You’ve all heard of Helen of Troy -- the face that launched a thousand ships. It’s funny how nobody ever talks about her voice. That’s mainly because she never got to have one. In Homer’s Illiad, which celebrates the carnage of the Trojan War in nauseating detail, Helen (aka the cause of it all) gets the opportunity to speak only five times. Less than a hundred lines in a poem that runs to well over fifteen thousand.
In those hundred lines, Helen wastes most of her words on self-loathing, whining about her fate, or in transparent flattery of the he-man types surrounding her. I suspect Homer wasn’t only putting words in her mouth, he was putting ideology in her head that didn’t square with her actual thoughts on the matter. He was creating fiction, after all.
Since my mission in life is to recount history from the perspective of people (mostly women) whose lives were either omitted or distorted in the official record, here’s what I think a storyteller more in sympathy with Helen’s plight might have said about her life.
Once upon a time there lived a very fortunate little girl named Helen. She was fortunate not only because she had a pretty face but also because she was the heir to a pretty kingdom called Sparta. Perhaps kingdom is the wrong word to use. Queendom might be more accurate since Sparta, like all the neighboring lands, traced kinship through the mother’s line. So even though Helen had big hulking twin brothers named Castor and Pollux, when it came time to decide who should rule the land, there was no question that the title would pass to the daughters of the house - Helen and then her sister Clytemnestra (she’s quite a story all by herself, but I digress).
For several centuries before Helen’s birth, invaders from somewhere around the Caspian Sea had been slaughtering their way south toward Sparta. Small bands of roving males on horseback looking to set up for themselves in a new land. (See my essay on Kurgan social climbers for more about this.) Since they were meaner and better armed than the local people, they could bully their way into power circles. The fact that they rode on the backs of fast animals meant they could swoop down and massacre a village in nothing flat. The local people couldn’t stand their pesky ways but there wasn’t much to be done about the problem. The natives agreed to pay them tribute in the hopes that they would stay up in their hilltop forts and leave the valleys alone. Even though the invaders liked living on hilltops where they could look down on everybody else, they wanted more. They wanted to be called kings. The only problem was nobody was going to call them “king” unless they married into the reigning queen’s line. Enter Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon (who is another story too. See Clytemnestra above.)
Menelaus was a descendent of the hilltop hooligans and he had a powerful urge to be called king. He washed his face for the first time in a year, put on his good armor and went a courtin’. Helen’s relatives, and the whole land of Sparta for that matter, were pretty tired of these bearded ruffians and their badly-timed raids. So the ruling family decided it was better to marry one of the foreigners and possibly civilize him in the process. Thus it was arranged that Helen would marry the scruffy Menelaus. At least he was better looking than that idiot Theseus who had abducted her when she was about ten. (Needless to say the hooligans didn’t have a problem with pedophilia either.)
The marriage continued without incident for several years. Helen stayed home to rule Sparta while Menelaus sallied forth to terrorize people in other parts of the Aegean. As you might expect, Helen got tired of tripping over Menelaus’s war trophies which frequently included the odd severed head. She’d told him time and again to leave that stuff outside. It was impossible to housetrain the man. If that weren’t bad enough, the hooligans on the hilltop had some odd notions about marital fidelity. They expected wives to remain under sexually exclusive house arrest while they themselves ran around the countryside raping and plundering to their heart’s content.
Helen was fast losing patience with the entire arrangement when out of the blue a nice young prince with good table manners and proper hygiene came to visit Sparta from across the sea. His name was Paris though he wasn’t from there. He was from Turkey but he was no turkey in Helen’s eyes. He gave the queen a smoldering look and said, “Hey baby. How you doin’?”
“Woof,” said Helen and she immediately packed her amphorae and sailed away with Paris. They headed for Troy where there was art and music and everybody followed the old time goddess religion which hadn’t been Zeusified yet. “Now this is more like it!” exclaimed Helen.
After she’d been gone for a while, Menelaus returned from his latest raid with a few new heads to add to his collection. When he discovered his wife had left him he had a fit. It wasn’t as you might think because he loved her or because he missed her or because he was jealous of her new boyfriend. It was all about real estate. After all, the land belonged to Helen and Menelaus could only get to play king as long as she was queen. If that wasn’t reason enough, Paris’s family came from one of those goddess-worshipping Anatolian tribes. They hated the hooligans on horseback and if Helen threw Sparta’s support behind Paris, Menelaus and all his cronies could kiss their crowns goodbye. Menelaus was in a panic so he called his brother and they rounded up a thousand or so of their nearest and dearest henchmen and sailed to Troy to bring the queen back.
We don’t need to go into the whole bloody mess of the Trojan War. Homer does a pretty good job of documenting the gore. (He really seems to enjoy telling that part.) Anyway, after ten years of long-winded speeches by guys in armor, Troy loses and gets burned to the ground. Just about everybody dies except Helen. Menelaus is on the point of stabbing her but relents at the last second. The official story is that her beauty overwhelms him. Yeah, right. The more accurate reason for his forbearance is that he can’t afford to kill the cash cow. If she dies, he gets a one-way ticket to Has Been Land.
So Menelaus bundles his lovely wife back to Sparta where Greek poets say that they lived harmoniously for many years. That seems an unlikely scenario. Given what happened to Agamemnon after he ticked off his wife Clytemnestra, Menelaus deemed it wise to sleep with one eye open for the rest of his natural life. His chronic insomnia was supplemented by the waking misery of Silent Helen giving him an earful of her displeasure at being toted back home. Despite Homer’s best efforts to muzzle her, I’m fairly confident that Helen got the last word after all.
Note: For a somewhat less satiric discussion of property rights and female social status during the Greek dark ages, have a look at Craig S. Barnes, In Search Of The Lost Feminine.