“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.
I love this painting above by Gustave Moreau of “Helen Glorified.” I have immersed myself in the mythology and representation of the ancient Greek heroine Helen. I have chosen Helen as one of my heroines to study and consider and to soon embody in performative photographs (as I have recently embodied Eve and Salome). I am leaving in a week for Portugal to start my performance and work with Luis Branco on the Greek heroines Aphrodite, Helen and Sappho. Helen has been portrayed as “the most beautiful woman in the world” from ancient Greek times in countless poems, plays, paintings and artworks throughout history to contemporary times. Helen has also been presented as an original femme fatale— a seductress and enchantress and the main cause of the Trojan war. I am especially fascinated by her portrayal as an eidolon; a phantom, a ghost, a replicant of Helen sent to Troy with Paris while the “real” Helen was sent to Egypt. I am interested in how this figure / character of Helen has shaped ideas of beauty, sexuality, power and of womanhood in Western European culture. Here I will discuss and post some of the images, text, mythology and critique of Helen that interest me as I try to decipher how the mythos of Helen has helped to shape historical and contemporary notions of female agency or lack thereof.
I introduce a quote from Ruby Blondell, a contemporary classics scholar, on the idea of female power in ancient Greek culture as it relates to Helen:
“Female power poses notorious problems for ancient Greek culture. Because Greek ideology and cultural practice both place severe restrictions on female agency, it is difficult for women to exercise power without transgressing the norms constituted to regulate their behaviour. Since the control of female sexuality lies at the heart of these norms, sex—more specifically, the active female pursuit of an object of desire — is typically implicated in women’s transgressions and hence in the danger posed by the female as such. Insofar as female danger is wrapped up with sexual transgression, then, so is female power. And insofar as sex is bound,up with beauty, Helen of Troy — by definition the most beautiful woman of all time — is, also the most dangerous of women. Her godlike beauty grants her supreme erotic power over men, a power that resulted in what was, in Greek eyes, the most devastating war of all time.”
Ruby Blondell “‘Third Cheerleader from the left’: from Homer’s Helen to Helen of Troy”
Mythos and legend (and violence and lust) surround Helen a plenty. She is said to have been born a daughter of the king of the gods, Zeus. Her mother was generally considered to have been queen Leda, the mortal wife of the king of Sparta, Tyndareus. Zeus took the form of a giant swan and in some stories befriended and seduced Leda, in other stories raped Leda. Leda bore a giant egg from which Helen came forth. In other versions the goddess of divine retribution Nemesis, in bird form, is named as Helen’s mother still with Zeus the father and the egg was then given to Leda to hatch. There are several other important children born of this mythical egg. I prefer the story of Zeus taking the form of a swan (a symbol in ancient Greece of; light, transformation, intuition and grace) and then seducing the Spartan queen Leda. Alternately, in Greek literature and myth, the gods are always having their way with mortal women. In any case there is a beautiful bird, a god and a goddess, a queen, a possible rape or seduction and a giant egg involved in the conception of Helen.
The gods and goddesses (and Aphrodite and Helen specifically) are also involved in one of the presumed reasons for the Trojan war. In the story of the “Judgement of Paris” the handsome prince of Troy, Paris, is asked to judge / choose the most beautiful of the three goddesses: Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. All three goddesses offered Paris various bribes—Aphrodite offered Paris “the most beautiful woman in the world” Helen of Sparta. Paris gives the beauty prize (a golden apple) to Aphrodite and ultimately Paris goes off to find Helen. This story is memorialized in the painting below by Peter Paul Rubens. There are many repercussions from this original beauty contest . . .
What happens next has been told in many different versions in ancient Greece texts and throughout the millennia. The famed Trojan war, if it ever really happened, would have taken place around the 12th century BC. The ancient Greek poet Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey sometime around the 8th century BC. Homer writes of Helen in both the Iliad and the Odyssey in one of her earliest portrayals, though much was already known about Helen in Greece at that time. The Iliad takes place during the 10th and final year of the Trojan War and Homer places Helen there. It is not clear how Helen came to Troy; did Helen fall in love with the handsome Paris and leave her husband and country for her lover? or did Paris abduct and or rape Helen and take her to Troy? This is never made clear—is she a treacherous slut or a hapless victim? I vote the treacherous slut, at least she has some power and choice in the situation.
And what did Helen really look like?
And did she go happily or was she abducted /raped?
In this story of love and seduction and/ or rape and abduction Helen is taken to Troy and suffers through the epic 10 year-long Trojan War (hated by most everyone). Paris is killed and many many others die and ultimately the forces of Menelaus (Agamemnon, Odysseus et all) deal a final blow to Troy with the Trojan horse ploy. Helen survives the war. Menelaus enters into the burning remains of Troy to kill her but is so struck by her beauty (and apparently her breasts) that he drops his sword and takes her back to Sparta. In Homer’s Odyssey Helen is back as the queen of Sparta and she and Menelaus seem to be ok.
The ancient Greek author Euripides in his play Helen (and several other ancient and modern authors) tell an alternate version of Helen’s locus and behavior during the Trojan War. Euripides tells the story that the goddess Hera was upset by the “Judgement of Paris” (when Paris declared Aphrodite the most beautiful). Hera created an eidolon, a phantom, a replicant of Helen and had the messenger god Hermes whisk the “real” Helen off to Egypt. The Helen who escaped with Paris, betraying her husband and her country and initiating the ten-year conflict in Troy, was actually an eidolon, a ghost, a look-alike. In Euripides play, the “real” Helen stays seventeen long years in Egypt remaining loyal to her husband Menelaus. The “real” Helen remains virtuous and true. The phantom Helen, the eidolon, the virtual Helen (who by the way breathes and has sex) is the treacherous slut who runs off with Paris to Troy and suffers the 10 year Trojan war. I love this idea of the double Helen, it speaks to the concept that Helen is really a construction, an idea (created by men). The idea of Helen exemplifies these constrasting values placed on women of virtue and fidelity versus sexual proclivity and treachery. Many of Gustave’s Moreaus’s paintings allude to this eidolon of Helen at Troy.
And lastly, I look to contemporary conceptual artist Eleanor Antin and her project “Helen’s Odyssey.” Eleanor Antin is a feminist fairy godmother artist for me and I admire her work tremendously, she is 87 years old now and still going strong. In her 2007 major project “Helen’s Odyssey,” Antin constructed elaborate photo tableu’s depicting various scene’s from Helen’s mythological life. Antin depicts two Helens also; one a blonde kind of ditsy fun loving Helen and the other a dark and more demonic Helen. The image I love most of all in this series is the image titled “Constructing Helen,” where various tiny male artists (poets, sculptors, painters, writers) construct a giant sculpture of Helen laying prone in all her glorious beauty. Of course, this alludes to the eidolon of Helen, the mirage of Helen, the idea of Helen, the art of Helen and her construction as a giant male fantasy.
And I am off to Portugal March 21st to create my version, my embodiment of Helen.