"As such, Helen herself has a beauty rating of 1.186 helens"
December 18, 2014 1:33 AM   Subscribe

in the iliad helen speaks the last lament for hector. the only man in troy who showed her kindness is slain—and now, helen says, πάντες δέ με πεφρίκασιν, all men shudder at me. she doesn't speak in the iliad again. homer isn’t cruel to helen; her story is cruel enough.

more Helen of Troy from the same:
elusive is right. (there’s a vellum manuscript of homer called the ambrosian iliad, one of the oldest surviving manuscripts in the world. when it was found it had been butchered, its illustrations cut out and stuck to pieces of paper. a librarian realised that there were lines of the iliad under the paper-sheets and used chemicals to dissolve the glue binding the paper to the vellum. on the reverse of one of the fragments was an image of helen, dressed as if in purdah, and paris, sitting side-by-side.
because helen of troy doesn’t have one face; she has a thousand.
firstly, every retelling of classical mythology has to negotiate the problem of translation, from the microcosm of syntax upward. the past can’t ever be fully recovered: all our conjurings of it, and its stories, are shaded by modern consciousness. some retellings of myths try to conceal the act of translation and present the story as if there were no distance between past & future. others are self-reflexive about the inevitable failures of translation, emphasising re-narration as an act of re-creation, and foregrounding the modern assumptions being brought to the narrative.
there’s no singular helen myth.
more: good books and analyses of helen


The title is from humorous units of measurement, and previously
posted by the man of twists and turns (28 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
because helen of troy doesn’t have one face; she has a thousand

Enough for each one to launch a ship
posted by iotic at 1:57 AM on December 18, 2014 [7 favorites]


THIRTY HELENS AGREE
posted by pxe2000 at 4:01 AM on December 18, 2014 [26 favorites]


This is a real treat. Some of my favorite conversations with my daughter have been when she's thought very deeply about a character from a novel, or more often, a series of novels that are basically youg adult epics. You can probably guess some of them. This very much reminds me of those conversations. There is a richness to these observations and an immediacy of feeling that i find really touching. Learning facts presented like this is more of a social than intellectual experience for me, if that makes sense.
posted by putzface_dickman at 4:05 AM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]




THIRTY HELENS AGREE

And in so doing, they launched 30,000 ships....
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:35 AM on December 18, 2014


Helen, it has always seemed to me, got a hugely raw deal. She gets blamed for the Trojan War as if Menelaus and all those other kings basically had no agency (although they have plenty later). Helen, contrary to publular metric, did not even launch one ship. That was a bunch of guys.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:39 AM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


Why are there no capital letters in that piece?

Interesting stuff, with or without upper case.
posted by kinnakeet at 5:43 AM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Why are there no capital letters in that piece?

To get yourself back to the Bronze Age, you must sacrifice a part of yourself.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:01 AM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


tbh there is plenty of substance to that piece, regardless of what you think of the author's style. Thanks for posting this; good stuff.
posted by lonefrontranger at 6:21 AM on December 18, 2014


IFHEWEREGOINGBRONZEAGEWOULDNTTHEAUTHORKEEPITINCAPITALSWITHOUTSPACING?
posted by mr. digits at 6:52 AM on December 18, 2014 [9 favorites]


Helens of Troy performed relatively well in this year's REF, based on research outputs alone. 12 Helen-generated outputs were ranked 4* and no fewer than 42 3* for research excellence. However, only 9.4% of the total number of FTE Category A Helens were submitted for this round, bringing its overall ranking down significantly. This year, Helen of Troy ranked twenty-first in Classics, just ahead of the University of Wales Trinity St David, but behind such Classics powerhouses as the Universities of Kent, Liverpool, and Glasgow. The Helen of Troy Comms Department is yet to issue a press release, but commentators knowledgeable about the sector commented that this is the price of having too many (c. 900) research-inactive Helens in the department.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:24 AM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Have y'all seen the version of The Trojan Women with Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache, and Irene Papas as Helen? Because holy ambrosia, is it a punch in the gut.
posted by gwint at 7:49 AM on December 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


My (lady) Humanities 101 prof: "Get real. A few men might fight over a woman, sure. But a fleet like that? They didn't launch for the woman. They launched to loot Troy. The woman was just an excuse."

Pretty common sensical, of course, but I always appreciated that a professor who was so very much about showing the romance of things would cut right to the chase on this one.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:18 AM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


To recap:
  • A Helen is the amount of beauty required to launch a thousand ships
  • A Millihelen is the amount of beauty required to launch a single ship
  • A Microhelen is the amount of beauty required to motivate a single sailor
  • An Antihelen is the amount of ugly required to launch a thousand ships... in the opposite direction
posted by surazal at 8:30 AM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


Why are there no capital letters in that piece?

were you aware that e.e. cummings was a classical scholar? coincidence? you be the judge.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:32 AM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


"She gets blamed for the Trojan War..."

