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. Sometime 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.
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.
Death and Immortality:
The exceptionality of Helen's conception and birth illustrate that she is at least semi-divine. Turning to the opposite end of her life, how is her death portrayed. I have said that once the Trojan War was over, Helen returned home to Sparta and spent the rest of her life with Menelaus, but then what. As is to be expected she has no mortal ending, instead she is either elevated to her rightful divine status, or she spends her days in the Elysian Fields. There is only one account of Helen's actual death, and this itself is at odds with the majority of sources. Pausanias tells of a story, local to Rhodes, where Helen is hanged. In this version Helen lives on after Menelaus dies but is driven out of her homeland by his two sons - Nicostratus and Megapenthes. Her flight brought her to Rhodes where she believed she had a friend, Polyxo. This friend however turns traitor and wishes to avenge the death of her own husband, who died as a result of the Trojan War, on Helen. When Helen is out bathing Polyxo sends handmaidens, disguised as furies, to hound her and hang her from a tree. Pausanias ends the account by saying that it is for this reason that the Rhodians have a sanctuary of â€œHelen of the Treeâ€.. This story is obviously an etiological explanation for the sanctuary. The Rhodians worship a â€œHelen of the Treeâ€ but it has been forgotten or misunderstood why this sanctuary was first established. Since this then is the only account of Helen's death, and it is an etiological fabrication, we must look instead to what is said about her afterlife.
In ancient Greek myth the Elysian Fields and the Isles of the Blessed were two dwelling places for immortalized human beings. Similar in description it is difficult to tell what difference, if any, lay between them. Homer places Helen (and Menelaus) in the Elysian Fields, as does Apollodorus .Menelaus recovers his Spartan kingdom, and is subsequently made immortal by Hera, so that he and Helen can then go to the Elysian Fields.
From these two versions it would appear fairly important that Menelaus and Helen should be together. After all that has occurred, and Menelaus has reclaimed his wife, he is rewarded. That Helen goes to the Elysian Fields seems to be perfectly understandable - she is a daughter of Zeus, her place is not in the underworld, and she is immortal. She and Menelaus are supposed to be together - for this to be possible he has to be immortalized too. In some ways this bears similarities to Helen's brothers, the Dioscuri. Since only Polydeuces was the actual son of Zeus, and therefore immortal, when Castor is killed his brother asks/begs for him to be immortalized so that they should not be separated in death. Their lives are thus spent split one day in â€˜heaven' the next in the underworld.
Isocrates' Helen actually credits Helen herself with raising Menelaus to divine status. He says that she first deified her brothers, the Dioscuri, who had already undergone some form of divine transformation, and she then turned to Menelaus, to recompense him for all he had gone through because of her, she made him immortal, and an equal partner of her house and throne (61-63). Isocrates also mentions that even in his time the Spartans made sacrifices to Helen and Menelaus as gods, at their temple in Therapne.
Menelaus and Helen however do not always stay together after death. In Euripides' Orestes, Menelaus remains firmly mortal after Helen is rescued by Apollo during a murder attempt by Orestes. She is snatched away from the very brink of death (1629-1642) under the orders of Zeus her father. Apollo proclaims her fate, along with the other characters' at the end of the play. Helen is to live on immortal with Castor and Polydeuces her brothers, acting as a savior to sailors. Menelaus, instead of being invited to join her, is told to take another wife instead. It is explained that Helen was basically an instrument of â€˜justice' to aid the eradication of many mortals/reduce the population of earth. She was a tool, or pawn of the gods, but now her work is done and the war is over she is to join her father and be viewed, and honored by men as a goddess, and especially remembered by sailors.
Helen is however believed by some people (those of Crotona and Himera), according to Pausanias to live on an island called â€˜The White Island' which was sacred to Achilles, as his wife. This â€˜White Island' appears to be somewhat akin to the Isles of the Blessed in concept. The idea of Helen being married to Achilles in the â€˜afterlife', although in many ways opposite to what we would expect, can be justified as a concept by some of the sources. Achilles was always too young to have been one of Helen's original suitors, but it was said of him that if he had been old enough there would have been no contest. They are of different generations, but as she is the most beautiful and he is the most heroic, they are both the best, and as such it is not difficult to see why some of the ancients could have conceived of a liaison of some sort between Helen and Achilles.
So far we can assuredly say that when Helen came to the end of her time on earth, she did not â€˜die' and go to the underworld. As semi-divine, or immortal in whatever sense, she has a â€˜life' after death. Once she has achieved this immortality, she does not remain hidden away in some rosy mythical blissful place, but is apparently seen by mortals, and affects their actions.
Herodotus recounts a tale whereby Helen appeared at her own temple in Therapne and caused the ugly child of a wealthy family to become beautiful. Not a particularly important act to commit, on the surface, yet we should recall that Helen was renowned for her own beauty, and the effects she had on men. That she should give beauty to another is perhaps appropriate. According to Pausanias a more useful appearance of Helen, this time with her brothers, the Dioscuri, prevented an attack on Sparta one night.