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About Helen of Troy

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Robert E. Bell

Helen of Sparta was perhaps the most inspired character in all literature, ancient or modern. A whole war, one which lasted for ten years, was fought over her. Not only that, nearly all the myths of the heroic age were threaded together in such a way that this most idealized of all wars was the culmination of various exploits, including the Argonaut, the Theban wars, and the Calydonian boar hunt. It is as though this event was in the destiny of every dynasty formed from the beginning of things.

Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, was a tantalizing enigma from the very first. She was flesh and blood certainly, but she was also immortal, since her father was none other than Zeus. Her mother was the beautiful Leda, queen of Sparta, who was ravished by the father of the gods in the form of a swan. Leda's husband was Tyndarecus, who later the same night, unaware of his feathered predecessor, also impregnated his wife. She produced two eggs, one of which yielded Helen and Polydeuces and the other of which contained Castor and Clytemnestra. While a swan's egg can be accepted for the sake of myth, it has never made much sense that the part of her pregnancy initiated by Tyndareus should produce an egg as well. This most curious of births has been subjected to all manner of combinations over the years. As delicious as the story of Leda was, some commentators even went so far as to suggest that Helen and the Dioscuri were conceived at Rhamnus in Attica by Zeus and Nemesis, the usually rather stern and sexless goddess whose job it was to curb excesses. Nemesis, not happy with being raped by a swan, laid an egg and left it. Leda found it, and when the egg hatched it produced Helen and the Dioscuri. In that case, Clytemnestra was not even a sister of Helen.

It is difficult to imagine the childhood of the famous egg-born quartet. Two of them could be injured, perhaps, but not fatally; two had special gifts that made them physically and mentally superior. Apparently there was no jealousy among them. Castor and Polydeuces were so closely attached they swore to die together, even if Polydeuces could not hope to fulfill this resolve. The relationship between Helen and Clytemnestra was not so simple. Helen was stunningly beautiful, and this must have caused Clytemnestra some wistful moments when inevitable comparisons were made.

When the sisters reached puberty, Helen was kidnapped. Both the aging Theseus, king of Athens, and his friend Peirithous, king of Larissa, wanted to have sex with one of Zeus' daughters before they died. Theseus chose Helen, whose remarkable beauty was already talked of far and wide. The abductors took her to Aphidna, a small city north of Athens, and left her in the safekeeping of one of Theseus' vassals. He put his mother, Aethra, with her as a guardian and companion. Inevitably, stories arose that Theseus took her into safekeeping to do Tyndarcus a favor. One of Tyndarcus' nephews was persistently pursuing her as a suitor, even at her very young age. Another story said the sons of Apharcus, Idas and Lynceus, stole her, which caused the famous fatal battle between them and the Dioscuri. There can be little question that Theseus took Helen’s virginity. After all, that was the object of the kidnapping. Some suppose that he planned to keep her intact until she reached marriageable age. But the more realistic writers even gave the couple a child. Interestingly, but improbably, the child was Iphigeneia.

We cannot know how long Helen was at Aphidna. Theseus had accomplished his goal, so he left her and went with Peirithous to Hades to steal Persephone. This was foolhardy as it turned out, for both were imprisoned, Peirithous forever. The Dioscuri meanwhile raised an army and marched on Athens. The Athenians knew nothing of the outrage to their sister, but one Academus had knowledge of the facts and revealed the hiding place. The brothers razed Aphidna and delivered Helen, whom they carried home to Sparta, along with Aethra and Peirithous' sister as personal slaves to their sister.

Clytemnestra married during this time, first to Tantalus, son of Thyestes, and later to Agamemnon, who killed Tantalus. If Helen did bring a baby back from Aphidna, it made good sense for Clytemnestra to adopt it, since Helen was still considered a virgin. If the child was Iphigeneia, some of the drama of sacrifice at Aulis would be diminished, and Clytemnestra's revenge motive would not be as strong. It is probably best to go with the common story that Helen had no child by Theseus and that Iphigeneia was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.

