The Meaning of Helen: In Search of an Ancient Icon

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Series: Women's Studies, Literary Interpretation
Author: Robert Emmet Meagher
Product Code: 5106
ISBN: 978-0-86516-510-6
Pages: 200
Availability: In stock.
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Helen's face launched a thousand ships, to say nothing of countless books, dramas, poems, paintings, and operas. She is arguably the most notorious woman in Western culture. What makes her so engaging, so consequential? Like an ancient wall layered with millennia of graffiti, Helen preserves the human record. Her story and our story are not to be plied apart. She is woman as we have idealized, worshipped, slandered, celebrated, constructed and deconstructed her. Helen, for better or for worse, in all her metamorphoses, represents the complex, intact fossil record of woman in Western culture. The story of Helen is the story of woman.


Special Features

  • Helen and History
  • The Many Helens
  • The Duality of Helen
  • The First Helen
  • The Truth of Helen

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Reviews

Review by: Cox James, Midwest Book Review - September 28, 2005
The Meaning Of Helen: In Search Of An Ancient Icon by Robert Emmet Meagher (Professor of Humanities in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts) is an impressive and scholarly study of the legendary Helen of Greek antiquity whose behavior triggered the downfall of Troy. Reported as having “the face that launched a thousand ships), Western culture has regarded Helen as an iconic standard of beauty ever since those ancient days. Deftly blending a meticulously researched history with philosophy, and as a study of evolving cultural perspectives, The Meaning Of Helen draws an unforgettable metaphor between the story of Helen and the story of womankind. Enhanced with exhaustive notes and an appendix on “History and Imagination”, The Meaning Of Helen is a superbly written and presented work that should be a part of every college and university Greek mythology reference collection.
Review by: Burt Constable, Daily Herald - September 28, 2005
Real lessons of ancient tales more than just movie fodder If you expect the ancient dramas in the blockbuster movie Troy to take your mind off our modern real world woes, consider this a warning. Oh, the attractive Diane Kruger as the iconic Helen of Troy, whose face launched a thousand ships, will distract some viewers. Others might prefer to fantasize about the hunky Brad Pitt as Achilles, the Greek warrior who’s all sweaty and smellin’ of Troy. Or you might just lose yourself in the general Homereroticism, that giant Trojan horse or the epic battle scenes. But behind this drama based on the ancient story depicted in Homer’s poem, The Iliad, lies a very real connection to our modern world. While viewers might think the movie glamorizes war and its warriors, The Iliad actually delivers the ‘ultimate anti-war’ message, says Robert Emmet Meagher, professor of humanities at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. ‘It’s one of the most fierce and lucid attacks on the warrior code,’ he says. A visiting chair and professor at many prestigious schools, Meagher is an acclaimed translator and author of The Meaning of Helen: In Search of an Ancient Icon and other works published by Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers in Wauconda. Change a few names, and the stories of the ancient world sound as if they could be Newsweek cover stories today. The movie version has the Trojan War starting in retaliation for the Trojan prince Paris running off with Helen, the queen of Sparta. But Euripides, in his play The Helen, says the Spartan leaders misled their people into war with sort of an Iraqi weapons of mass destruction take on Helen. ‘He has Helen in Egypt, not in Troy,’ Meagher says of Euripides’ account. ‘The Trojans don’t give Helen back because they didn’t have her.’ Oops. ‘History is a collection of the blunders people made and whether or not they get out of them,’ says Rose Williams, author of books such as the charmingly irreverent The Labors of Aeneas: What A Pain It Was To Found The Roman Race, also published by Bolchazy-Carducci. "We’ve repeated word for word some of the mistakes that Romans made in the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D.,” Williams says of our nation. She explains how the powerful and arrogant Romans invaded nations where they didn’t understand the history or culture. ‘You go plowing in and say, “We’re going to set you free,” Williams says, referring to our war with Iraq. ‘Whatever your viewpoint, I don’t think anybody can deny there have been major blunders, and they are the same blunders the Romans made.’ Meagher says the most pertinent lessons from the ancient world come from Imperial Athens and the Peloponnesian War. Like the United States, Athens established itself as the world’s superpower and defender of democracy. But then the story turned. To the amazement of Meagher, Vice President Dick Cheney (the one in the administration who does read) often makes reference to Athenian leader Pericles, the Peloponnesian War and Athens’ philosophy of bringing democracy to the world. ‘They have to follow the war to the conclusion,’ Meagher says of our current leaders. Pericles dies, and Athens, led by what Meagher calls a ‘foolish and misguided’ administration, soon finds itself in a quagmire. The government and its people lose their moral compass, the war drains the economy, and the once-powerful democracy comes to a ruinous end, Meagher says. ‘They went from being the savior of the free world to the tyrant of the free world,’ Meagher says of Athenians. The collapse took 60 or 70 years. But in our modern times, we can do everything faster. ‘We could do it in eight years,’ Meagher warns. ‘That’s two terms.’
