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Thank you for listening to the Rest is History. For bonus episodes, early access, ad-free listening, and access to our chat community, sign up at restishistorypod. Com. That's restishistorypod. Com. A sudden blow. The great wings beating still above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed by the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill. He holds her helpless breast upon his breast. How can those terrified vague fingers push the feathered glory from her loosening thighs? And how can body laid in that white rush, but feel the strange heart beating where it lies? A shudder in the loins engenders there the broken wall, the burning roof and tower, and Agamemnon dead. Being so caught up, so mastered by the brute blood of the air? Did she put on his knowledge with his power before the indifferent beak could let her drop? That is W. B. Yates' poem, Leader and the Swan. And Tom, it is describing one of the most famous women, not just in all antiquity or in all mythology, but who arguably ever lived, if she did live, and that is Helen of Troy, by repute, the most beautiful woman who ever existed, the beautiful woman in the Greek world, the face that launched a thousand ships, the person whose abduction kickstarted the Trojan War.


So the woman who is at the center of arguably the most influential epic narrative ever written. Tom, I know you're a huge fan of Helen of Troy.


Love Helen of Troy, but everyone loves Helen of Troy, don't they? I mean, that's the whole point.


You deliberately gave me a very difficult poem to read with a ridiculous amount of stuff about loins and thighs. So thank you for that. No, you're welcome. Tell us what's going on in the poem.


In the poem, it's describing how Helen of Troy is conceived. And so in the passage you read so beautifully, The Shutter in the Loins, engenders there, the broken wall, the burning roof and tower. That is a reference to the sack of Troy. But it's not just Helen of Troy who is being conceived. There is another sister, Clitum Nestre, who will go on to marry Agamemnon, who is the commander of the Greeks at Troy. And so that line, an Agamemnon dead. Yes. Clitumnestra may have a role to play in that. So we'll be looking at Clitumnestra, Helen of Troy's sister, as well as Helen of Troy. But just on this poem, which you read so beautifully and without any pauses because you were losing it over certain phrases. It is about a rape. It is about Zius, the king of the gods, who has disguised himself as a swan. And he is a serial rapist, and he's invariably disguising himself to do this. So he disguises himself as a shower of gold or as the husband of the woman that he's coming to. But here he has come as a swan. And what is exceptional about this rape relative to earlier rapes that Jesús has perpetrated.


Earlier rapes, he fathers heroes, male heroes, on the women that he has taken. But here he is fathering for the first time a daughter. And Helen of Troy is is the only daughter that Zuse ever fathers. This is why she is the most beautiful woman in the world. You said she's reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the world. I mean, in the myth, she is the most beautiful woman in the world. There is no, we all have different standards of beauty. Objectively, she's the most beautiful, and it reflects the way in which in the Greek world, competition to be the best is the absolute essence of everything. I mean, it's what gives rise to the Olympics, for instance. And beauty contests are a feature of Greek culture as every other contest is. So Helen stands as the most beautiful of all. But there is this paradox in this sense of Helen as absolutely unique, which is that at the same time, she is It's really only one of four children that Lida will give birth to. And when Lida gives birth to them, she hatches them. She gives birth to two eggs.


That's what happens when you've been interfered with by a swan, right? I mean, that's the nature of swan human relations.


I mean, yes, it opens many questions. She hatches two eggs, and in one of them, Helen comes out and a boy called Pollux.


Yeah, Caster and Pollux.


Yes. And in the other egg, Clitumnestra, so Helen's half-sister, and Caster. So two of the children are the children of Seus, and two of them are the children of a mortal. And we'll come to the story of what is going on here, who Helen is, as told by the Greeks in due course. But just to say, this This is coming off the back of an episode on Custer, and we've been looking at the Industrial Society of America and all that thing. And obviously, talking about women laying eggs and being attacked by swans and things, it might seem very different. But of course, we were talking about the power of myth in the context of the Lakota, weren't we?


Or indeed of Custer. Custer is a mythological figure.


But Custer would have no place for talking animals or things like that.


No, he'd stuff an animal, but he wouldn't talk to it.


Exactly so. But in Greece, these stories have a power and resonance of the kind that you would witness in Lakota society in the late 19th century. Just mention it because it gives a sense of how these stories are not just imaginative fantasies for children, which is often how Greek myths are presented They are terrifying stories. I mean, terrible things happen in them, but they channel aspects of Greek culture that are incredibly significant. As you say, the idea of Helen as the face that launches a thousand ships, I mean, That's a line from a play by Christopher Marlowe, contemporary of Shakespeare. That's almost 3,000 years after Helen of Troy is supposed to have lived. There's still this power. Philosophers have come up with this measure of beauty which is a Millie Helen, and it's the amount of beauty that is sufficient to launch a ship. Helen has a thousand Millie Helens. So the potency of the most beautiful woman in the world as a myth, I think, is very enduring. But there's also the possibility ability that the stories that the Greeks in the classical period, so that's sixth, fifth, fourth century BC, that they might be looking back to a much earlier period, the period of perhaps a historical Trojan War, a period when Perhaps there were great queens.


