The Sciences

Smokin' Trojans

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJul 11, 2006 8:20 AM


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Helen of Troy by Bettany Hughes offers a panaromic romp across the the Eastern Mediterranean between the end of the Bronze Age and the cusp of the Age of Iron. Hughes, a historian by training, inserts her own insights as to what it must have been to be a woman of the Achaeans within the framework of archaeological consensus. I say archaeological rather than historical because Hughes' canvas offers few written clues as to its mental and emotional texture, the Bronze Age Greeks used literacy only as a tool of accounting, not of storytelling. This is the greatest weakness, and strength, of Helen of Troy. On the one hand the author is free to pursue her own flights of fancy, but occasionally they seem unmoored from the plausibilities and probabilities which constrain more literarily enriched time periods. Nevertheless, she draws upon the richer Hittite archives to offer an "outsider" perspective which nevertheless illuminates the nature of the folk of Ahhiyawa, especially when buttressed by the surprisingly accurate oral tradition exemplified by Homer and Hesiod, as well as inferences from the copious material remains left by the Mycenaeans. Finally, I must note that Helen of Troy is not just about the Bronze Age princess who might have lived. Rather, Bettany Hughes explores both the idea and archetype of Helen, the man-eating witch whose beauty drove men to madness and induced forgiveness.

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