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Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore

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An erudite, lively search for the real Helen of Troy-–a chronicle combining historical inquiry & storytelling élan–-from one of Britain’s most widely acclaimed historians. As soon as men began writing they made Helen of Troy their subject. For close to 3000 years she's been both the embodiment of absolute female beauty & a reminder of the terrible power beauty can wield. Because of her double marriage to the Greek king Menelaus & the Trojan prince Paris, Helen was held responsible for enmity between East & West. For millennia she's been viewed as an agent of extermination. But who was she? Helen exists in many guises: a matriarch from the Heroic Age who ruled over one of the most fertile areas of the Mycenaean world; Helen of Sparta, the focus of a cult that conflated the heroine with a pre-Greek fertility goddess; the home-wrecker of the Iliad; the bitch-whore of Greek tragedy; the pin-up of Romantic artists. Focusing on the “real” Helen–-a flesh-&-blood aristocrat from the Greek Bronze Age–-Hughes reconstructs the life context of this prehistoric princess. Thru the eyes of a young Mycenaean woman, she examines the physical, historical & cultural traces that Helen has left on locations in Greece, N. Africa & Asia Minor. This book unpacks the facts & myths surrounding one of the most enigmatic & notorious figures of all time.
Text Acknowledgements
Dramatis Personae
Family Trees
Foreword & Acknowledgements
Cherchez la femme
An evil destiny
Goddess, princess, whore
1. Helen's birth in pre-history
A dangerous landscape
A rape, a birth
The lost citadel
The Mycenaeans
The pre-historic princess
2. The land of beautiful women
The rape of 'fair Hellen'
Sparte kalligynaika
Tender-eyed girls
3. The world's desire
A trophy for heroes
The kingmaker
A royal wedding
4. Kourotrophos
A welcome burden
Helen, high priestess
La belle Hélène
5. A lover's game
The golden apple
Bearing gifts
Alexander Helenam Rapuit
The female of the species is more deadly than the male
6. Eros & Eris
Helen the whore
The pain of Aphrodite
The sea's foaming lanes
7. Troy beckons
East is east & west is west
The fair Troad
The topless towers of Ilium
The golden houses of the east
A fleet sets sail
8. Troy besieged
Helen, destroyer of cities
Death's dark cloud
A beautiful death, Kalos Thanatos
The fall of Troy
9. Immortal Helen
Home to Sparta
The death of a queen
The age of heroes ends
'Fragrant treasuries'
The daughter of the ocean
10. The face that launched a thousand ships
Helen in Athens
Helen lost & Helen found
Helen, Homer & the chances of survival
Veyn fables
Helen of Troy & the bad Samaritan
Perpulchra, more than beautiful
Dancing with the devil
Helen's nemesis
The Minotaur's island
La Parisienne
Women of stone & clay & bronze
Elemental Helen, she-gods & she-devils
Royal purple, the color of congealed blood
Epilogue: Myth, history & historia

496 pages, Hardcover

First published June 2, 2005

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About the author

Bettany Hughes

18 books500 followers
Bettany Hughes is an English historian, author and broadcaster. Her speciality is classical history.

Bettany grew up in West London with her brother, the cricketer Simon Hughes. Her parents were in the theatre: she learnt early the importance and delight of sharing thoughts and ideas with a wider public. Bettany won a scholarship to read Ancient and Modern History at Oxford University and then continued her post-graduate research while travelling through the Balkans and Asia Minor. In recognition of her contribution to research, she has been awarded a Research Fellowship at King's London.

Bettany lectures throughout the world. She has been invited to universities in the US, Australia, Germany, Turkey and Holland to speak on subjects as diverse as Helen of Troy and the origins of female 'Sophia' to concepts of Time in the Islamic world. She considers her work in the lecture hall and seminar room amongst the most important, and rewarding she does.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 123 reviews
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,535 reviews1,791 followers
January 24, 2022
I found this a very likeable book, it is an easy going biography of Helen of Troy, and the approach that Hughes takes is both to consider what the life of an actual Mycenaean Princess might have been like - which is then a recapitulation of what was known from the archaeology (including a growing corpus of documentary evidence recovered from the Bronze Age world) and to lay out the myth as told by Homer and other sources such as lines by Sappho, Athenian plays, information recorded by Pausanias in his Guide to Greece about cult practises . All of this is intermixed by Hughes recollections of travelling and visiting sites in the Eastern Mediterranean, which gave me the impression that the issues raised and discussed had been on her mind for a long time, and that she was still grappling with them.

The first problem which you may have noticed is that if there was a Helen of Troy, she would have been a Mycenaean Princess - and indeed we can know all kinds of things about those women - the hairstyles they had, the fashions they wore , the perfumes they liked , the number of pregnancies they typically had, their average life-expectancy, their use of opiates; however we don't know of any Helen of Troy yet from any Bronze Age sources. In contrast everything we know about Helen of Troy as an individual comes from the Iron Age and one of the big differences is that the position of women seems to be radically different in the sense of being far more restricted and of lower status in the Iron Age than in the Bronze Age. The world that Homer sung about was more mysterious to him and his audience than it is to us.

