Many great minds have attempted to explain the complexities of subjective and objective beauty. Some have focused on principles of aesthetics while others on the emotional arousal a thing of beauty can facilitate. Personally, I find Homer’s explanation, as inferred through an allegorical interpretation of Helen of Troy, to be the most enlightening.
Homer is the name accredited to the Ancient Greek epics of The Iliad and The Odyssey. These are generally believed to have been an aural tradition for hundreds or thousands of years before being written down in the eight century before the common era. There is some dispute over whether or not Homer was a single person or an alias for a group of writers. Regardless, his works are a cornerstone of Ancient Greek culture.
Thanks to Homer’s enduring popularity, the contemporary world is still familiar with the great Gods and Goddesses of the Olympus pathaleon, like Zeus, Poseidon, Demeter, Hercules, Hades, Hera, Athena, Nike, Aphrodite, and Apollo. Other writers who followed (like the Romans, Ovid and Virgil) modelled the Greek’s style and appropriated the legends, kind of like Hollywood remakes of classics with updated social values, modern costumes, altered storyline emphasis, name variations, and so forth. I would argue the original is still the best.
In The Iliad, we’re told Helen (a daughter of Zeus and Leda) is the most beautiful woman in the world. Many men want her hand in marriage. She finishes up choosing the King of Sparta, Menelaus, and the unsuccessful suitors graciously vow to protect the union. The marriage lasts a few years until Helen leaves to marry a guy called Paris. I’ll go over the finer details of how that happened shortly.
To misogynists, Helen represents the epitome of women’s evilness. She is placed as the central cause of blame for the ten year Trojan War between the Greeks and Spartans, which inadvertently means she’s also responsible for the many lives lost, including that of Achilles (Peleus’ and Thetis’ son). Helen’s femme fatale portrayal is archetypal of all beautiful women who potentially have the capacity to spell bound men and cause strife just because they can, because women are supposedly inherently evil and all that junk.
To feminists, Helen represents a prime example of a subculture of men who view women as nothing more than a shallow cull of a body in which external attractiveness is valued above other qualities, like intellect and thinking. Further, women are objects that men feel entitled to own, thus justifying fighting over who owns what female body.
Some view Helen of Troy as a product of pure fantasy, a myth that expresses historical and cultural attitudes and behaviours. Others believe the story is an exaggeration of real events. Potentially, those who take the literal path also reject evolution theory and believe the earth was once occupied by deities who interacted with humans on a regular basis.
None of these interpretations sit well with my understanding of Ancient Greek symbolism.
Ancient Greek Symbolism
The Ancient Greeks were great thinkers. They were meticulous, thorough, and accurate in mathematics, art, and many other spheres of life. They had an impetus for ensuring things were done in accordance with truth, goodness, and justice. From the forms in their alphabet through to the meanings of words, the Greeks strove for clarity and did not leave much to chance. This organised approach can also be identified in how they incorporated symbolism into their prose.
Homer was a poet. The Iliad and The Odyssey are poems. Poetry was really important to the Ancient Greeks. Having said that, their poetry was not like contemporary verse that calls upon creative and imaginative expression for the sake of personal expression. Poetry was a highly intellectualised activity, moreover, to put words down on papyrus was an activity that warranted the utmost respect. If something was written down, it meant it was really important.
Aristotle informs us that the art of poetry was considered a genre that spoke of the universal. Aristotle was wrong about a lot of things but I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt that his comments about his eras customs are accurate. So what does Aristotle mean by poetry speaks of the universal? He means it was a language used to describe the nature of life. A somewhat crude comparison would be to say Ancient Greek poems were the scientific literature of antiquity. Except in antiquity, science was religion or, more precisely, religious explanations of the nature of life were considered to be as valid as scientific explanations are to the contemporary era. Just like contemporary scientific journals have a style code that is clearly recognisable to those who have training, so too the ancient writers followed a style guide that not all were privy to knowing. The history of education directly corresponds to religions and cult activities. (I’ve written a full blog series about the history of education in relation to religious cults that begins here.)
All of these considerations come to significance when viewed in relation to Empedocle’s explanation of Zeus, Hera, Persephone, and Hades being personifications of Fire, Air, Water, and Earth respectively. I have written about this before so I will just give a brief summary.
To those who had a high level of education in Ancient Greece, it was thoroughly understood that Zeus was not a real male who had umpteen affairs with numerous Goddesses. Rather, Zeus represented a very high (not necessarily the highest) pinnacle of the element of Fire. In turn, Fire symbolised the Spirit of intellect, the nous or cognitive functioning. Likewise, Hera, Queen of the Heavens, was a very high pinnacle of Air. In turn, Air symbolised the Soul of emotions, a broad array of feelings from anger to joy. Zeus’ “lovemaking” (or raping, as it sometimes described) was symbolic of the intellect interacting with various feelings. Humans have lots of feelings, so it makes sense that Zeus had lots of partners! (See The Big Bang Theory in Egyptian Mythology for about this type of symbolism.)
Persephone, as water, represents the essence of Ether, a life force that could be roughly correlated to the nervous system. And Hades, as Earth, represents the realm underneath the heavens. Humans have a physical body that can only live if “married” to a life force. Homer describes aspects this union in the myth about Hades taking Persephone to be his wife. Overall, human beings’ physical existence comprises Earth and Ether bodies that are permeated by Spirit (Zeus) and Soul (Hera) forces.
