Helen of Troy – the secret to becoming timeless?

In WimLearn this week, Imogen in Year 10 looks at the secret to becoming timeless, looking at the story of Helen of Troy through different historical periods.

It is uncertain if Helen of Troy ever lived, and yet nearly 3000 years after she first featured in Homer’s epic, the Iliad, she remains infamous – her story and reputation timeless. Set in the final year of the bitter Trojan war, the Iliad tells a legendary tale and includes characters both mortal and immortal. Although appearing only a handful of times, the portrayal of Helen is a striking one.


“No blame that the Trojans and strong-greaved Achaeans
have suffered so long on account of such a woman;
terribly does she seem like the immortal goddess to look on.”



At this point in the poem, Helen herself has not even spoken, but already has been pegged as almost divine in her beauty as well as having the blame for the brutal war placed upon her.

The strange thing is that once this claim was made, Homer neglected to elaborate further. She was supposedly the most beautiful, but no specific features are described, instead leaving it to the imagination. But deliberate or not, employing such a fluid image was a powerful choice, as after all beauty is so subjective. This ambiguity is appealing to the masses, since by allowing the individual to tailor their own perception of her, she can truly become the most beautiful in their eyes.

In a way the Iliad revolves around Helen, but Homer did not require her so much as a character, but more as the ultimate prize – compelling and beautiful, but nonetheless a possession. As a result, her personality is vague, with the little dialogue she has simply presenting her as wracked with regret. One of the first things she says is, “How I wish I’d chosen evil death.” (3.173) Her words are used just to support her reputation, for the more she blames herself for the sufferings of the war, the more the reader dwells on the part she played.

There is something so intriguing about being called the most beautiful woman in the world and yet wishing for death. That, coupled with a lack of detail regarding her personality and background, is what most likely led other writers to continue it, resulting in contradictions and strange embellishments to her tale. For example, in Euripides’ play Helen, she was told to have been born from an egg – peculiar, but it is thought that this was accepted by the Ancient World. And Helen had become so famous that not one, but two different places in Greece, Sparta and Athens, each paraded an eggshell and claimed it was the very eggshell from which she was supposedly born.

Regardless, it seems much of her acclaim stemmed from those in Ancient Greece. Although details like the timeframe, scale and Helen’s involvement in the war are debatable, many historians believe some kind of Trojan war did actually take place. Assuming one did, the aftermath of it would have brought many exaggerations and tales, due to war being a quick path to glory. These would have served to make the war even more renowned, simply adding to her considerable reputation – the greater and more terrible the war was, the more worthy the cause must have been. And had she existed, very few people would have seen her in person, resulting in speculation which was just another factor inflating her stature. For although some would scorn her alleged behaviour, many had genuine faith in her, or at least her beauty. A cult dedicated to her even sprung up across Greece, just like one would have been created for deity.

But how did the myth of Helen survive long after the Ancient Greek’s demise? Her status was not just maintained orally but would have also been displayed in more tangible ways like her appearing in writings, art and architecture, all of which outlived the people. They helped preserve her story, but ultimately it speaks for itself. Even for Greek mythology the tale was unique, and so it was embraced widely by other civilisations. Around 800 years after the Iliad she briefly appears in Roman writer Virgil’s Aeneid. Her story continued to be told even once the gods in it were discarded in favour of other religions like Christianity – somehow in early Middle Ages Helen began to be taken as almost an equivalent temptress to Eve. Skip a few centuries and the Elizabethan playwright Marlowe had coined a catchphrase for her – ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ Even today, she continues to be a source of interest, inspiring more literature and films.

Therefore, what is the secret to becoming timeless? With Helen, there does not seem to be a single factor which can be isolated. Perhaps one could argue it was her iconic story, with her being beautiful enough for thousands of men to die over. But this alluring beauty is also reliant on speculation and mystery – all-important as a fixed image of her would never align with every individuals’ opinion. And so this opens up an important question: could there ever be another woman considered to be the most beautiful in the world? Nowadays, technology would undermine any such claim by eliminating this key element of mystery. Yet this is not necessarily a negative thing. Helen may be a timeless figure, but in the end being beautiful and famous brought her a sad life. The first time she speaks she begs for death, and in the Odyssey by the time she is back at Sparta she has resorted to putting herbs in her wine; essentially drugging herself against her grief. She seems broken – would anyone want to be timeless if that is the price?

