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The many faces of Helen of Troy

Published 19 November 2019

As the British Museum launch a new exhibition on the ancient city of Troy, classicist Natalie Haynes reveals the tensions and contradictions at the heart of literature’s most intriguing siren.

  • Helen of Troy – or Helen of Sparta – is both one of the most notorious women in literature, and one of the most opaque. She is the woman whose face launches a thousand ships according to Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus, although Homer makes it closer to 1,200. And yet every version of her is more perplexing than the last; almost nothing about her is certain – apart from her devastating beauty. The British Museum’s new exhibition, Troy: Myth and Reality, will give visitors a chance to construct Helen for themselves, as they follow the stories of key figures in the Trojan War.

    Most stories of Helen have Zeus as her father: he famously impregnates Leda, the Queen of Sparta, having taken the form of a swan. Helen is abducted as a child by Theseus, who wants a daughter of Zeus for his bride. Her brothers invade Attica for her safe return, but in some versions of the myth, she has already given birth to Theseus’ daughter by the time they retrieve her. She was kidnapped at the age of seven or, in some sources, ten.

    A second war is waged over Helen when she elopes with the Trojan prince, Paris, abandoning her Greek husband, Menelaus, and her daughter, Hermione. A watercolour by Edward Burne-Jones ARA in the exhibition (Helen’s Tears, 1882-98), shows Helen devastated by the consequences of this decision. She stands on the walls of Troy, draped in a thick dark robe, hands cradling her face as flames engulf the city behind her.

  • Edward Burne-Jones ARA, Helen's Tears, drawing from ‘The Flower Book’

    Edward Burne-Jones ARA, Helen's Tears, drawing from ‘The Flower Book’, 1882–1898.

    © The Trustees of the British Museum.

  • The affair and the sack of Troy earn Helen a reputation as a dangerously destructive beauty. And yet it is not always part of her story. There is a counter-myth (dating back at least to Homer’s time) where Helen doesn’t go to Troy at all. Instead, she spends the war chastely in Egypt, in the palace of Proteus. But the gods send an eidolon – image – of Helen to Troy, so her reputation is still ruined. Only when the Greeks finally claim the eidolon-Helen from the sacked city do they realise what she is: she disappears into the thin air from which she was made.

    We have only fragments of the work of lyric poet Stesichorus, but he is said to have written a poem about Helen in which he piled on the blame for causing the Trojan War. He was, so legend has it, struck blind. He then composed an apologia for Helen, describing her blameless decade in Egypt instead. Mysteriously, his sight was then restored. It is typical of Helen’s complexity that she can be both loyal wife and adulterous mistress, quite aside from being somehow capable of taking and returning a poet’s eyesight.

    The tragedian Euripides, writing in the fifth century BCE, also offers us multiple Helens. The eponymous heroine of his play, Helen, is clever and funny: more than a match for Menelaus when he eventually tracks her down (this is perhaps the best-known version of the Egypt narrative). Her character in the play The Trojan Women is coolly, legalistically clever: she walks on-stage for the first time to discover the Greeks have sentenced her to death in her absence. She absolutely demolishes any arguments Menelaus might offer for her responsibility in causing the war. Not only can he not reply to her (Hecabe, the queen of the sacked city of Troy, has to do it instead), but we know that the death sentence will never be carried out: he can’t even beat Helen in a battle of wits.

    One of the most remarkable visions of Helen was created by the great Athenian playwright, Sophocles, in his lost play, The Demand for Helen’s Return. Only tiny fragments of this tragedy survive. One shows Helen scratching her face with writing implements. This seems impossibly modern: a beautiful woman self-harming, using the very tools with which (almost exclusively male) poets have made her notorious. This Helen wants to unmake her beauty and her fame. For Sophocles, the world’s most beautiful woman would rather have been someone ordinary.

  • Natalie Haynes is a classicist. Her novel, A Thousand Ships, retells the story of the Trojan War from an all-female perspective.

    Troy: Myth and Reality is on at the British Museum, London, from 21 November to 8 March 2020.

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