Helen of Troy: Goddess, princess, whore, by Bettany Hughes

The face that launched 1,000 myths
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The Independent Culture

If there was a single Trojan war, rather than a series of fires, earthquakes and other calamities that destroyed the Bronze Age city, it certainly did not involve 1,000 ships. Nor is there much evidence for the actual existence of some of the best-known players in the drama, including the Trojan King Priam's second son, Paris, whose seduction, abduction or rape of the Spartan queen, Helen, was supposedly the cause of the conflict.

This does not necessarily matter, for the idea of Helen has inspired so many writers and artists that there is a superabundance of material for an author to get her teeth into. Apart from the most obvious source, Homer, Helen has attracted the attention of everyone from Athenian dramatists (Euripides' Helen, and a lost play by Sophocles entitled Helenes Apaitesis or The Request for Helen) to Rupert Brooke, whose anti-heroic poem "Menelaus and Helen" imagines the abducted queen back in the arms of her rightful husband, Menelaus, and the couple growing old miserably together in his palace at Mycenae.

Such a weight of mythological misery has been heaped on Helen's shoulders that it is a relief to encounter anything that portrays her in an ironic light. Perhaps the most beguiling theory comes from the poet Stesichorus, writing in Sicily in the 6th century BC, who suggests that she very sensibly sent a body-double to Troy and sat the entire conflict out in Egypt. Then there is Lord Dunsany's 1938 fantasy which places Helen in Hell, where a disapproving chorus interrogates her and demands sarcastically "were you pleased?" Helen responds by listing all the woes attributed to her, from the fall of Troy and the death of Priam's sons to the greatest conflict ever waged. "Pleased?" she repeats. "I should say I was!"

Dunsany's joke is quoted in Bettany Hughes's sprawling and meticulously-researched book about Helen, whose text and notes demonstrate her intimate knowledge of her subject. Hughes travelled extensively while doing research and the book is full of anecdotes, accounts of arriving in museums early in the morning, before the public, or taking boat journeys that follow Bronze Age trading routes. These alone would be sufficient reminder that Hughes is, as her publisher immodestly informs us, "widely acknowledged as the best of the new generation of TV historians", but the evidence is also there in her prose.

This is a book whose undoubted scholarship sits uneasily with the short, verbless sentences that are standard fare in TV voiceovers, not to mention bursts of romantic speculation that would drive less self-indulgent scholars mad. Discussing a 14th-century BC Bronze Age burial in Crete, Hughes records the discovery of a female skeleton with a mirror pressed close to her face. "Would Helen have been left alone with a metal mirror in the cold earth, to stare for eternity at her own lovely face?" she asks.

Leave aside the fact that the tomb is two centuries older than the widely-accepted date for the Trojan war, and in Crete rather than Mycenae. The bigger problem it identifies is Hughes's central assertion that Helen, whose magical birth from an egg is central to her myth, was a real woman. I'm not sure whether this is the consequence of a misplaced notion that Helen needs to be real to justify a volume of this length or another attack of rather girly romanticism.

Either way, there is something hurried and unconvincing about Hughes's attempt to demolish the argument that Helen is a mythical figure. "Surely it is more likely," she wheedles, "that Helen was one of those real flesh-and-blood people who simply seem extraordinary".

Imagine a Bronze Age world, she coaxes the reader, in which "the greatest and most powerful mystery of all - the generation of life - clearly, visibly belongs in the domain of women," who are treated with "huge, actual, day-by-day respect". It's a lovely idea, darling, but to this sceptical reader at least it seems as mythopoeic as Helen herself.

Joan Smith's 'Moralities' is published by Penguin

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