Speaking in tongues: why reconstruct a language we don’t even know existed? – 09/11/18

Anna (Year 13) looks back to our earliest beginnings as a civilisation in the Indo-European world, discovering that there is only one route to the reconstruction of Indo-European culture that offers any hope of reliability and that is language.

Swedish, Ukrainian, Punjabi, and Italian. To many of us, these languages are as different and distinct as they come. But it has been discovered that, in the same way that dogs, sheep and pandas have a common ancestor, languages can also be traced back to a common tongue. Thus, Dutch is not merely a bizarrely misspelled version of English and there is more to it than our languages simply being pervaded by the process of Latin words being imported into native dialects in the Middle Ages.

In the twelfth century, an Icelandic scholar concluded that Englishmen and Icelanders ‘are of one tongue, even though one of the two [tongues] has been changed greatly, or both somewhat.’ He went on to say that the two languages had ‘previously parted or branched off from one and the same tongue’. Thus, he noticed the common genetic inheritance of our languages, and coined the model of a tree of related languages which later came to dominate how we look at the evolution of the Indo-European languages. We call this ancestral language Proto-Indo-European, a language spoken by the ancestors of much of Europe and Asia between approximately 4,500 and 2,500 B.C.

The Indo European Family Tree

But what actually is it? Well, let me start simply. Consider the following words: pedis, ποδος (pronounced ‘podos’), pada, foot. They all mean the same thing (foot) In Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and English respectively. You will notice, I hope, the remarkable similarity between the first three words. English, on the other hand, sticks out slightly. Yet, it has exactly the same root as the other three. If I were to go back to one of the earliest forms of Germanic English, Gothic, you may perhaps notice a closer similarity: fotus. Over time, a pattern emerges: it is evident that the letter p correlates to an f and a letter d to a t. This is just one example of many: it is these sound laws that led Jacob Grimm to develop his law.

Grimm’s law is a set of statements named after Jacob Grimm which points out the prominent correlations between the Germanic and other Indo-European languages. Certainly, single words may be borrowed from a language (like the use of the words cliché, from the French, or magnum opus, from Latin), but it is extremely unlikely that an entire grammatical system would be. Therefore, the similarities between modern Indo-European languages can be explained as a result of a single ancestral language devolving into its various daughter languages. And although we can never know what it looked like, we can know what it sounded like. This is because, using Grimm’s Law, we can construct an entire language, not only individual words, but also sentences and even stories.

In 1868, German linguist August Schleicher used reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary to create a fable in order to hear some approximation of PIE. Called “The Sheep and the Horses”, the short parable tells the story of a shorn sheep who encounters a group of unpleasant horses. As linguists have continued to discover more about PIE, this sonic experiment continues, and the fable is periodically updated to reflect the most current understanding of how this extinct language would have sounded when it was spoken some 6,000 years ago. Since there is considerable disagreement among scholars about PIE, no single version can be considered definitive: Andrew Byrd, a University of Kentucky linguist, joked that the only way we could know for sure what it sounded like is if we had a time machine.

The earliest version read as follows:

(The audio of a later version, read by Andrew Byrd can be found at the following link: https://soundcloud.com/archaeologymag/sheep-and-horses)

Here is the fable in English translation:

Though seemingly nonsensical, it is definitely exciting, and when you take a metaphorical microscope to it, you can notice similarities in words and grammar, particularly that of Latin and Ancient Greek. What is the point, though, in reconstructing a language no longer spoken?

Firstly, the world wouldn’t be what it is today had it not been for the Indo-Europeans. If you’re reading this article, chances are that your first language is an Indo-European language, and it’s also very likely that all of the languages you speak are Indo-European languages. Given how powerfully language shapes the range of thoughts available for us to think, this fact exerts no small influence on our outlook on life and therefore, by extension, on our actions.

