- Helen Introduction
- Birth of Helen
- Comparing Helen in the Odyssey and in the Iliad
- Helen at Troy
- Archaeology of Helen
- Pictures of Helen
- Resources for Study of Helen
- Ask a Question about Helen
- Questions and Answers about Helen
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Helen is the face that launched a thousand ships. At the time of the Trojan war she was the most beautiful woman in the world. There is some question as to whether she is the most beautiful woman of all time. Her beauty is very important because it inspired the Trojan War that killed untold thousands of souls. Furthermore her story is the centerpiece of the Greek myth. The exploits of the heroes and heroines of the Trojan War form the substance of the Greek stories that Greek religion was based upon for hundreds of years later. Hesiod describes Helen, “…others brought in boats over the great gulf of the sea to Troy for the sake of fair-haired Helen.” He also refers to these warriors as “more just and superior, the godly race of men-heroes, who are called demigods…”
In Greek the name is Ἑλένης. Most anciently this means ‘burn within’ and is related to the Greek word for torch, ‘ἑλένη’, ‘helene’. The name is from Indo-European ‘bhel-1′, ‘To shine, flash, or burn’ and ‘en’, ‘within’. Notice that the meaning of the name seems to echo the passion of her life. The suggestion is that she got this name as a result of the myth and not at birth.
Alcippe on the left and Helen seated
It is interesting to consider the qualities of beauty. They include truth, harmony, love, attractiveness, and delight. These are qualities that are to be important in the later idealism of the Greeks. In contrast war is anything but beautiful. It is almost the opposite. Though Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty she marries Ares, the god of war. It is as though these two opposites are warring for the attention of the souls who devote their lives to this contest. For the Trojan War is not just a battle for Troy, it is a battle of the gods for life itself and the souls of those who live it. And the stories that are generated are not just an adventure. They are an elaboration of the path a soul must take to participate in what is holy. It is, in truth, a story about what life is about and how to make it worthwhile.
The fact that a woman is the center of this story suggests that women are important and not secondary. In fact they are central to the whole scheme. But this was an embarrassment to the Greek men. The two sides of the Trojan conflict were not Ares and Aphrodite, they were Aphrodite against Athena. It was also an opposition of passion and reason. Worse yet Aphrodite is aligned against Athena and Hera. It is the story of the Judgement of Paris that one must read to get the full gist of this.
An Estimate of Dates in Helen’s Life:
- 1214 BCE – her birth to Leda
- 1202 BCE – her rape by Theseus and possible birth of 1 child.
- 1201 BCE – her marriage to Menelaus and subsequent birth of 5 children.
- 1195 BCE – Paris abducts her
- 1186 BCE – Start of Trojan war
- 1176 BCE – End of Trojan war – she leaves with Menelaus
- 1168 BCE – She arrives back at Sparta after 8 years in Egypt
- 1166 BCE – Telemachus visits her for news of Odysseus.
- 1146 BCE – Her death at an old age.
Birth of Helen
The story of Helen’s birth is not that important to the Trojan tale but it does reinforce the cosmic nature of the story. The story is that Helen was hatched from an egg. This seems related to myths that occur in other cultures about a wind egg that produces creation. In this case the egg creates the world of the Trojan War. It was Zeus that decided to have sex with Leda as a swan to produce this egg. You can read about Leda to get more details of this story. Some say that Zeus took the form of swan so that he take advantage of her and rape her. Some say that the passion of Zeus overcame the beauty of Zeus. But the truth relates more to the devine nature of creation.
Leda was the wife of king Tyndareus of Sparta, and it fell to him to arrange Helen’s upbringing and marriage. This he did with some anxiety because Herophile foretold in her oracles that Helen would be brought up in Sparta to be the ruin of Asia and of Europe, and that for her sake the Greeks would capture Troy.
When Helen was a young girl she danced at the temple of Artemis Orthia:
Theseus was so taken with Helen that he raped her and stole her away to Attica. One has to wonder about the effect of this experience on the young girl. Her brothers, Castor and Pollux, recovered her while Theseus was away. Theseus had left his mother to care for Helen. Castor and Pollux enslaved her and made her the servant of Helen. She was not recovered by the family of Theseus until she was freed during the fall of Troy.
