Helen of Troy (2005)


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Documentary Description

Acclaimed presenter of historic documentaries, Bettany Hughes, embarks on a journey across the eastern Mediterranean to discover the truth about HELEN OF TROY, the woman blamed for causing the Trojan War. Following weapons experts, the two-hour film shows how the conflict in Helen's name would have been fought, unraveling the reality from the myths and putting flesh on "the face that launched a thousand ships."  Learn the reality from the myths told about Helen as we travel from the city where it is said Helen was born to the archaeological site in modern Turkey that will be forever linked with the war fought in Helen's name: Troy.

Source: PBS

Review from Publishers Weekly:

Helen of Troy has been a part of the Western cultural consciousness for thousands of years, an often troubling figure of female sexual power. Now British historian Hughes investigates the history and myth of Helen, using a mix of archeological evidence, literary sources and personal observation to flesh out this archetypal creature. Acknowledging that Helen has long served as a lens through which male thinkers have projected their views of women, Hughes traces the uses to which the ancient princess has been put, from the prehistoric Mycenaean world, in which she would have been admired for her beauty and strength, through the Elizabethan age, when she was reviled as a demonic harlot. Although the resulting book could use a generous dollop of editing, and there are too many instances in which the author has to step back and state that "there is no way to know for sure" whether the narrative she builds is accurate or not, the resultant tale is fascinating and illuminating. The elucidation of prehistoric social, political and religious systems is especially interesting and serves as a needed corrective to Christian-influenced constructions of Helen and, through her, all women. (A PBS documentary on Helen of Troy featuring Hughes will air on October 12.) 32 pages of illus., 616 in color. 60,000 first printing.(Oct. 4)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review from Booklist:

Historian Hughes provides an intriguing series of what-ifs as she attempts to flesh out the life of one of the most celebrated women in the annals of Western civilization. The catch? She may or may not have actually existed. What is of seminal importance, however, is the influence the legend of Helen of Troy has had on history, music, literature, and the sociology of male-female relationships. Serving as a "paradigm for the female sex" through the ages, Helen's often contradictory legacy has been enormous. Interweaving history, archaeology, and mythology, Hughes manages to illuminate the tremendous effect this classical character has wielded upon society, art, religion, politics, and culture across time. Following Homer's lead and other significant historical and literary clues, Hughes chronicles Helen's multifaceted odyssey across Bronze Age Greece and through the ensuing centuries in fascinating detail. Margaret Flanagan

Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Helen of Troy

by Bettany Hughes

If you Google Helen of Troy, you are rapidly directed to an awful lot of hairdryers and hot rollers. Helen of Troy or, more accurately here, Helen of El Paso, Texas, is a self-styled 'leader in the personal care products industry, yielding professional results from soft body to springy curls'.

This seems entirely appropriate. Looking glasses found near Sparta often feature images of Helen at the base, as if women thought that by gazing into them, they might somehow leach some of her beauty into themselves. In the centuries since Helen's story was first told, each age has sought to express itself in her reflected image. Twelfth-century theologians inveighed against her (apparently very bad) sin of being on top during sex; Madame de Pompadour is said to have drunk champagne from goblets in the shape of her breasts.

Helen's image has endured in the imagination of human beings because she is sex incarnate. And, like sex, she has aroused every emotion, from ecstasy to loathing, often all at the same time.

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.

This has presented a particular problem for our own age. It's one thing for Rossetti, say, to offer up a distinctly pre-Raphaelite, personal vision of ideal beauty in a painting; quite another for Wolfgang Petersen to present us with poor Diane Kruger and expect us to take his Hollywood Troy seriously.

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?', although Elizabeth Taylor opposite Richard Burton in the 1966 Oxford Playhouse production of Marlowe's Dr Faustus, at a time that their relationship was falling apart, was probably pretty impressive.

More recent productions of the play have taken the sensible course of doing away with an actress altogether. John Barton's 1974 staging relied on a marionette in a blonde wig, while in David Lan's 2002 Young Vic production, there was no one there at all, perhaps on the grounds that it would have been unwise for anyone to compete with Jude Law's beautiful Faustus.

Helen works better in poetry than she does visually, and from Homer and Sappho, through Spenser and Yeats to Carol Ann Duffy, poets have been drawn to her world-shattering story.

Helen is a reminder of how subversive and destructive sex can be when you fall in love with the wrong person. And since human beings have an unconquerable habit of doing exactly that, for close on three millenniums, people have been appropriating her for their own purposes.

The first Christian heretics, the gnostics, who, around AD35, advocated free love and sexual excess, had a former prostitute as one of their figureheads who was believed to be a reincarnation of Helen of Troy. A Byzantine sex manual was hawked about with the promise that it had been written by one of Helen's handmaidens. Michelangelo's painting of Leda's rape by Zeus, which resulted in Helen's conception, was donated to the National Gallery in 1838, but had to be hung in the director's office on the grounds that it was too obscene for public viewing. A century or so earlier, gentlemen had carried pocket watches that opened to reveal images of Leda's brush with bestiality and rape.

In one of numerous asides describing her travels in search of Helen, Hughes recalls visiting the Louvre with a list of references and spending a rather alarming afternoon looking at 30 ways to rape a woman. Helen suffered her mother's fate and was raped by Theseus and then, depending on your point of view, also by Paris.

Raped virgin, child bride, adulterous lover, deserting mother, triumphant mistress, satisfied matron, victim, goddess-queen - whatever women can be, Helen of Troy had a go at it. 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 Diane Kruger-style passivity. Her Helen would have been complicit in her fate, a dynamic protagonist, a woman with the power to bestow kingdoms and the will to use it. This book puts Helen of Troy at the centre of a world in which, as Bettany Hughes convincingly explains, the primordial power was female.

Source: Guardian


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