Ruby Blondell argues dazzlingly in Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation
that Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda, possessor of “the face that launched a thousand ships,” was the greatest bombshell of all time. “No other character in ancient Greek myth,” Blondell writes, “plays such a prominent role in so many disparate kinds of work: epic, lyric poetry, tragedy, historiography, rhetoric, comedy, even philosophy.” The figure of Helen represented a crucial conundrum: “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.” Blondell’s fascinating analysis of the mythic Helen in her many guises delineates the ancient Greek obsession with the dangers of female beauty and the control of female sexuality, showing the extent to which masculinity was predicated on and defined by the myth of the feminine. And Blondell’s study reveals that this preoccupation is, three thousand years on, as strong as ever.
Helen’s troubles began with a beauty contest: Zeus appointed Paris, a prince of Troy, to judge whether Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite was the most beautiful goddess. Aphrodite secretly promised Paris that if he chose her, she would bestow upon him as his bride the universally desired Helen (that she was already married to Menelaus, king of Sparta, was only a minor hindrance). Having confirmed Aphrodite’s aesthetic supremacy, Paris seduced Helen and sailed away with her to Troy.
Incensed at both his guest’s bad behavior and his wife’s “abduction,” Menelaus called upon his brother Agamemnon (married to Helen’s sister Clytemnestra) to help him raise an army to retrieve her. So commenced the decade-long Trojan War.
Blondell quickly dispenses with the reality of Helen: “As the woman who was — and is — by definition the most beautiful woman of all time, Helen of Troy could never have existed.” For the Greeks a woman’s beauty, and by extension her erotic allure, was her essential source of power in a world where she otherwise had little. This sexualized force was perceived as a potentially devastating threat to male reason. As a result women were deemed “beautiful evils,” embodying, Eve-like, the dual source of male desire and his downfall. Helen, the iconic bride, symbolizes the danger to every man of incorporating this “beautiful evil” into his household. “Every bride,” asserts Blondell, “like Helen, is a kind of Trojan Horse.”
In Blondell’s examination of ancient Greek texts from Homer to Sappho, Hesiod to Aeschylus and Euripides, two central questions emerge: Was Helen to blame, and was Helen really worth it? Erotic folly and the folly of war become fatally and eternally linked as these narratives explore the advisability of the war itself — should the Greeks have pursued Helen at such a devastating cost? Should the Trojans have insisted on keeping her, ensuring their own destruction?
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