The need to understand the world has been the motivation behind human innovation and progress. Before the development of the tools necessary to discover scientific facts, creativity and imagination were employed to fashion answers that explained a world beyond comprehension. One of the most enduring and comprehensive attempts is found in ancient Greek mythology.
Greek mythology spanned much of the Bronze Age in western civilization, which lasted from approximately 3000 BC to 1200 BC. It was the first time people attempted to use metal for tools and art. It was also a time when a community of gods was created to explain and attempt to manipulate natural phenomena like fire, water, thunder, and the sun, as well as emotions like love and jealousy. Rituals were developed that were designed to appease the gods and, hopefully, allow people to live in peace and prosperity.
As the stories of the gods were developed over time, humans could not resist interacting with them. Some exceptional humans were even related to the gods. Helen of Troy, also known as Helen of Argos and Helen of Sparta, is one example of such a mortal.
Helen’s Birth and Youth
Although Leda, a mortal and her mother, was married to Tyndareus, also a mortal, it was Zeus’ passion for Leda that resulted in the birth of Helen according to mythology. Disguised as a swan, he was able to consummate his relationship with Leda. In the late 5th century BC, Euripides wrote Helen, the earliest known work which described the most common narrative of Helen’s birth which revealed that her reputed father was Tyndareus even though she was really Zeus’ daughter. As a result of her lineage, she was endowed with exceptional beauty. She had a sister, Clytemnestra, and two brothers, Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux).
The Greek hero, Theseus, captivated by her loveliness, abducted her at a very young age. He left her in the care of his mother, Aethra, while he pursued glory. His absence left the women vulnerable. Castor and Pollux, working with the Spartan army, took advantage of the situation and rescued Helen and Aethra.
Helen’s remarkable beauty presented an obstacle. Tyndareus was reluctant to choose a husband for Helen. He was unwilling to dismiss any of the suitors because he was afraid they might react violently. Once Menelaus, the King of Sparta, was selected from among the suitors, he and Helen were married. Tyndareus and Leda stepped down from the throne. Menelaus and Helen, as queen, ruled in Sparta for at least ten years. They had three sons, Aethiolas, Maraphius, and Pleisthenes, and a daughter, Hermione.
Many unmarried members of the royalty had vied for the hand of Helen. Tyndareus required the suitors who were not chosen to promise they would rescue Helen if she were ever kidnapped again so that she could be returned to her husband. This promise was called the Oath of Tyndareus.
Was Helen Abducted Against Her Will
When Menelaus sought help to rescue his kidnapped wife, he turned to the numerous suitors she had, had who had taken the oath. This aggressive action marked the beginning of the Trojan War. A fleet of ships figured prominently in his campaign. Thus, Helen became known as “the face that launched a thousand ships.” The war lasted for ten years. It culminated when the Greeks used the famous Trojan Horse to infiltrate the enemy stronghold and claim victory.
At this point, the accounts are contradictory. Some sources suggest Helen was unhappy being away from her husband, while others believe she preferred Troy and the company of Paris. Whether Helen was abducted by Paris or agreed to follow him is unclear. Regardless, she had some kind of relationship with Paris.
War and Betrayal
It wasn’t apparent at the time, but the end of the Age of Heroes had started with the marriage of Helen and Menelaus. Zeus was intent on eradicating the human race, especially the heroes. He took advantage of Helen’s time with Paris, and the resulting Trojan War, to further his plans.
Deiphobus, Paris’ brother, married Helen after Paris was killed. However, she hid Deiphobus’ sword while Troy was being attacked. This left him helpless against Menelaus and Odysseus. In the Aeneid, Aeneas encounters the maimed Deiphobus in Hades. Helen’s betrayal is revealed by the horrible wounds he sustained. Helen went on to have seven more husbands including, Helenus, Achilles, Enarsphorus, Idas, Lynceus, Corythus, and Theoclymenus.
Helen in Ancient Greek Literature
Homer’s Iliad was the first time Helen appeared in a literary work. However, historians believe he relied on the myths of the Mycenaean Greek culture for his story. According to legend, Sparta of the Age of Heroes was Helen’s place of birth. Her fate was tied to the momentous events. The fall of Troy marked the end of this heroic age.
Euripides, Stesichorus, and Herodotus, ancient Greek authors, refused to accept that Helen ever traveled to Troy. They believed Helen remained in Egypt while the Trojan War was fought. Hera, the goddess of women, childbirth, family, and marriage, created an image of Helen from the clouds at Zeus‘ insistence. Hermes, the goddess of seduction and persuasion, took Helen to Egypt. Thus, Helen spent the war in Egypt and never went to Troy.
Helen’s True Character
Accounts of Helen’s character differ. One version of her story depicts Helen as a deceitful woman who was overjoyed by the destruction of the Trojans. Conversely, Helen was also painted as a solitary, helpless woman frantically searching for safety while flames consumed Troy. Stesichorus, the Greek lyric poet, described how both Trojans and Greeks assembled to stone her to death. Eventually, Menelaus confronted her and threatened to kill his adulterous wife with his sword. Using the only weapon at her disposal, she slipped off her robe. Stunned by her beauty, he dropped the sword.
Ultimately, her fate is unclear. There are three popular theories:
• Menelaus attempted to kill her for her alleged infidelity, but he was disarmed by her beauty;
• She spent eternity with Achilles in the Underworld; or
• She went to Mount Olympus.
Because she is a mythical character, all possibilities are plausible. What is certain is that her beauty was the driving force of her life.
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