This article is about the mythological figure Helen of Troy. For the ancestor of the Greeks ("Hellenes"), see Hellen. For other uses, see Helen (disambiguation). "Helen of Troy" redirects here. For other uses, see Helen of Troy (disambiguation)
Helen and Menelaus: Menelaus intends to strike Helen; struck by her beauty, he drops his sword. A flying Eros and Aphrodite (on the left) watch the scene. Detail of an Attic red-figure krater, c. 450â€“440 BC (Paris, Louvre).
In Greek mythology, Helen (in Greek, Ἑλένη â€“ HelÃ©nē), known also as Helen of Troy (and earlier Helen of Sparta), was the daughter of Zeus and Leda (or Nemesis), daughter of King Tyndareus, wife of Menelaus and sister of Castor, Polydeuces and Clytemnestra. Her abduction by Paris brought about the Trojan War. In Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, hers is "the face that launched a thousand ships."
The etymology of Helen's name has been a problem to scholars until the present. Georg Curtius related Helen (Ἑλένη) to the moon (Selene Σελήνη). Ã‰mile Boisacq considered Ἑλένη from the noun ἐλένη meaning "torch". It has also been suggested that the λ of Ἑλένη arose from an original ν, and thus the etymology of the name is connected with the root of Venus. Linda Lee Clader points out however that none of the above suggestions offers much satisfaction. Hjalmar Frisk and Pierre Chantraine despair of an etymology.
If the name has an Indo-European etymology, it is possibly a suffixed form of a root *wel- "to turn, roll", or of *sel- "to flow, run". The latter possibility would allow comparison to the Vedic Sanskrit Saraṇyū, a character who is abducted in Rigveda 10.17.2. This parallel is suggestive of a Proto-Indo-European abduction myth. Saraṇyū means "swift" and is derived from the adjective saraṇa ("running", "swift"), the feminine of which is saraṇā; this is in every sound cognate with Ἑλένα, the form of her name that has no initial digamma. The possible connection of Helen's name to ἐλένη ("torch"), as noted above, may also support the relationship of her name to Vedic svaranā ("the shining one").
Prehistoric and mythological context
The origins of Helen's myth date back to the Mycenaean age. Her name first appears in the poems of Homer, but scholars assume that such myths invented or received by the Mycenaean Greeks made their way to Homer. Her mythological birthplace was the Sparta of the Age of Heroes, which features prominently in the canon of Greek myth: in later ancient Greek memory, the Mycenaean Bronze Age became the age of the Greek heroes. The kings, queens ,and heroes of the Trojan Cycle are often related to the gods, since mythic origins gave stature to the Greeks' heroic ancestors. The fall of Troy came to represent a fall from an illustrious heroic age, remembered for centuries in oral tradition before being written down. Recent archaeological excavations in Greece suggest that modern-day Laconia was a distinct territory in the Late Bronze Age, while the poets narrate that it was a rich kingdom. Archaeologists have unsuccessfully looked for a Mycenaean palatial complex buried beneath present-day Sparta. An important Mycenaean site at the Menelaion was destroyed by c. 1200 BC, and most other Mycenaean sites in Lakonia also disappear. There is a shrinkage from fifty sites to fifteen in the early twelfth century, and then to fewer in the eleventh century.
Leda and the Swan by Cesare da Sesto (c. 1506â€“1510, Wilton House, Wilton). The artist has been intrigued by the idea of Helen's unconventional birth; she and Clytemnestra are shown emerging from one egg; Castor and Pollux from another.
In most sources, including the Iliad and the Odyssey, Helen is the daughter of Zeus and Leda, the wife of the Spartan king Tyndareus.Euripides' play Helen, written in the late 5th century BC, is the earliest source to report the most familiar account of Helen's birth: that, although her putative father was Tyndareus, she was actually Zeus' daughter. In the form of a swan, the king of gods was chased by an eagle, and sought refuge with Leda. The swan gained her affection, and the two mated. Leda then produced an egg, from which Helen was produced. The First Vatican Mythographer introduces the notion that two eggs came from the union: one containing Castor and Pollux; one with Helen and Clytemnestra. Nevertheless, the same author earlier states that Helen, Castor and Pollux were produced from a single egg.Pseudo-Apollodorus states that Leda had intercourse with both Zeus and Tyndareus the night she conceived Helen.
