Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 3


Helen of Troy

Bettany Hughes
Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore
Jonathan Cape, London 2005, p. p458, £20

THIS book is by an accomplished historian who has become well known for her presentations of historical subjects on television, of which this is the most recent. Serious students of history should not be disappointed: Bettany Hughes tries to get behind the extraordinary accretion of myth and legend to the no doubt equally extraordinary person called Helen. Such a project requires an appreciation of the position of women not only in Mycenaean Greece, but also in the preceding Minoan and contemporary Hittite civilisations.

In this connexion the following passage on Minoan Crete is of great interest:

One persuasive interpretation of the female imagery on Bronze Age seal-stones and pots and figurines is that women were responsible for nature’s good health – for the germination of the seed and the ripening of the corn. A society that has moved from hunting and gathering to farming finds that nature, in its newly domesticated and artificial form, depends on the farmer as much as he does on it. So when nature becomes an agro-business, nature’s CEOs, women, need to be kept on side. Grain supplies are stored in the palace-complexes of Knossos on Crete or Pylos on the Greek mainland and were perhaps guarded by priestesses, the klawiphoroi, the ‘keepers of the keys’.

Knossos has been identified as the mother of all grain stores. Many hundreds of pithoi [large jars] were found lining its labyrinthine storerooms. Someone must have walked through those pregnant, malty chambers organising what went where, deciding how the wheat and barley and olives should be stored, saying what proportion was due to be offered back to the gods, marshalling the rations of a civilisation. The Grandstand and Temple frescoes from Knossos imply that women were present in the palace in huge numbers. This painted female host surely escapes its earlier identification as a chorus of dancing girls or a harem of silent, dutiful wives. The attractive woman from the Campstool Fresco, christened ‘La Parisienne’ by Evans’ team of excavators because she seemed the height of coiffeured urbanity, was almost certainly not there to be decorative. It is as likely that such women received the harvest, blessed it and then controlled its use and redistribution.

That would have been a powerful position to be in. Consider how fragile food production was in the Bronze Age. The panic caused by the prospect of seven years of famine in Egypt is well documented, but it has been calculated that it would take just two years of bad harvests to clear out the warren of food storage rooms in Knossos – the same or even less at the palaces of Mycenae. (pp. 325–26)

Bettany Hughes also gives a number of examples of Hittite women in powerful positions. The most dramatic example is that of Queen Puduhepa, whose correspondence with the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II has been preserved. Rameses was in negotiation with the Hittite court about one of their royal daughters he was anxious to marry, but a treasure-house fire at the Hittite capital was making it a bit difficult to complete the arrangements. Even so, Rameses seems to have pressed the matter, and Queen Puduhepa suspected that the Pharaoh was rather over-anxious to acquire her daughter’s dowry along with her person. She proceeded to administer the following diplomatic reproof: ‘Does my brother possess nothing at all? Only if the son of the Sun-God, the son of the Storm-God, and the sea have nothing do you have nothing! Yet, my brother, you seek to enrich yourself at my expense. That is worthy neither of your reputation nor of your status.’ (quoted p. 189) Another example is the priestess Kuvatalla, recipient of rich gifts from the Hittite royal court (pp. 326–27).

The Mycenaean Greeks inherited many cultural traits from their Minoan predecessors (Crete was under Mycenaean rule from about 1450 onwards, but Mycenaean civilisation collapsed around 1150). The role of aristocratic women in the Mycenaean centres was clearly comparable with that found in the Minoan period (see pp. 101–02). On the basis of all this, Bettany Hughes concludes, plausibly, that Helen was not only queen of Sparta but a priestess as well:

In chronologically parallel societies (the Hittites, the Egyptians, the Babylonians) the highest-born women have central religious roles – they are the chief representatives of the gods. There is every reason to believe that a Mycenaean queen – a Bronze Age Helen – would also have been a high priestess, a religious as well as a temporal potentate. Although Homer’s Helen is half-mortal, half-divine, it is as a woman, as a Spartan queen, that she speaks confidently to the gods and goddesses in the epic; she addresses her altera ego Aphrodite as an equal. (p. 102)

Bettany Hughes is almost certainly not a Marxist, otherwise she would surely have pursued the question of how high-born Bronze Age women lost their pre-eminent position in the succeeding centuries. Classical scholars who are Marxists will have to address this. (Suggestion: the process is probably linked with the rise of Zeus to a dominant role in the Greek pantheon.) As it is, she contents herself with some well-aimed swipes at the prevalent attitude of Fifth-Century Athenian males towards their womenfolk, as exemplified by the speech that the historian Thucydides puts into the mouth of the Athenian statesman Perikles, where he says ‘the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticising you’ (quoted pp. 264–65). (Perikles’ stance here is a curious one, since, despite the above utterance, which appears authentic, he vigorously defended his mistress Aspasia when his political opponents tried to use her as a stick to beat him with – a clear case of wishing to have your cake and eat it too.) It is noteworthy that Bettany Hughes studiously avoids any reference to the remainder of this famous apologia for Athenian democracy.

