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Helen
Ἑλένη

7804: John Gibson 1790-1866: Helen of Troy. Marble. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

"Many a life beside Scamander's streams perished for me." (Helen. Euripides, Helen 52).

"You daughter of Tyndareus, you are no child of Zeus, but I say you were born of many a father, first of some evil demon, next of Envy, then of Murder and of Death, and every horror that the earth breeds." (Andromache. Euripides, Daughters of Troy 765).


Helen was abducted by the seducer Paris and held in Troy, and for her sake a large army sailed against that city in order to have her restored to her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta.

Cause of war (I)

Helen was famous in the whole world for her beauty; and beauty being a precious thing, many contended in order to possess her. Therefore, she was also hated by many others on account of the woes her beauty caused. For the Trojan War, some believe, was caused by her, and since many died in that huge conflict, she was surnamed "Lady of Sorrows".

Cause of war (II)

But some consider Paris to be the cause of that war; for it was he, who breaking all laws of hospitality, persuaded her to follow him to Troy. And others blame both:

"… For very grief I fainted, cursing Helen the sister of the Dioscuri, and Paris the baleful shepherd of Ida; for it was their marriage, which was no marriage but misery sent by some demon, that robbed me of my country and drove me from my home." (Trojan captives. Euripides, Hecabe 945).

Cause of war (III)

Yet, some believe that Paris cannot be held responsible either; for he was guided by the goddess Aphrodite, whom he favored in the judgement of Mount Ida. Therefore, they think, he who wishes to find the cause of the Trojan War should look up at heaven, and stop blaming mortals. Otherwise Hecabe 1 could also be blamed for having given birth to Paris; or Priam 1 could be held responsible for not having slain his child when he was advised to do so. Following this line of thought, some imagine that Zeus sent the three goddesses to Mount Ida in order to be judged by the shepherd Paris, having in mind the destruction of mankind. For the ruler of heaven, they say, purposed to make his daughter Helen famous, along with the race of the demigods, by letting her cause a war between Europe and Asia. Otherwise, they believe, Eris had not thrown her infamous apple at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, which caused Hera, Athena and Aphrodite to contend against each other.

Chain of events

Yet the chain of events "Apple of Eris - The Goddesses' Dispute - Judgement of Paris - Abduction of Helen" has been regarded by some as utterly ridiculous, since the goddesses—they argue—did not need that prize:

"For why should goddess Hera set her heart so much on such a prize? Was it to win a nobler lord than Zeus? or was Athena hunting down among the gods a husband, she who in her dislike of marriage won from her father the gift of remaining unwed?" (Hecabe 1 to Helen. Euripides, Daughters of Troy 979).

As for Aphrodite, they say, she did not need to follow Paris to Sparta, since she could, had she wished, bring Helen to Troy instead. And as no mortal can ever know what in reality is inside the minds of the gods, men end blaming either one or another, depending on where each stands. For what they themselves call "scapegoats" must, in any case, be always appointed. Aphrodite, some say, was in Helen's imagination and nowhere else. It was her mind who became her Aphrodite, when the handsome Trojan seducer came to Sparta clad in gorgeous foreign clothes adorned with gold. And it was then that Helen lost her senses, deeming it better to live in rich Troy than in niggardly Sparta.

Birth of Helen

Helen, so unbelievable as it may sound, was born from an egg laid by Leda, or Nemesis. Four children were born that day from the same mother but from different fathers: Castor 1 and Polydeuces, called the DIOSCURI, and Clytaemnestra and Helen. Of all four Helen and Polydeuces, being the children of Zeus, were immortal, but Castor 1 and Clytaemnestra, being those of King Tyndareus of Sparta, were mortal. Someone has said that the egg from which Helen sprang fell from the moon; but he has already been refuted by others, who argue that even though the moon-women lay eggs, their offspring are fifteen times larger than ours. Those who say that Nemesis was Helen's mother tell that she, trying to escape Zeus, changed into a fish and other dread creatures. Others say that Nemesis changed into a goose, but was nevertheless conquered by Zeus, who in turn took the likeness of a swan, and lay with her. As the fruit of their love Nemesis laid an egg that was found by a shepherd, and given to Leda. And when Helen was hatched in due time, Leda brought her up as her own daughter.