After her return from Aphidna in Attica she began to receive an army of suitors. They came with many expensive gifts hoping to win the favor of Helen, and especially Tyndareus. Tyndareus had the enormous expense and bother of having to host, house and entertain these relatives of the most powerful rulers in Achaea, as the ancient Greeks referred to themselves
Tyndarus was afraid that the many powerful suitors of Helen might attack him or Helen if they were disappointed. He received an idea from Odysseus who was rewarded by being allowed to marry Penelope. Tyndareus, having sacrificed a horse here, administered an oath to the suitors of Helen, making them stand upon the pieces of the horse. The oath was to defend Helen and him who might be chosen to marry her if ever they should be wronged. When he had
sworn the suitors he buried the horse. Tyndarus then chose as the husband of Helen Menalaus who he favored for political reasons. When Paris seduced Helen and took her to Troy, the oath bound the suitors of Helen to go after her.
After her marriage to Meneleus Helen lived in Sparta long enough to give birth to at least one child Hermione and perhaps others, Aethiolas, Maraphius, Pleisthenes, and maybe even Nicostratus. Some clained that Sparta began to experience a plague and Meneleus was advised by an oracle to travel to Troy. There he was to observe propitiary rites at teh graves of Lycus and Chimaereus, the sons of Prometheus. While in Troy he met Paris who had accidentally killed a friend and needed purification. Paris could be purified at the Temple of Apollo. The suggestion is that the temple at Delphi is meant here but that temple is some distance from Sparta, about 200 kilometers to the north. At any rate Paris went to Sparta as the guest of Meneleus. Aphrodite may have made these arrangements consistent with her promise at the Judgement of Paris
There is little evidence that Helen had any choice but to go with Paris to Troy. Stories differ as to how much she cooperated. It is significant that before they went to Troy, Helen and Paris stopped in Egypt. One story has it that Helen never went to Troy, but stayed in Egypt. Helen had a double that went to Troy. This is a reasonable, if not glamorous story. Helen was so famous that she could have used a double to allow her to go about without being harassed. It also seems illogical that Troy would have fought such a long and protracted war over a woman. But if they did not have her they could not give her back. In Herodotus, The Histories the facts of this story are discussed at 2.113-117
If she did go to Troy then she did not go alone. Clymene was with her. Clymene was not a slave. She was a relative of Menelaus. She probably went with Helen at Helen’s request. She was not the only attendant of Helen. When Theseus raped Helen he put her in the care of his mother Aethra. When the Dioscouri took back Helen they captured Aethra as well. She became a slave of Helen who followed her to Troy. Acamas, Theseus’ son went to Troy and recovered Aethra and was also given Clymene. So Clymene probably became the companion of Aethra. Also with these two was Laodice, daughter of Priam, who produced a son by Acamas. This son, Munitus, was raised by Aethra. After the fall of Troy Helen went to Egypt for 8 years. On her return to Sparta she had 3 attendants, Adreste, Alcippe, and Phylo as found in the Odyssey at 4.124. I do not know if these were slaves or not.
Comparing Helen in the Odyssey and in the Iliad
There is a lot of discussion even in ancient literature as to whether Helen was responsible for her actions or whether she just passively accepted the actions of others. One story is that Paris came to Sparta and stole her away. This is referred to as the rape of Helen. In contrast to this there is the story of the Judgement of Paris. In this story Aphrodite bribed Paris with the love of the most beautiful woman in the world so that she, Aphrodite, will be declared the fairest. So when Paris arrived in Sparta Helen fell in love with Paris and left with him because she was overcome with the love that Aphrodite had forced on her. Another story has it that Helen was a women of loose morals who really did not love her husband and left Sparta of her own free will when given the opportunity. In the first story Paris is the responsible person and should shoulder the blame for the Trojan War. In the second story Aphrodite is the cause of the Trojan War. In the third story Helen would be the cause. Both the material in the Iliad and the Odyssey support the second story. In the Odyssey Helen confronts Aphrodite and tells her that she is tired of being the lover of Paris. Meneleos must have accepted the second story because he took Helen back. But even in the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits Hades Agamemnon seems to think Helen is responsible for the Trojan war.
