“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 1592
I have been editing the works I accomplished in April with my collaborator Luís Branco in northern Portugal. I had rented a stone house with a waterfall, a swimming pool, and a beautiful garden. My intent was to embody Helen; Beautiful Helen, Helen of Troy, Helen of Sparta—my own interpretation of this mythical woman with a contemporary 66 year-old feminist bent. I had done my research on Helen ahead of time. I had read much of the text and mythos surrounding Helen, and I had looked at how Helen has been “painted” over time.
I began with this question – how would Helen look back on her fabled life and her epic reputation, as an older woman, when all was said and done?
Did she fall in love and lust with the sexy Trojan prince, Paris, and leave her husband King Menelaus to sail off for Troy? This would imply a certain amount of agency on her part, which I am all for. Or did Paris abduct her— initiating a violent journey and her long captivity in Troy?
As either a ravishing seductress or a gorgeous victim, Helen has been blamed for the devastation and destruction of the Trojan War. Euripides, in his play titled Helen, portrays her as both a phantom temptress and a loyal wife. According to him (and others too) the Helen who stayed in Troy during those ten long years of the Trojan War was an eidolon / a ghost. And, while the ghost or the phantom of Helen was in Troy wed to Paris, the “real” Helen was waylaid in Egypt and remained a steadfast wife to Menelaus.
I love this Gustave Moreau image above of Helen at the main gate of Troy. Of all the Helens in all the stories, I relate most to this eidolon Helen, this doppelganger of Helen and these images below were inspired by her and by Moreau’s painting . . .
Then there are the “recovery” stories of Helen (whether she is the real Helen or the ghost of Helen) from the burning ruins of Troy by Menelaus. Euripides describes this reclaiming of Helen in the aftermath of the war in the play titled Andromache. Lord Peleus insults Menelaus thus:
“When you took Troy you failed to put your wife to death, though you had her in your power—on the contrary, when you looked at her breast, you threw away your sword and accepted her kiss, caressing the traitorous bitch, you miserable wretch, born slave to lust.”
The beautiful amphora above displays one of the earliest figurative depictions of Helen of Troy as she is being led back to the ship with Menelaus after the Greeks conquer Troy.
The “recovery” story is reenacted in Dutch painter Johann Tischbein’s painting above. Notice the dropped sword of Menelaus and Helen’s lightly draped and beautiful breasts. Menelaus intended to slay her for her infidelity but was so struck by her beauty (and her boobs) that he took her back to Sparta.
In any case, Helen does survive the Trojan war and, according to Homer in the Iliad, she returns to Sparta to live a harmonious life with Menelaus. I find this story line hard to believe. In another account by Euripides Helen is flown to Olympus by the gods after the war to live out her life as an immortal. This must have been the story line for Gustave Moreau’s Helen Glorified below.
Whether Helen is portrayed as a shameless queen, a brilliant specter or a virtuous wife—she has been constituted and reconstituted as a figment of patriarchal perception throughout millennia. If I were Helen (or her doppelganger) after all these journeys, wars, husbands – I would be exhausted . . . and want to live out the remainder of my life in a quiet fashion alone by the pool in Sparta (or wherever).
The image below is perhaps my favorite of The Helen Series.