Secondly though, as a society, we are fascinated by our history, perhaps because examining our roots (to continue the tree metaphor) can help us understand where we may be headed. Although many archaeologists are hesitant to trust linguistic data, by gaining an insight into the language of the PIE world, we can make inferences about their culture and in turn learn more about our own. One such example of this is Hartwick College archaeologist David Anthony’s discovery of a mass of sacrificed dog and wolf bones in the Russian steppes. By consulting historical linguistics and ancient literary traditions to better understand the archaeological record, he and his team found that historical linguists and mythologists have long linked dog sacrifice to an important ancient Indo-European tradition, the roving youthful war band (known as a ‘koryos’ in reconstructed PIE). This tradition, which involved young men becoming warriors in a winter sacrificial ceremony, could help explain why Indo-European languages spread so successfully. Previous generations of scholars imagined hordes of Indo-Europeans on chariots spreading their languages across Europe and Asia by the point of the sword. But Anthony thinks Indo-European spread instead by way of widespread imitation of Indo-European customs, which included, for example, feasting to establish strong social networks. The koryos could have simply been one more feature of Indo-European life that other people admired and adopted, along with the languages themselves. We can learn about the customs of our prehistoric ancestors and so Indo-European studies is relevant because as powerfully as it has influenced our modern social structure and thought, there are also many ways in which the Indo-European worldview is strikingly different from our own. Studying it enables you to have that many more perspectives to draw from in creating your own worldview.

National Historical Museum Stockholm: A bronze Viking plate from the 6th century A.D. depicts a helmeted figure who may be the god Odin dancing with a warrior wearing a wolf mask.

The Wicked Women of Literature – 05/10/18

Lydia, Y12, explores the way the “evil” women in literature have been presented and what links these women across the centuries.

From Euripides’ Medea (431 BC) to Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1950), the presentation of women throughout literary history is fascinating, often providing a lens through which modern readers can appreciate the attitudes of the past. It is especially interesting to focus on the presentation of evil and transgressive women in literature, revealing the gender-based fears that have plagued western-society for almost two and a half millennia.

Focusing solely on Medea and East of Eden as well as Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606), these evil women span an enormous timeframe yet adhere to strikingly similar tropes, almost invariably defying female-specific social mores. These include a rejection of motherhood and an assertion of dominance over their husbands.

Medea is a jilted bride, seeking revenge on her former husband, Jason, for leaving her for the far richer Princess Glauke. As the ultimate revenge she slaughters her own children with a knife. The childless Lady Macbeth speaks in graphic terms of her readiness to “dash the brains out” of a breastfeeding infant. Shakespeare also emphasises her physical aversion to motherhood as she implores spirits to “come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall”. In East of Eden, Steinbeck’s villainess, Cathy Ames, echoes this motif. Steinbeck describes that “[Cathy’s] breasts didn’t grow … There was no quickening of milk glands, no preparation to feed the infant”. As soon as Cathy’s children are born she rejects them both. The repeated presentation of wicked women as child killers or negligent mothers across thousands of years reveals how deeply entrenched societal associations between child-rearing and womanhood are.

These literary women also had in common their assertions of dominance over their husbands. Steinbeck claims that Cathy had “the most powerful impact upon Adam (her husband)” and Lady Macbeth was much the same, yielding a sinister amount of power over Macbeth. Medea emasculates Jason as she tells him his “complete lack of manliness” is “utterly vile”. This fear of female scorn is repeated in Macbeth as Lady Macbeth asserts “when you durst do it, then you are a man” in the face of her husbands hesitance to assassinate the king.

I find these similarities particularly interesting to consider in relation to women in our society today. Even in 2018, 2449 years after Medea was first performed, women in parts of the world are stripped of the access to legal and safe abortions, forced into the role of motherhood against their will and no country on earth pays women and men an equal wage. Though it may be discouraging to think about these attitudes towards the role of women and how deep those attitudes run, I believe there is a positive angle to be considered. As society moves forward, however incrementally slow the pace may be, consider it a triumph in the face of a thousand years of prejudice.

