“Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad” is a line from the play Antigone, written circa 440 BC by Sophocles and borrowed by writers ever since. “Whom the gods would destroy they first make beautiful” is probably more applicable when you consider the case of the great beauty Helen: the face that launched a thousand ships.
Helen was the daughter of Zeus, ruler and father of the Gods; not the best start in life. At the age of 12, she was carried off by Theseus, a man of 50 who, after founding and ruling Athens, wanted one more fling before he died.
She was rescued by her two brothers and settled down after her misadventures to marry Menelaus, the King of Sparta, a xenophobic butcher who abhorred migrants and guarded his borders with an iron hand welded to a broadsword. While King Menelaus was busy repressing his neighbours in Messenia – a land famous for its plump Kalamata olives – Helen was content in her Spartan palace with her mirrors and pretty maidens.
Across the Aegean in Troy, King Priam’s son Paris had survived attempts on his life as an infant by Hecuba and Herophile, and grown up handsome, confident and narcissistic. Paris was what the Greeks called ‘a ladies man’ and once gave Aphrodite a golden apple inscribed with the words: To the Fairest. The Goddess of Love was so moved by this beguiling gesture, she promised Paris the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world.
That woman was Helen. Paris went off to find her and, on seeing the great beauty surrounded by her hand maidens, seduced her and carried her off to Troy.
King Menelaus was heartbroken when he returned from slaughtering the Messenians. He raised a great army and put them on boats to sail across the Aegean, Helen’s beauty celebrated for eternity ‘as the face that launched a thousand ships.’
What Homer doesn’t mention in the Iliad, his epic account of the Trojan War, is that the personification of great beauty – coupled with Paris’s suicidal tendencies – led to the deaths of many thousands of nameless, faceless Trojans and Spartans alike.
Great Beauty Burdens
During the Trojan War, Achilles was killed by an arrow that pierced his heel, his one vulnerable point. The archer was none other than Paris, shooting his arrows from safety behind the castle walls. We still use Achilles’ heel to embody the unseen weakness even the strongest of us have and try to hide.
Homer famously used the phrase: beware of Greeks baring gifts in honour of the wily Greeks feigning a retreat from Troy after leaving a giant wooden horse as a gift for the Trojans. At nightfall, while the war weary people were sleeping, the Greeks burst from the innards of the wooden horse and conquered the city.
Long before the war over, Helen had come to realise that Paris was as cowardly as he was charismatic. The two often go together. She sailed back to Sparta, but her great beauty no longer excited Menelaus and he died prematurely from a broken ego. Helen lost her looks and died shortly after.
Greek myths are morality tales with archetypes that live among us. Marilyn Monroe was Helen, a great beauty who befriended powerful men and died young. With his quick tongue and eye for glittery women, Paris is reborn in Donald Trump, in Boris Johnson, in Jair Bolsonaro. Combine Paris with the butcher Menelaus and we have evil incarnate in Vladimir Putin.
If the story has a moral, it is beware of charismatic men, they are not what they seem; and beware of women like Helen of Troy who drive men to war. No beauty is worth it.
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