Knowing this symbolic code is very useful in interpreting ancient myths from an allegorical perspective, however, it’s not a straightforward task because the layering of symbolism within theological frameworks can be quite complex. The fact that male characters can represent both the Spirit and Earth realms, and female characters can represent both Soul and Ether realms, means there is plenty of room for error. Careful examination of other cues needs to be conducted. With this in mind, I suspect Helen is representative of Ether. The reason being is that she has divine parents but she marries mortals. In other words, her role is symbolic of Earth matter “marrying” Ether, moreover, an aspect of Ether that has links to the Soul qualities of Beauty and Love (Aphrodite).
Other female characters of interest in the story of Helen of Troy, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, are more likely to be representatives of Soul qualities because their characteristics are more complex and have significant emotional components.
The nature of the Soul is potentially the most contentious because, as Plato tells us, it was the most disputed topic amongst philosophers. Variations between myths confirm different sects or cults viewed the nature of Soul life quite differently. On face value it can be difficult to see the squabbling that went on between various schools of thought, especially when contemporary researchers try to harmonise storylines instead of appreciating differences. It is within the subtle differences in the presentation of characters between authors that differing opinions can be seen. For example, some texts emphasise Aphrodite as a being the personification of platonic Love while others focused more on her as a Love connected to sexual desire. The situation is a bit like various sects of Christianity attributing variations of qualities to God, Jesus, Mary, and so forth.
Getting back to Helen of Troy, how do these insights help to define beauty?
Helen of Troy
The story of Helen begins with a wedding banquet on Mount Olympus. All the Gods and Goddesses were invited to celebrate the union of Peleus and Thetis, that is all the Gods and Goddesses except the Goddess Eris. Annoyed at being left out, Eris arrives and presents a golden apple saying it is for the most beautiful woman present. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite are key contenders.
Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, and Eris as personifications of Soul, are symbolic of emotional concepts. A simplified explanation is as follows: Hera, as the supreme Goddess, represents all emotions, Athena represents emotional intelligence that has protective qualities, Aphrodite represents both noble love and sensual desire, and Eris represents an aspect of strife. (Empedocles tells us that Strife has many names so Eris may just be one of them.)
The three beautiful Goddesses ask Zeus to decide who is most sublime, but in his wisdom, Zeus refuses to respond. Was Zeus immune to Strife? Or was he using the opportunity to demonstrate a lesson in beauty? Regardless, Zeus selects Paris, a mortal, to decide who was entitled to the prize of the golden apple. Paris is not as wise as Zeus and he doesn’t know Eris has orchestrated this situation as a means of revenge.
When the Goddesses came down from Mount Olympus and to present themselves to Paris, some versions say they undressed. Artists over the years have enjoyed painting this scene! Paris was overwhelmed, they were all so beautiful!
The Judgement of Paris, Rubens, c.1636
Emotions can be very powerful and sometimes compete with one another for recognition. The three beautiful Goddesses were the same, each one tried to win Paris over. Hera offered the reward of rulership and power over many lands if he chose her. Athena offered wisdom and supreme battle skills, and Aphrodite offered the love of the most beautiful woman on earth. Three beauties and three prizes. Eris’ plan of creating discord by forcing a rigid choice be made by defining the ultimate beauty was about to come into effect.
Paris, of course, chose Aphrodite, and true to her word, he was awarded the most beautiful woman alive even though she was married to another man. Paris got what he wanted but at what cost? Troy was destroyed and Paris died in battle.
Helen of Troy, as a representative of ethereal beauty is a shallow character, her thoughts and feelings are never explored in depth by Homer because she was not a real woman. Her connection to Aphrodite suggests she is the manifestation of beauty that is physically appealing and delights the senses, but is absent of the complexity that Hera’s and Athena’s contributions to beauty.
What would have happened if Paris had chosen Hera or Athena? How would Strife have played out if he took the offer of wisdom that enabled victory in wars? Or if power and land ownership was manifested as supreme beauty? I imagine many ancient philosophers would have pondered on such things at length.
Allegorically, I interpret the story of Helen of Troy to be a moral lesson on why one should not try to define or chase beauty according to rigid guidelines or aesthetics alone. Moreover, beauty that is only skin deep will put a man (or any person with a physical body) in a situation in which their life becomes full of discord, a war within.
The battle at Troy was finally won when the Greek’s turned their ships into a gigantic wooden horse. They pretend it was a victory gift to the Spartans, a gesture of submission, but really it was a trick. Warriors hiding inside the wooden frame snuck out once the horse had passed through the city’s gates, thus giving the Greek’s access to the city which they then proceeded to demolish.
To the ancients, a horse was a symbol of the intellect. Why? Because horses were a very useful and productive tool. Therefore, there is something deeper, almost intangible, associated with the fact that the Greeks aligned themselves with the intellect and the successful destruction of a city over the sake of a shallow definition of beauty. Conversely, the story could be seen as a slur against Spartans, the first custodians of Helen.
To summarise, Hera is the beauty of having power and ownership over a full range of emotions. Athena is the beauty of transformation and the victorious experience of successfully completing a challenge. And Aphrodite is aesthetics, as can be explored through the elements and principles of art (which I also call the elements and principles of life). Thus, the ultimate beauty is a combination of all three Goddesses being in harmony with each other. If one tries to separate these three aspects of beauty then they will need to use their intellect (the Trojan horse), to overcome Strife, especially if one has fallen for skin deep beauty.
This allegorical interpretation of Helen of Troy, can be put into practical application in a many contexts. In particular, I like to use it when I look at an artwork and I want to assess its beauty on different levels. I ask myself: How does it make me feel (Hera)? How does it change me (Athena)? How does it look (Aphrodite)?
It could also be used as an allegory for assessing the beauty of romantic partners. How do they make me feel? How do they change me? How do they look? … It goes without saying that if an individual bases the beauty of their partner on looks alone they may want to consider what the wise man Homer once said about Helen of Troy …