On the other hand, in the Cypria, one of the Cyclic Epics, Helen was the daughter of Zeus and the goddess Nemesis. The date of the Cypria is uncertain, but it is generally thought to preserve traditions that date back to at least the 7th century BC. In the Cypria, Nemesis did not wish to mate with Zeus. She therefore changed shape into various animals as she attempted to flee Zeus, finally becoming a goose. Zeus also transformed himself into a goose and mated with Nemesis, who produced an egg from which Helen was born. Presumably in the Cypria this egg was somehow transferred to Leda. Later sources state either that it was brought to Leda by a shepherd who discovered it in a grove in Attica, or that it was dropped into her lap by Hermes.
Asclepiades and Pseudo-Eratosthenes related a similar story, except that Zeus and Nemesis became swans instead of geese. Timothy Gantz has suggested that the tradition that Zeus came to Leda in the form of a swan derives from the version in which Zeus and Nemesis transformed into birds.
Pausanias states that in the middle of the 2nd century AD, the remains of an egg-shell, tied up in ribbons, were still suspended from the roof of a temple on the Spartan acropolis. People believed that this was "the famous egg that legend says Leda brought forth". Pausanias traveled to Sparta to visit the sanctuary, dedicated to Hilaeira and Phoebe, in order to see the relic for himself.
Abduction by Theseus and youth
Theseus pursuing a woman, probably Helen. Side A from an Attic red-figure bell-krater, c. 440â€“430 BC (Louvre, Paris).
Two Athenians, Theseus and Pirithous, thought that since they were both sons of gods, both should have divine wives; they thus pledged to help each other abduct two daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen, and Pirithous vowed to marry Persephone, the wife of Hades. Theseus took Helen and left her with his mother Aethra or his associate Aphidnus at Aphidnae or Athens. Theseus and Pirithous then traveled to the underworld, the domain of Hades, to kidnap Persephone. Hades pretended to offer them hospitality and set a feast, but, as soon as the pair sat down, snakes coiled around their feet and held them there. Helen's abduction caused an invasion of Athens by Castor and Pollux, who captured Aethra in revenge, and returned their sister to Sparta.
In most accounts of this event, Helen was quite young; Hellanicus of Lesbos said she was seven years old and Diodorus makes her ten years old. On the other hand, Stesichorus said that Iphigeneia was the daughter of Theseus and Helen, which obviously implies that Helen was of childbearing age. In most sources, Iphigeneia is the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, but Duris of Samos and other writers followed Stesichorus' account.
Ovid's Heroides give us an idea of how ancient and, in particular, Roman authors imagined Helen in her youth: she is presented as a young princess wrestling naked in the palaestra; an image alluding to a part of girls' physical education in classical (and not in Mycenaean) Sparta. Sextus Propertius imagines Helen as a girl who practices arms and hunts with her brothers:
or like Helen, on the sands of Eurotas, between Castor and Pollux, one to be victor in boxing, the other with horses: with naked breasts she carried weapons, they say, and did not blush with her divine brothers there.
Suitors of Helen
When it was time for Helen to marry, many kings and princes from around the world came to seek her hand, bringing rich gifts with them, or sent emissaries to do so on their behalf. During the contest, Castor and Pollux had a prominent role in dealing with the suitors, although the final decision was in the hands of Tyndareus. Menelaus, her future husband, did not attend but sent his brother, Agamemnon, to represent him.
