‘As Neoptolemus had once promised, she married Helenus. The Trojan prince had a knack for making friends rather than enemies, and they were soon able to found a small settlement of their own. At Andromache’s request, they began to build a city which resembled their lost home: a new Troy, less grand and imposing, but with a high citadel nestling beneath a mountain. Sometimes, when the mist took a while to clear in the mornings, she could imagine herself at home again. Helenus bore a slight resemblance to his long-dead brother, Hector. Sometimes she found herself looking at his profile and seeing the features of her first husband leap from the face of her second. She never knew if Molossus resembled Astyanax as he grew up. But as she grew older, she found the two boys merging in her mind and when she saw the silhouette of Molossus returning from a day’s hunting in the forest, she also saw Astyanax treading in his footsteps. Her later life was lived amid a set of shadows and reflections of all that she had lost in the catastrophes of her early life. And if the shadow of happiness fell short of happiness itself, it was more than she had ever expected to find when she lay prostrate on the shores of Troy, weeping for her beloved child.’Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships, 337-8 (Picador 2020)
Homer’s epic poem The Iliad dates from the 8th century BCE and tells the tale of last few weeks of the Trojan War, when the Greeks finally captured the city of Troy after a ten-year siege. Much of the narrative focuses on the actions of men – in particular Achilles (one of ancient Greece’s most famous ‘heroes’), Hector (his Trojan counterpart), Agamemnon (King of Mycenae and commander of the Greek forces) and Menalaus (Agamemnon’s brother, whose wife Helen had eloped with Hector’s brother Paris). In between battles, we get glimpses of how women experienced the war, but we hear little from them directly.
As a counterpoint to that, author Natalie Haynes has picked up the threads of Homer’s narrative and woven them into a new tale that focuses on what women went through during and after this mythical conflict. Drawing on other ancient texts beyond the Iliad, and also on depictions in ancient art, A Thousand Ships cycles through the experiences of many different women: Trojan Creusa, Greek Penelope, the Amazon Penthesilea, mortals Briseis, Chryseis and Iphigenia, sea nymph Thetis, deities Aphrodite, Hera and Athene, mother Hecuba, daughter Polyxena, and prophetess Cassandra – among others. It foregrounds the many different kinds of violence inflicted on women as direct and indirect results of conflict, fleshing out their experiences so that we relive the Trojan War from new angles, through a host of female eyes.[i]
The penultimate chapter focuses on Andromache. She is the wife/widow of Hector, the son of Priam (King of Troy) who was famously killed by the Greek warrior Achilles in the closing stages of the Trojan War. Shortly afterwards, Achilles’ son (Neoptolemus) murdered Andromache and Hector’s baby son (Astyanax), and then took both Andromache and Hector’s brother (Helenus) captive, forcing Andromache to become his concubine. Andromache fell pregnant, giving birth to a boy named Molossus; and when Neoptolemus died some time later, she married Helenus and eventually became Queen of Epirus.
Haynes’ depiction of Andromache at the end of A Thousand Ships evokes her many forms of suffering: grief for lost loved ones, displacement, enslavement, sexual violence, insecurity… and fear of further violence, displacement and enslavement as cycles of conflict continue. Her grief is so great that she cannot bear to eat, her fear so acute that she obeys the tyrannical Neoptolemus; she carries anger, shame, guilt and revulsion inside her, and knows how precarious her future is. But Haynes has chosen to focus on her life after the end of the Trojan War, and we see some slow, partial healing as well as ongoing sorrow.
Chapter 42 begins with Andromache marking the difference between her life in Troy before the war and her life after it, in Epirus:
‘When Andromache looked up at the mountains that towered above Epirus, she wished they reminded her of Mount Ida, but they did not. Mount Ida rose to a perfect point, so high that often in the mornings it was shrouded in mist and she and Hector had been unable to see the top of it. She had watched the sun chase the mists away and each time the highest point was visible again, she felt calmness flood through her, like a child who can finally make out her father coming home in the distance. She missed the mountain, but when she thought of that instead of everything else she had lost, she found she could keep herself from weeping.