Well, people have always been fascinated by this, haven't they? The idea that maybe a queen was kidnapped, maybe there was some dynastic marriage gone wrong that provokes a war between cities on different sides of the Ajean.


Yes. So this also is part, I think, of the fascination of the stories of Helen of Troy. So to begin with, let's look at the life of Helen as told by the Greeks. Yeah, brilliant. And this is basically, I've stitched it together from various sources.


So people are writing about it before Homer. He's not the first.


Homer is the first, but Homer leaves lots of space, so he doesn't cover every aspect of her.


So people fill it in afterwards.


Yeah. When Homer introduces Helen, he doesn't explain who she is. He is taking for granted that people already know who she is.


She's already a folk figure, if you like.


Yeah. The birth of Helen is something that is conceived by Seus. There is an epic that follows shortly after Homer called the Kippreya. We only have fragments of it. It explains how Seus wants to destroy or rather winnow humanity. He wants to diminish it. There was a time when the countless tribes of men, though wide dispersed, oppressed the surface of the deep-bosomed earth. Seus saw it and had pity, and in his wise heart resolved to relieve the all-nurturing Earth of men, that the load of death might empty the world. This is something that you get a lot in near Eastern myths. In the Bible, God sends a flood. You get the same in Babylonian myth and so on. What's distinctive about this is that Zus is advised by a character called Momos or Blame, that this is really boring. He should go for something much more fun and that he should ensure the birth of two completely luminous and fatal figures. And one of them is the son of a nymph called Thetis. And Thetis, the prophecy is that her son will be greater than the father. And Zus had been planning to marry her, but gets warned off by this.


And so marries her to a rather dull hero called Peleus. And their son is called Achilles.


Of heel fame.


Of heel fame. And Achilles will be the greatest warrior on the field of Troy in the Trojan War. But he also decides that he will father a daughter. And so I think the last time we quoted Yates was his great poem on the Easter Rising. And there's this phrase, A terrible beauty is born. And Helen is a terrible beauty. And that's Shudder in the Loins. The Shudder. I mean, there's a sense of dread as well as of pleasure about this.


Because of the number of people who will lose their lives because of Helen, right? I mean, she's fatal.


Absolutely. So where does Helen come from? So there are various stories. Greek myth is not like the Bible. There isn't a single canonical account. There is one story that Afrodite, the Goddess of Love, who emerges from the foam of the sea, so as in the famous Botticelli painting, that the foam hardens and becomes a swan's egg, and it's thrown into a swamp where it fertilizes and Helen hatches from it. So that's one story.


That's just bizarre. I'm sorry, Tom. That's mad. Yeah, that is mad.


That never happened.


I think the thing about the swan is much more plausible.


Well, another story is that, Zus changes into a swan, but the person he rapes isn't Lida, it's nemesis, so retribution. And he either chases her across the world and they're constantly changing form, a bit like in the cartoon of The Sword and the Stone. People have seen that. Oh, yeah. Another is that he pretends to be chased by an eagle, and nemesis takes the swan into her fold to shelter the swan, and then the swan behaves disgracefully.


The eagle is aphrodite in disguise. That's a complicated story.


Very complicated. Which is why I think, basically, the version that becomes most popular and is told most often is the story that it is Lida who gets raped. Lida is the queen of Sparta, and her husband, the King of Sparta, is a man called Tindarius. In a way that is never entirely explained, Lida that night sleeps both with Tindarius and with Jesús in the form of a swam. She has quite an active night.


Very busy night.


This is why when she gives birth to quadruplets, you have two mortal and two immortal children hatching out of the eggs that she lays. The Spartans are actually very proud of this story. And so Pausanius, who's a Greek writing in the second century AD, he's basically writing a travel guide to Greece place. And he says that in Sparta, you can see the shell of the egg, and it's preserved in a temple on the acropolis in Sparta.


So his advice to travelers to Sparta, Tom, was a thousand times better than your advice to me when I went to Sparta, and And you recommend that I go to a place that when I googled it, it said, notorious hangout for down and out, thives, drug addicts, and so on.


Well, we'll be coming to that advice because, of course, so Helen grows up, and Spartan girls are notorious in the Greek world for being educated. They're the only girls who get a state education in Greece. And there's a big focus on sport and athletics. And Euripides, who is an Athenian who writes famous tragedies in the fifth century BC. He has a description of Helen doing gym work with the other girls in Sparta, her thigh naked exposed by the lifting of her skimpy tunic, sharing with boys the running track and the gymnasium.


There's a hell of a lot of thighs in this podcast so far, Tom.


Well, I've said that Greek myths are often seen as being suitable for children. They are absolutely not. They are shocking. There are repeated instances, for instance, of rape. This is what happens with Helen. She is out with the girls, practicing her sport. Probably, Dominic tradition says, at the site of the temple of Artemis Orthea, which was the temple that I sent you to.


That's the place. Well, I didn't go. We went to a restaurant instead. Anyway, go on.


