Back in 2012, I was reading the Iliad with an online group, and I was amazed when I got to these lines about the famous Helen:
She [Iris] came on Helen in the chamber: she was weaving a great web,
a double folded cloak of crimson, and working into it the numerous struggles
of Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armoured Achaeans,
struggles that they endured for her sake at the hands of the war god.
Iliad Book 3 (This translation by Caroline Alexander in The War That Killed Achilles)
You can read the posts I wrote back then about my reactions and questions, but let me sum up.
Those few lines describe highly skilled and valuable weaving, and yet they connect Helen to the everyday tasks that most women would have been doing. I want to know whether these lines reflect historical reality to any degree, or if they are just an exaggerated description to portray character or mood.
Think about how we represent cars in the movies. If a historian a thousand years from now saw footage of the Batmobile, he or she might think, “I know they had cars back then, but did anyone really have a car with ejector seats and automatic sliding plates that encased the car? Was that ever a reality, or just wishful thinking? And why show him driving at all? Is it to establish a commonality between this character and real people?” Those are the kinds of questions that this passage raises in my mind.
Some authors portray Helen’s weaving as evidence of her passivity, but to me it shows her processing the reality of war in her own way.
So when I saw a whole book about Helen, Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore by Bettany Hughes, I was sure that in its 458 pages, my questions would be answered.
Hughes talks about the three aspects of Helen — “the Spartan princess with divine paternity fought over by the heroes in Greece,” “a demi-god, heroine, worshipped and honored… an integral part of the spiritual landscape,” and “the ‘strumpet'; the beautiful, libidinous creature irresistible to men.” (pp. 10, 11) She says she believes “that the template for Helen of Troy was provided by one of the rich Spartan queens who lived and died on the Greek mainland in the 13th century BC… a woman so blessed, so honored, so powerful, she appeared to walk with the gods. A mortal who, down the centuries, has become larger than life.” (p. 11) She says she wants to understand Helen as a real woman in a Bronze Age context.
I’m not that interested in Helen as an individual, but in what she represents of the women of her time, and especially textile workers, so I really wanted to read only that part of the book. But when I looked in the index, there was no mention of weaving or looms, so I had to just dig in.
The book basically follows a chronology of Helen’s life. Each chapter focuses on one life stage or event, but within the chapter, the spotlight swings wide to include a hodge-podge of Helen-related details — 14th-century religious recriminations, 19th-century paintings, recent archaeological finds, and the author’s own travels.
I learned a lot as I read, but overall the tone was just too gushy for me. A sample sentence:
“So as the Troy-bound lovers listen to the sounds of the night, and stroke each other’s arms, as the waves lap the boat’s side and Helen pushes her ‘loose and lustrous hair’ back out of her eyes, the picture of mortal bliss, there is a dreadful inevitability about what is going to happen next.” (p. 171)
For a lot of it, you could substitute “Beyoncé” or “Kim Kardashian” for “Helen”, and you would have a tabloid-worthy article. I read it all, though, skimming the flowery prose for nuggets of information. Some ideas that were briefly mentioned piqued my interest (for example that the story reflects a time that male gods were overtaking matriarchal religions) but were not gone into.
Finally I got to the chapter on the siege of Troy, Chapter 27, Helen — Destroyer of Cities. Helen’s former husband and her current lover are going to fight one-on-one to determine the outcome of the war.
And this is what I read:
When we meet Helen face to face in the Iliad, in Book 3, she is brought in to survey the men fighting for her on the plains of Troy…So there is Helen, famous, beautiful, and desired. A prize for Trojans and Greeks alike. She is watching men slug it out for here, just as they did twenty years before…the need to possess the ultimate beauty will spur Greeks and Trojans alike to a ruthless odium. (p. 205)
What??? When we meet Helen she is weaving. See above. Hughes just leaves that part out and skips to the old men of Troy declaring that Helen is indeed worth fighting for. (She leaves out the lines where they say, “Nevertheless, let the Greeks take her and go to stop further trouble around here.”)
Hughes does not mention the weaving until five chapters later in Home to Sparta. She says:
While at Troy Homer tells us that Helen embarked on an intricate tapestry – a never-ending creation that told the tales of heroes and of war. .. Helen might have completed her own epic work of fabrication back in Troy, but now there would be a whir and a clatter as others settled themselves at the loom to begin their own version of the life of the Spartan Queen. (pp. 233, 234)
I was disappointed that there wasn’t more information given, and went back and looked at the Iliad again, and was surprised that the weaving description was only four lines long! In the time since I first read it, it had grown in my mind to be a couple of pages at least.
Finally, in Appendix Five, Royal Purple – The Colour of Congealed Blood, Hughes goes into more detail about Helen weaving, but she focuses on her use of luxurious purple, a dye from murex snails. (Hughes even went diving for snails herself.) And then:
There is no question that aristocratic women in this world would have sat and produced cloth. The intricate and delicate pieces they made might end up as gifts for visiting diplomats, might be worn in grand public ceremonies or might perhaps be offered to the gods, used to dress cult statues ceremonially. Hand-woven, pieces like this could take years to produce. Only the nobility devoted so many hours to so rare an activity. (p. 341)
Well, now I was disappointed for a few more reasons. One, no source is given for this information, so I can’t see where to go from here. Two, Mycenaean weaving was quite the specialized industry, involving a large percent of the population. It wasn’t a rare activity practiced only by the nobility.
I have had a lot of trouble writing this post, because how do you write about something you didn’t find?
Ordinarily, I could recognize that it might be too much to ask to have some textile history included (Well no, not really. I never think that’s too much to ask), but in a book that purports to tell us all about Helen, a book that spends a page on ink recipes in antiquity or a 19th century French artist’s painting of Helen with no face, it seems like there would be room for more information on such a basic activity.
In the Introduction, Hughes writes: “Because Helen is such an alluring figure of fantasy, because she dazzles as she goes, she can make it hard to see the women of substance who walked through the Bronze Age palaces of the Eastern Mediterranean.” (p. 11)
She concludes with, “Helen is an archetype. Men fall for her, have sex with her, and then, when terrible things happen, it is she who gets the blame.” (p. 311)
I think that she missed an opportunity to show another aspect of Helen’s life, to tell more about the real women of the Bronze Age, and how Helen might have related to them.