The English dramatist Christopher Marlowe described Helen as having the "face that launched a thousand ships." Marlowe continues with the line, "Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss" (Best).
Helen was the daughter of Leda, queen of Sparta, and Zeus. She was sister to Polydeuces (Pollux) and half-sister to Castor and Clytemnestra.
When Helen was still very young, Theseus, king of Athens, and Pirithous, king of Larissa, kidnapped her because they wanted, before they died, to make love to a daughter of Zeus (Bell, 224).
Theseus, however, soon left Helen in the care of his mother, Aethra, while he went with Pirithous to capture Persephone.
While Theseus was gone, Helen's brother and half-brother, Polydeuces and Castor, rescued her, keeping Aethra and Pirithous' sister as slaves for Helen.
Hyginus, in his Fabulae, tells this story:
|Theseus Aegei et Aethrae Pitthei filiae filius cum Pirithoo Ixionis filio Helenam Tyndarei et Ledae filiam virginem de fano Dianae sacrificantem rapuerunt et detulerunt Aphidnas in pagum Atticae regionis. Quod Iovis eos cum vidisset tantam audaciam habere, ut se ipsi ad periculum offerrent, in quiete eis imperavit, ut peterent ambo a Plutone Pirithoo Proserpinam in coniugium; qui cum per insulam Taenariam ad inferos descendissent et, de qua re venissent, indicarent Plutoni, a furiis strati diuque lacerati sunt. Quo Hercules ad canem tricipitem ducendum cum venisset, ille fidem eius implorarunt; qui a Plutone impetravit eosque incolumes eduxit. Ob Helenam Castor et Pollux fratres belligerarunt et Aethram Thesei matrem et Phisadiem Pirithoi sororem ceperunt et in servitutem sorori dederunt.||Theseus, son of Aegeus and Aethra, daughter of Pittheus, along with Pirithous, son of Ixion, have seized and carried away Helen, daughter of Tyndareus and Leda, who is sacrificng at Diana's shrine, into Aphidnae, a village of the Attican region. Which when Jove had seen them (Theseus and Pirithous) to have such boldness, as they offered themselves to danger, Jove commanded them in quietude that they both seek Proserpina in marriage from Pluto for Pirithous; Who, when they had descended through the Spartan island toward the Underworld and, on account of what reason they had come they revealed to Pluto, they have been damaged by the passage's rage for a long time. When Hercules had come there for the purpose of leading the three-headed dog, they appealed to his trust; Who (Hercules) obtained the request (Proserpina) from Pluto and led them out unharmed. On account of Helen, her brothers Castor and Pollux fought and captured Aethra, mother of Theseus, and Phisadies, sister of Pirithous, and gave them in servitude to their sister (Helen).|
Once Helen was returned to Sparta, she attracted an impressive array of suitors - including Odysseus, son of Laertes, Diomedes, son of Tydeus, Protesilaus, son of Iphiclus, Patroclus, son of Menoetius, and Ajax, son of Telamon.
Odysseus made the suitors swear to an oath, stating that each suitor must defend the honor of whomever was chosen as Helen's future husband. Tyndareus soon chose Menelaus, son of Pleisthenes (or Atreus).
By Menelaus, Helen bore Hermione, Aethiolas, Maraphius, and Pleisthenes.
Paris, the young Trojan prince, was the judge for the beauty contest between three goddesses. He chose Aphrodite as the most beautiful and as a prize he was promised Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.
Paris sailed to Sparta, and Menelaus treated him as a royal guest. Immediately after Menelaus left to Crete for Catreus' funeral, Paris and Helen took off, with a large amount of Menelaus' wealth, for Troy (Tripp, 264).
According to some, Helen had fallen in love with Paris of her own accord. Other stories blame Aphrodite for Helen's infatuation.
Whatever the case was, Menelaus was outraged and took the suitors up on their oath.
The Trojans, seeing the beauty of Helen, were awed and a marriage between Paris and Helen was soon prepared.