Well, so it's an ill omened place because this is where Helen, she's 12 years old. So 12 is traditionally the age at which girls become available to be married. So she is on the cusp of being Nubile. She is spotted by a Greek hero who's very famous, who probably most people who've read any book on the Greek myths will have heard of. And this is Thesius, the Athenian hero who kills the Minator on Creece. Great. In the books about Thesius that I read when I was a child, this episode was not mentioned. But Thesius, he's passing the temple of Artemis Orthea, and he sees the 12-year-old Helen, and he is transfixed. She is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. And so he abducts her. He takes her back to Attica, the land around Athens. He imprisons her on the acropolis of a town there called Affidna. And he appoints his mother,ithra, to look after the young Helen. And then he goes off to try and abduct and rape Persephone, who is the queen of the Dead, the wife of Hades, as you do. And while he is down in the underworld, he ends up getting stuck to a seat and has to be rescued in the long run by Hercules.


But Caster and Pollock come and rescue their sister, and they sac a Fidna, and they takeithra to serve Helen as her maid, which is what will then happen.


A question about this, that you said this was Euripides. Obviously, Thesius is associated with Athens. She's from Sparta. How much does that story reflect the political culture of the wars, the rivalry between Athens and Sparta? It's a story of Athenians sacking Sparta or something, isn't That's what is ultimately behind this fantasy.


The way that Euripides frames it in the depths of the Pelipanesian war, this terrible conflict between Athens and Sparta, is definitely drawing on that. But the roots of the story are much older. This is the fascination of it, is that elements of the story can just be reworked and reworked by Greeks at various points and with various perspectives. But the core of the story does genuinely seem to be very ancient. Running throughout it is this idea hear that Helen's beauty drives men mad. People may wonder, well, what did she look like? Bethany Hughes has written a wonderful book on Helen of Troy, both as myth and the possible history that might lie behind her. She observes that the wonderful irony about the most beautiful woman in the world is that she is faceless. But there are various traditional attributes of her beauty that are described repeatedly. One is that she has white skin like the shell that she hatched from. She is always described as blindingly white. She is golden haired. Her hair is described as Xanthus. That is a color that is associated with the divine. Her hair is more beautiful than any other woman's.


And she has perfect milky white breasts. And the evidence for this is adduced by Pliny the elder, the great Roman encyclopedist, who records that in roads in a temple of Athena, there is a gob goblet, and it is said to have been cast to correspond to the dimensions of one of Helen's breasts. And people go and admire it and say, yes, that is absolutely perfect.


So just at this stage, I know you'll probably come to this in the second half, so we don't need to get into the weeds of the discussion right away. But obviously, so far, everything that has been written, and indeed, presumably the goblet and so on and so forth, has been made by men. Lots of people listening to this will be thinking this is just a male fantasy. This is the male gaze run riot, Tom. This is just a total male sexist fantasy. So we should come to the discussion of that probably later on, I guess.


We will. And there is one very famous female Greek writer who does write about Helen, and we'll come to her in due course. But you're right. She is driving men mad. And the fact that she's been abducted and raped as a girl does not put off her suitors, quite the opposite. So Tindarius basically says, I don't know what to do about this. Every man in Greece, every powerful king in Greece wants her. What am I going to do? And And Adisius, the most cunning and clever of the Greek heroes, comes up with this wheeze and he says, We'll get all the heroes to swear an oath that if any one of them abducts her, everyone else will team together and get Helen back. And Tindarius thinks, Yeah, that's a brilliant idea. I'll do that. And this is his reward for this is that he gets as his wife, Helen's cousin, Penelope, who in the epics will serve as a model of the faithful wife. She's sensible, she's wise, and in a way, a much better wife than Helen. But obviously everyone wants Helen. And the person who ends up getting her is a guy called Menelaus.


He's useless, totally useless in all the stories.


I mean, he's certainly not on a level with Helen. So for a start, he's a younger brother. Dominic, you and I are both elder brothers, so we approve of the Greek tradition that says the elder brother is generally more admirable. Some even say that Menelaus's elder brother, who is Agamemnon, the man who will marry Helen's sister, Clitamnestra, that he does the wooing for Menelaus. Menelaus, at this point, does not have a palace for reasons that we'll come to later. So he moves into Tindarius's palace and in due course, inherits it and Helen's treasure and gold. So he is pretty much completely defined by Helen. This is emasculating for a Greek king. He is behaving like the bride moving into the person he's marrying home. Basically, his rank depends on being married to Helen. This is a cause of embarrassment. They have a daughter, but they have no son. I think there's generally a sense that Helen is too beautiful to have children. She stays naturally beautiful throughout, and the experience of motherhood is not something that ages her, which presumably is why she doesn't have lots of children. Anyway, so they're all hanging out. Menelaus and Helen and their daughter Hermione are in Sparta, when who should turn up but a prince from Troy, a city on the other side of the Aegean.