There are three available and not entirely consistent lists of suitors, compiled by Pseudo-Apollodorus (31 suitors), Hesiod (12 suitors), and Hyginus (36 suitors), for a total of 45 distinct names. We only have fragments from Hesiod's poem, so his list would have contained more. Achilles' absence from the lists is conspicuous, but Hesiod explains that he was too young to take part in the contest.  Taken together, the list of suitors matches well with the captains in the Catalog of Ships from the Iliad; however, some of the names may have been placed in the list of Helen's suitors simply because they went to Troy. It is not unlikely that relatives of a suitor may have joined the war.
Definition: Helen of Troy was the daughter of Leda and Zeus, sister of Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux (the Dioscuri), and wife of Menelaus. The beauty of Helen of Troy was so overwhelming that Theseus once abducted her. Before Helen married Menelaus all her other suitors swore to help bring Helen back should she be abducted again. When Paris of Troy abducted Helen, the suitors were obliged to honor their oath and so the Trojan War was fought to bring her back home. Helen of Troy is referred to as the face that launched a thousand ships.
Helen of Troy but Princess of Sparta
Helen is the face that launched a thousand ships. At the time of the Trojan war she was the most beautiful woman in the world. There is some question as to whether she is the most beautiful woman of all time. Her beauty is very important because it inspired the Trojan War that killed untold thousands of souls. Furthermore it is the center piece of the Greek myth. The exploits of the heroes and heroines of the Trojan War form the substance of the Greek stories that Greek religion was based upon for hundreds of years later. Hesiod describes Helen, "...others brought in boats over the great gulf of the sea to Troy for the sake of fair-haired Helen." He also refers to these warriors as "more just and superior, the godly race of men-heroes, who are called demigods..."
In Greek the name is Ἑλένης. Most anciently this means 'burn within' and is related to the Greek word for torch, 'ἑλένη', 'helene'. The name is from Indo-European 'bhel-1', 'To shine, flash, or burn' and 'en', 'within'. Notice that the meaning of the name seems to echo the passion of her life. The suggestion is that she got this name as a result of the myth and not at birth.
It is interesting to consider the qualities of beauty. They include truth, harmony, love, attractiveness, and delight. These are qualities that are to be important in the later idealism of the Greeks. In contrast war is anything but beautiful. It is almost the opposite. Though Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty she marries Ares, the god of war. It is as though these two opposites are warring for the attention of the souls who devote their lives to this contest. For the Trojan War is not just a battle for Troy, it is a battle of the gods for life itself and the souls of those who live it. And the stories that are generated are not just an adventure. They are an elaboration of the path a soul must take to participate in what is holy. It is, in truth, a story about what life is about and how to make it worthwhile.
The fact that a woman is the center of this story suggests that women are important and not secondary. In fact they are central to the whole scheme. But this was an embarrassment to the Greek men. The two sides of the Trojan conflict were not Ares and Aphrodite, they were Aphrodite and Athena. It was also an opposition of passion and reason. Worse yet Aphrodite is aligned against Athena and Hera. It is the story of the Judgement of Paris that one must read to get the full gist of this.
The story of Helen's birth is not that important to the Trojan tale but it does reinforce the cosmic nature of the story. The story is that Helen was hatched from an egg. This seems related to myths that occur in other cultures about a wind egg that produces creation. In this case the egg creates the world of the Trojan War. It was Zeus that decided to have sex with Leda as a swan to produce this egg. You can read about Leda to get more details of this story.
Leda guards the egg with Helen in it.
Leda was the wife of king Tyndareus of Sparta, and it fell to him to arrange Helen's upbringing and marriage. This he did with some anxiety because Herophile foretold in her oracles that Helen would be brought up in Sparta to be the ruin of Asia and of Europe, and that for her sake the Greeks would capture Troy.
When Helen was a young girl she danced at the temple of Artemis Orthia:
Helen dancing wearing a decorative girdle.
Theseus was so taken with Helen that he raped her and stole her away to Attica. One has to wonder about the effect of this experience on the young girl. Her brothers, Castor and Pollux, recovered her while Theseus was away. Theseus had left his mother to care for Helen. Castor and Pollux enslaved her and made her the servant of Helen. She was not recovered by the family of Theseus until she was freed during the fall of Troy.