Review: New Testament Abstracts - June 1, 2003
Meagher, professor of humanities at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, shows that in all her metamorphoses Helen represents the complex record of woman in western culture. After a five-page introduction, he treats Helen and history, the many Helens, the duality of Helen, the first Helen, and the truth of Helen.He concludes that the humanity and the divinity of woman come into focus in Helen, the most notorious woman of the ancient world, equally human and divine, woman incarnate and eternal. A ten-page appendix deals with history and imagination. The work was originally published by Continuum Publishing of New York in 1995.
Review by: John Bulwer, Joint Association of Classical Teachers - March 25, 2003
In his introduction, M indicates affeminist direction for his study of the Helen myth, claiming it represents an archetypal misogynistic sentiment in western culture. He claims Helen is a figure who inspirres both desire and hate among men. The book itself consists of a careful anthropological exposition of the cult of Helen from her beginnings to her appearances in Greek tragedy, with full scholarly apparatus of footnotes. By comparing her to figures in eastern mythology (Astarte, Ishtar) and to other figures in Greek mythology (Aphrodite, Pandora) he sets out a thorough exposition of the position of women in archaic Greek religion and society. He draws particularly from Hesiod, Gilgamesh and the archaeological record; even the Greek Goddess gets a look-in. He analyzes the myth in terms of comparative religion and anthropology. Helen is viewed not so much as literary character but as a religious or psychological force who has many facets or dualities. He puts forward such opposing dichotomies as eros/eris (desire/strife) or women's humanity and divinity (the goddess/whore figure) which Helen embodies. She is not the only woman treated here, as much of the exposition deals with many other female figures from an astonishingly wide range of material from the whole of the Mediterranean world. This is a serious, almost solemn account of Helen in which M, as a man, appears to feel guilty for creating what he presents as a gloomy misogynistic picture. Although he analizes the fantasy and the reality of Helen, the attractions of the fantastic figure are firmly repelled. An acquaintance with the basic forms of myth of Helen is expected along with a knowledge of much of Homer and the whole of Greek tragedy. As might be expected, none of this is easy going and this is not a book to be recommended to students in the sixth form. A first year anthropology undergradute might find it pretty demanding. A specialilst in mythology, however will find much to ponder.
Review by: Seema Kapoor, Educational Book Review - December 1, 2002
The story of Helen is the story of woman, loved and hated beyond recognition. No woman from the ancient past is as nitorium to this day. No woman at the time remains more silent. breaking the silence is a long labor, to which this volume makes some small contribution. This captivating book takes as a symbol of this perception of womanhood in ancient Greece. The thesis is neatly developed, the argument backed up with striking data, and the presentation open up challengiing perspectives. It is a compelling written and an exemplary work of scholarship and humanish.
Review by: Edgar Palome, The Journal of Indo-European Studies - May 1, 2002
This captivating volume takes Helen as a symbol of the perception of womanhood in ancient Greece . . . and compares her to Aphrodite and a number of female characters in myth. . . The thesis is neatly develped; the argument is backed up by striking data; the presentation opens up challenging perspectives. In a word, the book renews our perception of Helen and deserves our full attention.
Review by: Germaine Bree, Wake Forest University - May 1, 2002
A book surely destined to become a historical point de depart in thought and understanding;emdash%a remarkable achievement! . . . There is in Meagher a rare touch of genius. He is not only a great scholar, but a great humanist in the full, positive sense of hte word."
Review by: Patricia Monahan, Booklist - May 1, 2002
Meagher, an eminent classical scholar, seeks first to ascertain the original Helen, whom he finds to have been a supreme goddess of life and death. He then explores the way that an emerging ideology of dualism and hierarchy transformed Helen from a positive image of women's power into a negative one. Magnificently researched and compellingly written, this is an exemplary work of scholarship and humanism.
Review by: J.V. Luce, School of Classics, Trinity College Dublin - May 1, 2002
A powerful book, well organized and well argued.
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