Émile Zola’s gripping novel Nana (1880) evokes the rise, fall, and early death of a sexy blonde teenager, a celebrity actress and prostitute, who takes all of Paris by storm. She destroys every man who crosses her path before herself dying a dismal death of smallpox, portending the fall of the Second Empire. The novel is part of Zola’s series on urban industrialization and its threat to traditional family life. Nana, although theoretically human, is a destructive and powerful machine, the engine of the new civilization as well as the motor of Zola’s novelistic plot. Her sexual allure, figured as an irresistible scent, is in the end transformed into, or revealed as, the seeping putrefaction of the charnel house.
This is one of the most powerful modern versions of a far more widespread misogynistic trope. Heterosexual male desire for an exceptionally attractive woman tends to be projected onto the woman herself, who is then presented as particularly lustful. Since male desire can be experienced as mysterious, bewildering, and overwhelming, the woman herself must be destructive and deceptive, perhaps possessed of magical witch-like powers.
In ancient Greek mythology, one of the female characters who fits this general model is Pandora, the female sent by Zeus to punish humans for Prometheus’s theft of fire and to end the Golden Age, when she opens the jar of death, pain, and other evils upon the world. This is a relatively straightforward presentation of the beautiful woman as a mechanism for disaster—a mere instrument of divine vengeance. But Hesiod adds that Pandora herself had agency, “strength,” a “mind,” and a “voice,” allowing her to “devise” evils for humanity, when she made the fateful choice to open the jar—an action that, as Ruby Blondell rightly notes, has obvious sexual overtones. The problem with Pandora, as with all beautiful women in a patriarchal society, is that she is “more than a statue. And there’s the rub.” The urge to objectify a desirable woman is undermined by the acknowledgment that she might be human; at the same time, her capacity for agency and choice only reinforces her desirability (and makes her seem all the more dangerous).
Ruby Blondell’s insightful study of ancient Greek representations of Helen of Troy notes the close connections between her subject and the Pandora myth. Both, she argues, spring from cultural anxieties about female beauty and female sexuality, centered on the figure of the parthenos—the girl at marriageable age, a liminal figure who must cross from the world of childhood in her father’s house to the house of her husband. “She must be sufficiently reluctant to suggest that she will not stray once she is married, but she must also actively desire her new husband”—a balance that constantly threatens to tip over. Helen, the most famous adulterous wife in the Western tradition, is figured as a woman who is constantly in this liminal state, and who repeatedly crosses over from one household to another: “many-manned Helen,” as Aeschylus calls her. She was (and is) the locus for exploring the questions of whether beautiful women are always necessarily bad, and whether female sexual desire is always a force of destruction. She is also—unlike modern versions of the promiscuous or adulterous woman—always presented as at least semi-divine, the ever-young, ever-beautiful daughter of Zeus, worshipped at cult centers all over Greece, especially in her native Sparta. Modern versions of misogyny usually do not account for the possibility that “bad” women might also be goddesses.
The best-seller about Helen of Troy by the television presenter Bettany Hughes, from 2007, bizarrely claimed to tell, and to celebrate, “Helen as a real character from history,” while acknowledging that her existence is only “a possibility”—as if the biography of a mythical character from three thousand years ago could possibly be reconstructed. Blondell has almost none of this naïveté: she notes explicitly that her subject is a set of cultural tropes, not a historical person. Helen was a construction of the Greek male imagination, and the myths and literary treatments of Helen can teach us nothing about the lives even of women in classical Greece, let alone women in Sparta in the Bronze Age: she is “a concept, not a person.” But these myths can teach us a great deal about the complex attitudes of ancient Greek men, mostly ancient Athenian men, toward women, female beauty, and male desire.
The story goes that Zeus wanted to reduce the human population, so he arranged for the birth of the two characters who would make the Trojan War inevitable: Achilles and Helen, representing “seductive female beauty and destructive male strength.” They have in common an extraordinary self-awareness and concern for their future reputations in myth and legend. Both were half-human, half-divine, Achilles being the son of the mortal Peleus by the sea-goddess Thetis, and Helen the daughter of Zeus in the form of a swan and of the Spartan queen Leda. Owing to this parentage, she hatched from an egg—the first mark of her unusual, not-quite-human status. Helen is the only female child of Zeus by a mortal woman, an exceptional woman in this as in every other respect. Other versions of the myth suggest that she was the daughter of Nemesis, or “Destruction.”