The next problem, is that these are radically different types of evidence and like oil and water and for me they produce two complimentary images rather than one composite person. There is the archaeology and 'bureaucratic' writing from the Bronze age, then the myths and cults of the iron age.

As a child I believed implicitly and unreservedly in the historicity of the trojan war. I had The Mycenaeans and in that book it said something along the lines that one arrowhead had been found in the walls of Troy which made a ten year siege seem silly. Such was my faith in the Trojan war that aged around eight to ten I read that and decided that 'silly' must have a secondary meaning of sign of absolute veracity and certainty, fortunately for my faith I did not have a dictionary and like a good fundamentalist I did not look for one either. With the passage of years I have become agnostic with regard to the Trojan war - I am intrigued by the Hittite evidence , but I am still more inclined to imagine raiding and trading than ten years spent on the wind swept plains of Illium, Hughes appears still to believe, but she is not explicit about the articles of her faith.

The remainder of the book deals with how Helen was understood later, unfavourably by some, more positively by others. There has been an idea that Helen was, in some earlier part of her existence a fertility figure and therefore the Trojan war would have been something like the story of Persephone, a war to recover spring and regeneration. I liked the detail that the famous gate at Mycenae is a lioness gate rather than a lion gate and its is always interesting to read of the Helen cult that developed in iron age Sparta - not perhaps an obvious choice for a heroic idol.

Generally there is a reluctance to engage in theory, concepts and big ideas, which I get the impression is more common in Anglo-Saxon writing than elsewhere, she is comfortable to mention some ideas if in slightly dismissive terms, but not to explore them. So for instance she dismisses the idea that there was a She-God in prehistory only to go on to play with the notion of the centrality of women in religious life prior to be iron age - of course later she went on to make another TV series about Divine Women, the first episode of which was called 'when God was a girl'. But then for me that is the joy of reading Bettany Hughes, I have the sense of someone who is not right or wrong, but forever journeying and passionately engaged with the topics that interest her.
Profile Image for Iset.
665 reviews472 followers
July 1, 2011
Bettany Hughes’ debut work is a magnum opus of truly astonishing proportions. Hughes has not only written a thoroughly detailed examination of the evidence for a real Bronze Age Helen, and produced an in depth portrait of the woman if she indeed existed, but she has delved even further, studying perceptions of Helen throughout history and exploring the big question of just why Helen of Troy has remained a subject of fascination, reverence and revilement for millennia. Meticulously researched, Helen of Troy weaves together thousands of strands of evidence to create a comprehensive picture of not only Helen, but also the vibrant world she moved in. Hughes is insightful, discerning and astutely pieces together the long scattered fragments of the Helen of Troy puzzle. At the same time, her work is interesting, engaging and clearly written, you won’t find a stuffy textbook here, Hughes writes in a very personable style which draws upon anecdotes and plain language to get her points across, and her voice shines through just as if I was watching one of her fantastic documentaries. Quite possibly the definitive biography of Helen of Troy.
Profile Image for Caroline.
718 reviews120 followers
May 20, 2018
If you're looking for a book on Helen of Troy, then look no further. This is a masterful book, despite the paucity of possible information available on Helen. How can anyone write a biography of a mythical figure, a woman who may or may not have even existed? Like this. Exactly like this. Bettany Hughes has written Helen as she may have been, as an historical figure; as people have wanted her to be, as a religious figure and quasi-goddess; as she was written to be, by Homer and Euripides and Aeschylus, right up to the present day. There are a multitude of Helens in this book - historical and fiction, real or imaginary, flesh-and-blood or goddess.

It focuses not just on Helen, but also the world she came from and the ages of history she has passed through up to the present. It is also a marvellous exploration of the world of the Bronze Age Mediterranean, and how accurate Homer's story has been proven to be via archaeological discoveries and historical record. It's wonderfully written, eminently readable and absolutely fascinating - I'd highly recommend this.
Profile Image for Czarny Pies.
2,466 reviews1 follower
November 16, 2019
"Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore" is a scatter-gun, scatter-brained work that is nonetheless highly entertaining. Reading it is something like inviting your friends from your undergraduate years over for dinner, plying them generously with alcohol and letting them rant on about whatever literary or artistic idea comes into their minds. History students will express themselves on Beethoven. English lit graduates will give you their opinions on Rabelais while philosophy students will tell you what they think the Federal Reserve Board should do about interest rates. The cacophony is as joyous as it is incoherent. As Hughes herself notes at one point that she may be presenting "a mangle of literary and social references (with a sprinkling of fanstasy) rather than historical fact." (pp. 285- 286)

The whole messy farrago is the result of Hughes decision to examine both the historical Helen who probably never existed and the various myths that our culture has created about her. Hughes begins by providing a survey of the recent archeological digs at Hittite, Mycenae and Spartan sites to show that we know much more about the up-bringing of a Spartan princess which is what Helen was and the politics of Anatolia where she lived with Paris than we did fifty years ago. She explains that if we could actually find the body of Helen we would be able to dramatically define our conjectures about her. It the absence of such a lucky discovery, the mythologizing will likely continue to follow its bizarre path.

