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Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation

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Overview

The story of Helen of Troy has its origins in ancient Greek epic and didactic poetry, more than 2500 years ago, but it remains one of the world's most galvanizing myths about the destructive power of beauty. Much like the ancient Greeks, our own relationship to female beauty is deeply ambivalent, fraught with both desire and danger. We worship and fear it, advertise it everywhere yet try desperately to control and contain it. No other myth evocatively captures this ambivalence better than that of Helen, daughter ...

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Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation

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Overview

The story of Helen of Troy has its origins in ancient Greek epic and didactic poetry, more than 2500 years ago, but it remains one of the world's most galvanizing myths about the destructive power of beauty. Much like the ancient Greeks, our own relationship to female beauty is deeply ambivalent, fraught with both desire and danger. We worship and fear it, advertise it everywhere yet try desperately to control and contain it. No other myth evocatively captures this ambivalence better than that of Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda, and wife of the Spartan leader Menelaus. Her elopement with (or abduction by) the Trojan prince Paris "launched a thousand ships" and started the most famous war in antiquity. For ancient Greek poets and philosophers, the Helen myth provided a means to explore the paradoxical nature of female beauty, which is at once an awe-inspiring, supremely desirable gift from the gods, essential to the perpetuation of a man's name through reproduction, yet also grants women terrifying power over men, posing a threat inseparable from its allure. Many ancients simply vilified Helen for her role in the Trojan War but there is much more to her story than that: the kidnapping of Helen by the Athenian hero Theseus, her sibling-like relationship with Achilles, the religious cult in which she was worshipped by maidens and newlyweds, and the variant tradition which claims she never went to Troy at all but was whisked away to Egypt and replaced with a phantom. In this book, author Ruby Blondell offers a fresh look at the paradoxes and ambiguities that Helen embodies. Moving from Homer and Hesiod to Sappho, Aeschylus, Euripides, and others, Helen of Troy shows how this powerful myth was continuously reshaped and revisited by the Greeks. By focusing on this key figure from ancient Greece, the book both extends our understanding of that culture and provides a fascinating perspective on our own.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The face that launched a thousand ships has inspired just as many—if not more—stories and interpretations of what exactly happened between Helen and Paris, and how it drove Troy to war. Even today, third-wave feminists, postfeminist intellectuals, and contemporary pop culture engage with the enduring reputation of Helen. In this scholarly work, Blondell (The Play of Character in Plato’s Dialogues) casts the real Helen by the wayside, focusing instead on the ways in which the mythical beauty has been depicted in Greek literature, including the Iliad and the Odyssey, Sappho’s poetry, the tragedy Agamemnon, and Herodotus’s Histories. The University of Washington classicist’s primary concern, expounded upon in thematic chapters, is how these stories depicted, promoted, and transformed ideals of beauty and female agency. This is a fine work of scholarship, but it has limited attraction for a general readership—Blondell declines to connect with modern-day interpretations, though it’s clear she isn’t a hermit of the ivory tower: chapter epigraphs comprise snippets from pop culture, such as a few lines from the Eagles’ song “Lyin’ Eyes.” In tracing her development, it would’ve been interesting to see how the Helen of today holds up to the Helen of old. 19 b&w illus. (May)
From the Publisher
"This excellent volume takes the reader on a tour with Helen of Troy, as she journeys from the Archetype (Pandora) through her complex identities in the Iliad, the Odyssey, the
Oresteia, the lyric poets, Herodotus' Histories, Gorgias' Encomium of Helen, Euripides' Trojan Women and Helen, and finally Isocrates' Encomium of Helen. The book is descriptive in its focus, and shows that Helen, 'who is a concept, not a person' (p. xi), occupied roles that are important both in themselves and also for understanding the works in question. ... [Blondell] has achieved a miracle of lucid, useful and responsible accessibility. This jargon and footnote free volume will benefit scholars and students in classics, the humanities and beyond." —The Classical Review

"Blondell's stimulating and provocative book demonstrates how Helen is 'an ever-refreshing screen for the projection of ideas and ideals about beauty, women, sex and power.' Demonized, idolized, allegorized, or humanized, Helen of Troy remains no woman and every woman." —Bookslut

"A compelling new portrait of the most famous femme fatale in history as she appears in Greek myth and literature."—Publishers Weekly