Upon Helen's return to Sparta, an avalanche of suitors started to arrive. It would be interesting to explore the dynamics of this mass courting. Every red-blooded male in Greece who had heard of the gorgeous Helen dreamed of possessing her. But acting on such ambition had a price tag. One had to be able to afford an impressive appearance, complete with attendants, gifts, and other evidence of affluency. It must be pointed out that the suitors were really wooing Tyndarcus, not Helen. Their expense was nothing to what the process cost the father. The suitors and their attendants had to be lodged and entertained, and the laws of hospitality probably did not allow for limits on the duration of one's stay.

The roll call of suitors shows that they came from all parts of Greece and represented the finest stock of heroes and heirs to property and wealth. They were Odysseus, son of Laertes; Diomedes, son of Tydeus; Antilochus, son of Nestor; Agapenor, son of Ancaeus; Sthenelus, son of Capaneus; Amphimachus, son of Cteatus; Thalpius, son of Eurytus; Meges, son of Phyleus; Amphilochus, son of Amphiaraus; Menestheus, son of Peteos; Schedius and Epistrophus, sons of Iphitus; Polyxenus, son of Agasthenes; Peneleus, son of Hippalcimus; Leitus, son of Alector; Ajax, son of Oileus; Ascalaphus and Ialmenus, sons of Ares; Elephenor, son of Chalcodon; Eumelus, son of Admetus; Polypoetes, son of Peirithous; Leonteus, son of Coronus; Podaleirius and Machaon, sons of Asclepius; Philoctetes, son of Poeas; Eurypylus, son of Euaemon; Protesilaus and Podarces, sons of Iphiclus; Menelaus, son of Pleisthenes (or Atreus); Ajax and Teucer, sons of Telamon; Patroclus, son of Menoetius; and Idomeneus, son of Deucalion. There were other lists, of course, with considerable variation in the names. In later years it was probably socially advantageous for one to be able to claim an ancestor who had been one of Helen’s suitors, in much the way descendants of the Argonauts could probably have filled three ships with their ancestors.

It is interesting to learn that some of the suitors did not appear in person but sent representatives with offers of handsome dowries. Ajax the Greater promised considerable property, some of it not his own but to be acquired if he was chosen. Odysseus took no gifts, not expecting to win. Idomeneus of Crete appeared in person, depending on his extraordinary good looks to overcome the competition. Tyndareus was at a loss as to how to proceed, because he feared reprisal from the unsuccessful. Happy to settle for Tyndareus' niece, the wily Odysseus offered a solution in exchange for Penelope, a match Tyndareus was able to arrange with his brother Icarius. Odysseus suggested that each suitor swear an oath to stand behind whomever Tyndarcus selected and be ready at any time in the future to defend the favored bridegroom against any wrong done to him in respect to the marriage. Everyone agreed to these terms, and Tyndareus promptly chose Menelaus, whom he had probably had in mind all along.

It may be important to realize that Helen really had little say-so in this arrangement. Menelaus was a political choice on her father's part. He had wealth and power, mainly through his brother Agamemnon, but for Helen he did not offer the good looks and glamor of some of her other suitors. It was her lot to grace the palace and the kingdom Menelaus soon inherited.

She gave birth to Hermione, Aethiolas, Maraphius, and Pleisthenes, and, according to some, Nicostratus, although many claimed he and Megapenthes were the sons of Menelaus by Pieris, a slave. In that case, we can took at an additional reason for her own infidelity: (She had no way of knowing about another amorous adventure Menelaus was having in Crete during the time he was attending his grandfather's funeral.)

According to some writers, Sparta experienced a plague during the early years of their marriage, and Menelaus was advised by an oracle to go to Troy to observe propitiatory rites at the graves of Lycus and Chimaereus, sons of Prometheus, who were buried there. Menelaus did so and was accompanied on his return by Paris, who had accidentally killed his best friend in an athletic contest and needed purification. The two arrived in Sparta, and during the several days necessary for the purification ceremony, Paris had many opportunities to see the gorgeous woman who had been promised to him. About the time the absolution was completed, Menelaus had to leave unexpectedly for Crete to attend funeral ceremonies for his grandfather Catreus. Ingenuously he left the handsome visitor to be entertained by his wife. Helen had been utterly charmed by the stranger. He was by nature already handsome, but Aphrodite, as if to guarantee the success of her project, had made him even more irresistibly beautiful. In addition, he possessed manners and charm, and it was impossible for Helen not to fall in love with this superb young man. He, of course, had fallen under her spell the instant he laid eyes on her.

