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Homer, The Odyssey. Penelope, wife of Ulysses (Odysseus), carrying bow of Ulysses to the Suitors, she will marry the suitor who can string it and then shoot an arrow through a line of twelve axes, a contest only her husband can win Homer, blind Greek poet, c. 800 - 600 BCE, Trojan War, epic; illustration after Flaxman (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

The faces that launched a thousand ships

Essay | 10 minute read
Natalie Haynes, the author of a new novel about the Trojan War, celebrates the women - and goddesses - behind one of literature's oldest stories

The Trojan War is one of the foundational myths of Western culture. Two of the world’s oldest poems, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, take it as their inspiration. The Iliad is set in the tenth year of the war; the Odyssey in the aftermath as its hero, Odysseus, spends ten more years trying to get home. These epics are both ostensibly the stories of men, so each one begins with an appeal to a goddess to tell the story of the hero. Achilles and his unquenchable wrath is established as the theme of the Iliad from its opening line, ‘Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles.’ Whatever else we’re expecting to hear about in this poem – all the fighting among mortals and immortals – in the end, it will all come down to this. One man and his rage.

And yet, Achilles is not the first character mentioned in his poem: the first person referred to in the Iliad is thea – a goddess. Presumably this refers to the divine muse, Calliope, who has a particular interest in epic poetry. Conversely, the very first word of the Odyssey is andra – man –  but the rest of the opening line is clear about who is telling his story, and it is neither the hero nor the poet: ‘Tell me, muse, about a complicated man.’ The Greek word here rendered as ‘complicated’ is polutropos, which literally means, ‘with many twists and turns’. Odysseus is a hero who will experience plenty of twists and setbacks on his perilous sea journey, but his irrepressible plans will usually help him out. In other words, the first lines of each poem tell us something quite subtle: their subjects may be men, but it is a female deity to whom the poet must appeal if he wants to tell the men’s stories. Women are woven into the fabric of the Trojan War just as much as the male heroes who get top billing. So isn’t it time we turned our attention to them too?

There is only one character involved in the entire war who is so integral to it that she has acquired the epithet, ‘of Troy’, and that is Helen. She is not born Helen of Troy, rather she becomes it when she elopes or is taken (depending on the version of the myth we read) by Paris, a Trojan prince. Helen begins her life as Helen of Sparta, which is a settlement in southern Greece. She is the daughter of Zeus – king of the gods – and Leda, queen of Sparta. Our idea of her (formed by authors from Homer to Marlowe) as destructively beautiful – the face that launched a thousand ships – overlooks some important elements of her story.

Helen is kidnapped at the age of either seven or ten by Theseus, many years after his minotaur-killing. It is one of his less heroic exploits (even ancient authors – whose attitudes to sex were very different from our own – are somewhat squeamish about a man in his fifties taking a child bride). Helen’s brothers declare war on Athens to reclaim their sister. In some versions of the story, Helen bears Theseus a child before she is returned home.

When she is older, Helen marries Menelaus. Then Paris turns up and takes her (willingly or unwillingly – again, it depends on the version of the story we read) back with him to Troy. Menelaus and the Greeks pursue her with rather more than a thousand ships: Homer lists nearly 1,200 in the Iliad. This poem presents us with a Helen who regrets that Paris is not a better man, and reproaches herself for her own behaviour. It’s not enough to win over her mother-in-law, Hecabe (called Hecuba by the Romans, and later authors like Shakespeare). In Euripides’ play The Trojan Women, set in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Troy, Hecabe tells Menelaus that she would praise him if he killed Helen. Helen then issues a spirited defence of herself, pointing out the undeniable truth: that Hecabe blames Helen for the war, but not her own son, Paris.

It is a pity that Hecabe isn’t better known to modern audiences: Euripides’ play about her was enormously popular in Shakespeare’s time (which is why Hamlet can ask, ‘What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?’ knowing his audience will understand the reference). The queen of Troy is a survivor, a devastated widow and mother to many murdered sons, and an example of the terrible brutality of war. Euripides’ Hecabe reveals one last, terrible shock in the immediate aftermath of the fall of her city: she discovers that her youngest son, Polydorus, has been murdered by the man into whose safekeeping he had been trusted.

This final trauma is too much for Hecabe to bear, and she commits one of the most horrifying acts of revenge in all of Greek tragedy. Indeed, in all of theatre. Hecabe and her women kill the two children of Polymestor, the man who has killed her son. Then they put out his eyes with brooch pins. It is a breathtakingly brutal response; the last thing this treacherous man will ever see is the murder of his sons in revenge for his own vicious crime. Modern theatre productions often struggle to show a woman do something so unmaternal, indeed anti-maternal, as kill children (there is a tendency for them to imply the women are mad, which is not in the Greek text). But while it is a shocking scene, it is also an extraordinary one; a group of enslaved war widows taking revenge on one Greek man and his children for all the sons, husbands, freedom they themselves have lost. Women using knives to kill children is a particularly macabre distortion of the norms of combat (men killing other men with sword and spear-blades) in the war which has just come to an end.

