Princess Helen

My knowledge of Helen is taken from popular culture: movies, myths and the like. I began to realize that I actually knew very little of the story. I picked up a biography by Bettany Hughes called: Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore.

Very interesting.

One of the things that has always puzzled me is the description of the God Apollo – the sun God. He has blond hair. Why?  This is Greece after all.  Helen is always described as blond. And Menelaus is described as having red hair.

Like all of the countries in Europe, Greece has seen regular influxes of new people. In the Neolithic and Paleolithic such movements populated islands like Crete. But once a area is populated a wave of new people is viewed as an invasion.

The Mycenaeans were one such group. Described by archeologists as an Indo-Duropean culture, they swept onto the Greece mainland and then to Crete. By around 1500 B.C. the pottery and architecture on Crete, although heavily influenced by the Minoans, was now Mycenaean. And they were a warrior patriarchal culture.

But I digress.

These Mycenaeans apparently carried genes for both blond and red hair.

Helen is also described as fair and white-skinned.  Pale skin certainly goes with blond hair, that is true, but I think the association with fair skin and beauty has a much longer history. Both Egyptian and Cretan art color males as reddish-brown. The women, even the bull-leapers wearing loincloths like their male teammates, are white. White lead for the skin has been found in tombs. (So white lead to whiten the skin has a long history – take that Queen Elizabeth I.) Some of the frescos and cult figures show women with that unnaturally white skin. Red circles are painted on their cheeks and chin and the scarlet suns are surrounded by dots.  The research I have done suggests these decorations had some religious meaning but I don’t think anyone knows for sure.

Anyway,  Paintings of Helen right through the Middle Ages portray her with an almost corpse like pallor.  Why is that considered beautiful?  Because she clearly did not toil in the fields?

The other cosmetic used throughout the Mediterranean is kohl. We are familiar with the frescos that show both men and women with the heavy black lines around their eyes. The use of kohl actually had a practical purpose: it protected the eyelids from sunburn and acted as an insect repellent. A recipe for kohl includes charred almond shells, soot, and frankincense. It must have been incredibly sticky. However, it was probably necessary.

In the well-known bust of Nefertiti, one eye is blind. Is the statue damaged? Or is this an accurate representation of Nefertiti? Caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis, trachoma is easily spread through direct personal contact, shared towels and cloths, and flies that have come in contact with the eyes or nose of an infected person. If left untreated, repeated trachoma infections can cause severe scarring of the inside of the eyelid and can cause the eyelashes to scratch the cornea (trichiasis). In addition to causing pain, trichiasis permanently damages the cornea and can lead to irreversible blindness.

One other note. Writings from that time, including Homer’s Iliad, describe Helen as ‘shimmering’ and ‘glittering’. Besides the jewelry she wore, Helen would have been dressed in the finest of clothing. According to Hughes, the linen clothing of that time would gave been brushed with olive oil which leaves a shiny residue. So she actually would have glittered. Who knew?

 

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Helen of Troy

Helen of Troy should really be called Helen of Sparta since she was born in Sparta and was a Spartan princess. She was also a Mycenaen – part of the culture that swept into Bronze Age Crete. This period is probably fifty years after the period I am writing about but I did research into it anyway. We know a bit more about the Spartans and they were supposed to have been influenced by the Minoan civilization.

With that said, most of the Mediterranean cultures were influenced by this great civilization – maybe not in accordance with the wishes of the leaders since laws were passed forbidding perfume, cosmetics and jewelry. However, girls were also educated at state expense and encouraged to be physically active. They also married later than many of their peers in other countries so maternal and infant mortality was less. They were also the scandal of Classical Greece since the women had so much more freedom than the poor wives in Athens. Although named for a Goddess, Athena, the women were kept closeted in their homes weaving with no company but slaves and other women. Even in Sparta, though, patriarchy ruled and the women had much less influence than those in Crete.

But I digress.

I think everyone knows the basic story:  that Helen was the most beautiful woman of her age. She was married to Menelaus, brother to Agamemnon. She was either abducted or chose to run away with Paris. (It doesn’t much matter if she was innocent. For most of the intervening centuries she has been considered a harlot.)They fled to Troy and a great war was fought that lasted more than ten years.  The war is the basis of the Iliad. As everyone knows, Troy was considered a myth until Schliemann excavated it.