Tyndarus was afraid that the many powerful suitors of Helen might attack him or Helen if they were disappointed. Tyndareus, having sacrificed a horse here, administered an oath to the suitors of Helen, making them stand upon the pieces of the horse. The oath was to defend Helen and him who might be chosen to marry her if ever they should be wronged. When he had sworn the suitors he buried the horse. Tyndarus then chose Menalaus as the husband of Helen. When Paris seduced Helen and took her to Troy, the oath bound the suitors of Helen to go after her.
There is little evidence that Helen had any choice but to go with Paris to Troy. Stories differ as to how much she cooperated. It is significant that before they went to Troy, Helen and Paris stopped in Egypt. One story has it that Helen never went to Troy, but stayed in Egypt. Helen had a double that went to Troy. This is a reasonable if not glamorous story. Helen was so famous that she could have used a double to allow her to go about without being harassed. It also seems illogical that Troy would have fought such a long and protracted war over a woman. But if they did not have her they could not give her back.
If she did go to Troy then she did not go alone. Clymene was with her. Clymene was not a slave. She was a relative of Menelaus. She probably went with Helen at Helen's request. She was not the only attendant of Helen. When Theseus raped Helen he put her in the care of his mother Aethra. When the Dioscouri took back Helen they captured Aethra as well. She became a slave of Helen who followed her to Troy. Acamas, Theseus' son went to Troy and recovered Aethra and was also given Clymene. So Clymene probably became the companion of Aethra. Also with these two was Laodice, daughter of Priam, who produced a son by Acamas. This son, Munitus, was raised by Aethra. After the fall of Troy Helen went to Egypt for 8 years. On her return to Sparta she had 3 attendants, Adreste, Alcippe, and Phylo. I do not know if these were slaves or not.
If Helen did go to Troy she was there for nine years before the Greek army arrived and was was there another ten years while the Trojan War was fought. Though Paris and Helen lived as man and wife for nineteen years there were no children produced. As far as is known Helen was accepted by the Trojan community and was well treated. But there are stories that she conspired with the Greeks. This may be true because her former husband, Meneleus did not kill her as he suggested he would. But even before Meneleus obtained Helen she was transferred to another Trojan when her husband Paris was killed.
Finally Troy fell and Meneleus thought about punishing Helen for the trouble she had caused. He was going to stab her with his sword when he caught sight of her beautiful breasts:
Helen in a Mycenaean flounced skirt
Once Helen and Meneleus got back together they traveled back to Sparta together. They were blown off course and ended up in Egypt. They remained there for eight years. Helen benefited from this stay because she learned about Egyptian drugs.
in the drama Orestes by Euripides Helen arrives in Nauplia, the port of Argos, and is able to talk to Electra just after Clytemnestra has been murdered by Orestes. She states, line 80, "I am truely sorry for the fate of my sister Clytemnestra, on whom I ne'er set eyes after I was driven by heaven-sent frenzy to sail on my didastrour voyage to Ilium; but now that I am parted from her I bewail our misfortunes." That she uses that port to get to Sparta suggests that at other times that port would have been used by Spartans. This also suggests that she might have visited her sister when she was in Sparta before. But the trip from Sparta to Nauplia was probably overland, a distance of 50 miles or more, and would have required several days. Later Sparta would have its own port and travel would have been quicker and easier by sea. Even so Sparta was nearly thirty miles from its port,Gythium, but the trip along the rived from Sparta to Glythium was flat and easy while the land route from Sparta to Nauplia was twisted and mountainous.
Since Helen caused the Trojan War by eloping with Paris, and since many lives were lost in this war you would think that someone would like to blame Helen and seek revenge. And so there are stories to this effect. One story has her outlive Meneleus and get ousted from Sparta by a bastard stepson. She was at least 50 by this time and probably much older. She went to live with Polyxo, an old friend, on the island of Rhodes. Since Polyxo's husband had been killed in the war Polyxo secretly hated Helen. She disguised her servants as Erinyes and had them hang Helen from a tree. This is clearly a crucifixion because Helen was later worshipped as the Goddess of the Tree in Rhodes.
