Bettany Hughes is an historian whose documentaries I adore. My favorite documentaries of her’s are the episodes about Helen of Troy and the ancient Minoan civilization from her Ancient World series. The Mycenaeans and Minoans are two ancient civilizations whose culture and aesthetics I am fascinated with; Greece, specifically the island of Crete, are on my bucket list of places I want to visit.
The definitive account of the life of Helen of Troy comes from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey but there are a plethora of, often conflicting, other sources from the ancient world which provide details of her life. Many of these details, her conception via Zeus’s rape of her mother Leda in the form of a swan, being the protegee of the goddess Aphrodite, seem fantastic but are there kernels of truth in her story? Bettany Hughes presents Helen’s world, late bronze age Greece, as one where a superbly beautiful and high born woman like her would have wielded great power. Reports of a stunning and powerful queen and her misadventures may have been exaggerated over time. Helen was also perhaps a high priestess, officiating over religious ceremonies or a vestige of some long forgotten bronze age goddess.
A fascinating thing about Helen of Troy is that she refuses to conform the madonna/whore dichotomy of later civilizations. She is an adulteress whose extramarital affair and elopement with the trojan prince, Paris, started the Trojan War but was also worshiped by young virgins on the cusp of womanhood in her hometown of Sparta, who hoped to gain some of her famous sexual allure. Helen has been loathed as everything from a scheming seductress to a vapid bimbo and yet people have fascinated by her for thousands of years.
I have to admit that I had a hard time getting into this book, mostly because of the difficulty I have with reading non-fiction. Anyone with an interest in the ancient world, and an easier time reading non-fiction, will get something out of reading this. I would recommend looking up Bettany Hughes’s documentaries on Helen of Troy and the ancient Minoan civilization on Youtube for those without the time or patient to crack open a scholarly book. I have a major girl crush on Bettany Hughes, the Nigella Lawson of ancient history, and Greece is a country rich in natural beauty and historical sites. You can relax on a beach and then explore a Minoan or Mycenaean ruin, my dream vacation destination.
After I finish college, I’m going to spend a few years taking classes at North Shore Community to get my library degree and to learn Italian and Greek and working to save money. Then I’m going to spend some time traveling in Italy and Greece.