Here’s what I did not know about Helen.

Another familiar myth is Leda and the Swan. Zeus takes the form of a swan to rape Leda. The child created by this union was Helen. Her beauty was frequently ascribed to her divine paternity. Because Zeus took the form of a swan, Helen was born from an egg. I am not kidding. Besides the painting that shows her rising from an egg, an artifact reputed to be a piece of the eggshell was a sacred object.

Since everybody in these stories are related, Helen’s half-brothers were the twins Castor and Pollux and her half-sister was Clytemnestra, wife to Agamemnon.

 

the Minotaur

I’m sure most of us know something about Theseus and the Minotaur. Here’s the backstory. The Greeks revered Zeus. Poseidon wanted to be honored too so he sent a white bull to Minos, the King of Crete. Minos’s wife Parsiphae fell in love with the bull. She tasked Daedalus (yes, the inventor with the wax wings whose son was Icarus) to build a special wooden box in the shape of a cow. Once inside the box, she had intercourse with the bull. Nine months later she bore a half-man, half-bull. The Minotaur.

The myth reeks of patriarchy and a desire to, in modern parlance, throw shade on Cretan beliefs.

First, in Crete Zeus was not the primary God. He was an upstart, more akin to a harvest God, who died and was reborn.

We also don’t know if Crete had a King. Certainly it was a goddess centered, matrilineal culture. Many archeologists have assumed Crete had kings, but for decades these archeologists were men. Men, moreover, who lived with a strongly patriarchal structure. It is possible the Priestess’s consort acted as a wanax, or governor. Kingships came with the Mycenaeans.

Third several ancient cultures revered the bull or, in Indo-Europe the horse. One of the rites was mock intercourse with this symbol of fertility by the Queen/Priestess. This act was supposed to guarantee good crops, lots of livestock and of course healthy children for the coming year.

But what about the Minotaur?

Well, many many ancient and not so ancient cultures employ masks in religious rites. Animals are a frequently the subject.  Is it so far a stretch to believe that the Minotaur is a masked man involved in a religious rite?

Besides painting Theseus as a hero (which I dispute but more about that later), this myth spins Crete as decadent and deserving of conquest. By the Myceneans, naturally.

Bull-leaping and the Theseus myth

Bull leaping is probably one of the most well-known -if not the most well-known – image of the Minoan civilization. Most people believe the account written in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. It is important to remember the Greeks (the Mycenae and forward) borrowed a lot from other cultures. The civilization on Crete was very important. With that said, the Minoan civilization was Goddess centered while the Mycenae were patriarchal and that made a huge difference in how the invaders viewed the rites and rituals they saw.

In the Theseus myth, Minos exacts a tribute from Athens of 7 young men and 7 maidens to face the bull and perform bull-leaping. Minos’s daughter Ariadne falls in love with Theseus and gives him a ball of string to find his way through the labyrinth under the city and kill the Minotaur, (The creation of this beast is another story). Theseus does so, thereby freeing himself and the other tributes from Crete. He takes Ariadne with him but abandons her on another island. Great guy.

While tributes may have been pressed into service as bull-leapers, the bull-leaping was an integral part of the religious ceremonies. The bull was a sacred animal and the Cretan youth performed. Secondly, there are no labyrinths underneath Knossos and it is thought the pattern of building residences – all interlinked and connection rooms, gave rise to the myth of a labyrinth.

And although labyrinth now means maze, the labys (the root of the word) was the iconic Cretan double axe. It had nothing to do with mazes.

Lastly, there is a lot of speculation about Minos. Was he a king? Perhaps after the Mycenae arrived, a kingship was established. Was he a consort of the High Priestess who, it is now thought, was the earthly representative of the Goddess. The Priestess chose a – or many – consorts. There is now some thought that he or other men served as a wanax and kept the wheels of the government running.

Money, scissors and more

Much research was and is required for the Will Rees mysteries. After all, they dressed differently, ate differently and mostly lived different. Most people then lived on farms. And, of course, there were no telephones, landlines or otherwise, no computers, no cars – the list goes on and on.

