Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation
By Ruby Blondell
Oxford University Press, 2013
Publisher’s Overview: The story of Helen of Troy has its origins in ancient Greek epic and didactic poetry, more than 2500 years ago, but it remains one of the world’s most galvanizing myths about the destructive power of beauty. Much like the ancient Greeks, our own relationship to female beauty is deeply ambivalent, fraught with both desire and danger. We worship and fear it, advertise it everywhere yet try desperately to control and contain it. No other myth evocatively captures this ambivalence better than that of Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda, and wife of the Spartan leader Menelaus. Her elopement with (or abduction by) the Trojan prince Paris “launched a thousand ships” and started the most famous war in antiquity. For ancient Greek poets and philosophers, the Helen myth provided a means to explore the paradoxical nature of female beauty, which is at once an awe-inspiring, supremely desirable gift from the gods, essential to the perpetuation of a man’s name through reproduction, yet also grants women terrifying power over men, posing a threat inseparable from its allure. Many ancients simply vilified Helen for her role in the Trojan War but there is much more to her story than that: the kidnapping of Helen by the Athenian hero Theseus, her sibling-like relationship with Achilles, the religious cult in which she was worshipped by maidens and newlyweds, and the variant tradition which claims she never went to Troy at all but was whisked away to Egypt and replaced with a phantom. In this book, author Ruby Blondell offers a fresh look at the paradoxes and ambiguities that Helen embodies. Moving from Homer and Hesiod to Sappho, Aeschylus, Euripides, and others, Helen of Troy shows how this powerful myth was continuously reshaped and revisited by the Greeks. By focusing on this key figure from ancient Greece, the book both extends our understanding of that culture and provides a fascinating perspective on our own.
Excerpt: While I was working on this project, interested people would often ask me if Helen “really” existed or what she “really” looked like. I should therefore make it clear from the outset that this book is not about the “real” Helen. Or rather, it is about the real Helen, whom I take to be in her essence unreal. If a skeleton were dug up with Helen’s name on the tomb, this would have no impact on my project. Whether or not the Trojan War was started by a historical person is irrelevant for my purposes, since no such person – even if her name were Helen and she really eloped to Troy with a man named Paris – could be “Helen of Troy.” As the women who was – and is – by definition the most beautiful woman of all time, Helen of Troy could never have existed. She is in her very essence a creature of myth – a concept, not a person. It is that concept, and its meaning for ancient Greek authors, that is my subject.
Review from Publisher’s Weekly: In this scholarly work, Blondell casts the real Helen by the wayside, focusing instead on the ways in which the mythical beauty has been depicted in Greek literature, including the Iliad and the Odyssey, Sappho’s poetry, the tragedy Agamemnon, and Herodotus’s Histories. – Click here to read the full review
Review from Bookslut: Blondell’s stimulating and provocative book demonstrates how Helen is “an ever-refreshing screen for the projection of ideas and ideals about beauty, women, sex and power.” Demonized, idolized, allegorized, or humanized, Helen of Troy remains no woman and every woman. – Click her to read the full review