All Hope Blackwell wanted was a quiet Mediterranean vacation. Sun, sand, local cuisine…and tracking down Archimedes’ ghost to learn if he’s been tampering with the fabric of reality. But when you’re a psychic whose specialty is communicating with the dead, a trip to Greece means you’ll come face-to-face with legendary heroes.
As Hope and her friends explore the ruins of the ancient world, she soon learns she has attracted the attention of one of the most famous women in history. Helen of Troy is nothing like her stories, and she’s got a problem she thinks Hope can solve.
Hope isn’t too sure about that—if righting a 2,500-year-old wrong was that easy, wouldn’t Helen have found the time to do it herself?
You’ve read Greek Key, right? There are minor spoilers ahead if you haven’t.
Done? Good. Let’s talk about Helen of Troy, who I pretty much hated as a character/historical figure before writing this book, and now I’m frothing to learn what her life’s story was. Most classical and contemporary fiction in which Helen appears treats her as either a chess piece or a femme fatale. Which is rather…stale. As Hope says:
When our waiter had whisked the custard plates away, Atlas finally started on the queens. Hippolyta, ruler of the Amazons. Penelope, who drove men to ruin through waiting. Hecuba, the grieving mother.
And Helen of Troy.
I rolled my eyes when he got to her. I couldn’t help it: I’d never been a fan of Helen of Troy. Yay, she was pretty. Everybody cheer for pretty.
So. Greek Key and Helen of Troy. Why should Helen’s ghost play a role as anything other than the beautiful rug that tied a war together? For one thing, that particular treatment of Helen has been thoroughly, exhaustively covered:
Helen is par excellence the woman carried off by a stranger. Abducted by Theseus, then by Paris, recaptured by her brothers, then by her husband, snatched from Paris by an Egyptian king, then from the son of that king by Menelaus, taken off by Simon Magus, then by Faust, sent to the heavens or to the Isles of the Blessed: is Helen the mistress of her fate? (Brunel, 1996)
No. No, she is not. Even in those works of fiction where Helen is given some agency, it’s almost always in her time-honored role as the lover of a powerful man. She becomes a woman driven by passion to blah blah fight the future blah blah and hey whoa all of her shit still burns down anyhow, because that’s how she’s been locked into history.
If we accept that Helen was a singular historical figure (as opposed to a caricature or amalgam of ancient queens), we must also accept that Homer did not treat her kindly in his Iliad. The Trojan War is generally recognized as an event that did occur, but its causes are unknown…and nobody goes to war over a woman, no matter how easy she may be on the eyes. They do, however, vilify, trivialize, and erase the memories of powerful women. And, just as nobody would go to war over a pretty woman, neither would they go to war over one woman. The abduction or death of a person might be the catalyst that kicks off the conflict, but that’s nothing but an excuse. Wars are humanity’s earthquakes: pressure builds and builds from various forces rubbing together, and then something gives and the whole thing explodes. The Iliad marks the major event that heralded the end of the Greek Heroic Age, when the age of myths came to a close—the end of ancient Greece’s glory days, as it were. A powerful woman involved in that war might not be remembered favorably. She might even be portrayed as the cause of that event.
Evidence? To start, there are records of a “cult” of Helen of Troy that existed before the Iliad was written, although this might be better phrased as a cult of Helen and her husband, Menelaus. Different cult locations had different practices, but all of these celebrated Helen as a figure who “straddles both adolescence and the status of an adult married woman” (Bonnefoy & Doninger, 1992, 176). Rites to Helen were performed as an initiation for girls who had come of marriageable age; Helen was worshiped as she embodied the qualities of marriage that were valued by the ancient Greeks. Among these qualities was beauty, but beauty didn’t simply mean physical allure:
[…] the principle word for ‘beautiful’ (kalos) is a broad term of admiration, used not only for physical beauty but for moral ‘beauty’ or fine behavior. The word for ‘ugly’ (aischros) is used, similarly, for shameful deeds as well as physical deformity. (Blondell, 2013, 3)
As the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen was supposed to represent the best qualities of women; she also represented the conflicting ideals of a married woman who was supposed to stay faithful to her husband but who was also wildly desirable to other men. As a “beautiful” woman deserving of worship, Helen was praised for her strength, character, and the honor that she brought to Menelaus (because he was able to possess and control her, which is rather ugh within today’s framework, but there you go.). All of this is remarkable considering that Helen of Troy is almost universally represented in fiction as a woman who was unfaithful to her husband.