Menelaus had not been gone long before the lovers departed. Some say they left the very next night, but some preparation must have been necessary. Paris had his own ship, and certainly he had retainers with him befitting his royal status. Helen required her own attendants, who included Aethra, the mother of Theseus; Thisadie, sister of Peirithous; and Astyanassa, Clymene, and Electra, servants. According to some reports, Paris helped himself to the royal treasury. It does not speak too well for Menelaus' authority that his security forces would have allowed this flagrant plundering. He must have left a considerable army behind when he went to Crete. It is likely Helen had a sufficiently large number of loyal subjects that she could come and go without question. Undoubtedly many of the palace guards were secretly in love with her.

Inevitably there were the stories that sought to make Helen look sinned against rather than sinning. According to these, she was taken by force. One silly version even suggested that Aphrodite deceived her by giving Paris the appearance of Menelaus. It was Aphrodite herself, though, who had pronounced a curse on Tyndarcus that his daughters Clytemnestra, Timandra, and Helen would be adulteresses, and she probably did not allow for such an excuse as involuntary adultery.

At Gythium, the port of Sparta, they embarked after Paris dedicated a sanctuary to Aphrodite Migonitis in appreciation for her assistance. They were barely under way before they stopped at the island of Cranae, still within view of Gythium. So far the couple had not been to bed together, even though there was ample opportunity after Menelaus left. Perhaps Paris felt comfortable in robbing the treasury of his host but not further violating the code of hospitality by sleeping with his wife in his own house. For some similar moral reason, Helen may have held him off until they had left the mainland. Or maybe it made good sense to erect the sanctuary at Gythium to Aphrodite, who might otherwise give them trouble at a later time. Paris could have had in mind to make for Onugnathus, farther down the Laconian Gulf and more or less out of immediate range of any pursuers, but biological urgencies probably forced him to cast anchor immediately. The consummation stuns the imagination. What a sublime moment for Paris, who now lay with the most desired woman in the entire world. Undoubtedly his passion was heightened by Aphrodite, who must have considered this her most inspired achievement. As for Helen, there could have been a bittersweet response to the great moment. Until then she had experienced sex with only the aging Theseus and the prosaic Menelaus. This virile young man must have given her bliss she had not imagined, but certainly the shadow of her infidelity and the abandonment of her children must have cast itself across the love couch.

The trip thereafter has been variously described. The temptation to embroider on the already rich tapestry was too strong to resist. The ship went to Egypt and Phoenicia. According to one account, Proteus, king in Egypt, took Helen from Paris and gave him a phantom image of her, restoring the real Helen to Menelaus on his return from Troy. This inane account would then make the Trojan War a total mockery. Another similarly tiresome account had Paris robbing the king of Sidon, who had offered the party hospitality on their way up the coast. Already disgraced in most eyes, Paris would then have been little more than a pirate.

Whatever minor adventures befell them, the company came at last to Troy. The Trojans, even those who had criticized the rashness of Priam’s son, could only marvel at the divine beauty who stepped off the ship. A wedding ceremony took place, and it was as though Helen was marrying Troy, since her destiny became at that moment interlocked with the destiny of the city. Even Priam was fully won over and vowed to protect her as long as she wanted to remain.

The lovers had barely left Sparta before couriers were running swiftly to all parts of Greece. The unthinkable had happened. Menelaus came swiftly back from Crete, where his loitering with a nymph had allowed the elopers ample time to outdistance any possible pursuit. Agamemnon was furious. Not only was his family dishonored, but he took the insult almost personally. One suspects he himself was in love with his sister-in-law. Swift action was taken. Menelaus, Odysseus, and, according to some, Acamas, the son of Theseus, went to Troy to demand that Helen be returned. Incidentally, this above all would seem to silence the versions that had Paris and Helen taking months to reach Troy. Though counseled by such advisers as Antenor and Aeneas to surrender Helen, Priam stubbornly held to his promise to her. Moreover, he recalled the reverse situation when his sister Hesione had been kidnapped by Heracles and Telamon, and the Greeks had turned deaf ears to entreaties for her return.