Paris. Yes, called Paris. Paris has come to Sparta sent by Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, because we talked about how the Greeks loved a beauty contest, and even the Goddesses occasionally like a beauty contest. A golden apple has been thrown into a banquet with the praise to the fairest. Three goddesses, Here are the Queen of the gods, Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, Afrodite, the Goddess of Beauty and Love. You'd think, actually, she was always going to win a beauty contest. But anyway, Paris has been appointed to judge between them. He has chosen Aphrodite, and so Aphrodite, in return, has promised him the most beautiful woman in the world. This is why Paris has arrived. Paris is much better suited to Helen than Menelaus is, because if Sparta is famous among the Greeks as the home of the most beautiful women, Troy is famous for the beauty of its men. So Ganymede, the cup bearer of Seus, is a Trojan. Paris, he has a slightly feminine quality to his handsomeness.


He's a feline figure, isn't he, Paris?


Yes, he's feline. Yes, absolutely. And he is stalking Helen. And Menelait makes it very easy for him because his grandfather has died in Crete, and so he goes away. Helen and Menelaus are left alone in Sparta, and Paris sets off with her. Now, the question is, does Helen go willingly or not? Is this another story of rape?




A lot of contemporary renderings of the story say that it is. But it has to be said that basically the ancients are pretty unanimous. Helen chooses to go, and more than that, she actually dazzles Paris. She takes her treasure with her. When she goes in all the epics, the tragedies, all the accounts, she is never described as Paris's concubine or whore or slave. She's always his wife. She maintains her status and her rank and her dignity community, but at the cost of being an adulterous. So she is going. And you asked about, has a woman written about Troy? Saffo, who is a famous lyric poet. We only have fragments of her poetry, but she was celebrated as the 10th muse. She wrote, For she that far surpassed all mortals in beauty, Helen, her most noble husband, deserted and went sailing to Troy with never a thought for her daughter and dear parents. So Saffo is seizing on the things that a woman in Greek culture should properly be doing, looking after her parents, looking after her children, looking after her husband. Helen, not doing any of that. She has a, what in Greek terms is a sense of masculine autonomy.


She goes off with Paris, and they have their first night together on a rocky island called Crani, which is just off the mainland of Sparta. In the Iliad, Homer's great epic, so almost nine years later, Paris still remembers that night as something remarkable. And extraordinary. He takes her off to Troy, and all the Trojans are besotted with her as well. So that when Menelaus and Adyceus come to ask for Helen back, all the Trojans say, No, we're not going to give her back. Even though they know that the Greeks have sworn this oath that they will get together and come and get her. The Trojans won't do it.


They're so dazzled like Paris was by her beauty.


Absolutely. And so there's a philosopher called Socrates, an Athenian in the fourth century, who says that this is why the Trojan war is the greatest and most terrible conflict ever fought. So he says, It is clear how both sides felt about it, the Trojans as well as the Greeks, for although there had been many causes of contention between them before, none of these had disturbed their peace. Whereas over Helen, they fought the greatest of wars, greatest not only for the scale of the passion involved, but also for how long it lasted and the sheer scale of the violence it unleashed. And this violence is made worse by the fact that the gods, too, end up fighting over Helen. So in the Trojan war, Aphrodite is on one side, the side of Paris and the Trojans, and Athena and here are on the Greek side because they hate Paris. But basically, they're fighting over Helen. Socrates says the whole universe goes mad. And he draws this conclusion that beauty by nature rules over strength. Strength. So you were saying this is a male fantasy, but essentially what Socrates is doing there is saying the power of Helen's beauty is greater than the strength of all the men who came to fight her.


So if you go to the Homer's Epic, the Iliad, Obviously, most of the action, or indeed, almost all of the action revolves around the men, Achilles, Hector, Petroclos, Adesius, and so on and so forth. She does have a role in the Trojan War story, doesn't she? Because Paris is killed. Is he killed by an arrow? Have I got that right?


That's right.


And then she marries somebody else, Diphobus. He's a lucky man because he gets the most beautiful woman- Well, he's not a lucky man, actually.


So he is the fourth of Helen's husbands. He's a brother of Paris, very good warrior. Hold on, the fourth?


Oh, because Thesius. I forgot about Thesius.


Yeah, so the Thesius as well. Actually, he's not lucky because Helen completely stiffs him over. Helen is behaving very badly towards the end of the Trojan War. So the famous story of the Trojan horse. All the Greeks have hidden themselves inside the horse and the horse gets wheeled into Troy. Helen comes down to the horse and she walks around the horse and she mimics the wives of the Greek heroes, calling calling out to them. The heroes have been away by this point for 10 years. Menelaus, of course, hears Helen's own voice, but two other heroes hear it, and they are about to call out and Adyceus knows what is happening, and he throttles one of the heroes to stop him from calling out.


Like Custer with his dogs before one of those massacres. Very similar.


Yeah, not a parallel that I think has ever been made before, but that's what the podcast is all about. And in due course, Menelaus will blame this not on Helen herself, but on Afrodite, that Aphrodite has possessed her. And the ability to mimic is traditionally one of Aphrodite's attributes. But I think Helen is very deceptive. She is very manipulative. And we might see that again as misogyne stereotyping. It isn't Really, it's giving her the attributes of a God. This is what gods do. Gods do deceive.


Just on that question, is she divine? She's half divine, right?


