaus (King of Sparta) and Agamemnon (King of Mycenae) are both the sons of Atreus.]

How far Helen is party to her ‘abduction’ or is simply helpless against the powers of Aphrodite is open to question and has been subject to shifts ever since. But in neither Sappho nor Homer is there any indication that she was dragged away against her will. Nevertheless, it is a sexual slip which will result in the deaths of thousands in a pointless war.

In Hesiod’s 7th century Theogony, Aphrodite is one of the first inhabitants of the primordial world fashioned from Chaos. She emerges out of a sea foaming thanks to Ouranos’ penis and testicles having been severed and thrown into it. But it is a revisionist origin of the gods and Aphrodite was actually imported from the Near East via Cyprus.

Hermione is distraught, thinking that her mother has been snatched by wild beasts (and not the wild beasts of Wilusa). But Paris and Helen are actually passing their first night together on the small island of Kranai (‘the Rocks’), just off the main Lakonian port of the time, Gythion.

Hughes draws attention to how water seems to follow Helen around, whether that is the banks of the Eurotas, Paris’ arrival by sea, consummation of their relationship on Kranai or the seven years she will spend after the war sailing around the Eastern Mediterranean [including to some of the places most associated with Astarte].

The Kypria, as reported by Herodotus [because only fragments survive], says that it only took them two days to sail to Troy. With perfect conditions, that might just be possible. But Homer suggests a longer route. Stesichorus, a sixth century Sicilian Greek is one of a number of sources for the ‘Egyptian’ version. Plato states that Stesichorus was blinded for slandering Helen. Herodotus says that in Egypt he encountered priests who had records of her spending ten years there.

When they left Kranai, the two lovers crossed the fault between west and east, distinct antagonistic entities linked only by the sea and by Achaea’s aspirations for Turkish coastal colonies. Herodotus says that Helen’s ‘crime’ had marked a totemic division between the two.

Homer describes Troy as richly scented and famed for its horses. Hughes suggests that it was potentially a training centre for chariot warfare. That is not fully reflected in Homer because he adopts Iron Age hand to hand battle on foot for his war scenes. But I have to say that the potential implication is far from absent in Homer’s lines.

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