After Homer, Helen’s story has had 28 centuries of manipulation. Sometime around 1184 BC the Mycenaean Bronze Age collapsed. [The Hittite Empire fell apart at much the same time and Egypt changed beyond recognition. Some have speculated about volcanic eruptions and the mysterious ‘sea peoples’.] Was it Helen’s actions which caused the Age of Heroes to explode? Archaiai Kleonai demonstrates what happened to many of the citadels after the Trojan War. This was a period of potential social and religious upheaval as the norms (and the cult figures) which had survived several generations ceased to ‘work’.
Across the Geometric period lyric (i.e. with a lyre as accompaniment) poems kept the story alive through to Homer and then on into Classical times.
If Helen really existed, she could not have imagined the great Classical cities of Greece. In the fifth century BC a new art emerged with its origin in religious worship: theatre. It allowed Helen to be recast as central to Athens’ democratic experience. Casts were wholly male so Helen would have been played by a boy – everyone had masks anyway, which were left as an offering.
But it is all a filter on the previous era. The sudden flowering of Euripides and Aeschylus is a different world from eight centuries earlier.
Euripedes is one of very few to write about Helen’s death and in his version, she is stolen away by Apollo at the moment of her murder at the Royal palace at Argos. It is truly a ‘Deus ex Machina’ moment with her becoming a star.
Euripedes’ Trojan Women is almost a textbook damning of Helen. In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon she is known simply as ‘woman’ in derogatory fashion – and there is wordplay on the prefix Hel- which signifies ‘destroyer’: of ships, of cities, of men.
Somewhere this idea of the now distant collapse of the ‘Bronze Age’ is also embedded. Something linear has been interrupted [an almost proto-Hegelian concept.]
Hughes puts great emphasis on the downgraded status of women in Athenian society [which, of course, relies on her being essentially correct about their status in Bronze Age Achaea]. The ideal fifth century Athenian woman was ‘not seen, not heard, not heard of’.
Nevertheless, within 3 years of Trojan Women, Euripides had written Helen. This time she was the innocent of Stesichrous’ Egyptian version. Why did he do a second take? [To my mind, maybe he just came into contact with a completely different conception of Helen?]
The third major play about Helen in a four year period came out in 412 at the Theatre of Dionysus: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. This did give Helen’s spirituality some focus albeit only right at the end. These three plays shaped perceptions and interpretations across early times.
There is something with very little focus in the analysis here though. Helen was originally Queen of Sparta and by 412 Athens had been leading the Delian League in the Peloponnesian War …against Sparta. The territory of the Peloponnesian League almost looked like Ancient Achaea. Mycenae and Troy potentially hold other connotations here.
In 1204 AD, an alliance of Frankish and Venetian crusaders set Constantinople on fire. The pagan statues which stood in the old hippodrome were hacked apart and melted down. Only the horses which ended up in Venice were spared.
For 500 years the Trojan story relied on oral transmission – perhaps via lyric bards. For the next 2000 it relied on hand copying. Then in 1488 the Iliad had its first printing – in Florence. Translation into English went via a circuitous route: via French in 1581 – well after the invention of the printing press. Translations into some other languages took longer: Turkish in 1887, Serbo-Croat in 1915, Yiddish in 1924.
Founded by Ptolemy I and augmented under Ptolemy II, the Library of Alexandria probably did most of all to preserve the tradition. One of the great innovations in librarianship took place here: alphabetical referencing. Alexander the Great slept with the Iliad under his pillow.
However, there is a problem. Copyists had never been free from the influences of their own time. For example, in 284 BC Zenodotus censored four lines of Iliad in which Aphrodite had fetched a stool for Helen on the grounds that the divinity had behaved ina fashion beneath her status. As societal attitudes changed, things can only have got worse for the text’s integrity.
By the second century AD, papyrus was on its way out. The new mode of ptexdt production was the codex and a large number of texts were transferred. But we can’t see any changes that were made since most of the original papyri were simply ditched. By the period of the sixth to tenth centuries, parchment’s value was considered greater than the texts themselves and the texts were scraped off to make way for more relevant things. [There are new technologies being used on this problem which are revealing what lies beneath.]
If there is a part of the book with which I am generally uncomfortable, then it is this bit: the cult of Helen in the Middle East and its roots in Simon Magus. Simon converted after hearing Paul but his take on things was that he was God in human form. Hughes claims that Helen was at the centre of his cult – the Simonian Helen, a hybrid creature, linked with a real person, a prostitute from Tyre. This is in fact entirely reliant of Epiphanius ofd Salamis – a far from uncontroversial figure.
More interesting is the sudden appearance of the London Stone at Cannon Street – whose meaning and importance is hotly debated. Many in Mediaeval times believed that it had been brought to England by a Trojan. [That accords with one of the opening lines in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, perhaps written around 1380.] In Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, which will be found elsewhere on this site, Britain takes its name from a fleeing Trojan called Bretus – obvious nonsense.
However, in the mud at the bottom of the Thames was found a black double handled cup dating from the late Bronze Age and sourced to Anatolia. Mediaeval traders probably heard local tales of Troy when travelling in the vicinity of Constantinople / Istanbul.
Of course, the Trojan was handy to rulers of the day and, from the eleventh century, Franks, Normans, English all claimed links with Troy. A surprisingly refined version dates from the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
However, it was Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe who really caught the London public’s imagination with The Tragical History of Dr Faustus. Details of Faust’s life are sketchy but the audience was left in no doubt: the sorcerer had been sold to the Devil for all sorts of earthly pleasures – including carnal knowledge of Helen. [I have to say that I see the play in a completely different light but Helen’s association is definitely with the Devil.] Helen was now ‘eternal death’; she is an act against God despite the irony of her every move having been driven by Aphrodite in more distant times. [And I have to raise the issue here of whether that too is a post-Geometric addition – surely it must be? I am also not certain that I always like her understanding of the words ‘Lutherans’.]