The envoys returned to Greece, and preparations for war began. The former suitors of Helen were reminded of the oath they had sworn. Armies were recruited and ships were built. Men who had been boys when Helen married came forward to enlist in a cause that the gods transported her to Elysium. This was the most fitting end of the story since Helen was, after all, immortal. Consequently, Menelaus could scarcely have carried out his intention of killing her when he was reunited with her at Troy. Immortal or not, her physical remains and those of Menelaus were supposed to be buried at Therapne in a temple dedicated to them. Writers even followed her into the afterworld, where they had her marry Achilles, making him her fifth husband, following Theseus, Menelaus, Paris, and Deiphobus. From there she was even said to have blinded the poet Stesichorus for writing unflattering things about her; she restored his vision when he recanted and composed a poem in her praise.

The most fascinating thing about Helen was her story. It was far better than she was. We do not see any real character development in her and have to regard her as a pawn of the gods. The larger story is involved with the people around her, their rise and fall. She herself seemed almost oblivious to the horrors that surrounded her. She displayed very little emotion and no remorse. She seemed removed and largely unaffected by the outcome of the war. In most accounts of her final years she was not even made to pay for her part in the calamity that touched virtually every family in Greece. It is small wonder some writers contrived alternative versions in which she was made to pay a debt to society.

From Women of Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary. Copyright © 1991 by Robert E. Bell.

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Jean-Louis Backés

Did the Trojan War take place? We have little reason to doubt it, but we have little more to believe that it was the greatest conflict ever to have occurred. The Greeks however, thought that it was: before telling the story of the Peloponnesian War the historian Thucydides felt the need to establish a parallel between it and the Trojan War to emphasize the importance of his subject. With the passage of time these heroic exploits had entered the realm of legend, people were convinced that the gods had taken part, and history became myth. The Trojan War glows with a dark fire at the dawn of time as the unsurpassable model for all the wars that were to come.

An extraordinary phenomenon must have an extraordinary cause. Did Homer think so? It is impossible to tell: his Iliad recounts only one episode in the conflict, the death of Hector, otherwise contenting itself with allusions or prophetic pronouncements. One thing is clear: each time the contenders started negotiations, it was said that the Trojans would have to hand back 'Helen and the treasures'. The affair started with a woman being raped and a raid -- an act of brigands. Paris went off with plundered treasure, and a queen to boot. With Aphrodite's blessing, he made the queen his wife.

But other bards, whose work has been lost, were not satisfied with such a humble explanation. They built up a cycle of epics telling the whole story of the war from the beginning. They described the origin of the affair ab ovo. They accepted that Zeus wanted to decimate the human race which had become too numerous, and posited a whole series of events: rivalry among three goddesses over an apple given 'to the most beautiful' by Eris (Discord); a verdict favouring Aphrodite pronounced by Paris, a Trojan prince brought up among shepherds; Paris being rewarded with the most beautiful woman ever seen. This woman, Helen, was the daughter of Zeus and Leda; as Zeus had disguised himself as a swan to seduce his beloved, Helen and her brothers the Dioscuri were born ab ovo -- from an egg.

This explication of the whole episode entails several difficulties. The main question is the extent to which Helen accepted the fate assigned to her. Did she act of her own free will? It was not long before people wondered if she had followed Paris voluntarily. It is an important distinction. In the first instance it could be said that she was the occasion of the war, which makes her no less odious; in the second she was responsible for the war, and could thus be hated as a scourge, and also condemned on moral grounds.

Such condemnation became increasingly necessary in the eyes of the Greeks, who were developing a personal morality, but was ever less acceptable to those among them who saw Helen as a goddess. The immorality of religious myths shocked more than one right-thinking person in the fifth century BC. In some towns, Sparta in particular, there were temples to Helen, feasts of Helen and a cult of Helen, who figured as the protectress of adolescent girls and young married women. It would be shocking if elsewhere she had set an example of adultery. And the closer we go towards presenting the story in human terms, the closer we come to the unacceptable. Aeschylus turned Helen into a being who was both abstract and divine, a sort of curse closely allied to the goddess Nemesis, -- who according to some traditions was her mother, and not Leda. But Euripides saw his heroine purely as a woman; he did not even accept the possible intervention of Aphrodite to inspire Helen with an irresistible passion. Hecabe says so very forcefully in the Troades: 'Paris was an extremely handsome man -- one look,/And your appetite became your Aphrodite. Why,/Men's lawless lusts are all called love' (v. 987, trans. Vellacott).

