The feverish obsession with finding the truth behind Homer's epic account of the Trojan War has gone on for centuries. Heinrich Schliemann's conviction that the myth was based on historical reality is well known. Having taught himself Greek in order to read Homer in the original, he dug a deep trench through the mound of Hisarlik in his quest to find the monumental walls of Troy and the famous wealth of Helen, destroying other archaeological remains in the process.
Before him, in the 18th century, the British and French had vied with each other in surveying the plain of Troy, trying to match the real topographical features of the landscape with the descriptions in Homer's epic, and solemnly testing the temperatures of the mythical hot and cold springs. When the rivers seemed to be in the wrong place or the citadel mound too far from the sea for the fabled Greek army to besiege it from their ships, the 18th-century scholars posited a series of earthquakes that must have changed the Turkish coastline since antiquity.
Further back, the idea that the legend had a historical basis, supported by material evidence, was prevalent in the time of Alexander the Great. He stopped off on the way to conquering the east to make a sacrifice at the barrow on the coast, reputed to be Achilles's burial mound.
Even archaeologists today, though they might not admit it to themselves, are enticed by the legend. When I visited the latest archaeological campaign at Troy three years ago, Manfred Korfmann, the chief archaeologist (who had decisively disproved Achilles's tomb), confessed to me that his favourite place on the site was the great wall where he imagined Helen had once stood to survey the Greek army below her. Troy, it seems, has always been a place where fact and fiction meet, where the question of the substantial historical truth behind literature is tested and where hard-headed scientists succumb to romantic fantasy.
Bettany Hughes's search for Helen is the latest sally in this quest for the golden truth at the end of the mythological rainbow. The journey takes her to some interesting places, to a sophisticated history of the development of myth and to detailed literary and archaeological excavation of Bronze Age culture. Never before has the world of Homer's epic, the 13th century BC, been brought so vividly to life. Hughes brilliantly evokes the sights and sounds of the Bronze Age, the heady smells of women's perfumes and oils, the rustle of the linen over their thighs and breasts, the whisper of their prayers and liturgies. Linear B, the Bronze Age script excavated at Knossos and Mycenae and deciphered by Michael Ventris, becomes, after Hughes's imaginative treatment, no longer just a dry archaeological curiosity but a living language, poetic in its precision, femininely domestic in its concerns. And a sexy eroticism is reinjected into prehistoric antiquity as her detective work deduces such details as ancient seduction techniques, favourite sexual positions and women-only orgiastic fertility rituals.
One of Hughes's arguments is that the Bronze Age gynocentric culture, which celebrated women's sexuality and athletic prowess, was crushed and distorted by classical Athens, where women were expected to be silent and invisible. It was the Greek dramatists of 5th-century BC Athens who gave Helen a bad press, turning the idolised princess of the Bronze Age into a femme fatale figure selfishly responsible for the devastation of the Trojan War. The myth of Helen developed according to changing attitudes to women's empowerment and sexuality, so that in the post-Christian era she became an even more hated figure. By the time Faustus saw her image in Marlowe's play, the "face that launched a thousand ships" was tinged with Mephistophelean evil, more dangerous even than the diseased prostitutes who worked the streets outside the theatre.
It all adds up to a fascinating, compelling argument, flawed by its repeated insistence that a historical queen of Sparta called Helen really existed in the 13th century BC. Hughes teases us with repeated promises of archaeological proof, only to withdraw them with tantalising analogies or missing palaces, or female skeletons that turn out to be unrelated. But the very notion that there could be archaeological proof - a skeleton in a tomb marked "Eleni" - is nonsensical. For Homer's epic is actually a kaleidoscope of different periods and cultures (16th, 13th, 10th centuries BC and so on), strands of myth and miracle, fragments and folk memories.
Cultural practices and beliefs can be gleaned from it; specific individuals cannot. How anyway could we hope to find the woman who was the daughter of a swan and hatched out of an egg? All in all, Hughes's conviction that there was a "flesh and blood" Helen who "slept at night and woke at dawn"
seems an unnecessary and surprisingly reductive twist to an otherwise sophisticated thesis. But even if you refuse to follow that final twist with her, I guarantee you a gripping read.
Jennifer Wallace is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.
Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore
Author - Bettany Hughes
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Pages - 458
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 224 07177 7