Who is Helen?

I’ve been blogging about Helen for a few weeks now so shouldn’t we know who she was? Well, not really.  Troy itself was thought to be mythic – until it was discovered.

Hughes believes Helen existed. I do too; the evidence is compelling. But the real Helen has been overlaid with so many other beliefs it is hard to know what to think.

For one thing, Hughes believes Helen became a minor Goddess in her own right. Women prayed to her for an easy childbirth. In a cave in Greece there is a stone worn flat by the gyrations of many women grinding against it as they prayed.

I have also heard that one cult believes Helen never went to Troy. (Thanks Sarah).

One thing is true, however. Helen has been viewed through the lens of (mostly) men’s eyes and decreed a harlot, a sinner, whose beauty lured men to destruction. (I always wonder about this attitude. It assumes men have no self-control. Seriously?) If Paris abducted her (and there is a lot of discussion on whether she was a willing participant or not), it was Helen’s fault. She was too beautiful. A woman’s beauty was to be possessed. It belonged to men.
And the men did not hesitate to take it, whether she was willing or not. Theseus (remember him? He was the destroyer of the Minotaur) was about fifty when he saw Helen dancing by the river bank with a number of other virgins. Dancing was a common religious ritual. Although still a child, she was already the most beautiful person in the world. Theseus saw her and just had to have her. Her age at this point has been given as 12, 10 or 7. He raped her and took her home. Helen’s brothers Castor and Pollux mounted a campaign against Theseus. Not only had he raped their sister but he had come into a country that did not belong to him and he attacked her in the middle of a religious rite. This early experience foreshadowed Helen’s future.

While many girls were married in their early teens, 7 seems incredibly young, even for that time. Theseus was the Mycenaean idea of a hero: aggressive and someone who took what he wanted.

Reading the writings of some of the early Christian monks is horrifying, depressing, enraging – pick your description. Everything is Helen’s fault simply because she is female and beautiful. The paintings of Helen and her abduction show a half-naked Rubenesque woman, her skin so pale it is luminous, surrounded by men as she is led away. Remember, she would have been a young girl at this point. Does anyone else see the disconnect between a woman condemned for her beauty being led away barely veiled in transparent draperies? What is it about the male psyche that hates the very thing that draws him so powerfully? A question for greater brains than mine.

But I digress.

In any event, after reading this book, I have a new appreciation of the complexity of Helen’s life (mythical or not) than I had before. Paraphrasing Shakespeare: she was “more sinned against than sinning.”