First war for the sake of Helen

When Helen was ten or perhaps twelve years old, King Theseus of Athens, finding her extremely lovely, carried her off and brought her to Aphidnae, a city in Attica northwest of Marathon. This abduction caused the first war on account of Helen to break out. For her brothers the DIOSCURI came to Athens with an army, demanding back their sister. And when the people of the city insisted in saying that they neither had the girl nor knew where she had been left, the DIOSCURI resorted to war. It was then that Academus, who had learned in some way or another of her concealment at Aphidnae, told them about it. For this reason, he was honoured during his life by the DIOSCURI, and later in historical times when the Lacedaemonians invaded Attica and laid waste the country, they spared the Academy, which is called after him. Others say, however, that a man called Echedemus was in the army of the DIOSCURI at the time when these came to Athens to rescue Helen, and that it was after him that the Academy was named Echedemia. Still others say that it was Titacus (who is known only for this), who revealed to the DIOSCURI that Helen was hidden in Aphidnae. In any case, the DIOSCURI marched against Aphidnae, took the city, got possession of Helen, and led Theseus' mother Aethra 2 away captive. She became the handmaid of Helen to serve her as a slave, and only at the end of the Trojan War she was taken back to Athens by Demophon 1 and Acamas 1, two sons of Theseus by Phaedra, the daughter of Minos 2. Thus ended Theseus rule, and the DIOSCURI, after appointing Menestheus 1 king of Athens, brought back their sister to Sparta as they had purposed. On her return, Helen, wishing to appear still as a virgin, entrusted to her sister Clytaemnestra the girl Iphigenia, whom she bore to Theseus.

The Oath of Tyndareus

Years later, time came for Helen to marry. And as her beauty was famous in the whole of Hellas, many SUITORS came to Sparta to win her hand. Once more, war for the sake of Helen was feared, and that is why her stepfather King Tyndareus, following Odysseus' advice, resolved to exact an oath from all the SUITORS OF HELEN, forcing them to promise that they would defend and protect him who was chosen as Helen's husband against any wrong done against him in regard to his marriage. When this had been agreed, Helen chose Menelaus as husband, and the latter inherited the throne of Sparta.

The Apple

When Helen was already Menelaus' wife, there took place the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, whose child Achilles, fifteen years later was to become one of the ACHAEAN LEADERS against Troy. All gods were invited to this wedding except Eris (Discord), who took bitter revenge by throwing at the party one of the Golden Apples of the HESPERIDES, known by posterity as "The Apple of Discord" to be contended as a prize of beauty among the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. The shepherd Paris was then appointed by Zeus to decide who was the fairest, and he, liking Aphrodite's bribe most of all, gave the apple to her. Having thus assigned the beauty award, Paris came to Sparta to fetch the prize that Aphrodite had given him in return, which was the hand of Helen. Soon after his arrival to Sparta, the shepherd Paris, now known as a Trojan prince, succeeded in seducing Queen Helen, who abandoning her daughter Hermione, then nine years old, put most of her and Menelaus' property on board, and by night set sail with Paris to Troy. They consummated their marriage in Cranae, an island in the Laconian Gulf.

The abduction of Helen. 4528: Giordano Luca 1634-1705: Enlèvement d'Hélène. Musée des beaux arts, Caen.