It's a version of, "If you didn't want to be raped, why did you dress like that," isn't it?

Translations can be quite different, eh? I first discovered this when I became interested, as an English speaker, in Russian literature. I'm also interested in ancient literature, and there are many different renderings there. Fagles is a favorite. I especially like his Iliad.
Recently, I was reading the Egyptian "Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor." There's a line in it that's variously translated as either:

"Hear my prayer, for it is good to listen to people. It was said unto me: 'Become a wise man, and you shall come to honor,' and behold I have become such."

or:

"Don't make an effort, my friend. Who would give water at dawn to a goose that will be slaughtered in the morning?"

Huh? I have been puzzling over this for a week now. It seems the second translation is the more literal one, so I cannot understand how others came to the first translation. The proverb seems to me to mean, "Don't be wasteful, (of effort)." Neither seems to make much sense in context.
Google "The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor" if interested. It's a short read, and there are many English versions online.
posted by sudon't at 8:52 AM on December 18, 2014


The piece was so interesting, I didn't notice the lack of caps. The poets have eaten all the birds, so quiet this morning.
posted by Oyéah at 9:20 AM on December 18, 2014


Want, rapture, dread and resentment...mother complex.
posted by Oyéah at 9:23 AM on December 18, 2014


The phrase I'd always heard was, "Helen, with the face that launched a thousand ships."

No agency is even given to her; just her facial beauty. And as such, I've never considered it a condemnation of Helen (Shakespeare's telling in Troilus & Cressida aside).

Of course, it reduces her role even further: from temptress to support system for face.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:25 AM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Helen, contrary to publular metric, did not even launch one ship. That was a bunch of guys.

When we were kids, my sister and some of her friends found a kitten in one of the disused barns behind our house and took her in. When it came time to name her, the friends' dad noticed that the curve of the cat's nose looked an awful lot like a boat ramp, so her face could literally have launched a thousand (tiny) ships. From then on, she was called Helen.
posted by Copronymus at 9:40 AM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


In my youthful readings she seemed like more of a chew toy, than a person of import. The power of this for young women was the anti-power of being pretty enough to get some attention.
posted by Oyéah at 9:56 AM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]




The phrase I'd always heard was, "Helen, with the face that launched a thousand ships."

No agency is even given to her; just her facial beauty.


The line is, "is this the face that launched a thousand ships?", and is uttered by Marlowe's Faustus, to an apparition he has conjured up through Mephistopheles' help. Traditionally, the apparition is then revealed to be Lucifer in a wig. So when this line is said, the real Helen is not even present - except as her image.
posted by iotic at 11:55 AM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


They launched to loot Troy. The woman was just an excuse.

Given the scanty evidence of the Bronze Age Collapse, there's some informed speculation that Troy was a source of raiders and pirates that plagued Greek trade routes. So the Trojan War may have actually been a retaliatory raid.

Of course bear in mind that with the Bronze Age Collapse, there were dozens, maybe hundreds of Troys as the palace system collapsed. Centuries later, with all but the name of the city vanished, it was turned to myth; Helen and the dowry she controlled as a comprehesible story for the people's of the time.

I'm not going to toy with ideas like Helen being a metaphor for the wealth of the Greek palace states or anything like that. Still, it's interesting to think of what stories may arise a thousand years from our civilization's collapse, after the angry sea rises up...
posted by happyroach at 1:13 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Thanks, iotic! Never knew the source.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:27 PM on December 18, 2014


Beautiful writing.
posted by sallybrown at 2:14 PM on December 18, 2014


You're welcome, IAmBroom. For the record, I still managed to get it slightly wrong. The actual line, in context:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. [Kisses her.]
Her lips suck forth my soul; see where it flies!—
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for Heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
posted by iotic at 3:14 PM on December 18, 2014


Lovely posts, thank you! It's too easy to lose Helen amidst everything else happening in The Iliad. I love these takes on her, all the different ways to see her brought to life beyond her beauty. The poem "Love Letters from Helen of Troy" by Elizabeth Hewer is another one of my favorites:

you always feared god-born achilles
the most of all your fellows.
his divinity wove him taller,
better, quicker, stronger.

well here's a secret for you:
my father was a swan,
and the monthly blood on my thighs
is two-parts ichor.

you think achilles was of impressive descent?
touch me one more time.
maybe it's time we found out
what the daughter of the mightiest god
can do.

look to your kingdoms.
i am coming for them all.
posted by yasaman at 9:47 PM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


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