Of course since Helen was the daughter of Zeus she was still beautiful at this age. Crucifixion was chosen because it was particularly horrible and was thought to pay the victim back for the damage caused. It also might prevent the victim from being buried which in turn would deprive them of immortality. The body might be left to be eaten by birds and would not be placed in a grave.
Visually it was also very satisfying for the persecutor. The victim would be stripped naked to humiliate her. If possible nails would be driven through each arm as they were strung out on the branches. Her feet would be crossed and nailed with one nail. Then she would be allowed to hang. The position of the arms made breathing difficult and the victim would gasp for breath. But in order to breathe she would have to pull on her arms and take the weight off her legs. This would cause the nails to excite the nerves in the arms causing great pain. After the breath the pain would come back in the legs. This pain would cause the victim to dance on the cross. Since the arms were held back and the legs crossed the dance would be very erotic and her naked beauty would be entertainment for any spectators. The position of the arms causes the breasts to push out and the position of the feet causes the body to assume a serpentine figure which is very aesthetic. As a result pictures of such a crucifixion are very popular. But they are so erotic that they are usually withheld from public view. The fact that Helen was so beautiful would make pictures of this scene very appealing and may, in fact, be the reason for the story.
Helen crucified on a tree
Of course all attempts to deprive Helen of eternity were futile. The fact that she was later worshipped suggests that the crucifixion deified her. Sometimes the very pain of the crucifixion is thought to purify. History has not assigned the results of the Trojan War to any decision that Helen made. It was her beauty that was the factor and in this way she was the tool of Aphrodite. That a woman's body should have a value apart from her moral nature is a dilemma which has long plagued ethics with varied results. Should Helen be blamed for receiving and maintaining a beautiful body? Shouldn't the blame fall on the others who wished to possess this body? Helen is a properly passive female who does little to affect the great scheme of things and so is hard to morally blame. But that she may have become the victim of retribution may be symbolic of other evils that befall women. A woman may be styled a temptress, an instrument of temptation, a natural force that needs control, and yet she need not do anything to earn these epithets. Yet the man who is tempted, or controlling, must act to earn this distinction. Thus the ethics are applied with a double standard.
Archaeology of Helen
There is an historical record of Helen, but it is not consistent. Paul Carteledge discusses the various references in his book The Spartans on pages 48 - 56. The most important fact to be mentioned is that the ancient Spartans were very concerned about the story of Helen and acted upon it. They built a shrine to Helen at Therapne to the southeast of the ancient town. Helen served as a role model to them and defined a feminine standard that was important to them. And in this context there is no doubt that they modified the stories of Helen to suit their own politics.
Theodore Spyropoulos, a regional official of Greeceâ€™s Central Archaeological Council has stated that the homeric site of the palace of Meneleus is located on the acropolis of Pellana. This is situated on the hill "Palaiokastro" where recent excavations conducted brought into light remains of habitation, dated to the Early Helladic period. This conflicts with what the ancient Spartans believed as they had built the Meneleion on top of what they thought was the palace of Helen three miles northeast of Sparta.
To the southeast of Sparta at Therapne Helen was worshipped as a goddess. The site of this temple was investigated by Ross in 1833 and 1841, and by Kastriotis in 1889 and 1900. Archeological and historical references suggest that the Helen worshipped here was more of a goddess of vegetation and fertility associated with trees. The Helen of Homer may have represented a mortal person who had acquired the characteristics of this nature goddess.
In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was the most beautiful woman in the world. A daughter of the god Zeus*, she is best known for the part she played in causing the Trojan War*, a story told by Homer in the Iliad] and the Odyssey]. Some scholars suggest that Helen was also a very ancient goddess associated with trees and birds.
