Meet Helen of Troy: bald-headed, bare-breasted and bloodthirsty

The face that launched 1,000 ships was no such thing, claims a new book. By Jonathan Thompson

But, more than 3,000 years after events described in The Iliad, Helen is to undergo a dramatic historical reappraisal. According to a controversial new book, she was more likely to have been a shaven-headed, bare-breasted warrior princess whose appetite for sex was matched only by her insatiable bloodlust.

The book, the first detailed biography produced on Helen, seeks to identify the real woman behind the myth. And the face that emerges bears little resemblance to the one fondly imagined by generations of artists and poets launching those thousand ships.

The author, the historian Bettany Hughes, claims that the real Helen was a powerful Bronze Age princess, living in the Greek city-state of Sparta around 1250BC. Basing her argument on extensive archaeological research, as well as surviving friezes from the period, Hughes conjures a picture of Helen as a dominant woman who would have worn a handful of snake-like strands of hair over an otherwise shaven, and perhaps brightly dyed, head. Her breasts would almost certainly have been exposed to reinforce her power and sexuality, and she would have been a fit, trained fighter.

"If you think of Helen, you imagine this beautiful, dewy-eyed blonde princess from pre-Raphaelite paintings, but that couldn't be further from the truth," said Hughes, who will also present a Channel 4 documentary on the Greek heroine later this month. "The real picture is much darker and gutsier - the complete opposite of the recent Troy movie."

Her claims, published in Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore, come as excavations at Sparta have sparked speculation that Helen's long-lost palace may be about to emerge from the hillside. Bronze Age remains there, long thought to have been part of a modest house, have been identified by the British team in charge of the digs as merely the storage areas of a much larger palace complex. A nearby temple - called the Menelaion - has been matched to early Greek sources which refer to it as "Helen's Shrine".

In the new book, published this week, Hughes picks apart hundreds of references to Helen - from Homer through Shakespeare and Marlowe to Hollywood - and sets them against the context of Bronze Age Mycenaean Greece.

The book - Hughes's first - is likely to renew debate in the historical community, where opinion remains divided over whether a "real" Helen existed.

Ken Wardle of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity at Birmingham University and one of the world's leading experts on the period, voiced support for Hughes's work.

"Bettany is the first person to push Helen as a major Bronze Age figure, rather than as a shadowy myth, and to a large extent she's succeeded," said Dr Wardle. "Why should we think all the people Homer mentions were fictitious?

"I see every reason to believe that the Helen of legend, like Agamemnon or Menelaus, may have been a real character with a real background whose actions have been modified, embellished and distorted over the centuries."

Hughes makes her claims against a background of archaeological discoveries in the region relating to this period. As well as the dig at Sparta, other major finds have been made on Crete and across mainland Greece.

Lesley Fitton, curator of Greek and Bronze Age antiquities at the British Museum, said: "It's hard to keep pace with excavations in the Aegean at the moment. A couple of palaces have come up during recent years in Crete alone. It's a vibrant field of archaeology, and it gives a context and a series of possibilities for Helen."