She is half divine, and we'll come to that. The question of, is she mortal? Is she divine? Is she both? We'll come to that. But just sticking Coming to the topic of how Helen behaves badly, even as she's trying to, and the stories are contradictory, on the one hand, she is trying to save Troy by getting the heroes to come out of the horse. But on the other hand, she wants her husband dead and all the Trojans dead. So she has hidden day Phobus's sword. And the moment she sees the Greeks come out, she says, Oh, he's in there. Go and kill him. So she seems to have decided by this point that she wants to go back with Menelaus. Now, you may think, I mean, Menelaus has become the most notorious cookhold in world mythology. And Helen, by his light, is responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of people. So what's he going to do? And all the sources imply that he's aiming to kill her. And there are vases. It shows Menelaus coming in with his sword upraised. It happens in tragedies. So Euripides, again, who's obsessed by Helen and is always giving various portraits of her.


In one of his plays, The Trojan Women, which is a completely bleak account what happens to the women after the sack of Troy, their enslavement, their rape. Menelaus is shown coming in. Helen confronts him, and it's very rare that Helen justifies herself. But basically, her response to Menelaus is to say, It was your fault. You should have looked after me better. Then she ends by calling him an idiot. You'd think this isn't a great way to stop your husband from killing you. But Menelaus is transfixed by her. You will see on Vases that often Helen is shown adjusting her veil. It's unclear whether Whether she's covering her beautiful face or whether she is unveiling her hair. But in either way, Menelaus drops his sword in Lysistrata, which is the great comedy by Aristophanies, women trying to stop the Peloponesian war. There's a description of Helen's Beauty When Menelaus caught a glimpse of Helen's breasts naked as they were, then he dropped his sword.


So once again, you have the idea that women have this through their sexuality. They have this necromantic power over men, or at least she does.


Helen does, because With all the other women, they either get killed or enslaved. Helen doesn't. Helen is kept by Menelaus as his queen. They go back to Sparta in the Odyssey, which is the sequel to the Iliad, describes the wanderings of Editius for another 10 years. Editius' son, Telemicus, goes to Sparta to ask for help finding his father, and is hosted by Menelaus and Helen. Helen has this potion, which you drink it and it eases pain and grief. People have said, Maybe this is or something, but I think that's reductive. I think it's another expression of Helen's more than human powers that just as she has caused the trauma of bereavement and grief, so fleetingly she has the power to heal it.


She can soothe your injured feelings or whatever.


Yeah. What happens to Helen, there are, again, various accounts. So Pausanius, this gazeteer, he says that there's a temple in roads again, that Helen got seized by the maids of a woman who had died at Troy, and they hang Helen from a tree. But this is very unusual and very late. It is very rare for the death of Helen to be described. She's hated, she's cursed, she's insulted. But again and again, when people try to kill her. They just find they can't. She's too beautiful. All the gods intervene. So again, Euripides, in another play, he describes how someone has cornered her, is trying to kill her, and then Helen just vanishes. She's been removed by the gods. They're looking after her. There is this idea, which is very ancient, that Helen has actually gone to the Elysian fields, so like Russell Crowe. In the Odyssey, Menelaus is told that if he sticks with Helen, then he will go to the Elysian fields well. He's told, All this is because you are Helen's husband and ranked by the gods as Eus' son-in-law. And does he? Yeah, he does, according to tradition.


He's done very well for such a useless person.


Right, but Greek mythology, being Greek mythology, there is an alternative tradition which again is in Porcineus, the Gazeteer. He says that Helen ends up married to Achilles, the great warrior who has actually died in the Trojan War. He says that in the Black Sea, opposite the mouth of the Danube, there is an island called Luque, which means the white island, and that this is where Achilles lives, and Helen is there, and Helen is his wife. So Achilles is Helen's fifth husband. In the Roman period, this account is supplemented by a whole load of writers. Have you read Roberto Calasso's, Marriage of Cadmus and Harmon?


I haven't, but I'm aware of it.


It's a wonderful, weird, haunting account of the Greek myths. He has a brilliant rendering of all these various Greek writings, so I'll just read it. On Leaving the Danube for the open sea, sailors must pass by Luque, the White Island. They see a coastline of dunes, rocks, and woods. It's an island for cast aways and people who want to offer up a sacrifice. No one has ever dared to stay there after sundown, and no woman has ever trod at sandy beaches. The only building on the island is a temple with two statues, Achilles and Helen. The temple guards the sea goals. Every morning, they wet their wings in the sea and sprinkle water on the stones. Achilles lives on the island as Helen's fifth husband. Some have seen him appear in the dazzling armor that once blinded Homer with its brilliance. At night, they chant the poetry of Homer in high, clear voices. That's amazing. I mean, Achilles and Helen are chanting poetry written about themselves. Sometimes, when boats drop anchor off the beach, the sailors hear a drumming of horses' hooves, the clashing of weapons, and the cries of warriors. So this idea of war as something eternal.


And what makes this passage, which was written before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, all the more haunting, is that the white island is the island that is also called snake Island.