Having completed her survey of the relevent archeological findings, she then examines the mythology of Helen from the era of Homer through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Jacobean era and modern times. As the title indicates, Helen has been portrayed alternatively as a goddess, a princess and a whore when the real Helen if indeed there was would have been none of the three.

I feel churlish giving so dreadful a review to such a delightful book. However, on an intellectual level, it is truly shoddy.
Profile Image for Juliew..
208 reviews144 followers
September 12, 2016
I absolutely loved this book!Best source out there if you are looking for info on Helen of Troy.I liked how the author brought her to life and put a face on her.I guess it was hard for me to imagine a face that launched a thousand ships before I read this.It also has amazing background information on Sparta.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,007 followers
October 12, 2012
Bettany Hughes was made an honorary Fellow of my university in the same ceremony as I became a graduate, so I've been planning to read this ever since. That, and the story of Troy has always been fascinating to me. There's definitely something very compelling about Bettany Hughes' writing, which though very detailed isn't dry -- or maybe I just have a weakness for descriptions of "sumptuous palaces" and so on trained into me by my early love of a book describing the treasures of Tutankhamen's tomb. She makes the book colourful, anyway. And from whatever I know of Greek history and myths, she chooses her material well and does wonders in digging through the evidence of millennia to look at the idea of Helen of Troy, where she came from and what she has meant to generations of people.

I think my favourite section was actually the discussion of what the fabled Helen had to do with Eleanor of Aquitaine: the interaction of real queens with figures of legend like Helen of Troy, Queen Guinevere and female Christian saints fascinates me...

I'm not sure how well I think the information was organised, though. Admittedly, Helen is hard to pin down, but I'm not sure I can pinpoint how Hughes wanted to present her ideas. For me, reading cover to cover and for pleasure, it worked fine, but if I were to come back and try to refer to some specific point, I think I'd have trouble finding it.

There are extensive notes and a long list of references to other works, so all in all I think this book is very well organised and researched. And -- to me, more importantly -- I really enjoyed reading it.
Profile Image for Robert Case.
Author 5 books49 followers
December 17, 2014
I love antiquities. Helen of Troy is clearly a five. The book is a detailed and provocative study, or was it a journey, of one of mankind's most celebrated, revered, and demonized women. Her biography is a fascinating read. She is an icon, not just of sex-appeal, but also for personal growth and development. She lived through many roles; from being the victim of a kidnapping and sex assault by the legendary Theseus, into a Spartan queen, then a Trojan princess, and back again into her role as queen and ruler of Sparta, always ascending into positions of power, wealth, and respect.
I have two take-aways from the book. First, is the intention to read it again. Second, is the timeline of Helen's life story. She is from prehistory. Assuming that the Trojan War(s) took place between 1275 and 1250 BCE, author Bettany Hughes postulates that Helen's birth was around 1300 BC. Her life preceded the development of the alphabet used by Homer to record her story, by about 500 years.
Profile Image for saïd.
5,870 reviews538 followers
November 20, 2021
μηδ᾽ εἰς Ἑλένην κότον ἐκτρέψῃς,
ὡς ἀνδρολέτειρ᾽, ὡς μία πολλῶν
ἀνδρῶν ψυχὰς Δαναῶν ὀλέσασ᾽
ἀξύστατον ἄλγος ἔπραξεν.
Aeschylus, Agamemnon (1464-7)

How do you write a biography of a mythological figure, an allegory in the shape of a woman, someone who most likely never existed, or at least not in the form in which she's represented in folkloric canon? Well, you don't: you write a biography of her various εἴδωλᾰ.
Profile Image for Carolyn Hembree.
Author 5 books55 followers
December 14, 2017
Aside from my electric blanket and my Dickinson, I currently love nothing so much as this book.
Profile Image for Helena Schrader.
Author 36 books119 followers
June 24, 2012
Hughes bills her book as “The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World” – which is certainly ambitious. She devotes 312 pages to the main text followed by 130 pages of appendices. The book contains roughly 30 colored illustrations and even more black and white images -- altogether a very impressive and comprehensive treatment of the topic. Hughes furthermore sets out not only to discover the historical reality behind the story of Helen of Troy, but to describe the Bronze Age in which she allegedly lived, and then to describe how the story of Helen of Troy was handled in literature and art down the ages from Homer onwards.

Although at times I found the narrative long-winded and had the feeling Hughes was trying to justify what must have been a significant investment in time and money by dragging out some commentary unnecessarily and belaboring some points to the point of exhaustion, the book nevertheless provides some very useful information. Particularly impressive was the amount of information she collected on life in the Bronze Age, something I knew little about.

