Helen of Troy by Bettany Hughes

No peroxided rape victim in a thin chiton; no trollop used as an excuse for geopolitical honour killings; in the Hughes version, collaged from excavated fragments and textual analysis, Helen might have been the daughter of the ruling house of Sparta, a late Bronze Age clan territory, part of the Mycenaen alliance of rocktop citadels dominating southern Greece. Mycenae preserved aspects of the once flourishing culture of Minoan Crete. Those that most appeal to Hughes are its female powers: fertility and sex goddesses beside whom thundering Zeus was as yet an upstart, awaiting promotion to omnipotence; priestesses who restricted access to grain, oil and wine stores; aristocratic women who, besides wielding religious authority, commanded the succession. Hughes believes the senior clan daughter inherited temporal power and bestowed the kingship on her husband when she was diplomatically mated at the age of 12.

Hughes's speculations are spectacular. Hers is a Helen of, and for, a material age: a clever princess with gold hair and white skin luminous with sound nutrition and herb-scented unguents, clad in Minoan corselette and gold jewellery that reflected warmth on her complexion. She was mistress of treasures. The era had no coinage, but its inventories list luxuries Mediterranean monarchs presented to each other: the sea lanes were freighted with argosies laden with elephant and hippo ivory, ostrich eggs, metal (worked and in ingot), purple cloth, ceramics and glass. The usufruct of this upmarket mall would have gone to Menelaus, selected as husband by Helen after combat contests among pan-Hellenic contenders. Hughes has exciting subsections making real the wrestling and wedding feast, based on her own adventures among experimental archaeologists. They mixed honey in kraters of retsina - a "delicious and extremely efficacious drink", she writes in one of many sensuous asides that taste and touch and smell the past exactly where it happened.

So far, so uncontentious. The contradictions start once Helen leaves, willingly in Hughes's judgement, for Troy. She establishes that Anatolian port, in an ancient Near Eastern context, as the farthest north and west of the walled brick cities of empires that arced from Asia Minor to dynastic Egypt, and dashes in a vivid sketch of an entrepôt that dealt in horsepower, which it drew on for the chariot warfare suited to its plains. Troy was in the Wilusa region (later known as Ilium), allied to the Hittite empire, and its overlords were lion-pelt draped masters of the universe, with Paris a medallion man. There were over-ladies, too, retrieved by Hughes from 13th-century BC Hittite inscriptions, notably Queen Puduhepa, who postponed her daughter's marriage to Pharaoh Rameses II after a treasure house conflagration. He demanded the dowry. Pudehepa sent him a crisp tablet asking: "Does my brother possess nothing at all? ... you seek to enrich yourself at my expense." A fine vignette of female authority among the Hittites, who ranked the goddess Ishtar supreme, but it doesn't square with Homer's Helen at her loom in a back room of the Trojan court for the war's duration. (Unless textile scholars are right that women's skilled cloth manufacture was a major foundation of Bronze Age wealth.)

Hughes is convinced that Homer's every epithet is significant: that the Iliad is the written record, circa 700BC, of five centuries of collective memories of a tremendous age, when the acts of individual humans had direct consequences on a world rocking with tectonic and volcanic catastrophe. In which case, Homer's Helen - a trophy wife who deflects Menelaus's avenging sword with a bared breast - seems pallid. If we take his word on Helen as the possessor of treasure, then surely it matters that the Iliad doesn't celebrate her as, say, priestess and diplomatic negotiator?

Hughes pleads, extremely well, that Helen's "beauty" implies awesome charisma and kudos, but we're still left with a woman whose purpose is to be important for being, rather than doing, which isn't true of Cassandra the pessimist, or Penelope, reliable CEO of the kingdom of Ithaca for absentee Odysseus. Never mind: Hughes's golden girl, sandals slapping through Mycenaen wine-cellars, is a stronger construct than any Helen I've met before. Except in Euripides, of course.

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