The Iliad (and a few chapters in the Odyssey in which she mopes and sighs a lot) may serve as Helen’s canon, but she exists in other early prose and poetry. In other works, Helen herself has little to do with the Trojan War. In Herodotus’ version, she leaves Greece entirely and spends nearly two decades hiding out in Egypt to wait until the war was over. Helen by Euripides has a similar theme, where the gods tricked the Trojans into accepting a simulacrum of Helen, while the real Helen went to Egypt. This particular play by Euripides is also very like the Odyssey, as Helen remained faithful to Menelaus while they were apart, and cleverly avoided potential suitors who wished to possess her as their own. In Herodotus’ version, Helen was kidnapped by Paris, but the ship was blown off-course on the way to Troy and the pharaohs of Egypt rescue her. In both retellings, Helen remains the cause of the war, but is personally innocent because stupid sitcom-level misunderstandings with massive body counts are still stupid sitcom-level misunderstandings.
And Sappho wrote some of the only early works in which Helen was remembered as a person. Helen was beautiful, but she suffered greatly for this: Sappho presents her as a divine force of beauty, something more than merely human, but Helen felt this godlike role was inadequate compared to the experience of simply being human. Helen chose to step aside from both divine “right” and fate alike:
Helen’s love for Menelaus, like men’s love of war, is above all a thing of beauty, an aesthetic experience that transforms not only an individual’s values and perceptions, but also their actions and behavior. Most surely they suffer from this desire, but the cause of their suffering is not Helen but their own desire. […] The Helen Sappho imagines is neither the self-effacing prisoner of her own longings and ‘if only’, nor is she the plaything of the gods’ irreversible decisions about an individual’s [fate]. (Wians, 2010, 83-84)
So. How does all of this this tie into Greek Key?
Let’s say that Helen of Troy did exist, that the Homeric canon isn’t factually accurate (what? surely not!), and that Homer intentionally portrayed Helen as someone other than who she was in life, quite possibly to minimize or otherwise change the role she played in a great war. Where do you go from there?
We start at the beginning: Helen was Spartan by birth. While we all know Spartan culture has been romanticized of late, Spartan citizens did form a powerful standing army. All upper-class Spartan children—boys and girls alike—were educated, and a large part of that education was rigorous training in combat and athletics. During her childhood and early adolescence, Helen most likely did what all Spartan children did…practice beating the everlovin’ crap out of each other.
Helen’s personal history is drawn from mythology, so we’re relegated to piecing her life together from fragments of stories. But if you accept that Helen started out as a princess of Sparta, that one detail alone could reframe everything.
Take her abduction by Theseus, which was the next notable landmark in her life. This happened when she was stupidly, unforgivably young… Eleven, maybe? Thirteen? It’s unclear, but she spent a couple of years at Theseus’ mother’s house until she reached marriageable age at her first menstruation, so she was definitely prepubescent. In contrast, Theseus had already been engaged or married multiple times, had been king of Athens for decades, and was most likely standing on the far side of forty.
Please reread that last paragraph.
There is no way in which this is not an awful scenario! I’m not saying that kind of December/early March relationship didn’t happen back in the day; I’m saying that we as rational beings are capable of recognizing that it happened while not celebrating it. A girl is stolen from her family by a much older man? A man who her father has already rejected as a possible husband for her? A man who has a history of kidnapping and raping women? Please. That’s not the plot of a romance novel—that’s the plot of a horror movie! At best, it might be an action thriller, one with Liam Neeson growling into a phone about possessing a very particular set of skills.
Except daddy isn’t around, and Helen isn’t just a kidnapped girl—she’s a Spartan princess. She has her own particular set of skills. And that’s how she introduces herself to Hope in Greek Key.
Of course, by the time Hope trips over her, Helen has been dead for a couple millennia. Since Greek Key comes before Act II of the comic, Hope hasn’t met Lincoln, and Helen is by far the most powerful ghost Hope has encountered.* Hope meets Helen long, long after the Trojan War is over and forgotten(ish), and Hope is familiar with the idea of a meek, passive Helen. Instead, she meets the Queen of Sparta who so threatened Homer that he felt compelled to reduce her legacy to that of a beautiful rug.
I might write down the version of the Trojan War that Helen tells to Hope.
I bet there’s a lot of blood in it.
*Here’s some additional trivia that ties into the ghost Helen has become in Greek Key. One of the more adorable anecdotes about Helen of Troy is from Stesichorus. He was squarely in Homer’s Helen Haters camp, but her ghost caused him to go blind out of anger over what he had written. It was only after he began to write poems in which Helen was a hero that her ghost cured his blindness. Also, note that while Euripides never mentioned Helen’s ghost, he also wrote multiple plays in which Helen of Troy was featured as a character. Most of these treated her as an unfaithful wife at best, and it was only towards the end of his life did Euripides start to portray Helen as a good person and a victim of circumstances. Curious, no?