Euripides: a misogynist or a prototype feminist? – 07/09/18

Anna (Year 13) explores the works of Euripides and endeavours to establish whether he was a feminist through analysis of his plays.

Often regarded as a cornerstone of ancient literary education, Euripides was a tragedian of classical Athens. Along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, he is one of the three ancient Greek tragedians for whom a significant number of plays have survived. Aristotle described him as “the most tragic of poets” – he focused on the inner lives and motives of his characters in a way that was previously unheard of. This was especially true in the sympathy he demonstrated to all victims of society, which included women. Euripides was undoubtedly the first playwright to place women at the centre of many of his works. However, there is much debate as to whether by doing this, Euripides can be considered to be a ‘prototype feminist’, or whether the portrayal of these women in the plays themselves undermines this completely.

Let us first consider Medea. The play focuses on the eponymous heroine, and centres around her calculated desire for revenge against her unfaithful husband, Jason, which she achieves by killing his new wife and her own two children, then fleeing to start a new life in Athens. Medea is undoubtedly a strong and powerful figure who refuses to conform to societal expectations, and through her Euripides to an extent sympathetically explores the disadvantages of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Because of this, the text has often been read as proto-feminist by modern readers. In contrast with this, Medea’s barbarian identity, and in particular her filicide, would have greatly antagonised a 5th Century Greek audience, and her savage behaviour caused many to see her as a villain.

This negative reception of Euripides’ female characters was echoed in the Greek audience’s response to Euripides’ initial interpretation of the Hippolytus myth, in which Aphrodite causes Phaedra, Hippolytus’ stepmother, to fall in love with her stepson, which has horrific consequences. It is believed that Euripides first treated the myth in a play called ‘Hippolytus Veiled’. Although this version is now lost, we know that he portrayed a shamelessly lustful Phaedra who directly propositioned Hippolytus on stage, which was strongly disliked by the Athenian audience. The surviving play, entitled simply ‘Hippolytus’, offers a much more even-handed and psychologically complex treatment of the characters: Phaedra admirably tries to quell her lust at all times. However, it could be argued that any pathos for her is lost when she unjustly condemns Hippolytus by leaving a suicide note stating that he raped her, which she does partly to preserve her own reputation, but also perhaps to take revenge for his earlier insults to her and her sex. It is debatable as to whether Euripides is trying to evoke sympathy for Phaedra and her unfortunate situation, or whether through her revenge she can ultimately be seen as a villain in the play.

However, if you look at Hecuba, Andromache, and the Trojan Women, we see how the evils of war have a grave effect on women, and in his play ‘Ion’, he sympathetically portrays Creusa, who was raped by Apollo and forced to cover up the scandal. Although some believe it is difficult to fully label Euripides as a feminist, he nonetheless understood the complexities of female emotion in a new and revolutionary way, whether the audiences, from both then and now, view his female characters as heroines or as villains.

Links and further reading:



‘He’s gotta be strong and he’s gotta be fast and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight…’ Achilles vs Odysseus: Who is the greatest hero?

By Anna Jeffries-Shaw, Year 12.

In the following post, Anna hopes to make you question the concept of heroism by exploring the characters of two of the most famous heroes from the Ancient World: Achilles and Odysseus.

Heroes are prevalent in everyone’s life. Whether your hero is a real person or a character from a movie, someone close to you or someone you have never met, everybody has some sort of hero or role model. The concept of a hero, however, has existed for millennia, dating back to Ancient Greece. Here, we discover some of the most famous heroes to have existed: Hercules, Hector, Aeneas, Perseus, Theseus, Jason, and Atalanta (curiously the only female who repeatedly makes lists about the top heroes in Greek mythology). And of course, arguably two of the most famous men and heroes of history: Achilles and Odysseus.