But all this is something of a side-issue. More to the point is the light that the book Helen of Troy sheds on Homer, especially on the Iliad. Homer probably lived and composed his two great masterpieces around 850 BCE, but the Trojan War, if it took place (which seems very likely) occurred at some stage between 1275 and 1180 BCE. As Bettany Hughes rightly states:

Homer’s tale of the Trojan Wars, of the final flourish of the Bronze Age, describes the end of an era. For Homer’s audience, this story about Helen had to do two things. It had to explain the influence of a woman to an audience who, living in a man’s world, knew that this power had been eclipsed. And – even subconsciously – it needed to describe a moment in time of displacement and flux. (p. 102)

Besides setting Homer properly in context, Bettany Hughes gives several instances where archaeology has confirmed the accuracy of Homer’s lines. Enlightened classical scholars, of course, have long realised that Homer is, on the whole, more reliable historically than otherwise. This reliability is, indeed, an index of the great poet’s artistic success: his work was so prized that it rapidly acquired high ideological standing in the Greek world. In short, the Iliad and the Odyssey are examples of what Gilbert Murray has described as a ‘traditional book’. As Murray explains:

The book which contained the whole Logos of the wise man was apt to be long-lived. It became an heirloom [the original rhapsodes, the reciters of the Homeric poems, lived on the island of Chios and were known as the Homeridai, the ‘sons of Homer’ – see N.G.L. Hammond, A History of Greece to 322BC, Clarendon Press, 1959, p. 88]; and with each successive owner, with each successive great event in the history of the tribe or the community, the book was changed, expanded and expurgated. For the most jealously guarded book had, of course, its relation to the public. It was not meant to be read; it was meant to recite from … It was the source of stories and lays which must needs be interesting; of oracles and charms and moral injunctions which must not seem ridiculous or immoral; of statements in history and geography which had better not be demonstrably false. (The Rise of the Greek Epic, Oxford University Press, 1934, pp. 99–100, my emphasis)

A beautiful example of Homer’s accuracy is given by Bettany Hughes in connexion with the Catalogue of Ships that records the various contingents of Greek troops who fought at Troy:

In 1993, the discovery of a single Linear B tablet in Thebes threw an entirely new light on the Catalogue question. The tablet was uncovered by accident, when a water pipe was being laid in Pelopidas Street in central Thebes. The waterworks were suspended and an archaeological investigation begun. The dig has been productive and, to date, over 250 tablets have surfaced. These tablets show that Thebes was in fact the centre of a massive territory, a territory larger than Pylos or Sparta or Mycenae itself. If the Theban district was a vitally powerful region in the Late Bronze Age, it suddenly makes sense that a consolidated movement of Greeks should set sail from Thebes’ port – the port of Aulis.

The new Theban tablets list a town, Eleon, which had always given archaeologists and historians some trouble – it is mentioned in the Catalogue of Ships, part of the naval contingent from Boiotia. Yet Eleon seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth. As a northern Greek settlement it is not mentioned in any other source from antiquity. And so, scholars argued, this town must simply have been a figment of Homer’s imagination.

The Thebes tablets dating from the thirteenth century BC tell a different story. Eleon appears on tablet TH Ft 140. Homer’s lines, in this case (as in many others), are transmitting information direct from the Bronze Age past. (p. 197)

Bettany Hughes wisely refrains from pronouncing upon all the various historical questions raised by Homer’s story, but she does give full references in the text and in the bibliography, so that readers may extend their knowledge of the Minoans, the Hittites, the Mycenaeans, and of much else besides. Hopefully this book will also encourage those unfamiliar with the Iliad and the Odyssey to read them. Alas, full appreciation of the quality of these poems demands a knowledge of Homeric Greek, as even the best translation cannot convey the sound-music of the original. If you do choose to embark on the task of reading the epics in their original language you will find it well worth the effort: in any case, you will be following in the footsteps of that ancient Greek hero Odysseus – ‘pollōn d’anthrōpōn iden astea kai nōon egnō’, ‘He knew the cities and the mind of many peoples.’

Chris Gray

Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011