Helen never went to Troy

Some affirm that Helen herself has denied this, and that she in fact never came to Troy. For Hermes, following Zeus' instructions, stole Helen and carried her to Egypt, where she was guarded by King Proteus 3, so that Paris returned home with no more than a phantom of Helen fashioned out of clouds. It was the warden of the Nile mouth, Thonis, who told King Proteus 3 about the arrival of Paris in Egypt after having done, as he put it, great wrong in Hellas. So when Proteus 3 learned about Paris' actions, he gave order to seize him, and Thonis went back to detain the ships and arrested Paris, bringing him together with Helen to Memphis. Paris was subject to interrogation, and it became evident that he had violated the laws of hospitality, taking the wife of his host, and plundering his house. But Proteus 3 would not kill strangers, so he just ordered him to leave the country, though without Helen. That is why when she was fetched in Egypt by Menelaus, after a meaningless war for the sake of a phantom at Troy, she told him:

"To Troy I went not: that … a phantom was." (Helen to Menelaus. Euripides, Helen 582).

And also:

"Never to alien prince's bed, wafted by wings of the oars I fled." (Helen to Menelaus. Euripides, Helen 668).

And speaking along the same line, she described how Hermes brought her to Egypt, following Zeus' orders, while Paris sailed to Troy with a phantom fashioned by Hera. Still others have said that Paris and Helen were friendly received by Proteus 3 and that they lived in Egypt while Achaeans and Trojans slew each other at Troy. And they represent the ghost of Achilles revealing to a certain sage that when the Achaeans became convinced that Helen was not at Troy, they nevertheless continued to fight for the city itself, so as not to disgrace themselves by retreat.

Helen on her way to Troy

Others assert, however, that Paris and Helen did sail to Troy, and that during the voyage Hera sent heavy storms, forcing them to put in at Sidon, a Phoenician city, where Paris availed himself of the opportunity for purchasing richly broidered robes which he, on his return to Troy, gave to his mother Hecabe 1. Fearing persecution, Helen and Paris spent much time, both in Phoenicia and Cyprus, before coming to Troy. But still others say that Paris and Helen made the trip from Sparta to Troy in three days, having a fair wind and a smooth sea.

The Oath of Tyndareus invoked

In any case Menelaus, having learned on his return from the funeral of Catreus in Crete that his precious wife had been ravished, invoked The Oath of Tyndareus, forcing, with the help of his brother Agamemnon, all princes that had sworn it to join the coalition that was to sail to Troy in order to demand, by persuasion or by force, the restoration of Helen and the property that the seducer Paris, breaking all laws of hospitality, had stolen.

Wisdom and beauty

The Trojans did not yield to persuasion, and that is why a prolonged siege and war ensued, in which many perished for the sake of Helen. Yet, not even the Elders of Troy felt that they could fully condemn the folly of war. And this is how wisdom paid tribute to beauty:

"Who on earth could blame the Trojan and Achaean men-at-arms for suffering so long for such a woman's sake? Indeed, she is the very image of an immortal goddess."

But as their years had made them acquainted with restraint and moderation, they also added:

"All the same, and lovely as she is, let her sail home and not stay her to vex us and our children after us." (Antenor 1 and the Trojan Elders chatting among themselves. Homer, Iliad 3.155).

Death of Paris

In the course of the tenth year of the war, Helen's new husband Paris, who has been regarded as a coward, became the slayer of Achilles, feared even by Hector 1, who although the bravest among the brave, had trembled when he met Achilles in single combat, running away and being pursued by him like a hare by a dog around the walls of Troy at the sight of all. But soon after, Philoctetes, having been cured by Asclepius' son Podalirius, joined the campaign against Troy again, and shot Paris dead in single combat with the poisoned arrows of Heracles 1.

Helen marries again

While Menelaus outraged Paris' body, the latter's brothers, Helenus 1 and Deiphobus 1, quarrelled as to which of them should marry Helen; and having Deiphobus 1 been preferred, he married Helen, and Helenus 1 moved his residence to Ida. This change of residence seems to have made it easier for Odysseus to capture him and learn about the importance of the Palladium. This is what Helen herself says about her new marriage with Deiphobus 1:

"… when Paris died, and earth concealed his corpse, I should have left his house and sought the Argive fleet, since my marriage was no longer in the hands of gods. That was what I was eager to do; and the warders on the towers and watchmen on the walls can bear me witness, for often they found me seeking to let myself down stealthily by cords from the battlements, but there was that new husband, Deiphobus, that carried me off by force to be his wife …" (Helen to Hecabe 1. Euripides, Daughters of Troy 954).

