The 'Iliad' and the 'Odyssey' on the surface are stories of men. However, female characters are central to the conflict and its devastating aftermath.
Here Natalie Haynes, author of 'A Thousand Ships', explores some of the stories of the women and goddesses from the myth of Troy.
Women and goddesses of the Trojan War
The story of 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 10th year of the war, the Odyssey in the aftermath as its hero, Odysseus, spends 10 more years trying to get home. These epics are both stories of men and each one begins with an appeal to tell the story of the hero. Achilles and his unquenchable rage is established as the theme of the Iliad from its opening line: 'Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles.' Whatever else we're expecting to hear in this poem – the fighting among mortals and immortals – in the end, it will all come down to one man and his rage.
And yet, Achilles is not the first character mentioned in this poem – the first person referred to in the Iliad is a goddess, presumably the divine muse, Calliope, who has a particular interest in epic poetry. The first word of the Odyssey is andra (man) – but the rest of the opening line is clear about who knows his story, and it is neither the hero nor the poet 'Tell me, muse, about a complicated man.' 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 that the poet must appeal to 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?
Helen of Troy
There is only one character involved in the entire war who is so integral to it that they have 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, after the city in southern Greece. She is the daughter of Zeus – king of the gods – and Leda, queen of Sparta. The common perception of her (informed by authors from Homer to Marlowe) as destructively beautiful (hers was the face that launched a thousand ships) overlooks important elements of her story.
Helen is kidnapped as a child by king Theseus (the mythical founder of Athens), 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, were uncomfortable 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 to Sparta.
When she is older, Helen marries the king of Sparta, 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 are outraged and pursue her with 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, Hecuba. In Euripides' play, The Trojan Women, set in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Troy, Hecuba 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 Hecuba blames Helen for the war, rather than her own son, Paris.
Hecuba, queen of Troy
It is a pity that Hecuba, the queen of Troy, 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?'). The queen of Troy is a survivor, a devastated widow and mother to many murdered sons, and a terrible example of the brutality of war. Euripides' Hecuba 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 Polymestor, King of Thrace, to whom she sent her son for safekeeping during the war.
This final trauma is too much for Hecuba to bear, and she commits one of the most horrifying acts of revenge in all Greek tragedy and, possibly, in all theatre. Hecuba and her women kill the two children of Polymestor, the man who has killed her son. Then they pull 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 doing 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 and freedoms 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.
Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons
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 – war was (and still is) a traditionally masculine sphere. However, the images of fallen Amazons being carried off the battlefield by their combatants, the Greeks, are beautiful, which 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. They were clearly admired.
Penthesilea fights Achilles in single combat, replicating the great climactic battle of the Iliad, between Achilles and Hector (the great Trojan hero), which had taken place a few weeks or months earlier. 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 demigod 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 20th 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.
One poet who eroticised women in his art (and probably also in his life) is also 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 sexual predator 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. Incidentally you can see a statue of Protesilaos – his beautiful feet poised to jump from his ship – in the British Museum.
Aphrodite, goddess of love
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 – Athena, Hera or Aphrodite – should be awarded a golden apple on which is inscribed the Greek phrase, 'Te kalliste' or 'For the most beautiful'. Each goddess tries to bribe him. Hera offers him a kingdom, Athena 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 inconsequential to Paris. In fact, he is also already married, although his first wife, Oenone, takes her abandonment somewhat less aggressively than Menelaus does, as she chooses to raise her son independently rather than launch an invasion.
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, Athena and Hera argue over. That goddess is Eris – Discord – who feeds on conflict. We might also remember Thetis, the sea nymph who is the mother of Achilles. Without her involvement (trying to protect her son), the war might have been over a great deal sooner, with less 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 10 years of the war, plus the 10 years of Odysseus' journey home, waiting patiently for him on their island home on Ithaca. His return journey involves so many female characters – from Circe to Calypso, Scylla to Charybdis – that one quirky, satirical writer in the 19th century suggested the author of the Odyssey must have been a woman. Sadly, there is no evidence for any woman working as a performing poet at the time Homer was composing the Odyssey, whoever Homer was and however many poets he may have 'been' (the Iliad and Odyssey were oral compositions, so numerous poets might have been involved).
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 murders her husband, Agamemnon, on his return home from the war. Penelope's home is invaded by a raft of young men all vying to marry her, because her husband has been gone for so long that they believe he must be dead. Yet she holds 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. 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.
The BP exhibition Troy: myth and reality ran from 21 November 2019 to 8 March 2020.