So that was the first day of the war. The Russians attacked, didn't they? And there was a Ukrainian little garrison, and the Russians, famously, are supposed to have said, surrender or face attack or whatever. And the border guard said, Russian warship, go F yourself. And everyone said, what a tremendous thing this is. Hurra for Ukraine, all that stuff. And it's actually a very homeric scene, Tom.


It is a homeric scene. And it happened on a homeric place where Achilles and Helen still live.


To this day.


So on that note, perhaps we should take a break.


Right. So what we should do after the break is we should find out what on Earth is going on behind all these Where did they come from? Was there a real Helen? And if there wasn't, what are the Greeks trying to do by creating this literary mythological figure? So we'll see you after the break. So the leading men of Troy sat upon the tower, and they, as they saw Helen approaching in undertone, spoke winged words to one another. No blame that the Trojans and strong, grieved Greeks have suffered so long on account of such a woman. Terrible does she seem like the immortal goddesses to look on. That was top writer, Homa in the Iliad. And there you have the sense, the leading men of Troy sitting on the tower seeing Helen approaching, the sense of the desire, the yearning, the obsession because of her dazzling beauty. But also, terribly does she seem like the immortal goddess is to look on, the sense that she's frightening, that she is, as we said in the first half, fateful and fatal. It's not surprising that the elders of Troy, when they see her coming, think to themselves, Oh, we're for it now, because with great beauty comesIt was a great disaster.




And they actually say, We should send her back. Yeah. And then they say, Oh, no, let's not. Priam, the king of Troy, says, No, let's keep her.


Again, though, to pick up the theme from the first half, again, you could say, This is how men have often seen women's as both something very desirable and something to be feared. Couldn't you, Tom?


Yeah, I guess so. Helen, as the most beautiful of all women, obviously raises that to a pitch. I think it has to be something that is overwhelming seemingly powerful for the whole story of the Trojan War to make sense. Because the question is, of course, are the Greeks justified? Are the Trojans justified in fighting over her? I think that that is also a part of what makes Helen so interesting to various Greek writers over the sweep of Greek history is that she provides opportunities for all kinds of writers from different backgrounds and writing in different styles. She gives them material. We mentioned Saffo, who is a Lyric poet, aristocratic. Euripides, we've talked about this tragedian. He is writing in the context of the democracy of Athens. So again, he has a different perspective. And then we quoted Socrates, who's this orator who is writing... I mean, he lives a very long life. As The young man, he's in the shadow of the Peloponesian War, the great war between Athens and Sparta. And he lives to see the rise of Massodon, which will unleash yet more terrible wars. So you can see the power of Helen as a mythic figure is that She provides scope for all these different writers to do their stuff.


So this, particularly, this question of, are the Greeks justified in fighting her? I think plays a key role in the birth of history itself. I would Fuck you, Dominic, that without Helen of Troy, we might not be doing this podcast. So we owe her a lot. So the two great historians who give birth to history, Herodotus and Thucydides. Thucydides, at the beginning of his account of the Pelipindian War, the great war between the Athenians and the Spartans. He scorns the very idea that the Greek princes had sworn an oath to get Helen back. I mean, he just says, This is mad. This is a a children's story. And he's very Sandbrooke. He takes for granted that the war is a consequence of great power, politics, and of money. It's fought over material causes.


I'm glad that I now, apparently, own that way of looking at history, Tom. That's very you. Thank you.


Yeah, you're welcome. And it sets the template for the Thucydides' entire take on history, which is that it is all about, I guess, the masculine pursuits of war and politics.


Hey, I'm distancing myself from that because that's not how I do history.


No, understood. This is why in Thucydides, Helen is one of only 20 women who were mentioned by name. His history is very, very long. There are very, very few women.


He wouldn't have been in about '60s fashion, would he?


No, he would very much not have done that. But I tell you who would, and that's Herodotus. Herodotus would have loved all that stuff. Herodotus is the first historian. His work, so this is the first work of history ever written, he begins with, in the way that the Usitities will do as well, a demythologization of Helen, because he's trying to explain why the Greeks have gone war with the Persian Empire in the fifth century BC. He begins by giving the Persian perspective. The Persian perspective, Herodotus reports, is that Helen was actually just a number of women who were abducted by pirates coming to Greece and stealing women, and Greek pirates going to Asia and stealing women from there, a bout of competitive princess rustling, Herodotus calls it. There's no mention of Helen's Beauty. The Persians just emphasize that the Greeks have massively, massively overreli reacted to her abduction. What the Persians are doing by denying that Helen has any supernatural quality of beauty is to make the Trojan War just look like any other war. It's nothing special. There's nothing mythical about it. There's nothing supernatural.


I mean, to be fair, Tom, there must have been lots of wars and there must have been lots of violence along that seaboard because there are all these states and cities that are trading with each other. So the Persians, surely, are just employing common sense.