But again she has not been believed:

"… you assert that you tried to let yourself down from the towers by stealth with twisted cords, as if unwilling to stay? Where were you ever found fastening the noose about your neck, or whetting the knife, as a noble wife would have done in regret for her former husband? (Hecabe 1 to Helen. Euripides, Daughters of Troy 1010).

Helping both Achaeans and Trojans

Some have said that Helen helped the Achaeans during the war; for they tell that when Odysseus entered incognito into Troy as a beggar he was recognized by Helen, who helped him to steal away the Palladium, which he brought to the ships with the aid of Diomedes 2. Likewise when Sinon, who having been left behind by the Achaeans during their pretended retreat in order to light a beacon lamp as a signal to them, started signalling with a shining brand beside the tomb of Achilles, Helen too was awake and signalling herself from her chamber to the Achaean fleet to return; for the WOODEN HORSE was inside the walls, the gates would soon open, and it was time for the Achaeans to make the final assault. And yet, when the Achaeans were inside the WOODEN HORSE, Helen went round, calling the different chiefs, and by imitating the voices of each of their wives, tempted them to reveal themselves. She did it so well that Anticlus would have answered, but Odysseus held fast his mouth; and when he tried to escape the pressure of his hands, Odysseus held him harder and Anticlus lost his breath and died.

Immortality of Helen after her return

When the city was taken, Menelaus killed Deiphobus 1 and led Helen to the ships. They wandered for eight years in several Mediterranean countries before returning to Sparta, where they arrived at the time when Agamemnon's son Orestes 2 had just killed Aegisthus and his own mother Clytaemnestra, sister of Helen. Threatened to be put to death for his crime, Orestes 2 sought Menelaus' help, but being refused, Orestes 2, in anger against his uncle, tried to kill Helen. They say that on this occasion Apollo saved her and took her to heaven, saying:

"Helen I will conduct to the mansion of Zeus; There men shall adore her, a goddess enthroned beside Hera and Hebe … There she … shall be worshipped for ever with wine outpoured." (Apollo. Euripides, Orestes 1685).

Life in Sparta

Yet it is also told that Odysseus' son Telemachus, while still looking for his father, visited Helen and Menelaus in Sparta to see if he could get some news about him, and at that time it looked like the king and queen of Sparta led a pleasant life in their city. Helen also explained on that occasion how she felt when Odysseus came disguised to Troy:

"I had suffered a change of heart, repenting the infatuation with which Aphrodite blinded me when she lured me to Troy from my own dear country and made me forsake my daughter, my bridal chamber, and a husband who had all one could wish for in the way of brains and good looks." (Helen to Menelaus and Telemachus. Homer, Odyssey 4.260).

The proper thing to say

But, some could think, that was the proper thing to say when she was back home. And had things been different, she would have said otherwise. For Hecabe 1, thinking that Helen had always her eyes fixed on Fortune, once reproached her:

"… when you had come to Troy, and the Argives were on your track, and the mortal combat had begun, whenever tidings came to you of Menelaus' prowess, you would praise him, to grieve my son, because he had so powerful a rival in his love; but if the Trojans prospered, Menelaus was nothing to you." (Hecabe 1 to Helen. Euripides, Daughters of Troy 1004).

Death of Helen

Fortune changes things and puts them upside-down. So when Menelaus died, they say, Helen was driven away from Sparta by Nicostratus and Megapenthes 1, sons of Menelaus by other women, according to some. As Helen believed Polyxo 4 to be her friend, she went to Rhodes where Polyxo 4, widow of Tlepolemus 1 who died at Troy, was queen. But Polyxo 4, wishing to avenge the death of her husband on Helen, sent servants dressed up as ERINYES against her guest when she was bathing, who seized Helen and hanged her on a tree.