Helen’s beauty is not subjective. A key premise of the myth is that she is beautiful in some absolute and total way that defies description, and hence can be represented only by entirely conventional means. Helen, like any other beautiful woman in the Greek literary tradition, has lovely cheeks, neat ankles, and pretty accessories. She is equally irresistible to any and every man. As Blondell neatly puts it, “a beauty that is in the eye of the beholder may launch a ship or two, but only a beauty upon which all beholders agree can bind a generation of heroic males under oath and generate an enterprise as cataclysmic as the Trojan War.”
From a young age, Helen was prone to getting abducted. When she was still a young girl the Athenian hero Theseus swiped her, but she was retrieved by her magical brothers, the twins Castor and Pollux. A little later, suitors from all over Greece began to court her, and took an oath that they would all fight together for her eventual husband. Menelaus of Mycenae, whose main claim to fame was his wealth, won Helen as his wife. But some time afterward, a Trojan prince named Paris was appointed to judge between three goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. He chose Aphrodite, goddess of love, because she promised him Helen as a reward—the only problem being that Helen was married already. The abduction of Helen caused the Trojan War.
Helen might thus be seen as a mere puppet, the victim of the gods and of the men who wanted her. But as Blondell insists, “her complicity is essential to her story.” Helen is abducted, but she is never simply passive. She agrees to go with Paris, although different versions of the story suggest different degrees of willingness. Both Paris and Helen are victims of lust, but are still committing an action and incurring moral responsibility for the deaths that result: “such acts are still acts.” The verbs most commonly used for Helen’s journey are all active: she left, she went, she sailed away.
The Greek texts seem constantly to return to the issue of Helen’s responsibility for her actions. If she really did choose to leave her husband, can we forgive her? The poet of the Iliad makes her a sympathetic figure by suggesting that she can never forgive herself: we see her reproaching herself for her actions, and blaming the whole war on herself. She can maintain an identity as a good woman only by insisting on her own evil. In the Odyssey, Helen is shown back home with her husband, Menelaus, in an uneasy restoration of domestic harmony. Yet Blondell nicely shows that there is no clear line between Helen and the other wives of the poem. Penelope, unlike Helen, sticks to one man; but both are good at weaving and telling stories, in a somewhat scary way, and both have a “palpably destructive” beauty, which attracts too many suitors and raises inevitable doubts about whether the woman can be trusted to be true to her husband or her word.
Blondell is particularly good on the ways that the characters surrounding Helen are presented as parallel to her. Menelaus is marked as the “quintessential cuckold,” and is made unmasculine by marrying a woman who is so powerfully feminine that she comes close to achieving masculine kinds of authority. Paris is emasculated in a different way: he is too similar to Helen herself, and his beauty is presented as effeminate and worthy of blame. In tragedy—Aeschylus’s Oresteia being the richest example—Helen is a mirror image of her sister Clytemnestra. Both are too clever by half, and both are explicitly blamed for the destruction of their men, although Helen remains the root of all evil. As Blondell notes, the chorus in Agamemnon implies (absurdly) that Helen’s adultery is far worse than Clytemnestra’s slaughter of her warlord husband: “killing a husband is less heinous than abandoning him.”
Blondell’s study is organized chronologically and takes us through the main literary depictions of Helen: from the Homeric poems, through archaic lyric, to Athenian tragedy, Herodotus, and the rhetorical “Praise of Helen” texts by Gorgias and Isocrates. The story that she tells is not only about gender, beauty, and responsibility, but also about how Greek attitudes toward war and nationhood changed, from the almost entirely negative depictions of Helen during the years of the Trojan War to Isocrates’s comically positive account, written after the fall of Athens and defending Helen as the force who brought all of Greece together, united for a common cause. Each of these writers is conscious of the sound of Helen’s name, which sounds similar to the word for Greece (Hellas), but also to a verb “to destroy”—a homonymity exploited particularly by Aeschylus, who sees Helen as the “ship-destroyer, man-destroyer, city-destroyer”: helenaus, helenadros, heleptolis. Helen the Spartan was a fraught anti-heroine at the time of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens was fighting with Sparta.
