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."
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.
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.
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.