But Epirus was no Troy. The peaks lacked the kindly parental nature of Ida. Here, there were mountains on all sides, so that Andromache felt as though she were trapped at the bottom of a well…Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships, 326 (Picador 2020)
Beautiful scenery and sunshine, childlike innocence, parental care, marital contentedness, security and a strong sense of calm, all aspects of her past, are contrasted with Andromache’s literal and figurative following entrapment in a harsher, uglier place. She is haunted by flashbacks, especially of the violence done to her husband and child; but repeatedly bottles them up, learning to suppress them in order to survive:
‘Andromache felt her mind begin to travel down the road she could not allow it to take…’ (p. 328)
‘And if only… She broke her thoughts. She could not begin to consider if only, or the sun and the moon would come crashing down upon her.’ (p. 331)
‘She had nothing to love but her memories and those were too painful to think about.’ (ibid.)
The chapter narrates plenty of action (from Andromache’s enslavement to Neoptolemus’ death and her marriage to Helenus); but at the centre of it is a recurring focus on the mental labour of a grieving woman, as she contends with all the psychological as well as physical violence that war brings. Time brings an imperfect form of healing. There is no wholesale recovery, but she finds ways to endure her painful circumstances:
‘Andromache never came to love Neoptolemus, because that was asking too much even of a woman like her. His actions could not be forgotten, nor did he ever show the slightest contrition for the terrible toll he had exacted upon her and the women she had once called her family. But nor could she maintain the visceral loathing she had felt when he first took her from her home. It was not possible to keep hating a man with whom she lived in such close proximity; the aversion had to die, or she would die.’Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships, 331-2 (Picador 2020)
The chapter closes by coming full circle to its beginning, looking again at mountains through the mist. By the end, Andromache can almost ‘imagine herself home again’ – a shift in her mental state to greater security, calmness, restoration. But the fragile peace that she feels, once married to Helenus, is still blurred by grief and trauma: it is both the realisation of a more restful present and the regretful longing for a lost past. ‘Her later life was lived amid a set of shadows and reflections of all that she had lost in the catastrophes of her early life. And if the shadow of happiness fell short of happiness itself, it was more than she had ever expected to find when she lay prostrate on the shores of Troy, weeping for her beloved child.’ (p. 338)
Conflict brings many secondary forms of violence for women: loss not only of family members but also of caring roles and identities; displacement, from home, hometown and country; rape and other forms of sexual violence; hunger, illness, and all kinds of insecurity.[ii] Many ancient narratives of war gloss over these harms, normalising loss, grief, and the capture of women as ‘prizes’ or sex slaves in problematic ways. (The play TheTrojan Women, by Greek playwright Euripides, is one exception). In choosing to amplify them in A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes foregrounds aspects of peace-making (not just conflict) which help us think about contemporary as well as ancient experiences. For many women today, just as for the mythical Andromache from 3000 years ago, post-conflict recovery is a lengthy, complex journey that they never fully complete. What inner peace they can find is hard won, fragile and often deeply conflicted. A shadow of peace that falls short of peace itself.
What do you think?
- What can ancient myths teach us about conflict and peace-building today? Can Andromache’s story genuinely illuminate the 21st-century challenges that women impacted by conflict often face? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using ancient myths to reflect on modern experiences?
- Does Haynes’ account capture some real truths about peace-making, or is it as much a fiction/fantasy as Homer’s original text?
- Would you narrate the balance between healing/rebuilding and ongoing trauma differently?
- Is there a tension between external/urban/political recovery and personal conflict resolution? Which gets more attention in the stories we tell about peace?
If you enjoyed this item in our museum…
Alice König, March 2023
[i] Haynes’ novel is in good company; in recent years a number of other authors have reworked ancient myths to amplify women’s experiences, most notably Pat Barker in The Silence of the Girls. As Helen Morales explains in her illuminating book Antigone Rising, ancient Greek myths have long been the ‘cultural scaffolding’ on which Western habits of thought have been built, including deeply misogynistic ones; but they can also offer us a critical space, safely distanced, to put narrative patterns and socio-cultural attitudes under the microscope.