One of her principle thesis is that Helen (or the Helen Pro-type) was a Bronze Age aristocrat (princess and Queen) – and every subsequent treatment of Helen tells us more about the age in which the work of art depicting her was created than about Helen herself. Less successfully, Hughes tries to analyze why the story of Helen of Troy should have fascinated artists and audiences for three thousand years.

Perhaps due to my ignorance of the Bronze Age, I found Hughes descriptions of recent archeological discoveries about this period particularly exciting and informative. She succeeded in convincing me that the Bronze Age civilizations were very sophisticated and international, with significant trade across the Mediterranean. A recent trip to Egypt helped me visualize just how rich and yet familiar such ancient societies could be. The art of Minoa and Egypt, with which I am more familiar, provided collateral, flanking evidence, to Hughes’ thesis about a Bronze Age Helen, who was more powerful and independent than the women in ancient Greece. In short, Hughes succeeded in making me change my own views of Helen, by enabling me to see her as a figure from a pre-archaic society with significantly different social structures and traditions.

Almost as fascinating was the way in which the character and role of Helen changed depending on the values of the society re-telling the story. For example, the fact that Helen received a comparatively positive treatment in the 12th Century AD due to Eleanor of Aquitaine's patronage of Benoit de Sainte-Maure, author of the Roman de Troie. As Hughes perceptively points out, Eleanor, like Helen, had been the bride of one king, but effectively – if less surreptitiously -- ran away with his arch-rival and became the Queen of an empire that threatened her first husband’s realm. Eleanor had good reason to see Helen as a positive role model and not some tawdry whore or instrument of the devil.

After reading Hughes, I admit, I am more sympathetic to Helen than I was before reading Hughes. When she described a 1974-5 staging of Christopher Marlowe’s "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus" in which Helen is portrayed as “a marionette with blond wig, a mask and a chiffon nightie.” (Hughes, p. 307), I found myself feeling indignant. How could a director show so little respect for Helen? Would a dumb blond in a negligee really have been worth fighting for? For ten years? And worth recovering? Reinstating as Queen? In short, Hughes achieved her presumed of objective of making me see Helen as more than “just a pretty face.”

As such, despite its stylistic faults, I think Hughes work makes a significant contribution to our understanding both of the historical and the literary Helen.
Profile Image for James F.
1,388 reviews89 followers
May 2, 2016
The Trojan War was almost certainly a historic event; but it is uncertain, to say the least, that it was caused by the abduction of Menelaus' wife, Helen. I'm not sure after reading this book whether the author, a popular British historian, actually believes Homer's story or not; she does at least make it seem less implausible than it appears at first sight, by showing historical parallels from the same time and region where there were diplomatic (though not actually military) crises over royal marriages. At any event, she uses a "biography" of Helen as an organizing principle for a wide-ranging discussion of Mycenaean and Anatolian archaeology and art, focusing on what can be learned or plausibly inferred about the role of women in Mycenaean culture, the Hittite documents which may refer to Troy or to Greece or otherwise have some relevance to the Trojan War, the ancient religious and literary traditions relating to Helen (she was a figure in later cult), and the ways in which Helen has been represented in literature and art from classical Athens through modern times. She presents a mass of material, much of which I was unfamiliar with, some only discovered since I studied the Iliad in my college Greek classes at Columbia in the 1970's. Not everything she says is convincing to me; I think she sometimes blurred the lines between the historical and the mythical or folklore elements. Her interpretations are sometimes rather subjective; she writes from a very feminist perspective, and although I generally agree with her viewpoint she occasionally becomes too rhetorical and repetitious in making her points; and the material especially in the later chapters on the "reception history" of the Helen story is not well-organized, although it may not have been possible to organize such miscellaneous material in any definite way. The writing is generally good, but occasionally too colloquial for a non-fiction book on a serious topic. On the whole, I learned a lot from the book, and I would recommend it to anyone who is reading Homer and looking for background material.
Profile Image for Lauren Albert.
1,798 reviews161 followers
April 5, 2011
This is not really a biography of Helen so much as a biography of the idea of Helen through the ages. While she does try to uncover what historical facts are available, she spends a lot more time—understandably because of the lack of evidence—discussing all the versions of Helen in Literature and History. She also traces Helen’s path (as it is told in the stories) through the lands of ancient times. She attempts to recreate as much as possible what the life of a woman like Helen would have been.

I have two criticisms of the book that downgraded it from a “4” to a “3”: 1) The repetition of the whole “Helen as symbol” thing got boring. 2) She has an awful tendency to lapse into cheesy-novel writing—using expressions like “dripping gore” and such. She also feels the need to fictionalize at the oddest times such, when discussing Goethe’s Dr. Faustus, she refers to an actor, “lone actor as he paced up and down the south bank, desperately trying to remember his lines.” Since this imaginary moment has absolutely nothing to do with Helen or her stories, I’m not sure why she feels the need to write it.
Profile Image for Lydia.
289 reviews230 followers
February 15, 2016
I am so sad that I have finished reading this book.
This was such a delight to read. Hughes has such an evocative writing style. I was so sucked into this "biography" of the perhaps-mythical, perhaps-based-in-reality figure. She traces Helen's life and legacy from her conception to the modern western world's perceptions of her. It was just so interesting to read about the different interpretations of Helen throughout time and place, about the different tellings of the Trojan War, about all the different Helen's that have been presented to us, and about how (if she ever existed) the Spartan Queen herself would have lived. Coupled with a delightful writing style, this was just a pleasure to read.

