by Michael Sones
“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss
– Christopher Marlowe in Dr Faustus
The myths of ancient peoples are not just the imaginative stories of uneducated, unscientific and superstitious peoples. Products of human minds trying to make sense of their experience they contain profound though often disturbing truths about human psychology that we would rather not think about. Many of them are just as true now as they were then and we can learn from them if we know how to look. The story of Helen of Troy is one such myth. It teaches us that one of the psychological origins of war is violent competition between men for sexual access to women. The findings of the disciplines of evolutionary psychology and anthropology are beginning to bear this out as will be illustrated later. These myths still fascinate us today as can be seen in the upcoming film, Troy, starring Brad Pitt.
Helen was the daughter of the Greek god Zeus and Leda, who was the wife of Tyndareus. Zeus approached Leda in the form of a swan. Helen was born from this union and she was the sister of the Dioscuri, the twins Castor and Pollux, who were renowned for their bravery and skills at fighting. Helen was renowned as the most beautiful woman in the world. Theseus, who had killed the Minotaur, carried her off as a child but the Dioscuri rescued her. All of the kings of Greece wanted to marry her because of her beauty and courted her. To save conflict between them Odysseus suggested that they let Helen choose and then all agree to protect her husband. She chose Menelaus but was later kidnapped by Paris, the son of Priam and Hecuba of Troy. At Zeus’ command Paris had been the judge at a beauty contest and had to choose which of the goddesses Hera, Athene, or Aphrodite was the fairest. He chose Aphrodite who had promised him the most beautiful woman in the world for his wife. He carried Helen off which did not please Menelaus and so the Greeks set sail to Troy. The Trojan war lasted ten years. At one point Achilles refused to fight because his woman, Briseis, was taken from him by Agamemnon, who was the Greek commander. In Achilles’ absence the Trojans killed many of the Greeks among them Achilles’ friend Patroclus. Achilles then sought his revenge and slaughtered many Trojans including Hector, son of Priam and Hecuba. Paris killed Achilles by shooting him with an arrow and hitting him in the heel which was his only vulnerable point. The Greeks won the war by building a giant wooden horse which they left before sailing away on their ships. The Trojans thought they had won the war and that the Greeks have left the horse as tribute. They wheeled it into the city and that night the Greeks, who were hiding in the horse, emerged and opened the city gates. The Greek army, which had sailed back, entered the city, killed most of the men and captured the women. Aeneas, another son of Priam, escaped and set sail. His voyage is the subject of an epic poem of Latin literature the Aeneid of Virgil. Aeneas eventually founded Rome. Aphrodite, who started all of this by promising Helen to Paris if he judged her most beautiful, was the Greek goddess of love and later identified by the Romans as Venus. She took as a lover Ares, the brutal god of War.
Several key themes can be seen in that myth such as: a) women compete to see who is most beautiful b) men compete for the women and c) the women choose (Helen chose Menelaus).
The Greeks were not the only peoples to associate goddesses of love and sexuality with war.
In Babylonian mythology the goddess Ishtar, also probably linked with the planet Venus, was the goddess of erotic attraction and sexuality. She protected prostitutes but she was violent and renowned for her warlike qualities. She was also the goddess of the moon and the full moon was when she was supposed to menstruate.
In Ugaritic mythology (Ugarit was a city-state on the Syrian coast in the middle of the second millennium BC) there was the goddess Anat, linked with Ishtar, who was beautiful but also a bloodthirsty destroyer of men.
The Celts had the goddess Morrigan who was the goddess of war but also associated with sexuality linking sex and death.
The Aztec goddess Coaticlue is the name of the serpent-skirted mother of the war-god, Huitzipochtli. A statue shows her with twin rattlesnake heads and a necklace of human hands and hearts. She could transform herself into a beautiful woman who would then lead men to their deaths.