Before it is possible to begin to tackle the question of which of these men was the greatest hero, it is first necessary to explore the even greater question of what constitutes a hero. The OED defines a hero as ‘a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities’. In other words, a role model. In Greek tradition, however, a hero was a human, who was endowed with superhuman abilities by virtue of being descended from an immortal god. A hero in that era would not have any of the additional connotations we’ve come to expect of moral worth, valour and so on. In fact, the Greek word ‘ἥρως’ (pronounced ‘heros’), which is usually translated as hero, actually means just a ‘warrior’. And so this debate seems futile, in a sense, as expecting ‘heroism’ of either Achilles or Odysseus – to expect them to conform to any of our ideas of what a ‘hero’ is – is an anachronism.

Nevertheless, it is a topic worth exploring: which man was more heroic?

Achilles: the hero of the Iliad. Brutal, vain, pitiless… and thus a true hero. He does not fit modern conventions of morality. He is a killer, a rapist, a plunderer. He is temperamental, which has dire consequences right from the beginning, revealed by the opening lines of the Iliad:

“Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Achilles’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Achaeans loss on bitter loss.”

(Translated by Robert Fitzgerald)

He can be pitiless, and he can be murderously cruel. Yet there is still something fundamental about him to which we can all relate. He may be an original Byronic hero, fitting the description of the literary character named after Lord Byron, a poet who was part of the Romantic movement in literature, before the term was even coined. The Byronic hero is usually dark and moody, sexually intense, mysterious, emotional troubled and arrogant and Achilles is all these things. He is expected to perform numerous heroic deeds, yet he disagrees, complains, and is willing to go to any length just to prove he’s right. He’s not necessarily the kind of person one wants to be, but certainly the kind of person one can relate to.

Left: Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy (2004) Right: Sean Bean as Odysseus in Troy (2004)

Contrasting to the seemingly brutish Achilles is Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, which begins thus:

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns

driven time and again off course, once he had plundered

the hallowed heights of Troy.”

(Translated by Robert Fagels)

His key feature is his cunning. He is not primarily a rash or fierce hero, although his physical strength and other conventional aspects of Ancient Greek heroism are not to be overlooked. Odysseus is a multi-faceted hero. He is ‘πολυτροπος’ (pronounced ‘polutropos’). This is translated in a variety of different ways, with different implications. In the Fagels translation above, it is rendered as ‘man of twists and turns’, in others ‘the man of many ways’. Yet the underlying message about his character is evident: he can morph into a wide variety of different identities. And for what? In order to survive. It is his cunning, ultimately, that leads to the sacking of Troy as a result of the legendary Trojan Horse. It is ironic that Achilles, whose physical power was not able to destroy Troy, gets to be the number one hero of the Iliad, and not Odysseus, who succeeded where Achilles failed. Odysseus is seemingly incomparable; his fame cannot come from the fall of Troy.

Whilst it is seemingly impossible for either to fit our modern sensibilities of heroism, both hold elements. Many have questioned, of Achilles, whether kindness, altruism, generosity, and modesty were just seen as weaknesses to the fierce and brave exterior. In fact, Achilles spares Priam’s life in book 24 of the Iliad, returning Hector’s body and even calling him ‘dear old man’. Is this kindness? His genteel character may be seen in his relationship with Patroclus, which is explored in Madeline Miller’s ‘Song of Achilles’ and in which Achilles and Odysseus are shown to be the only two characters who can maintain loving relationships.

Instead, we must consider two key elements central to heroism in this era: ‘kleos’ and ‘nostos’. ‘Kleos’ literally translates as fame and glory, whereas ‘nostos’ is described as a ‘song of safe home coming.’ It is Achilles’ destiny to chose between the two in the famous prophecy: he must either die a glorious death at a young age, or live until old age unfruitfully. He choses the former; he chooses to have kleos. On the other hand, upon Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, in disguise, it will take him a long time before he can prove to everyone that he really is the King of Ithaca, to re-establish his identity and ultimately achieve nostos. However, he is seemingly one above Achilles in this way: he attains his kleos from his nostos.

Both of these heroes are undeniably human men with the capacity for goodness, love and bravery. And whilst I believe Odysseus to be the greater hero, it is a debate that can never be settled simply because no one can know definitively what a hero is.

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