(Also, p. 207, "Achilles' lover, the Greek hero Patroclus". Bettany Hughes knows that Achilles and Patroclus were 100% gay for each other. Everything is wonderful.)
Profile Image for Hardy.
34 reviews1 follower
October 10, 2013
I had seen and heard Bettany Hughes on several DVD commentaries and BBC-produced history specials. Having been impressed by the knowledge and contagious enthusiasm she brought to her TV work, I wanted to see whether these translated to the printed page. In short, do they ever.

As an avid student and later teacher of Latin and classical mythology, I was aware of Helen's prominent place in the folklore of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Hughes, however, posits and beautifully illustrates the case for Helen's being not only an actual historical figure, but an even more significant one than I and others had previously believed. Via tales of her own travels to archaeological digs and various museums that hold pieces of the Helen narrative, Hughes demonstrates that the ancients saw Helen in both a reverent and a disparaging light. Further, these differing interpretations have persisted through the art of succeeding ages. There is relatively little written record of Helen's life, and between that and the visual evidence emerging steadily from excavations, those interested in Helen's story can form their own opinions as to her existence. The opinion of Ms. Hughes is fascinatingly laid out in these pages.

The book can be appreciated by both a popular and a scholarly audience; Hughes provides copious endnotes for those interested in further exploration, and her prose keeps the story moving for those who prefer not to stop along the way. The book was an enlightening and entertaining read, and I look forward to more from Bettany Hughes in the future.

Profile Image for Lisa.
893 reviews81 followers
July 2, 2017
Bettany Hughes’s book, Helen of Troy, is a work of staggeringly epic proportions. It is the story of Helen of Troy – not just as a historical or mythological figure, but a cultural figure. It looks at what life would have been like for a historical Helen, if she existed, at the landscapes Helen’s story has crossed, how Helen has been seen through the lens of myth, religion, art, theatre and more.

At over 500 pages, this could make for a dense read. But Hughes’ writing, while detailed and discerning, is lively, insightful and, most importantly, never dull. She injects herself in the narrative, recounting her own experiences of the landscapes where Helen may have walked or was worshipped, which adds a personal touch to the narrative.

Perhaps Hughes’s greatest triumph in this book is not that she builds up a wholly believable portrait of both the mythological and historical Helen, but how she examines what portraits the world has made of Helen and what that says about the world.

A thoroughly excellent book, the best I’ve read that touches on the Trojan War.
Profile Image for Dominique.
310 reviews28 followers
May 28, 2020
The thing I love about ancient history and myth is that it is, consistently and unfailingly, stranger, weirder, more astonishing and more subversive than you would ever think it would be. I learnt some things from reading this about prehistory, Spartan society, war and religious rituals that, to me, really are stranger than fiction. Some of these things are just mind-bending. You couldn’t make it up. It forces cracks through your most fundamental assumptions about people who lived and died in the past; about humanity as a whole — about our similarity as well as our astonishing differences. It offers a comforting reminder of the sort of transience of the times we live in now: that this was not always the way things were — not for almost anything. And it will change again, before we even know it. I just love that.
Profile Image for Lars.
44 reviews1 follower
November 4, 2009
After watching the BBC documentary of the same title, I felt compelled to get this companion book. I had been pleased with the Paul Cartledge companion to Greeks: Crucible of Civilization, and felt this was worth the investment.

Ms. Hughes is very descriptive and entertaining in her account of the story of Helen of Sparta (later Troy) and her attempts to reconstruct the myth with what facts are available are well constructed.

This is not the "Troy" movie but a serious delving into the idea of a Bronze Age queen and how she shaped the lives of the men around her, for good or ill, and also is an exploration--on some levels--about modern feminism and gender identity.

Recommended for anyone with an interest in peeling back layers of myth to get at the history underneath.
Profile Image for Mary Brace.
52 reviews
May 18, 2020
I loved this book. The author delves into, all the bits and pieces of bronze age museum artifacts, Greek myths, Homer's Illiad along with countless writings throughout the ages, personal visits to historical antiquity field sites etc., to mold a story that reveals a woman who must have been monumental. The author conjures up wonderfully colorful and insightful metaphors. For those interested in ancient, bronze age history, the book for me, was a delight.
Profile Image for Veerle.
214 reviews4 followers
November 15, 2022
How do you write a biography of a woman who possibly never existed at all? By presenting the reader with a lot of archeological evidence about how women in the Bronze Age lived. By explaining how society, literature, religion and politics worked back in the day. It's quite an adventure, but Hughes pulls it off.

Hughes gives you the context of a Bronze Age princess and allows you to paint your own picture of one of the most illustrous women in history. At the same time she debunks a lot of imagery (mainly male) painters and writers have given us throughout history by presenting you different texts and evidence.

