Subtitled Goddess, Princess, Whore. This book tries to show the different sides of the infamous Greek beauty Helen of Troy – the figure of worship for many Greeks, the (possible) historical person, and the “bad role model” for women in the eyes of so many writers over the years. To be honest I was expecting a little more focus on literature, but the book actually mostly concentrates on archaeological findings both for Helen and the world she would have inhabited. That turns out to be good thing, as these are the best sections of the book.
I really liked Bettany Hughes’ book on Socrates, The Hemlock Cup, but this one (the earlier of the two) didn’t impress me in quite the same way. At times it feels a bit muddled, with occasional travelogue introductions or personal anecdotes that don’t go anywhere or add much to the book. Hughes’ style of many short chapters means that there’s usually a change of approach coming along shortly, but this can be a bit frustrating at points. The narrative gets broken up constantly by digressions and details and ends up feeling a little long-winded.
Nevertheless the book is packed with detail about Mycenaean Greece. About childhood, royal life, palaces, trade, diplomacy, war, religion. It isn’t quite a biography of the woman herself, but it’s the next thing to it. The discussion of symbolism feels like a good introduction – not entirely complete but that would probably require a much longer book. In all, it’s a solid introduction but it could have been better. The book promises a lot, but only delivers in certain areas.
As a spin off from my previous post, I had been doing an online learning course on Coursera, run by an Associate Professor at UPenn. The actual tasks are fairly trivial – a series of 10 questions at the end of each section on the texts and the lectures – but the lectures were interesting and prompted me to think about of some of the classical texts I have been reading.
I’m sure none of it is new for anyone who has actually studied history, but it was nice to learn the basics about Euhemerism, functionalism, structuralism and common themes. I would happily recommend the course to anyone else who is looking for a prompt while they read Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and others.
My last attempt to familiarize myself with Greek myths didn’t go too well. Robert Grave’s book on the topic was written in a rather affected style and contained interpretations and footnotes that could best be described as a bit mental. After a bit of a break, I recently made a new attempt with Paul Vincent’s Myths and History of Greece and Rome podcast.
It’s not a bad idea for a topic, and I can picture a series that works to tell the stories dramatically while dropping out now and then to explain them. How should we interpret these myths? How do they relate to other aspects of ancient Greek culture? How did they change over time? What impact have they had since? It would be fascinating to hear answers to these, preferably while staying well away from Robert Grave’s mushroom hallucination trip. It was disappointing then to find this series a bit ‘no thrills’.
Continue reading Post 51: Myths and History of Ancient Greece