Well, so that would very much be how Herodotus would frame the Persian perspective. He's saying that the Trojan War was nothing special. It was just a sequence of endless tit for tat conflicts. It was ridiculous for the Greeks to overreact just because somebody stole a woman from them. That is how Herodotus is framing the Persian take on it. But he hasn't finished with Helen because there are two more perspectives that he offers later in his history. The first is a very, very weird aspect of Helen's story, which is that actually she never She went to the Trojan War at all. She spent the whole period of the Trojan War in Egypt. Herodotus gives an Egyptian account, he says, that this is what happened, that Paris had taken Helen, behaved very badly, and that, in the opinion of the Egyptians, the Greeks were right to go and get her back, but that Paris and Helen, when they were going to Troy, had been blown off course, had ended up in Egypt, and the Pharaoh had been so appalled by what Paris had done that he wouldn't let him leave without keeping Helen himself. So this is why Helen spends the whole time.


And in due course, Menelaus comes and picks her up after the Trojan War and goes back to Sparta. And Herodotus says, Well, you may wonder why Homer doesn't mention this, if this is what happened. And he says, Well, Homer doesn't mention it because it wouldn't have made for an epic quality for his poem. So basically, he's not revealing the actual truth because it makes a better story to imagine that Helen actually was in Troy.


Can I ask a quick question about Herodotus? Does Herodotus think this actually happened. By which I mean, does Herodotus believe that Helen of Troy is a historical figure rather than purely a mythological one?


Yes, he does. He never doubts that. He's ventriloquizing the Persians, they accept Helen existed. The Egyptians, they accept Helen existed. But what he is doing is giving multiple perspectives on who Helen was and is.


So interestingly, Herodotus thinks that Homer has fictionalized what was previously a factual story.


Yes. And you may wonder, well, if Helen spent the whole time in Egypt Why were the Greeks and the Trojans fighting them if she was never there? Yeah, mugs. And the answer to this, which gets teased out in a lot of traumas, Euripides inevitably being to the fore, is that the gods created what was called an Eidolon, which is an image of Helen conjured up out of cloud and smoke that looks exactly like her. And that, therefore, the Helen who is fought over at Troy is a phantasm. And it makes it even worse. They're not even fighting over Helen. They're fighting over a fantasy of Helen. So that is Herodotus' refinement of the Persian position by giving the Egyptian position. But then finally, he gives the Spartan position. What do the Spartans think of Helen? Herodotus reports that there's a place called Therapne, just outside Sparta, and that the Spartans, whose daughters are invariably beautiful, Spartan girls are famously beautiful, that if a child is born, a girl is born who is ugly, the nurse will take the girl up to the shrine of Thrapne. He gives us a specific instance of this. The daughter of a king, baby daughter, gets taken up.


The nurse meets a woman there who is veiled. The woman says, Show me the child. The nurse refuses, and the woman insists over and over again until finally the nurse hands the baby girl over to the nurse, and the mysterious woman strokes the girl's head and then says, You will be the fairest woman in Sparta. Sure enough, the girl It's always up to be the fairest woman in Sparta. It's clear that this woman is Helen. It's very strange because Helen is playing the role of a God. It is a direct contradiction to the Persian perspective, which is saying she's just a woman. In the Spartan perspective, Helen is not just the most beautiful woman who's ever lived, but she is divine. It is just one of a number of markers of Spartan devotion to Helen as almost a goddess. There's the fragments of the egg, which we talked about, which are kept on the acropolis. There's a shrine dedicated not just to Helen herself, but to one of her sandals, which supposedly fell off in the elopement. In a battle, the Spartans are said to her fort, she appears alongside her brothers, Caster and Pollux, to help inspire the Spartans to victory.


You mentioned before whether the story of Thesius abducting Helen was merely a product of the Pelipinesian war, of the rivalry between Athens and Sparta. I think not, because there is a story told that when the Spartans invade Attica, they burn everything and they attack every town, except for a place called Decaulia. And the story is that they do this because it was the Decalians who had told Caster and Pollux where their sister was to be found. And so this is a tribute to it.


Right. So just on this thing about Helen and her divine powers or whatever, how normal is this for somebody who's reputed to be the child of a mortal and an immortal? So normally, do those people have divine powers, or normally are they ranked with mortals?


They're normally ranked with mortals. There is a masculine counterpoint, which is Heracles, who is also a son of Seus, the most masculine of men in the way that Helen is the most feminine of women. Heracles is the strongest of men, and in the end, he becomes a God and sits in Olympus. Helen is clearly the female counterpart to that. But it's important to emphasize that there are lots of heroes who have shrines to them, very few women. So in that sense, Helen really is someone unique. And we don't have stories, really, apart from very late ones, of her ever dying. And so I think that there are scholars who say that perhaps Helen was always a goddess, that She's a goddess who becomes mortalized. But if that is the case, then there's nothing in the ancient sources that suggests that.


You don't believe that? You don't believe that that's- No, I don't.


I think that just as Helen's Beauty drives men mad in the myths, I think she's an object of such fascination, and to women as well as men. So that story of the nurse taking the baby up. The idea of a woman with such power, it's so interesting to people that they think her attributes Must be those of a goddess. And so the more that stories are told about her, the more she comes to take on divine attributes and qualities that in Immortal might be condemned, rushing off with strange men or whatever. In a Goddess, that's the thing goddesses would do. And so it removes Helen from the dimensions of the traditional standards of judgment that are applied to women.


