Ugliness and other Greek myths

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Ugliness and other Greek myths

My grandpa holding one of his beloved chickens.

My grandpa holding one of his beloved chickens.

My grandpa holding one of his beloved chickens.

My grandpa holding one of his beloved chickens.

Sascha Harvey

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My grandpa holding one of his beloved chickens.

Depending on who you ask, the Trojan War was waged due to the capture of a certain very beautiful girl. Some might say the most beautiful girl. The most beautiful thing in the world. No, not Natalie Portman; this was way before her time. Think further back, before Jesus and way before the lesser Star Wars trilogy. She was Helen of Troy.

Somewhere between the 12th and 13th century BC, a prince named Paris was set to judge a beauty contest between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. You know, like a pageant from Toddlers & Tiaras, but instead of three-year-old girls in pigtails, it’s deities and they’re not hyper on pixie sticks.

They each offered a bribe to win the contest: Hera offered power, Athena victory, and, because this was way before women had emotional autonomy, Aphrodite offered the most beautiful woman in the world, blissfully unknowing Helen, as a bride. Paris accepts Aphrodite’s offer of Helen, as you do.

Kind of a grandma-ish name if you ask me, and she wasn’t even that pretty based on artist renditions. But then again, nobody’s asking me. Paris sure thought she was all that, and decided to take her to his home in Troy and marry her. And you probably know the story from here: a giant wooden horse with, big shocker here, people inside! War ensues, you get the gist. 

But who got to decide that Helen was most beautiful? Was there a committee? A vote? There had to be at least one lone Mycenaenan person who objected. A single person who said, “No, good sirs, for my wife is surely most beautiful! Feast thine eyes upon her beautiful bulbous nose!” 

Who decided that the epitome of beauty could be reduced to one woman, one set of eyes, one smile, one funky hairdo? Who was this person, and had they ever seen the sky right before a rainstorm? Had they ever seen their mother laugh hysterically at a stupid pun? Or their dog so excited she peed all over the carpet?

Had they ever seen a peach tree in bloom? A still from a Wes Anderson movie? Had they ever seen a yogurt parfait with strawberries and blueberries, purple and rippled with fruit juice?

Surely they hadn’t. Surely nobody would see Helen and think, this is it. Be-all, end-all. This is the most beautiful woman in the world, the most beautiful thing the eye could behold. 

My grandpa raises chickens. Silkies and Rhode Island reds. He’ll tell you all about them. “That one, there, is a silver-laced wyandotte. She gives a nice custard-colored egg.” If you ask, he’ll tell you about his childhood. About his dad leaving when he was young, about raising his 10 siblings. He’ll tell you about planting pine trees throughout the town and about how he was the quietest boy in the whole school. His favorite movie is Dances With Wolves

If the ancient Greeks had met him, if they had asked him about his chickens and about how the first time he said a word in school a girl cried “he speaks!”, if they had seen that his garden full of blackberries, the course of Greco-Roman history would’ve been changed. It would’ve been unanimous. This man is the most beautiful thing in the world. 

A couple of years ago, my family adopted a shaggy brown terrier. Despite being meek and well-behaved when we visited her at the shelter, she quickly proved herself to be, well, awful. She barks and growls and snaps. If you tried to sit on the couch next to her, she’d complain in the way dogs do until you figured you’d be better off in another seat. We figured her previous owners didn’t treat her right.

But sometimes, sometimes, she comes to you in seek of companionship. She’ll slowly sink into your lap, apprehensive and ready to jump if you move too fast or stroke her fur too roughly. She sleeps restlessly, but once in a blessed blue moon she is truly at peace, tongue poking out and her paws in awkward directions. Her tawny stomach rises with each breath. The Greeks obviously never had a snoozing caramel-furred dog on their lap, because if they had, they would’ve said that this dog, this awful, precious little dog, is definitely the most beautiful thing in the world. 

In eighth grade, I went to a bonfire. It was hosted by one of my best friends, a lovely girl with dishwater blonde hair always pulled back into a ponytail. She invited our close friends group plus a few extras, band kids and art kids with a healthy mix of orchestra kids. It was a chilly night, the air a bit nippy and the sky a mottled burst of blue fire. We huddled in our light jackets, sitting on stiff haybales, shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee.

The night grew longer, the sky darker, the air colder, our laughs louder. We made gooey s’mores with honey graham crackers. “I like ‘em burnt,” one of us would utter after accidentally burning their marshmallow for the third time in a row. That night, that collection of moments, far from the city of Troy, was the most beautiful thing in the world. 

There can’t just be one thing, one Helen of Troy. Helen is bear-shaped containers of honey with the sun shining through and the fizzing taste of Cherry Coke on a summer day and the way my little brother’s eyes crinkle when he smiles. Helen is the moment someone who always covers their smile forgets to one day and a warm blanket and finding leftover pizza in the fridge. 

If you struggle to think of the most beautiful thing in the world, if you’re unsure of who or what is your Helen of Troy, look around. You’ll find it.

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