Of all the characters who appear in the Trojan war, all the men who fight and die in Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, all those monsters and nymphs who waylay the storm-battered hero of The Odyssey, only one character is so integral to the story that we have added the words “of Troy” to her name. It reflects a fascinating truth about this remarkable myth: it is no less a story about women than it is a story of men. Without Helen, there is no war, no epic, no drama.
The Iliad is ostensibly the story of one man. Its opening line is, “Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Peleus’s son, of Achilles.” Achilles embraces the line – the first word is his rage, the last word is his name. This poem, we might conclude, will be all about him. And yet, it is not. The poem is called The Iliad. It tells the story not of a man but of a city. Of Ilios, another name for Troy – the theme of a new show at the British Museum, Troy: Myth and Reality.
If it were purely the story of an individual, it would be named after him, as The Odyssey is named for Odysseus. In fact, The Iliad will show us countless examples of what it means to be a man: absolutist like Achilles, cunning like Odysseus, weak like Agamemnon, protective like Hector, wise like Nestor, bereaved like Priam. All these men play a part in the story of the city.
And yet, the first line tells us something else about this poem. The poet doesn’t claim to be creating it: rather, he attributes it to the goddess, his muse. He doesn’t name her, but she is presumably Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. This isn’t just a poetic convention: the first line of Virgil’s Troy poem, The Aeneid, begins, “arma virumque cano” – I sing of arms and the man. Virgil isn’t shy about owning his composition, however much divine inspiration he may have. But Homer puts a goddess at the centre of his opening line. The mighty Achilles might distract us from her, but it is her song of him which we are about to hear.
And so we find that women are part of every aspect of the Trojan war, from its causes to its terrible consequences even when, like Calliope, they are hiding in plain sight. There is no war without Helen, who obviously does not start her life as Helen of Troy, but as Helen of Sparta. The war only occurs after she elopes with (or in some versions of her story, is abducted by) Paris, a prince of Troy.
Helen’s Greek husband, Menelaus, demands that warriors from all over Greece accompany him to reclaim his wife. They had once sworn an oath to do so if Helen were ever abducted: the only way, it seemed, to ensure that the world’s most beautiful woman was not taken from her home by another man. It didn’t occur to Odysseus – whose idea it was that tribal leaders across Greece should swear an oath – that a non-Greek might fancy his chances with Helen, and that this collective pledge could embroil them all in a decade-long conflict.
Helen takes the majority of the blame for the war, although the version of her we see in The Iliad has little say about what she does. In the third book of the poem, she expresses her unwillingness to welcome Paris back to Troy after he and Menelaus have fought an inconclusive duel over her.
Other depictions of Helen show her filled with suicidal remorse: a fragment of a lost play by Sophocles has her planning to drink poison. And in Euripides’s play Helen, he draws on an alternate version of her which is as old as Homer, dating to the 8th century BCE. This Helen doesn’t go to Troy at all, she spends the war living blamelessly in Egypt. The gods send an eidolon (an image of Helen, made of air) to Troy instead. The war is fought over the eidolon and the city is destroyed. The Greeks finally reclaim eidolon-Helen, whereupon she disappears into the air from which she was made. A neater metaphor for the futility of war has rarely been found.
But even when Helen elopes with Paris, it’s unclear how much say she has in the matter. Helen is a bribe, offered by Aphrodite to Paris because she wants him to award her a golden apple which carries the inscription “Te kalliste” – for the most beautiful. Three goddesses want this bauble: Hera, Athene and Aphrodite. The apple was thrown into their midst by another goddess, Eris, at the wedding of a fifth goddess, the sea nymph, Thetis. We tend to call this story “The judgment of Paris”, which rather obscures the almost incidental nature of his role and the centrality of these vying goddesses in causing the downfall of Troy.
The war itself is not purely men’s business, either. The fighting of The Iliad is usually man-on-man, although goddesses get involved too: Aphrodite even gets wounded by the Greek warrior Diomedes at one point: a sign of his extraordinary, almost inhuman prowess. But the poem ends before the war ends: Troy still stands, even if her great defender, Hector, lies dead.
A lost epic, The Aethiopis, told the next part of the story. We have only fragments of it now, but once we could have read of the exploits of Memnon, the great Ethiopian warrior who fought for Troy.
And we could have read of Penthesilea, the Amazon queen who fought Achilles. She and her Amazon women fought and killed many Greek men: battles between Greeks and Amazons are sufficiently common in Greek art that they have a name, amazonomachy. And Penthesilea is so extraordinary, so like a goddess, that she inspires the Trojan women themselves to consider taking up weapons and fighting too. Her glorious death on the battlefield is described in precisely the same way as the deaths of great male warriors.
But the women embroiled in the Trojan war really come into their own in its aftermath. Odysseus would be nothing without his beloved Penelope, waiting on Ithaca for him to return (while he is delayed by many more women: Circe, Calypso, Nausicaa, Scylla, the Sirens…). And Penelope’s dark mirror is Clytemnestra, sister of Helen, waiting for her husband Agamemnon to come home and pay the price for his murder of their daughter, Iphigenia.
Even the seemingly powerless Trojan survivors are capable of wreaking havoc: in Euripides’s play Hecabe, the queen of Troy takes one of the most vicious revenges in all of Greek tragedy against the Thracian king who killed her youngest son.
The vast majority of Euripides’s surviving plays about the war focus on its women: Helen, Hecabe, Andromache, Iphigenia. He always knew what is often forgotten: the drama of war is not always found on the battlefield. It’s in the build-up, the aftermath, the margins. Where the women are waiting.
Natalie Haynes’s books include A Thousand Ships, published in May.
Troy: Myth and Reality is at the British Museum, London, from Thursday to 8 March
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