So hold on, Tom. Where did she begin? I know you're going to say you don't know, but I'm asking you to speculate. Did she begin as a character, simply in a story, who over time took on more and more semi-divine attributes as the story was told and retold?


Yeah, I think so.


And do you think she began purely as a male fantasy figure stories?


Well, we'll come to who the historical Helen might have been in due course. But I think she is clearly, even by the time Homer is writing about her, she is already very firmly established as a figure that everyone knows about. That's why Homer doesn't need to explain who she is. I think the idea of the most beautiful woman in the world who has a power over men that is of a divine order, I think that that appeals to something very profound in the way the Greeks understand the Cosmos and the universe.


Greek men understand the Cosmos.


Well, women as well, because Saffo responds to it. A fascinating example of the way in which Helen comes to seem like a jealous and angry like a God. There's a poet called Stesichorus, and he writes abusive poetry about Helen, calling her a prostitute and adulteress and so on. And so she blinds him as punishment, as she had blinded Homer, who supposedly was blind. But Stesichorus is a favorite of the Muses. And so unlike Homer, he understands why he's been struck blind. And so he composes these lines, The story I told is not true. He's addressing Helen, You did not go in the well-bent ships. You did not reach the citadel of Troy. So he, again, is saying, Helen never went to Troy. He's basically saying all the stories that are told about Helen are not true. But he's doing this because he knows that Helen is a figure so powerful that she can blind him. And this is what gods do. And I think that this is part of what makes Helen so fascinating fascinating to the Greeks is the idea of a woman who stands midway between the human and the divine. And it comes to express itself in very weird ways.


So there's a sect of Pythagoreans who basically think she's an alien. So they that she comes from the moon and that on the moon, there's a colony of humans who are infinitely more beautiful, infinitely larger, infinitely stronger than mortals down on Earth, and that this is why Helen is so beautiful. That's a very weird idea here. And you get an echo of that. Dan Simmons, the great science fiction writer, he wrote a couple of books, Ilium and Olympus, in which the Trojan War is restaged. And Helen is, again, she's a figure of beauty conjured up by science by that point. But you get a prefiguring of that even in classical antiquity. And I think that it's another marker of Helen's power that you don't need to believe in the Greek gods to be obsessed by her. The stories of Helen continue to be told right the way through the Christian era. I mean, Marlowe is doing it. Yates is doing it. Helen comes to obsess people. You were asking, was there a real Helen? Of course, into the 19th century, when archeology as a discipline is starting to be developed, the question of was Helen real?


It inspires what is probably the most famous or indeed infamous episode in the history of archeology, ranking alongside Howard Carter's discovery of the the tomb of Tutan Carmen, which is the German businessman turned archeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the 19th century, who is so besotted by the idea that Helen might have existed and the Trojan War might actually have been fought over her, that he lets himself the task of going to the site of Troy and trying to find it.


Tom, what an exciting moment that is. Schliemann is on his way, this German businessman, to the site of Troy, and he thinks he's going to discover the truth about the Trojan War and the truth about the historical Helen of Troy. Do you know what? We will come to this in our next episode, where we will talk about what Schliemann found, his theories, who the real Helen of Troy might have been, and then we will turn our attention to Helen's possibly even more terrifying sister, Clite Emnestra, and her blood-soaked career. And we can talk a little bit about what it all means, Tom. So if you're a member of the Rest is History Club, if you're one of the Olympians, you listen to that episode right away. And you can, of course, join the Olympians by going to therestishistory. Com. You get more benefits, frankly, than you would by being a Greek God. We think of our members as Greek gods and goddesses, don't we, Tom?


We absolutely do. Midway between the mortal and the divine.


Absolutely, they are. Tom, thank you very much for that tour de force on that Hellenic and Olympian bombshell. We will leave you and we will see you next time for the truth about Helen of Troy and her extraordinary sister, Clitam Nestre. See you then.




Hello, listeners. It's Anita Arnind here from the Goalhanger Sister podcast, Empire, which I host along with... Me, William Dalrimple. We are here to tell you about our new series on the Founding Fathers: The Men Who Made America. We wanted to look at the men who actually founded the country, who dreamt the dream, who wrote the words upon which a country would be born.


What were they like?


What made them do what they What did they actually believe in? And how did they come to play the role that they did in the American Revolution and the Creation of America?


What really interested me about this was the contradictions. We expect these men to be great figures. We've seen the portraits in the galleries. We know the faces from the banknotes, but they're deeply complex figures. But in that, and in that blend of contradiction and intellectual power and writing genius and curiosity and raw ability, lies the nuance of complexity that allows us to understand them. The United States is in many ways a reflection of their beliefs, their experiences.


These are the men who wrote the Constitution. These are the men who created the federal system. In every way, they are totally fundamental to what American politics looks like today.


It all goes back to this extraordinary group of men.


Yeah, and they have rip-roaring yarns as well, let me tell you. If you want to know why America is the way it is and who the men were who made it, you can listen by searching Empire wherever you get your podcast.