I also loved the travellogue part of this book. Hughes doesn't shy away from how she felt when she visited the many places connected with her book. I did a nice trip through Greece myself a couple of years back and some places just came alive back again. This is not another boring history book, but a really interesting read!
Profile Image for Libby.
290 reviews45 followers
February 26, 2015
I wasn't certain what I was getting into when I opened this book. After all, how could one write a biography of Helen of Troy without sources? It isn't as if there is a Who's Who of the Bronze Age, written on stone tablets in archaic Greek. This is a pretty hefty volume, too, suitable for use as a doorstop and pretty lethal if dropped on your toe. However, any doubts I had were foolish and soon forgotten. Remember when the word awesome, meant something? You know, capable of inspiring open-mouthed, wide-eyed respect? This book is that kind of awesome. The sheer amount of research that went into this work is staggering, and the skill with which the author handles her material is considerable. For the lover of the Greek myths, this book is indispensable, and for the romantic it is a story of the ultimate hottie. How can you lose? Buy it! Read it! Give it to a friend!
3 reviews
August 4, 2014
A splendid piece of cross disciplinary writing! Ms. Hughes creates a vivid picture of the Bronze Age using both traditional and experimental archeology, literature, and art. Generally I am impatient with books that focus on the author's experience, but she does it well. Her visits to the places involved or explorations of the literature and portrayals of Helen's story are a genuine enhancement of the history. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough to anyone interested in history or women's studies.
Profile Image for Erini Allen.
Author 1 book30 followers
April 5, 2021
"Helen of Troy" claims to be a “lively search for the real Helen of Troy.” In hindsight, both the title (Helen of where?) and the blurb expose the book’s foundational problem: Its launching point is a manipulated fantasy that a “real” Helen, if she ever existed, is recoverable to us. If the myths derive from a seed of truth, that seed bloomed into a wild garden of infinite variations over the centuries when they were passed down orally. The written versions that have come down to us represent a fraction of what existed and cannot be taken as representative. Further, the Bronze Age historical period may be the period during which the myths began to take shape, but it is not to be confused with the Age of Heroes in which the myths are set.

Hughes makes none of these fine distinctions. Her project is another Arthur Evans creating the palace of his imagination at Knossos. I would not like the tone of this book any more as a novel, but at least labeling it as fiction would be intellectually honest.

Ideally, popular historians function as mediators between scholars and the interested lay public, synthesizing the intricate, esoteric work of scholarship and crafting from this compelling insights into human nature and experience. We shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of this work, or its import.

What’s lacking in "Helen of Troy" is the curiosity that animates scholarship. To be sure, Hughes presents facts for miles; it’s harder to get a grip on what her purpose is, what genuine question drives her. It feels, from early on, that she is not launching from a sincere desire to learn or understand but marshaling evidence to prove a foregone conclusion. One does not feel, reading her book, the thrilling sense of discovery that great scholarship conveys in spirit.

Hughes gluts you with facts upon facts upon facts, and just as you think she must have rung the well of history dry, she unloads a fresh round. She lurches back and forth through various historical periods and across geographic areas—the Bronze Age Mediterranean, the Renaissance, classical Athens, etc, etc. It hardly seems possible that someone with such a vast army of historical factoids, as Hughes repeatedly reminds us that she has, can be so utterly devoid of insight into ancient Greek history and culture. But it makes a kind of sense since Hughes seems incapable of grasping paradox and duality, two characteristic features of ancient Greek identity, thought, and culture. In brief, to be Greek means to participate in the cultures (plural) of Greek speakers; thus to be Greek means something both broad and highly specific.

Overall, the book is a chaotic, tedious mess devoid of empathy and humility—a historian’s most valuable tools—and thus of insight and wisdom.

A few things I found especially egregious:

She talks about Helen and other figures from myth as if they were real people, inserting them into Bronze Age and classical Athenian history, projecting thoughts and intentions onto them, and judging them. I hope that I don’t need to explain how manipulative and fundamentally disingenuous an exercise this is for a work that calls itself a history.

She claims ancient Greece as the “blueprint” for “western society.” This is like Heinrich Schliemann saying he found Helen’s jewel’s at Hisarlick. To be fair, Hughes is not unique in making this claim, and ironically, it has been invoked by opposing ideological camps. In any case, I find it romantic (not in a good way) and revisionist. Knowledge of ancient Greek died away in the west after the collapse of the western Roman Empire and did not return until scholars fleeing the collapse of the eastern Roman Empire brought it back in the late Middle Ages. We can argue about it, but the idea that there is a direct line from ancient Athens to the development of western Europe is dodgy.

From claiming ancient Greece as the root of the west, Hughes then cleverly authorizes herself essentially to lay the blame for modern social problems at the feet of ancient Greece. For example, she repeats the frequent accusation that classical Athens “invented” (her word) “xenophobic proto-nationalism.” First, the idea that ancient Athens can be compared to a modern nation is highly questionable. As for xenophobia, I don’t even know what this means. If you were in a constant state of violent conflict with your neighbors, who appealed to and received help from powerful neighboring empires with designs on your space, you too might be selective about who you trusted and who you permitted to participate in community life. Who can say for certain until they have lived it?