Her immortality

Leonymus, who visited the White Isle in the mouth of the river Danube, says that Helen, after death, was wedded to Achilles, and lived there with him. But others say that Menelaus was made immortal by Hera, and he and Helen live in happiness in the Elysian Fields.


Family 

Parentage (three versions)

Mates

Offspring

Notes

Zeus & Oceanid

 


The Oceanid has not been identified by Hesiod, but it could be Nemesis, since she is one of the OCEANIDS.


Theseus


Iphigenia

 


Menelaus

Hermione

Nicostratus

Plisthenes 3

Hermione was married to both Neoptolemus and Orestes 2. She had a son Tisamenus 2 by Orestes 2 who inherited the kingdom, but was killed either by the Ionians (see Ionia). or by the HERACLIDES.
Nicostratus is also said to be the son of Menelaus and Pieris, an Aetolian slave.
Plisthenes3 was son of Helen, probably by Menelaus. It is said that she took him with her to Cyprus.


Paris

Aganus

Corythus 4

Bunomus

Idaeus 5

Corythus 4, who is also said to be the son of Paris and Oenone 1, came to help in the Trojan War, and having fallen in love with Helen, was killed by his father.
Others have said that their children were Corythus 4, Bunomus, and Idaeus 5, and that they died crushed under a collapsing roof during the last days of Troy.

Deiphobus 1

---

After the death of Paris, the sons of King Priam 1, Helenus 1 and Deiphobus 1, quarrelled as to which of them should marry Helen. Deiphobus 1 won the quarrel and married Helen, but on the fall of Troy, Menelaus smote him in the belly, and poured forth his liver and guts. Helenus 1 was allowed to go in exile.


Genealogical Charts

Names in this chart: Aegeus 1, Aeolia, Aeolus 1, Aethra 2, Aetolus 2, Agamemnon, Aganus, Agenor 6, Alcidice, Aleus, Amyclas 1, Amythaon 1, Aphidas 1, Arcas 1, Ares, Atreus, Bunomus, Callisto, Calyce 1, Calydon, Castor 1, Cecrops 2, Clytaemnestra, Corythus 4, Cretheus 1, Cynortes, Dardanus 1, Deimachus 1, Deiphobus 1, Demonice, Deucalion 1, Enarete, Endymion, Epicasta 1, Erechtheus, Erichthonius 1, Erichthonius 2, Helen, Hellen 1, Hermione, Idaeus 5, Idomene, Ilus 2, Iphigenia, Lacedaemon, Ladocus, Laomedon 1, Leda, Lycaon 2, Meliboea 1, Menelaus, Nicostratus, Nonacris, Oebalus 1, Orestes 2, Orseis, Pandion 2, Pandion 4, Paris, Pelasgus 1, Pelops 1, Pheres 1, Phoebe 6, Phorbus, Phylonoe, Pittheus, Pleuron, Plisthenes3, Polydeuces, Priam 1, Pronoe 2, Pyrrha 1, Salmoneus, Tantalus 1, Theseus, Thestius 1, Timandra 1, Tisamenus 2, Tros 1, Tyndareus, Tyro, Xanthippe 1, Zeus.


Related sections
Sources
Abbreviations

Apd.3.10.7, 3.11.1; Apd.Ep.3.3, 5.9; Ath.2.57f; CYP.8, 9; Dictys 5.5; Eur.Hel. passim; Eur.Ore. 1625 and passim; Eur.Tro. passim; Hdt.2.118; Hes.CWE.66, 70; Lib.Met.27; Parth.34; Pau.2.22.6-7, 3.16.1, 3.19.10; Phil.VA.4.16; Strab.9.1.17; Vir.Aen.6.509.

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