How far is this psychological speech, which uses allegory, also an impious speech casting doubt on the existence of the gods? It is not easy to say. In any case it is almost at the opposite pole from the chorus in Agamemnon where Aeschylus says of Helen that she is the Erinyes, the 'wife of tears' and 'the priest of Ate'; we are also a long way from the suggestion that Helen has a sort of divine mission, making her the instrument of fate: as it is expressed in Vellacott's translation, 'Was born that fit and fatal name/To glut the sea with spoil of ships' (Agamemnon 689).

The virtual disappearance of the religious aspect of Helen that surrounded her with an aura of sacred terror laid her open to the most scathing insults. People expressed amazement that the Trojan War should have been fought over such an unimportant creature -- a woman -- adding that the woman in question had absolutely no value because she herself had no sense of her own dignity. A fine assortment of insults could easily be garnered from Euripides. This tradition did not stop with him; at the height of the neoclassical period in Europe the name of Helen became a simple figure of speech, a metonym that could be used to designate any woman who was dangerous because she was flighty; in Schiller's Maria Stuart one of the queen's most persistent opponents can find no worse epithet for her than this: she is a Helen.

Euripides was alive at the time when sophistry was born. No doubt he was as amused as anyone else by the idea of pleading lost causes. Gorgias and Isocrates each produced a eulogy of Helen. The tragic poet had shown them the way by putting a plea in the heroine's own mouth (Troades 903ff.). There is censure of the power of the gods, the origin of desire and the power of seduction: a suitable subject for rhetors whose prime concern it was to attract an audience. Or there is praise of beauty.

From whatever angle it was approached it was not a comfortable morality: was it possible for a woman who was perfectly beautiful to be corrupt and vile? A philosophical dimension loomed. Homer was happy to concede that the Trojan populace felt ill-will towards Helen, but the finest Trojans, Priam, his advisers and Hector, found it impossible not to respect her. At one point in the Iliad (VI.358) a strange complicity is established between Helen and Hector, both of them unhappy, but sure that they will for ever be celebrated by poets.

Homer's successors never tired of pondering a parallel between Helen and Achilles. One of the poets of the epic cycle had proposed a meeting between the most beautiful daughter of Zeus and the most valiant of heroes. Much later it was imagined that these two marvellous beings were united beyond death on the fabled Isles of the Blessed. But Euripides had already pointed out (Helen 99) that Achilles had been prominent among Helen's suitors, and that the Trojan War had been envisaged also with a view to allowing Achilles to distinguish himself (op. cit., 1. 41); moreover the apple of Discord, the origin of the whole affair, had been produced on the occasion of the wedding of Thetis and Peteus, Achilles' parents-to-be.

Paradoxically the concern to elevate Helen from the realm of sordid anecdote and restore her to an epic role, was to have the effect of casting doubt on the epic itself. Since it was vital that beautiful Helen should be virtuous, it was claimed that she had never been in Troy, that Zeus had put a phantom in her place or that a king of Egypt had snatched her from Paris to protect her. The second version, which was known to Herodotus, has had a long life: it can be found in the novel Kassandra (1983) by Christa Wolf. Wolf imagines that the Trojans pretended Helen was within their walls so as not to lose face. The first version also effectively makes Helen an object of derision, and again presents in an exaggerated form the bitter judgement so often repeated -- a woman was not a worthwhile cause for people to kill one another.

Yet this was not the point of view expressed by Euripides, the poet supposed to hate women, in his tragedy Helen. Not only does he depict her character in the same touching, majestic light as his Alcestis or his Polyxena (in Hecabe), he even extends the study of the sufferings of misrepresented innocence to a tragic interrogation of the identity of the person: Helen is a woman who has been robbed of her very name and face. Saved because the gods finally proclaim the truth, she can rejoin or at least expect to rejoin the pleasant atmosphere of the feasts in Sparta (I. 141ff.), the young girls dancing and the husband towards whom she was led with songs.

