Sparta & the Haunts of Helen

The most beautiful of all Spartan woman had once been the most ugly. What happened was this: [as a child] her parents considered her appearance a disaster (they were wealthy; she was unsightly), so, pondering her unappealing looks, her nurse devised this plan: each day she took the child to Helen’s sanctuary at Therapne, above the temple of Apollo placed her beside the statue and prayed to the goddess to stop the child being ugly.

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One day, as she was leaving the sanctuary, they say the nurse met a woman who asked her what she was carrying in her arms. When she said it was a child, the woman asked if she could see it. The nurse refused, saying that its parents had forbidden her to show it to anyone. But when the woman kept on asking her and the nurse realized how important it was to her, she relented and showed her the child. The woman stroked its head and said it would become the most beautiful woman in Sparta. And from that day, the child’s appearance changed

Herodotus, Histories, 6.61

Far below the grassy plateau studded with wild flowers, where once the shrine of Helen stood, a golden glow from the Eurotas River bathes the fertile plain. Olive groves and orchards, smallholdings and farms, the bustling town of Sparti, the road south to the sea – all seem mellow in the evening sun, though dwarfed by the mountains soaring high beyond: Taygetus, the great massif, a sawtooth dragon-spine of ridges, even in early summer dazzling with snow. Sound travels effortlessly in the crystal air: the throaty barking of a dog; a tractor’s sputtering; the splash of water as the river ripples past thick stands of lush bamboo. It must be the most magical location in all Greece, a perfect marriage of extremes, possessed of an almost unendurable euphoria fused with the deepest melancholy. To stand here is to stand face-to-face with the divine.

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