Odysseus, Menelaus, and Acamas, son of Theseus, were sent to Troy to beseech Helen's return. Priam, however, despite the urging of Aeneas and Antenor, refused, stating that when Hesione, his sister, was kidnapped by Hercules, the Greeks would not help (Bell, 226).
The Greek forces then began armament. The abduction of Helen became a matter of national honor.
The stories that peope have written of Helen during the 10 years of war do not paint a flattering portrait of Helen.
Some people say that Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, infiltrated the Trojan walls. Once inside, Helen learned of his identity but did not turn him in, and instead helped him steal the Palladium (Tripp, 264).
Some stories say that she knew that the Greeks were inside of the Trojan horse, and she circled the horse, calling out to each of the Greek men in the voice of their wife in the hopes of luring them out.
It is also said that she had an affair with Corythus, Paris' son by Oenone. Paris, jealous, killed his son (Bell, 227).
When Paris was dying, his brothers Deiphobus and Helenus argued over who would get Helen. Paris chose Deiphobus.
When Troy fell, Odysseus and Menelaus found Helen with Deiphobus. Menelaus killed Deiphobus (perhaps aided by Helen herself). Although Menelaus had intended to kill his unfaithful wife, her charms captivated him once again and he put her on his ship, announcing that he would kill her later. After seven years of travel on the sea, Helen and Menelaus reached Sparta and Menelaus had all but forgotten Helen's betrayal.
In the Troades, Andromache blames the fall of Troy on Helen, calling her disloyal and "cheerful" of the war between her two husbands.
(892) Pestis exitium lues
utriusque populi, cernis hos tumulos ducum
et nuda totis ossa quae passim iacent
inhumata campis? Haec hymen sparsit tuus.
Tibi fluxit Asiae, fluxit Europae cruor,
cum dimicantes laeta prospiceres viros,
incerta voti. Perge, thalamos appara.
Taedis quid opus eset quidve solemni face?
Quid igne? Thalamis Troia praelucet novis.
Celebrate Pyrrhi, Troades, conubia,
celebrate digne: planctus et gemitus sonet.
|Plague, ruin, infection of two peoples, do you see these tombs of leaders and all the bare bones which, scattered, lie unburied on the plains? These your (Helen's) marriage has scattered, for you Asia's blood has flowed, [for you] Europe's blood has flowed, while you, cheerful, viewed your fighting husbands, uncertain of your prayer. Go, prepare the marriage chamber. What need of a pine torch and what [need of] a solemn wedding torch? What [need] of fire? Troy kindles the light for this unusual marriage. Celebrate Pyrrhus' wedding [to Polyxena], Trojan women, celebrate worthily: let beatings and groans sound.|
The final fate of Helen is cloudy. Some say that she lived out the rest of her life in Sparta. Others say that she was exiled by her bastard stepsons (Bell, 227). Others say that she was captured by Orestes and Pylades, who meant to kill her, but at the last moment she disappeared into the sky, where she became the guardian of sailors (Tripp, 265). Some even say that after her death, Helen went to the White Isle to marry Achilles.
The numerous, differing accounts as to the fate of Helen reflects the fact that, in mythology, she has very little character development. That is, some describe her as being the innocent wife, cruelly abducted. Others call her fickle, and blame the Trojan War on her adultery.
It is the story of Helen and the Trojan War that ensued, that dominates over the person of Helen. That is, her fate and plight is told and retold, while her feelings and personality are more ambiguous. So, while Helen is a main character in the Trojan War, her character - in and of itself - is very weak. Her character, in fact, is defined by the Trojan War - and her place in it.
Euripides, perhaps, recognized this irony, and used it as the basis for his romantic comedy Helen. In Helen, Euripides states that Helen never actually made it to Troy. Instead, the Helen who went to Troy was an illusion made of cloud by Hera, who was angry that Paris did not name her the most fair. The real Helen, according to Euripides, stayed with Proteus (Tripp, 266).
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