The concept of fate is strong in the myth of the ancient Greeks. They seemed to feel that Zeus maintained a divine plan and that the life of every person fit in this plan. The goddess Aphrodite is part of this plan. When a person is born their fate, as determined by Zeus, is woven by the fates into a single thread. So, from one point of view one’s life is out of ones control. It is said that Zeus planned the Trojan war to reduce the population in the area of Greece. But the ancient Greeks also had a strong sense of justice. This means that a mortal must be able to make free choices to which they must be held accountable. Otherwise there is no possibility of ethical decisions. It is the display of these decisions that the works of Homer are all about. Homer is displaying the ways of god to man so a man can follow the moral path as provided by the deities. What seems to be a conflict between free-will and determinism needs to be reconciled. The story about Iphigenia is a good example of this conflict. Iphigenia was sacrificed so the Greeks could win the Trojan war. Does this mean the young men did not really have to leave their home to die in this conflict? The soldiers families needed to think their sons did not die in vain. The best way of reconcilliation is provided by the observation that some things are determined while others involve choice. An illustration is provided by the insight that the cord woven by the fates might be of many strands joined by knots. As a mortal progresses through life one of many paths is taken. When a knot comes up a decision can be made to change strands.
When the life of Helen is analyzed the question is what strand is she on and when does she choose to change strands. Is her beauty her choice. People want to posess beautiful things. This objectifies beautiful women. How does Helen respond to this? Helen is a princess. This gives her control over other people. How does she respond to this? Helen is a woman who is expected to bear and raise heirs. How does she respond to this? What facts are beyond her control and what facts are a result of her decisions.
Aphrodite is a goddess. The goddesses of ancient Greece are fairly limited in what they can do. But they are very powerful within their realm. What is the involvement of Aphrodite with Helen? What is the goddess doing and why? Aphrodite is a goddess and Helen is a mortal. But the only record we have is the myth. Aphrodite is perfectly beautiful and Helen is the most beautiful woman. What is the difference? The story of Helen in the Iliad and the Odyssey is a very good story. But it was not a story devised for entertainment. It is a story about the nature of the world and how the gods and goddesses fit in. What does the story of Helen mean in this context?
Aphrodite is the tool of Aphrodite when Aphrodite causes things that Helen has no control over. Plainly there are plenty of these. When is Helen really in control? And what does she do then?
Helen at Troy
If Helen did go to Troy she was there for nine years before the Greek army arrived and was was there another ten years while the Trojan War was fought. Though Paris and Helen lived as man and wife for nineteen years there were no children produced. As far as is known Helen was accepted by the Trojan community and was well treated. But there are stories that she conspired with the Greeks. This may be true because her former husband, Meneleus did not
kill her as he suggested he would. But even before Meneleus obtained Helen she was transferred to another Trojan when her husband Paris was killed.
Finally Troy fell and Meneleus thought about punishing Helen for the trouble she had caused. He was going to stab her with his sword when he caught sight of her beautiful breasts. Once Helen and Meneleus got back together they traveled back to Sparta together. They were blown off course and ended up in Egypt. They remained
there for eight years. Helen benefited from this stay because she learned about Egyptian drugs.
in the drama Orestes by Euripides Helen arrives in Nauplia, the port of Argos, and is able to talk to Electra just after Clytemnestra has been murdered by Orestes. She states, line 80, “I am truely sorry for the fate of my sister Clytemnestra, on whom I ne’er set eyes after I was driven by heaven-sent frenzy to sail on my didastrour voyage to Ilium; but now that I am parted from her I bewail our misfortunes.” That she uses that port to get to Sparta suggests that at other times that port would have been used by Spartans. This also suggests that she might have visited her sister when she was in Sparta before. But the trip from Sparta to Nauplia was probably overland, a distance of 50 miles or more, and would have required several days. Later Sparta would have its own port and travel would have been quicker and easier by sea. Even so Sparta was nearly thirty miles from its port,Gythium, but the trip along the rived from Sparta to Glythium was flat and easy while the land route from Sparta to Nauplia was twisted and mountainous.
Since Helen caused the Trojan War by eloping with Paris, and since many lives were lost in this war you would think that someone would like to blame Helen and seek revenge. And so there are stories to this effect. One story has her outlive Meneleus and get ousted from Sparta by a bastard stepson. She was at least 50 by this time and probably much older. She went to live with Polyxo, an old friend, on the island of Rhodes. Since Polyxo’s husband had been killed in the war Polyxo secretly hated Helen. She disguised her
servants as Erinyes and had them hang Helen from a tree. This is clearly a crucifixion because Helen was later worshipped as the Goddess of the Tree in Rhodes.