Birth and Early Life. Some myths say that Helen's mother was Leda, the wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta*. Others name Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, as her mother. Helen had a sister Clytemnestra, who later became the wife of King Agamemnon* of Mycenae, and twin brothers Castor and Pollux, known as the Dioscuri.
Stories claiming Leda as Helen's mother tell how Zeus disguised himself as a swan and raped the Spartan queen. Leda then produced two eggs. From one came Helen and her brother Pollux. Clytemnestra and Castor emerged from the other. Other versions of the myth say that Zeus seduced Nemesis, and she laid the two eggs. A shepherd discovered them and gave them to Queen Leda, who tended the eggs until they hatched and raised the children as her own. In some variations of this legend, Helen and Pollux were the children of Zeus, but Clytemnestra and Castor were actually the children of Tyndareus.
When Helen was only 12 years old, the Greek hero Theseus* kidnapped her and planned to make her his wife. He took her to Attica in Greece and locked her away under the care of his mother. Helen's brothers Castor and Pollux rescued her while Theseus was away and brought her back to Sparta. According to some stories, before Helen left Attica, she had given birth to a daughter named Iphigenia.
Some time after Helen returned to Sparta, King Tyndareus decided that it was time for her to marry. Suitors came from all over Greece, hoping to win the famous beauty. Many were powerful leaders. Tyndareus worried that choosing one suitor might anger the others, who could cause trouble for his kingdom.
Among those seeking to marry Helen was Odysseus*, the king of Ithaca. Odysseus advised Tyndareus to have all the suitors take an oath to accept Helen's choice and promise to support that person whenever the need should arise. The suitors agreed, and Helen chose Menelaus, a prince of Mycenae, to be her husband. Helen's sister Clytemnestra was already married to Menelaus's older brother, Agamemnon.
The Trojan War. For a while, Helen and Menelaus lived happily together. They had a daughter and son, and Menelaus eventually became the king of Sparta. But their life together came to a sudden end.
Paris, a prince of Troy, traveled to Sparta on the advice of the goddess Aphrodite*. She had promised him the most beautiful woman in the world after he proclaimed her the "fairest" goddess. When Paris saw Helen, he knew that Aphrodite had kept her promise. While Menelaus was away in Crete, Paris took Helen back to Troy. Some stories say Helen went willingly, seduced by Paris's charms. Others claim that Paris kidnapped her and took her by force.
When Menelaus returned home and discovered Helen gone, he called on the leaders of Greece, who had sworn to support him if necessary. The Greeks organized a great expedition and set sail for Troy. Their arrival at Troy marked the beginning of the Trojan War. During the war, Helen's sympathies were divided. At times, she helped the Trojans by pointing out Greek leaders. At other times, however, she sympathized with the Greeks and did not betray them when opportunities to do so arose.
Helen had a number of children by Paris, but none survived infancy. Paris died in the Trojan War, and Helen married his brother Deiphobus. After the Greeks won the war, she was reunited with Menelaus, and she helped him kill Deiphobus. Then Helen and Menelaus set sail for Sparta.
Later Life. The couple arrived in Sparta after a journey of several years. Some stories say that the gods, angry at the trouble Helen had caused, sent storms to drive their ships off course to Egypt and other lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea. When they finally arrived in Sparta, the couple lived happily, although by some accounts, Menelaus remained suspicious of Helen's feelings and loyalty.
Many stories say that Helen remained in Sparta until her death. But others say that she went to the island of Rhodes after Menelaus died, perhaps driven from Sparta by their son Nicostratus. At first she was given refuge on Rhodes by Polyxo, the widow of Tlepolemus, one of the Greek leaders who had died in the Trojan War. Later, however, Polyxo had Helen hanged to avenge the death of her husband. One very different version of Helen's story claims that the gods sent an effigy, or dummy, of Helen to Troy but that she actually spent the war years in Egypt.
Helen and stories about her inspired many ancient writers, including the Greek playwright Euripides* and the Roman poets