I’m going to direct that question to myself: why am I still so obsessed with Helen of Troy? I read this book recently that tried to answer that question for me, and I think I have the answer.
The book is Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation by Ruby Blondell. It’s a critical analysis of the ancient Greek myth and literature surrounding the dazzling Helen of Troy, and what she meant for ancient and classical Greek society. The implications are, of course, what she means today.
A while ago I shared this Margaret Atwood poem that imagines Helen of Troy as a countertop dancer, i.e. a stripper. The poem is a reminder that Helen of Troy, and what she represents, are still so incredibly relevant today.
So why is she so relevant? Why am I, like the rest of the world, obsessed with figuring out Helen of Troy?
Because she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, and thus she embodies the problematic nature of female beauty. The ancient Greeks knew that, and countless playwrights, writers, orators, and sophists used her as the embodiment of how they felt, and treated, women in their society. Ruby Blondell’s book sheds so much light on what Helen of Troy represented.
Blondell explores several Greek writers who included the character and “device” of Helen of Troy in their works; most notably Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey (obviously), Sappho’s poetry, The Oresteia, Gorgias’s Encomium of Helen, Euripedes’ Trojan Women and Helen, and Isocrates’ rhetorical speeches. Each writer deals with Helen in a different way, either defending her, making her a victim, making her a villain, or reducing her to something not worthy of living.
Blondell’s exhaustive analyses of each of these works comes to one conclusion: that for men, female beauty is both an asset and a risk. Beauty is essential for a wife, but beauty also makes a wife supremely untrustworthy, because she can always use it as a weapon. She can always use her beauty as a way to emasculate men, and make cuckolds of them. Therefore, Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman who ever lived, is the ultimate example of what the ancient Greeks defined women as: literally a “beautiful evil.”
There’s this eloquent passage from the book’s introduction that adequately sums up why beauty is problematic for men—because they have to control it in order to reduce the risk of emasculation:
“Helen of Troy is the mythical incarnation of an ancient Greek obsession: the control of female sexuality and of women’s sexual power over men. As the most beautiful woman in the world, and the most destructive, she is both the most in need of control and the least controllable.”
I think these themes are still so extremely relevant today, to an alarming degree. We still have these ridiculous notions of female beauty, narrow beauty standards, and we have an image of this “ultimate woman” as if there were any such thing. Despite the strides we’ve taken, Helen of Troy is still here today.
Some men still feel compelled to control women, and control the power of female beauty. Even in such small instances as telling their girlfriends how much makeup they should wear, or not letting their girlfriends wear certain things so they’re not flaunting their beauty and making themselves attractive to other men. There’s still this philosophy of containment, that female beauty has to be controlled and limited so that it can be owned. Obviously, this mode of thinking and acting turns female human beings into objects.
Helen of Troy, as she is described in these works and a million others, could only have been created by men. Nowhere in classic literature is she understood as a thinking, acting individual with agency who is allowed to make mistakes. She is only a device used to promote misogynistic ideals. But she’s also experiencing something of a feminist renaissance, courtesy of works like Margaret Atwood’s, in which her beauty is still extremely problematic, but in which she takes back her story.
Having constructed female beauty as a threat, and imagined an absolute standard of beauty fulfilled by a single woman in whom that threat culminates, Greek men spent considerable energy attempting to analyze, contain, disarm, deny, or appropriate the power accorded to their own creation.
In this world, we can understand Helen’s story much more simply: a woman unhappy in marriage leaves her husband because she has fallen in love/lust with another man. Is it her fault that her husband and his brother killed hundreds of people to take back what they saw as her property?
I think it’s kind of ironic that the blame traditionally lies with Helen, when a modern lens will obviously come to the conclusion that Helen’s husband is to blame for starting a 10-year war to begin with, and for treating her (and her beauty) like a commodity. Thus, in this modern world, Helen has become an example of the negative effects of the patriarchy. And Helen is no longer abused for expressing unbridled sexual passion—for the most part.
Short answer: the reason I find Helen so ridiculously entrancing/interesting is because even in the society she “lived” in (mythologically), she still managed to break free and cause a whole lot of trouble. I guess that’s my third-wave feminist lens talking. ;)
Definitely check out this book if you want to learn more about 1. Greek mythology, 2. gender politics in ancient Greek culture, 3. classic literature, 4. a woman with growing cultural relevance (who never truly became irrelevant). I only read about half of the works discussed, and it’s so easy to just get lost in these pages.