Further, if Hughes had any ability to analyze human history honestly, not just spout factoids, she’d recognize that social problems in any age are rooted in the same human weaknesses, fears, and flaws. It’s called human nature, and it’s why we can recognize similar problems in the ancient world that we still suffer from today. It’s also why the same beliefs and practices can arise spontaneously around the world. The “homecoming husband,” for example, can be found across cultures not through transmission but because the circumstance of a husband leaving home to work or fight in a war recurs.

And finally, a cherry for our sundae: she refers to the Middle Ages as the “the medieval Dark Ages.” That’s just rude.

Ancient people did not exist to provide us with scapegoats for our problems. They wrestled with their own challenges and concerns that they handled sometimes well and sometimes badly, much like ourselves today. The work of history is the study of dynamics at play in good and bad decisions and outcomes, not moral grandstanding. This book manipulates history then deploys that manipulation to nurture modern grievances, rather than using the complex and contradictory evidence that comes down to us from the ancient world to make us more nuanced, compassionate readers of both the past and our own time.
Profile Image for Penny Cipolone.
252 reviews1 follower
December 27, 2017
Totally enjoyed this book which looked at Helen of Sparta/Troy from all possible angles. Her influence and very existence were judged via archeology, literature, art history, and myth. Great sections on the Myceneans and the Minoans. I had quite forgotten how much I enjoyed reading about this time period.
Profile Image for Sandra Wagner-Wright.
Author 9 books9 followers
October 12, 2014
This is a fabulous book for anyone interested in Greek Mythology, Archeology, History, the Bronze Age, and/or women's history. Bettany Hughes is a brilliant writer and stellar researcher. I was genuinely sorry to complete the book and will not be passing it on to the library book sale.
2,189 reviews9 followers
April 28, 2022
This was such an informative read, I loved this.
Of course everyone knows the classical story of Helen of Troy, the basic details but speaking for myself I knew little of the history of the myth surrounding her, the cult and worship of her and even how she inspires art, literature, movies and much more throughout the ages.
In this book the author tries to chart the "real" story of Helen, she examines physical and cultural evidence of her journey through life and real life locations around the world and the total mythology that grew up around this mythological yet perennial figure of the classical age that still resonates with scholars and the general population alike.
She fascinates and intrigues us, the power this one women supposedly yielded at a time when women were considered subservient amidst a male dominated atmosphere.
I have long been a fan of Bettany Hughes as a historian and tv presenter but this is the first book of hers I have read, I love her attention to detail of every aspect of the period of history or person she is writing about and her way of writing is well researched and very readable even if the reader is not actually an expert on that topic.
This was such a great read, rich in historical detail and exhaustively researched.
Profile Image for Elia Princess of Starfall.
124 reviews14 followers
June 7, 2016
Helen of Troy.

A name that needs no introduction, no?


Helen of Troy, whether she is from fact or fiction, myth or reality, is a justly famous and enthralling heroine. A legendary Queen of Sparta, so beautiful and eerily godlike in her physical perfection, that two wars were fought over her, one in Athens and the other in Troy in what would have been the Aegean Bronze Age. Helen of Troy, throughout the centuries from ancient Greece to the modern age, has inspired awe, derision, fear, anger, devotion, desire, love, lust, fury, pity, adoration and contempt. Yet the woman herself remains an enigma; an elusive will-o-wisp never to be caught or to be truly understood.


Was she real?
Had a once mortal Spartan Queen with surpassing beauty been deified by the state of Sparta and became the legendary Helen of Troy?

Was she a goddess?
Had an ancient earth/fertility goddess changed over the centuries, gradually metamorphosing into the figure of the Spartan Queen?

What did she mean to the ancient and classical world of Greece and beyond?
Was she simply a character in a story or a divine goddess worthy of respect and adulation?

What does she mean to the modern world of today?
Do we see a passive, silent and powerless queen ensnared in the machinations of others or something entirely different?


In her book, Bethany Hughes seeks to discover, explore and understand all that there is know about the elusive figure of Helen of Troy through a motley assortment of viewpoints. In Helen of Troy cultural history, myth, archaeology, biography, geography, history and a dash of women's studies converge as one to present a detailed, evocative and highly intelligent expose on Helen of Troy. Hughes has crafted an engrossing, insightful, expertly researched historical and mythical study on Helen of Troy and her impact on the world, ancient and modern. All of this ensures a read that is interesting, quirky and exuberant with a spirited and relaxed writing style. Hughes clearly harbors intense devotion and enthusiasm for her subject with the passion shining straight off of the pages. She shows incredible knowledge and respect for her chosen subject matter and this serves to make the book more worthwhile.