But as I research Bronze Age Crete for my next series, I realize how many things there are. Money, for example. Every Western country as well as China, India and more had money. Well, there was some money in the Bronze Age. In what is now Iraq and Iran, shekels were used. They were tied to a certain amount of barley. Consistent weights for gold and silver were beginning to be set up. But can I casually say my characters in Minoan Crete went to the market with their money and purchased something? No. Something must have been used; after all, Crete was the center of trade. Did they use a barter system or a combination of both? Obviously, more research is required.

I talked about needles in my last post. Well, let’s move on to scissors. Rees uses scissors and we would recognize them. Scissors were invented during the Bronze Age but they were not the scissors we know. More like two blades attached with a copper band.

And the people of Rees’s time period ate similarly to us. More meat heavy and certain vegetables were newish such as potatoes and tomatoes but we would recognize most of their food.  The Minoans ate differently. Sure, they ate lamb, seafood and goat, lentils and other pulses, grains such as barley and wheat. But did they consume dairy products? Had they learned to make cheese? So far, although there are competing theories, no one seems to know.

And did they eat beef? The bull was sacred to them. The Classical Greeks sacrificed Cattle by burning the hides and bones so the aroma would go up to the Gods. Did the Minoans sacrifice their Bulls and do the same? Or did they treat their cattle as they still do in India today: cattle are sacred and not eaten?

But they did consume beer, wine and a fermented honey similar to mead.

Talk at the Mavens of Mayhem

On Saturday I spoke to the SINC (Sister in Crime) chapter to which I belong: the Mavens of Mayhem. SINC was started by Sara Paretsky in the 1980’s to support women writers. At that time, women writers were hardly ever reviewed. (Many sources I see in the Library are still like this. Book page mystery section reviews about 85% – 90% men and the few women who appear are heavyweights like Louise Penney. So there is still a lot of work to do. But I digress.)

So Sisters in Crime was begun and now there are chapters all over the country.

Anyway, I put on my librarian hat and spoke about genres and the difficulty of placing a book in the proper slot. Of course there is a lot of discussion on this; many librarians don’t want to “pigeonhole” but I feel it is an aid to the patron who reads only mystery or only romance. Of course within the genres there are sub-genres (noir, historical, cozy for example) and especially now days there are a lot of books that are more than one genre. The Devil’s Bible by Carpenter is mystery, historical, fantasy and even a little romance. (It is a great book, BTW.) Then the question is, where do you locate such a book so readers will find it?

Since several of the writers and beginning writers in the group have books that cross genres, we had a great discussion. One of the members referenced her attempt to find a book Dinosaur barbecue. In the catalog it was listed: Cookery – Dinosaur.

I will leave the peculiarities of subject headings for another day.

How sweet it is -Sugar

Sugar has been known for millennia. Botanists suggests sugar was discovered in Papua, New Guinea and has been cultivated for 7000 years. (Wow!) From New Guinea, it traveled west, to India, where the Greeks discovered it. In Sanskrit the word for sugar is karkara. The name changed slightly as it passed through other cultures and ended up with the Arabs who called it sukkur. Not such a leap to sugar.

It was known in Medieval Europe but it was rare and expensive and used as a spice.

What about the Colonies? Well, by 1770 British (including the colonies, ate five times as much sugar as in 1710. That number only increased. At first sugar was used primarily in tea and coffee but was later added to baked goods (especially after the discovery that baking soda and cream of tartar formed a compound that raised quick breads) and candy.

Sugarcane is difficult to harvest (the cutter has to bend over and cut it close to the ground) and change from a sweet sap to granulated sugar. It is a very labor intensive process. The Portuguese have the dubious distinction of being the first to use African slaves but, once the sugar industry really got going in the West Indies, the British and especially the French jumped on the bandwagon. Napoleon’s Jacqueline had brown rotting front teeth from her habit of eating sugarcane.

So, what were the consequences? At the Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans we saw the pots hung over fires that had to be stirred constantly to keep the juice from burning. This was a job usually reserved for slave children. Of all the jobs the slaves performed, this was probably the worst.

 

More about sugar, sugarcane, and rum next.