Writing his 'Epithalamion of Helen' (Idylls 18) more than two centuries after Euripides, Theocritus did not even mention the Trojan War. No doubt he bore in mind that according to a tradition relayed by Plato (Phaedrus 243a) the poet Stesichorus had been blinded by the gods for speaking ill of Helen, recovering his sight only after reciting the Palinode (a recantation).

It is impossible to know which of the two traditions Euripides was more committed to, that which he followed in his Helen or the other which is evident in the rest of his plays, where he attacks her as fickle, flirtatious and brazen. We can only note that other heroic characters were also depicted by Euripides in a none too favourable light: wily Odysseus, for example, whose wisdom and ability to confront the most disconcerting situations unperturbed were described by Homer with admiration, tends to become an unscrupulous sophist who loves traps and machinations. If Hecabe reproaches Helen, she does not spare Odysseus. Reading the great tragedies that conjure up the fall of Troy (Traodes, Hecabe and to some extent Andromache as well) we get the impression that the judicious balance that Homer's epic poems preserved between the two opposing sides has been upset, and certainly not in favour of the victors.

The legend also became degraded. Once seen as a divine scourge, Helen was now regarded as a hateful woman. She was the butt of obscene jokes even in Euripides' day (the Cyclops), a tradition that was continued in Horace, Jean de Meung, Hofmannswaldau, and Meilhac and Halévy. Others merely adopted a light, frivolous, scornful tone when writing about her.

[. . . .]

The forms in which this myth is expressed are so diverse that it is hard to determine its invariables. How could we justify censuring those poets for whom Helen is perfectly and impudently at ease with her conscience, always supposing she has one? All the same, Helen is cast with remarkable frequency as a burdened soul who finds it hard to recognize her own identity, in the work of both those who stick to the Trojan version and those who adopt the Egyptian variant. One of the first times he mentions Helen Homer speaks of her 'sobs'. And the distress of the innocent Helen in Euripides' play is immense.

Beside this motif there is another: Helen is par excellence the woman carried off by a stranger. Abducted by Theseus, then by Paris, recaptured by her brothers, then by her husband, snatched from Paris by an Egyptian king, then from the son of that king by Menelaus, taken off by Simon Magus, then by Faust, sent to the heavens or to the Isles of the Blessed: is Helen the mistress of her fate?

It will be remembered that in Troades Helen is 'held prisoner with all the women taken in Troy' (1, 872). She is imprisoned like Hecabe, Andromache and Cassandra. For the film he produced in 1971 Cacoyannis had a cage built in which Helen was discovered, and suddenly booed. And in the plea she makes, however sophistical it may be, the reviled princess claim that her time spent in Troy has always been to her a period of captivity.

Morality and psychology would lead one to expect many subtle differences in the relationships between the characters. Euripides, for example, organized his tragedy round a conflict between Helen and Hecabe, and Tennyson made his poem a complaint levelled at Helen by Iphigenia. Beyond these incontrovertible specific aspects, however, one feature remains: of all the heroic chronicles that have attained the status of myth, the saga of Troy is perhaps the one in which the roles played by women were most developed. From the mourning lament in Book XXIV of the Iliad to Christa Wolf's Kassandra, taking in the highly original adaptation by Jean-Paul Sartre of Troades, a veiled figure stands over the corpses, a pitiful victim left to her fate. When the warriors have perished, the women will be dragged far away from their land to the houses of new masters. The epic of Troy tells us that a city can die.

Homer finishes the Iliad with a lament. Standing beside Hector's body Helen speaks to him, thanking him for never having insulted her. She is not afraid to compare their misfortunes; there are sensitive feelings that the old myth, facing darkness, may neglect: '. . .these tears of sorrow that I shed are both for you and for my miserable self. No one else is left. . .'.

Excerpted from a longer essay in Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes, and Archetypes. Ed. Pierre Brunel. Copyright © 1996 by Routledge.

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