The purpose of Hughes's book is to document the life, legacy and cultural impact of Helen of Troy in Greece and beyond. The who, what, where, when, why and how of Helen of Troy in analysed and critiqued in a multitude of ways. Hughes asks what if Helen was a real princess and queen of Sparta. If so, what would her life have been like? In contrast, Hughes wonders if Helen was maybe an ancient fertility or earthly spirit who was slowly transformed into the beautiful Queen of Sparta. From Homer's Illiad to Ovid's Metamorphosis, Hughes examines Helen's role in Bronze Age Greece, Troy and in the Middle East. How was she viewed? Who worshiped her? What were her duties?

Throughout the book, Hughes explores Helen of Troy in several fascinating and thoughtful arenas from her mythical birth, legendary exploits as Queen of Sparta and prisoner of Troy, ascent into godhood and finally her colorful afterlife in Western culture. She asks whether Helen was a mythical creation or a nameless yet beautiful Spartan Queen transformed into a Goddess through the passing of the ages. She reveals the life of a Spartan Queen and how a Bronze Age Helen would have lived and died in such a world. In such blurred topics, Hughes straddles the lines between myth and reality with finesse and caution. She never succumbs to the outlandish or fanciful route regarding who or what Helen may have been to the ancient Greeks. She always places Helen the Goddess in her proper historical and archaeological context which is gratefully appreciated.

Helen's divine origins, parentage and family members are glossed over very rapidly in the beginning of the book; a fact I found irksome and rather annoying. Helen's mythical origins were hugely important to her deification as a goddess and her ascent into Olympus: in this book, however, barely a chapter was devoted to Helen's parents and who they were. Rather Hughes seemed to glide over the topic of family to focus on other aspects of Helen's life. I feel that providing more of a backstory to Helen's past and how her parentage came to define her life and legacy would have illuminated a more nuanced outlook on Helen in general. This is the biggest fault of the book IMHO.


Also, I felt that the book in general should have around 200-250 pages longer. Helen of Troy is a fascinating subject that is intertwined with history, archaeology and cultural studies ecetera. Throughout my reading, i couldn't help think that Hughes glossed over or skimmed through several important topics for the sake of keeping the book semi-short. IMHO this did not do the book justice and did not give sufficient weight or analysis to the subjects being discussed.

In the end, I would still heartily recommend Helen of Troy as a fun, enjoyable and brilliantly researched expose on all things Helen. Minor nitpicks aside, this book will appeal to both the general public and students wishing to know more about the cultural afterlife of Helen of Troy. And by God is it a fascinating one!

Happy reading!!

Profile Image for James Murphy.
982 reviews155 followers
October 26, 2010
I'd had this book for at least 3 years. Despite my interest in classical Greece I'd delayed reading it, partly because the right frame of mind never came on me and partly because the book's appearance and presentation, the more I looked at it and allowed it to gather dust on my shelf, projected itself as a treatment for popular taste rather than a serious historical study. Finally blowing the dust off and taking the plunge, I was delighted to discover it's a weighty, scholarly book about Helen. I believe Hughes tries to touch on every known aspect of the Helen of Troy story. I have no idea whether or not she succeeds, but the vast amount of material she includes as she looks at this woman from every angle, seems convincingly comprehensive. And some of it is beautifully written. What she's done is give us a book which tries to pull fact and history from the swamp of legend surrounding Helen and Troy so that the mud slides away to show the real woman underneath and the facts of the Greece around her. She tells the story chronologically, letting us follow what's known about Helen and the life she must've lived as Spartan princess, then as bride, then as lover of Paris who flees with him or is abducted to Troy, the beautiful spark causing the 10-year firestorm on the shores of what's now Turkey. Hughes loves the story and tells it well. The facts are sketchy, a combination of anthropology and history, but she has a way of bringing permissible drama to the facts that helps make those ancient people and motives a reality. It's a fascinating brew of a book made by steeping the idea of this ancient woman in her known history and her persistent myth. By examining not only the core legend but also how that legend endured from ancient times to the present, how she's been characterized from Homer to Marlowe to Elizabeth Taylor, she's written a book that's everything Helen.
Profile Image for Christine.
503 reviews16 followers
November 10, 2019
This was very accessible and kept my interest the whole way through as Hughes visits each episode in Helen of Sparta & Troy's life and how we know these episodes through archeology, anthropology, and literature.

I especially loved learning more about Helen as a Minoan/Mycenaean era princess and later queen. Some of it gets a bit repetitive, but it's not a huge problem and often it serves as a good reminder of something covered much earlier in the book.

Hughes has a talent for giving interesting details while providing useful context. For example, I'm familiar with Homer Iliad and Odyssey, and reasonably familiar with the tragedies spun off from those stories, but I had very little knowledge of, say, Heinrich Schliemann (oh boy, what a character) and his excavations around the Mediterranean. It's something I loved about Hughes' other book on Athens during the Peloponnesian War and really enjoyed this time around.

Recommended if you have an interest in classics, but especially if you enjoy studies on women's roles in history, politics, and how people (mainly men) have depicted those aspects to date.
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