"Readers need not be scholars of Greek poetry and culture to appreciate this engaging look at an epic tale with modern resonance." —Booklist

"If you have an appreciation for the classics or even just strong feminine roles, you will want to pick this book up. It will easily become a favorite amongst the rest of your library for years to come." —citybookreview.com

"An entertaining and lively narrative"—Library Journal

"An insightful book, filled with salacious tales of morality that the ancient Greeks did better than anyone since, Blondell's Helen of Troy is a real beauty." —Clifford Cunningham, Sun News Miami

"A marvelously comprehensive look at Helen of Troy and her interpretations—literary, dramatic, and historical-through the ages. Every dimension of the myth of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world and immortal in memory, is explored and analyzed. It leaves you awed and enlightened." —Margaret George, author of Helen of Troy and The Memoirs of Cleopatra

"Helen's face launched not only a thousand ships but also thousands of texts and artworks: Blondell's lucid, learned, but light-handed study shows why." —Glenn Most, University of Chicago

"A broad, subtle, and beautifully-written study that deserves a large and varied readership. Combining shrewd analysis with lightly-worn expertise, Blondell shows how Greek culture turned again and again to the myth of Helen to confront the disquieting power of female beauty." —Sheila Murnaghan, University of Pennsylvania

"Blondell has written a rich and penetrating study of the Helen myth in the Greek world."
—New Republic

Library Journal
As one of the central characters of Greek legend, Helen of Troy makes an ideal subject for an examination of Greek attitudes toward women, beauty, and erotic desire. Blondell (classics, Univ. of Washington) looks at the reception and significance of Helen in Greek epic, poetry, drama, and history. This examination does not consider Helen as a historical personage, as does Bettany Hughes's Helen of Troy, but it takes as a given that to each writer Helen represented something real. This reality was a woman depicted as, by turns, "beautiful evil," a tragic heroine, deeply misunderstood, or a figure for ironical sophistry, with the role of self-control as a virtue particularly tied to matters of chastity as a central theme throughout. How each writer adapted Helen's story indicates something about how that person and that time perceived a woman's place and proper behavior. VERDICT Blondell makes a convincing case for the continued importance of Helen to modern sensibilities as feminism struggles with issues of femininity. An entertaining and lively narrative that will be of interest to scholars while still accessible to general readers.—Margaret Heller, Dominican Univ. Lib., River Forest, IL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199731602
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 5/7/2013
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 684,685
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Ruby Blondell is Professor of Classics at the University of Washington, co-editor/translator of Women on the Edge: Four Plays by Euripides, and editor/translator of Sophocles: The Theban Plays.

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Table of Contents

Illustrations
Preface
1. The Problem of Female Beauty
2. Helen, Daughter of Zeus
3. Self-Blame and Self-Assertion: the Iliad
4. Happily Ever After? The Odyssey
5. Refractions of Homer's Helen: Archaic Lyric
6. Behind the Scenes: Aeschylus' Oresteia
7. Spartan Woman and Spartan Goddess: Herodotus
8. Playing Defense: Gorgias' Encomium of Helen
9. Enter Helen: Euripides' Trojan Women
10. Two-Faced Helen: the Helen of Euripides
11. Helen MacGuffin: Isocrates
Epilogue
Bibliographical Notes
Bibliography
Index

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 10, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    The story of Helen of Troy is one of the most beloved myths in h

    The story of Helen of Troy is one of the most beloved myths in history. Like most stories, the variant of her life changes upon whom you talk to and what you read, but the consensus has held true that her strength and beauty ushered in the femme fatale stories that would succeed her own. This book further explores the magnificent stories of Helen, providing readers with an in-depth understanding and appreciation for one of the finest historical periods: Ancient and Classical Greece. Author Ruby Blondel, a professor of classics at the University of Washington, goes all out utilizing the vast array of literature from the Iliad and Odyssey to the heroic tales of Helen, including Euripides’s The Trojan Women. No detail is spared or discounted and when brought together in this type of forum tells a beautifully epic story to be told until the end of time.

    “Helen is an emblematic figure of the bride in art and texts, and as well as cult.”

    If you have an appreciation for the classics or even just strong feminine roles, you will want to pick this book up. It will easily become a favorite amongst the rest of your library for years to come.

    *This book was provided in exchange for an honest review
    *You can view the original review at San Francisco Book Review

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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