Who is/are your favorite Classical mythological figure(s)? Me, I’ve always been partial to Prometheus and Hephaestus (what can I say, I’m a sucker for fiery things, and Fire’s my favorite type! :P)
You know, I don’t think I really have one. I probably should because I’m a classicist and stuff, and I talked about it with Jim the Editor (who is a classicist as well) for like an hour about it and came to no particular consensus, so I’m just going to go with something interesting and non-obvious and say Helen, just because she’s such a complex and controversial character. Like, you have Homer’s version in the Iliad, where she is vilified by pretty much all the Greeks and some of the Trojans while simultaneously being the exact thing they’re supposedly all fighting over, and she knows it. She is well aware that everyone blames her for this terrible war, and she kinda blames herself for it too, because even if she wasn’t really in control of anything that happened, how could you not, in her position? And there is this one amazing scene where she calls out Aphrodite – the goddess of sexuality, the source of what little power a woman can ever have in Helen’s world – for all the awful bull$#!t she’s been put through over the years because of her beauty. And true, Aphrodite does immediately slap her down for it, but the thing is, no one else in Homer ever talks back to a goddess the way Helen does; they talk to each other about the awful things the gods do to them, but no one will ever actually say it to their faces (or at least not knowingly), because that’s the kind of thing that gets your ass smited, big time.
But then you get past Homer and into what all the later authors thought about her, and that’s really interesting as well. Like Herodotus, at the very beginning of his history of the Persian Wars, uses Helen (along with other mythological women like Europa and Io) to make this hilarious argument about how the Persian invasion of Greece under Xerxes was really just the latest episode in an eternal feud of East and West that was originally sparked by a long-running competition of intercontinental woman-stealing. And Herodotus also makes this dickish comment about how Paris couldn’t really have taken Helen if she hadn’t been willing, which pretty much sums up what Attic and Ionian Greek men of Herodotus’ time thought about Greek women (and also uncomfortably analogous to all that “legitimate rape” nonsense you hear from American politicians today, but let’s not even go there). But at the same time, in her home city, Sparta, Helen was worshipped as a goddess, and although she shared that cult with her husband, Menelaus, she was the one who got top billing; he was worshipped basically as “that guy, you know, Helen’s husband” (which, to be honest, is kinda the vibe you get when Telemachus meets Helen and Menelaus back at Sparta in the Odyssey). And some writers like Stesichorus and Euripides claimed that Helen never even went to Troy in the first place, that Paris had taken home an illusion created by Hera out of spite, and that the real Helen had actually spent the whole time in Egypt, palling around with the Pharaoh, which is apparently an attempt to reclaim what Greeks of that time would have understood as Helen’s “virtue” (that is, her sexual purity). Stesichorus actually said that Helen (who was a goddess by this point, remember) had straight-up blinded him and commanded him to write poetry that would set the record straight about her – and, true to her word, restored his sight when he did.
And then in Ovid’s Heroides (which is a book of poetry where he basically gives all the most famous wronged women of classical mythology a chance to air their grievances, and they do so with a vengeance), he remembers that Helen was a Spartan, and so he has Paris talk about seeing her exercising naked in the gymnasium alongside men, which is one of the odd things that Spartan women were allowed to do that really weirded out other Greeks. And that’s not “historically accurate” because Helen was from Sparta but even assuming she was real she lived, like, a thousand years before Leonidas and all those famous Spartans in the movie, but the point is that Ovid uses that to associate Helen with all those famous tropes about Spartan women being tough, athletic and independent, mothers to true warriors, who had more in common with their husbands than with other Greek women.
Basically what I’m getting at is if you don’t think Helen is awesome then you don’t know Helen.