- Helen of Troy Goddess, Princess, Whore
Jonathan Cape Ltd., London, 2005.
First edition: octavo; hardcover, with gilt spine titling and illustrated endpapers; 458pp, with maps and black and white illustrations and 32pp. of monochrome and full-colour plates. Minor wear. Very good to near fine in like dustwrapper. "Bettany Hughes's book is partly an overview of the many attempts for 28 centuries to pin down Helen's ambiguous character. But the author's real interest is in locating Helen as a historical figure of the late Bronze Age, in describing what life would have been like for a Mycenaean princess of the time, growing up in Sparta and travelling to Troy. Believing that a real woman is the basis for the archetypes, hoping even that one day a body might be found, Hughes visits the places a real Helen would have visited, examines the corroborating evidence and does her best to peel back the layers of worship and storytelling. At the end, we aren't much closer than we were at the beginning to a human Helen, although much more knowledgeable about many Mycenaean rites and the various later re-imaginings of Helen as goddess and strumpet, fertility symbol and destroyer. And that's appropriate, too, because the great irony of Helen of Troy is that she is faceless. There are no contemporary images. Her face may have launched a thousand ships, although, as Hughes points out, it couldn't have been that many or Mycenaean civilisation would have collapsed, but we haven't got the faintest idea what she looked like....Helen, as Hughes makes plain, was born in a time before good and evil were conceived as distinct, oppositional entities. The first people to tell her story wouldn't have seen her as embodying contradictions and wouldn't have been unduly troubled by her half-goddess, half-human, conceived-by-a-swan, born-from-an-egg background. But already by the time that Homer made her the heroine of the first great work of Western literature four centuries later, her extraordinary female power had to be explained for a world that had relegated women to virtual invisibility. Once all the other versions of her story are added, and the attempts to appropriate her by later ways of looking at the world, it is easy to see that Helen is irresistible largely because she is so recondite. Any physical Helen can only disappoint. It is difficult to find a living, breathing woman whose face can do justice to the awe in Marlowe's perfect pentameters: 'Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships/ And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?' ...She defies biography, because she is too many things to too many people. But what Hughes has done, very powerfully, is to explain why she has remained in history when most women have been written out. She splendidly reclaims Helen from centuries of helpless victimhood and .. puts Helen of Troy at the centre of a world in which, as Bettany Hughes convincingly explains, the primordial power was female." - Geradine Bedell.
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