In fact, these norms have already been subverted in the final year of the war, when the Amazons arrive. Penthesilea and her warrior women turn up to fight alongside the Trojans against the Greeks. The Amazons were fascinating to ancient artists; they are the most frequently painted characters found on Greek pots after Heracles (or Hercules, to give him his more common Roman name). The idea of female warriors was both compelling and troubling to ancient audiences: women appearing in a traditionally masculine sphere. There are beautiful images of fallen Amazons being carried off the battlefield by their combatants, the Greeks. It’s worth noting that this is not the way fallen enemies are usually treated, either in poems or in the visual arts. Respect for one’s enemy didn’t go as far as carrying them from the battlefield. It didn’t always go as far as not desecrating their corpses.

Penthesilea fights Achilles in single combat, replicating the great climactic battle of the Iliad, between Achilles and Hector (the great hero of the Trojans), which had taken place a few weeks or months earlier; both these duels take place in the tenth year of the war. We would know her story better if the epic poem in which she played a major role, the Aethiopis, survived to the present day. As it is, we know that she fought Achilles and lost her life. This puts her on an equal footing with virtually everyone else who fought the semi-divine Achilles. Hector was the greatest Trojan warrior and even he was killed after only a brief fight with the murderous Greek.

So there is no disgrace in Penthesilea’s defeat: she is brave enough to fight Achilles and she loses, like everyone else. The difference is that her story has so rarely been told. And when it has been told, it has been sexualised. When Robert Graves told the story of Penthesilea in the twentieth century, he robbed her of her warrior prowess so he could eroticise her corpse (on which his version of Achilles masturbates). Sometimes, it’s hard to see progress.

Although one poet who eroticised women in his art (and probably also in his life) is responsible for one of the saddest, most beautiful stories of a woman whose life is uprooted by the Trojan War. Ovid writes a poem in the form of a letter from Laodamia to her husband, Protesilaos. Protesilaos is the first of the Greeks to land at Troy, and the first to die. Ovid’s letter from the widow to her beloved husband is almost unbearably touching. Quite aside from anything else, it is extraordinary that a man whose poetic persona trades on being flirtatious at best and a sex-pest at worst sets aside his manliness to write as a woman. In fact, it is a whole collection of poems from abandoned women and is a remarkable act of literary ventriloquy. You can see a statue of Protesilaos, incidentally – his beautiful feet poised to jump from his ship – in the British Museum.

The Judgement of Paris, by Francesco De Rosa (1607–1656). (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

These are just a handful of the mortal women whose lives are damaged by the Trojan War. But immortal women are just as important to the war as their human counterparts. When Paris arrives in Sparta to seduce Helen, he tells her that he is claiming her as his rightful prize, awarded to him by the goddess Aphrodite. Paris had been given the unenviable task of deciding which goddess – Athene, Hera or Aphrodite – should be awarded a golden apple on which is inscribed the Greek phrase, ‘Te Kalliste’: For the Most Beautiful. Each goddess tries to bribe him. Hera offers him a kingdom, Athene offers him success in war, Aphrodite offers him Helen. Paris chooses Aphrodite and so feels entitled to claim Helen as his wife. The fact that she is married is neither here nor there to Paris. In fact, he is also already married, although his first wife, Oenone, takes her abandonment somewhat less aggressively than Menelaus does, insofar as she raises her son rather than invading anywhere.

So it could legitimately be argued that Aphrodite is responsible for causing the Trojan War. She’s the one who promises an already-married woman to an already-married man. But perhaps the blame really lies with the goddess who produces the golden apple which Aphrodite, Athene and Hera argue over. That goddess is Eris – Strife – who feeds on conflict. We might also remember Thetis, the sea nymph who is the mother of Achilles. Without her involvement (protecting her son), the war might have been over a great deal sooner, with smaller loss of life.

Not every woman involved in the Trojan War narrative is affected by it so directly; the ripples of the conflict spread across oceans. In the case of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, for example, the war is a waiting game. Penelope spends the ten years of the war, and another ten years of Odysseus’ journey home, waiting patiently for him on Ithaca, the island where they live. His return journey involves so many female characters – from Circe to Calypso, Scylla to Charybdis – that one quirky, satirical writer in the nineteenth century suggested the author of the Odyssey must have been a woman. Sadly, there is no evidence that any woman worked as a performing poet in the time when Homer was composing (whoever he was, and however many poets he may have been. The Iliad and Odyssey were oral compositions, so numerous poets might have had a hand in creating lines here and there).

Penelope’s faithfulness to Odysseus, no matter how long he takes to return home and how many women he dallies with on that voyage, was a source of great inspiration to ancient authors. Penelope is held up as an example of fidelity (unlike Helen) and loyalty (unlike Helen’s sister, Clytemnestra, who greets her returning husband, Agamemnon, with less enthusiasm than he might have hoped). Penelope’s home is invaded by a raft of young men all vying with one another to marry her because her husband has been gone for so long they believe he must be dead. And yet she manages to hold them off: one woman defending her home against a huge number of men. If anyone’s story tells us that we have underestimated the women of the Trojan War, it is surely Penelope’s. But she is only one of dozens of women in this myth who have been ignored or forgotten for millennia. It’s time we told their stories again.

Natalie Haynes’ new novel, A Thousand Ships (Pan Macmillan, £16.99), retells the stories of the Trojan War from the perspective of the women.