Why did the Trojans fight a whole war over this woman? Why did the Greeks bother to risk their lives and wealth for somebody else’s wife? These questions are central to almost every treatment of the myth. The notion that a war could ever be fought just for a woman, however beautiful, was a pointed reminder of how utterly foolish the motivations for warfare tend to be. Herodotus, for example, begins his account of how the wars between east and west, Greece and Persia, first began, with a po-faced but edgy retelling of the myths of Io, Medea, and Helen as a series of abductions that set in motion the conflict that would lead to the great Persian Wars in his own day.
In the time of the Peloponnesian War (against Athens’s great enemy, Sparta), Euripides retold the story of Helen at least twice over, in completely different ways, each pointing to the extraordinary and unjustifiable human suffering caused by war. In The Trojan Women, Helen comes on stage as a mistress of rhetoric, able to defend her own position as victim of men and the gods—although her case is rather undermined by the obvious advantages of her own situation compared with that of the other women (grieving for slaughtered loved ones, reduced to slavery, with only exile to look forward to). The Helen story is transformed again in Helen, which dramatizes the idea (perhaps invented by Stesichorus) that Helen never actually went to Troy in the first place. An image (or eidolon) of her was molded by Hera, and she spent the ten years of the war quite chastely in Egypt, waiting for her beloved husband to come and take her home. But as Blondell well observes, the play actually undermines the contrast on which it relies, between the “fake” Helen and the real one. These two beautiful images turn out to be indistinguishable, such that this “fantasy of female perfection turns out to be, in essence, an illusion.”
It is rare for Greek authors to defend Helen’s adultery rather than simply denying that it took place. But Gorgias, the brilliant, stylistically mannered rhetorician of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, does just that in his Encomium of Helen, presenting our heroine as the victim of either deceit or her own weak will: by his argument, nobody is ever really responsible for their own actions. The problem with Helen was not that she was an adulterous woman, but simply that she was human. The piece is clearly designed to shock and entertain an audience ready for new ideas about ethics and human action. A somewhat more serious defense of Helen was composed by Isocrates in the fourth century, once Athens was no longer the dominant power in the region. Isocrates used Helen in a call for Greek unification against barbarian forces. Helen was the “MacGuffin” who mobilized all Greek men into action, praiseworthy as an emblem of Greece itself: Helen is Hellas. This approach to the myth finally does strip Helen of all agency, since she is important not as a person, or even as an erotic object, but only as a prompt for homosocial bonding.
There are hardly any stories about the death of Helen. She is usually imagined as free from the constraints of time, always fixed at the age of a newlywed bride, always beautiful, always ready to be touched again for the very first time. It is possible that the myths became attached to a figure who was originally a prehistoric fertility goddess. She is supposed to have had just one child, a daughter named Hermione, who was herself unable to bear children: infecundity, as Blondell notes, is another mark of Helen’s resistance to time. She was worshipped at Sparta in a shrine that featured the egg from which she hatched and also the sandal that she lost during her elopement: Helen is not only the ancient equivalent of the nineteenth-century “fallen woman,” but also—more surprisingly—that of Cinderella, the irresistibly pretty young girl for whom it is always midnight as she dashes, half-shod, from one prince to the next.
Blondell has written a rich and penetrating study of the Helen myth in the Greek world. She has disappointingly little to say about the reception of Helen after the fourth century BCE—an epilogue of a mere three pages covers the interval between then and now, so that even Rome gets amazingly short shrift. Her epigraphs to each chapter come from modern British and American culture, mostly quotations from rock music and movies, and imply the resonance of the Helen myth with the depiction of obsessively destructive love in contemporary western music; but Blondell says nothing outright about the possibility of connection. She rightly notes that for much of the twentieth century, other “transgressive” classical heroines have attracted more attention: the androcidal Clytemnestra and the pedicidal Medea had much more obvious appeal in a world where more and more women were trying to reduce their dependence on husband and children (ideally without killing them, but not necessarily).
Helen of Troy is a great achievement, because it performs a brilliant critique of a set of patriarchal conventions from antiquity that have by no means disappeared from our own culture. If it is true that the Helen myth has a particular resonance in contemporary America, it is presumably because we as a culture are still grappling with the questions raised by the myth: whether beautiful women are always “bad,” and whether they really count as people. Another reason is that the story of Helen is about desire as something deeply mysterious (despite a proliferation of objectifying eidola), and about how easy it can be for a group of men to decide to go to war on an insufficient or irrelevant pretext.
Emily Wilson is associate professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author, most recently, of The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint (Harvard).