Mar. 12th, 2008

mycursedface: (Mardi Gras)
Kharis is the root of ‘charisma’ and ‘charismatic’ and can simply mean grace or charm. But the original Greek also has a more sexualised connotation – a grace which ignites desire. Kharis was a gift of Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love. It is that quality of raw seductive power that Helen possessed above all others. The girls who danced at the Platanistas – led on by the example of their presiding spirit, Helen – were experiencing a rite of passage that made them beautiful in that they were becoming charismatic, sexually mature and sexually available. For them, Helen was not the most ‘beautiful’ woman in the world, she was the most erotic.

Despite the corpus of created Helens we have surprisingly few clues from antiquity as to what men and woman imagined Helen saw as she looked into her mirrors of gold. When she is described, stock epithets are used; she is ‘white-armed’, her hair is ‘lustrous’ and ‘golden’. The ancients were in no doubt that she existed yet there is no attempt to define, physically and severally, what made her so beautiful. Quintus of Smyrna retelling The Fall of Troy in the 4th century AD writes that ‘shame sat on her dark-blue eyes and cast its flush over her lovely cheeks’. This is about as specific as we get; the further back in history one travels, the more the face that launched a thousand ships is an irrelevance. Helen’s physiognomy is less important than how she made people feel – what her extraordinary charisma made them do. She is not just invisible, she is ineffable.

For classical, pagan antiquity her beauty is too important, too powerful simply to set down, to shackle with portraits or words. Helen’s beauty cannot be defined by face alone. It is literally unspeakable. To witness Helen’s beauty, coming as it does from the gods, verges on a religious experience. When the old men of Troy see her walking along the ramparts, they know that this is a war worth fighting for, but they describe her beauty as ‘terrible’ – like that of a goddess.

‘Terrible beauty’ would have meant more to the ancients than it does to us today – they knew of the dreadful things that could happen if one looked on the transcendental face of a goddess or a monster-woman. The Gorgon’s stare turns her victims to stone; when Actaeon, a young man hunting in the woods, catches sight of the goddess Diana bathing naked in a pool, she turns him into a stag who is then chased down and torn to pieces by his own faithful hounds as unwitting friends urge the dogs on. This is why Helen becomes Byron’s Greek Eve. If we understand the Spartan Queen in the way the ancients did, her beauty cannot simply be viewed, it is coercive: she forces men and woman alike into a state of longing, she forces them to act. Those who look at her cannot walk away unscathed. She catalyses desire. She is an eidolon that burns with projected emotion.

…Considered a gift of the gods, beauty clamoured for attention. In Greek thought everything had an intrinsic meaning, nothing was pointless – beauty had a purpose, it was an active, independent reality, not a passive and nebulous quality that came into being only once it was discerned. Men such as Plato and Aristole, Herodotus and Euripides would have had some trouble with Hume’s oft-repeated sentiment of the 18th century AD – beauty is in the mind of the beholder. For them, nonsense. A discrete entity, beauty could be measured and quantified. It was a psycho-physical parcel that had as much to do with inner character as chest-size. Far from being insubstantial it was thought to wield distinct and determinate power.
pp. 116-117


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