Of course all attempts to deprive Helen of eternity were futile. The
fact that she was later worshipped suggests that the crucifixion deified her. Sometimes the very pain of the crucifixion is thought to purify. History has not assigned the results of the Trojan War to any decision that Helen made. It was her beauty that was the factor and in this way she was the tool of Aphrodite. That a woman’s body should have a value apart from her moral nature is a dilemma which has long plagued ethics with varied results. Should Helen be blamed for receiving and maintaining a beautiful body? Shouldn’t the blame fall on the others who wished to possess this body? Helen is a properly passive female who does little to affect the great scheme
of things and so is hard to morally blame. But that she may have become the victim of retribution may be symbolic of other evils that befall women. A woman may be styled a temptress, an instrument of temptation, a natural force that needs control, and yet she need not do anything to earn these epithets. Yet the man who is tempted, or controlling, must act to earn this distinction. Thus the ethics are applied with a double standard.
Archaeology of Helen
There is an historical record of Helen, but it is not consistent. Paul Carteledge discusses the various references in his book The Spartans on pages 48 – 56. The most important fact to be mentioned is that the ancient Spartans were very concerned about the story of Helen and acted upon it. They built a shrine to Helen at Therapne to the southeast of the ancient town. Helen served as a role model to them and defined a feminine standard that was important to them. And in this context there is no doubt that they modified the stories of Helen to suit their own politics.
Theodore Spyropoulos, a regional official of Greece’s Central Archaeological Council has stated that the homeric site of the palace of Meneleus is located on the acropolis of Pellana. This is situated on the hill “Palaiokastro” where recent excavations conducted brought into light remains of habitation, dated to the Early Helladic period. This conflicts with what the ancient Spartans believed as they had built the Meneleion on top of what they thought was the palace of Helen three miles northeast of Sparta.
To the southeast of Sparta at Therapne Helen was worshipped as a goddess. The site of this temple was investigated by Ross in 1833 and 1841, and by Kastriotis in 1889 and 1900. Archeological and historical references suggest that the Helen worshipped here was more of a goddess of vegetation and fertility associated with trees. The Helen of Homer may have represented a mortal person who had acquired the characteristics of this nature goddess.
Pictures of Helen
Other than the fact that Helen of Troy was the most beautiful women in the world, no one really knows what she looked like. She lived about 800 years before anyone thought to paint her picture. But the Greeks provided a number of pictures of what they thought she looked like:
- Paris and Helen, Berlin F 2291
- Unhappy Helen, Berlin F 2536
- Helen and Aphrodite, Berlin inv. 30036
- Helen being grabbed, Louvre G 3
- Helen fleeing, Toledo 1967.154
- Aeneas, Alexander, Eros, Helen, Aphrodite, Peitho, and a small boy, Boston 13.186
- Menelaos and Helen, Louvre G 3
- Helen, Paris, and attendants, St. Petersburg St. 1924
- Menelaos and Helen, Toledo 1967.154
These pictures reflect the styles of the time of the artists, the classical period in ancient Greece. Society of the time of Helen was more like the Mycenaen or Minoan. Helen’s dress was more likely to have been the skirt, girdle, and vest of Minoan times that the
chiton or peplos of classical Greece. But Homer Odyssey 4.305 states “and beside him lay long-robed Helen”. Homer uses ‘τανύπεπλος’ with trailing robes, long-robed. Though this does not describe a Minoan garment very well it is interesting that the word does not seem to have an Indo-European root.
- Helen of Troy (1956)
Starring: Robert Wise , Rossana Podest…, With an appearance by Brigitte Bardot Director: Robert Wise Format: Color, Closed-captioned, HiFi Sound, Dolby, NTSC Rated: NR Studio: Warner Studios Video Release Date: July 10, 2001 VHS Features: NTSC format ASIN: 6304071787
- Helen of Troy, Miss Millennium of the millennium prior to Jesus Christ
- There is considerable information on-line at: <a
- Classics Helen Page
- Greek Mythology Link-Helen
- Helen Links
- Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen
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