Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Golden Girl Project: Helen of Troy

The final part of my "Golden Girl Project" series of posts is this one. It's about the ultimate Goddess-like mortal woman. She's the most written about princess of ancient Greek mythology. The woman's beauty alone caused the downfall and destruction of an entire city.

Helen of Troy is also called "Helen of Sparta". She was born in Sparta, possibly during the Mycenaean Bronze Age. It was during a time when later Greeks of other periods looked back on this time as "the age of heroes". She was written about by the poet Homer, who lived centuries afterwards. In a later time, Euripides composed some literature on Helen, stating that she was the daughter of Leda and the god Zeus. The story goes that Zeus transformed into a swan and mated with Leda. As a result, two eggs were laid from the mortal woman Leda. Human children were hatched from these eggs, two boys in one, and a girl in the other. The girl was Helen and the brothers were Castor and Pollux. In adulthood, the brothers became the "Dioscuri" and were hunters. They became two of the Argonauts, heroes of the Argo ship, whose leader was Jason. They were involved in many adventures, and shrines were built in their worship. It was also stated that of the brothers, only Pollux came from an egg and was the son of Zeus, and Helen came from either another egg or the same egg, daughter of Zeus. Castor and another sister Clytamnestra were mortal children of Leda and her husband king Tyndareus.

An older version of Helen goes that she is the daughter of Zeus and the goddess Nemesis. She was a baby inside an egg who was given to a mortal woman Leda to care for. Again is a similar theme of heroes and heroines, who have no parents or whose parents are either unknown or divine.

The Greek geographer Pausanias, of the 2nd century C.E., traveled to Sparta to locate Helen's birth egg shell. The site was located at the Spartan acropolis. The name "Helen" is means "shining light". It's an Anglicised version of the Greek "Helene" or "Helena".

First of all, Helen was a beautiful woman who attracted the admiration of both gods and men. From a young age, it is said she was trained in fighting and hunting along with her brothers. She was once abducted by a god Theseus, who wanted her to be his wife. After leaving her with his mother in Athens, he went away to the dangerous underworld on a quest and Helen was rescued by her brothers, Castor and Pollux. Helen attracted hundreds of suitors who wanted to marry her. Menelaus was finally selected (by Helen's father and brothers) to be marry her.

There are different versions of the next phase of events but Helen was swept off her feet (or kidnapped) by Paris, a Trojan prince. Her husband was furious and wanted her back, raising an army to sneak warriors into Troy via having them hidden inside a giant wooden "Trojan Horse". This started off the Trojan war. As a result, Helen is despised by the people of Troy. She developed a friendship with Hector, who was another Trojan prince and also a warrior. Paris and Hector were killed in battle. The grief stricken Helen was then returned to her husband while Troy was left in ruins.

The rest of Helen's life is completely vague. Either she died or vanished. Again, this is a common theme with goddesses whose names also often contain the meanings "light", "shining" and associated with fire. It's very possible that Helen was not a mortal woman but a goddess. A goddess who was mortalised through the ages to tell the saga over and over. Her origins, if going further back in time long before Homer and long before the Mycenaean period, Helen seems to be likely one of many solar goddesses from primitive Indo European traditions. Here is a story of a destroyed "lost city" that was blamed entirely on this woman/goddess. After the Ice Age, many disasters happened such as the sinking of entire islands, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Helen might've been an echo of a former sun cult that thrived in these areas. Whatever she really was, she was a true Golden Girl of myth and legend!

Links about Helen:

Helen of Troy - Heroine or Goddess
"Helen of Troy" (book) by Bettany Hughes
(Picture "Helen of Troy" by Lan Jun Kang)

Monday, 19 August 2013

The queen of poisons

Aconitum, as it's officially called, is a pretty wild perennial flower. It usually grows in pastures, valleys and mountain sides of picturesque countrysides with shade from the big trees. This plant can be found from countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas. The green stalks and leaves bloom to a layer of pink, blue, purple, yellow and white petals. These "pretty maids in a row" look photogenic as they can appear to be like miniature girls in fancy dresses. They bare fruit and seeds. However none of them are safe to eat or touch. The Aconitum flowers are poisonous. They're given different names including "the queen of poisons", "blue rocket", "monkshood" and "women's bane" but the most well known of these flowers is "wolfsbane".

The poison is so strong. If you eat a wolfsbane plant, death becomes you. Touching the flower and it's leaves can be harmful. The poison of Aconitum has been used in hunting and during war, tipped on arrows and spears. If you accidentally consume Aconitum you'll suffer pain, vomiting, diarrhea and eventually death.

Despite it's deadly quality, Aconitum is a food source for a few species of moths. Aconitum can be detoxified and used in medicines. It was used to treat a variety of illnesses and is a special ingredient in Chinese herbal medicines.  .     

In folklore wolfsbane (Aconitum vulparia lycoctonum) was used to destroy werewolves instantly. Wolfsbane was used by witches in their magic potions to cast spells, according to some written sources.  

The poison garden website
Wolfsbane seeds for witch's garden
The wolfsbane potion