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Helen

Ελεν

The Beautiful Daughter of Zeus

Helen of Argos

Young Helen
The Marriage of Helen
Helen at Troy
Helen After Troy
The Children of Helen
What Really Happened?
When Did Helen Live?
The Reality of Helen
The Daughter of Nemesis or Okeanos?
Text References

Helen was one of the most important figures in Greek history, her influence on the ancient Greek world cannot be overstated. She is unfairly blamed for the Trojan War that caused the deaths of thousands of mortal men and women as well as dozens of demigods. The Trojan War was planned and executed by the Immortals … Helen was simply a convenient tool to be used and then discarded to achieve the higher, divine goals of Zeus and the other Olympians.

Young Helen

Young Helen

Helen was the daughter of Zeus and Leda … she was raised by Leda and her husband King Tyndareus of Sparta. Her brothers Kastor (Castor) and Polydeukes (Polydeuces or Pollux) were also children of Zeus but she had two half-sisters, Klytemnestra (Clytemnestra) and Timandra, who were the daughters of Leda and Tyndareus.

Zeus came to Leda in the guise of a swan and seduced her. King Tyndareus knew that three of his children were of divine origin but raised them as if they were his own children. Despite the support of Tyndareus and her personal relationship with Zeus, Leda finally killed herself in desperation after suffering through the tragic lives of her children.

Leda and Zeus

Zeus, in the guise of a swan, seducing Leda.

Helen entered the legends and hearts of the Greeks when she was kidnapped from her home by two men who were otherwise regarded as noble individuals. The legendary king of the Lapithae, Peirithoos (Pirithous), and the Athenian hero Theseus were responsible for the kidnapping of Helen when she was a young girl.

While visiting the city of Sparta, Peirithoos and Theseus saw Helen dancing in the temple of the goddess Artemis. They were captivated by her beauty and took the girl against her will. After they had successfully escaped their pursuers, the two villains drew lots to see who would be allowed to marry Helen … it was agreed that the winner would help the loser find another wife. Theseus won the draw but was afraid to officially marry Helen because she was so young. He finally devised a plan where he would hide Helen with his mother until she was of marrying age.

Helen's brothers, Kastor and Polydeukes went searching for Helen and in doing so, ransacked most of Attica. They found Helen but not before she became pregnant with Theseus's child. Helen was returned to her family before the child was born and persuaded her sister Klytemnestra, who was already married, to raise the child as her own. Helen's child was named Iphigenia (Iphianassa).

The Marriage of Helen

When Helen was old enough to marry, Tyndareus was besieged with offers from men of wealth and influence. They all offered riches in exchange for Helen. Some of the men who became suitors of Helen were:

Tyndareus knew that his daughter had a profound influence on men and that unless a way could be found to control the proud men who had assembled at his palace, there would be endless bickering and bloodshed when her husband was finally chosen. Tyndareus made all the suitors swear a solemn oath that they would accept whichever husband he chose for Helen and furthermore, they would avenge anyone who tried to take her from her chosen husband. Helen was allowed to marry a young Mycenaean prince named Menelaos. Her marriage to Menelaos would eventually lead to the Trojan War.

Helen and Menelaos

Helen and Menelaos

The Trojan War occurred circa 1250 BCE and was one of the final conflicts inflicted on the human race by the Immortals. The Immortals orchestrated the war and determined its outcome with years of subtle manipulation and direct interference. The first overtures to war took place at the wedding of Thetis and Peleus. Thetis was an Immortal daughter of the Ancient of the Sea, Nereus.

Thetis was given to Peleus [a mortal] because of his undying devotion to the gods on Mount Olympos (Olympus). The wedding of Thetis and Peleus was the setting for a defining event that set the stage for the Trojan War. This event has come to be known as The Judgment of Paris although at that time, it was just another demonstration of the rivalry between the Immortals.

The Judgment of Paris

The Judgment of Paris

In order to honor Thetis, Hera invited all the Immortals to the wedding. The goddess Eris [Discord or Strife] was in attendance but she did not come to celebrate … she came to do what she does best … cause trouble. Eris cast down a golden apple with the inscription, 'For the most beautiful one.' Hera, Athene (Athena) and Aphrodite all assumed that the prize was for them and when the intended conflict arose, the Trojan prince Paris [Alexandros] was asked to make the final decision as to which goddess deserved the golden apple. Aphrodite promised Paris the hand of the most desirable mortal woman in Greece … Helen. Paris could not refuse such a prize … he chose Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess … Hera and Athene never forgave the insult. The walls of Troy toppled and all of Paris's family paid with their lives for his unbridled desire.

Helen at Troy

Helen and Alexandros

Alexandros [Paris] pursuing Helen

Menelaos went to his brother Agamemnon for help in retrieving Helen from the Trojans. Agamemnon was king of Mycenae, which was the most powerful kingdom in Greece. Agamemnon called on the kings and princes who had sworn to protect Helen and an army was assembled to attack Troy.

The Iliad is the story of the last year of the ten year siege of Troy. Helen lived with Alexandros as his wife for almost ten years before Troy was conquered. King Priam of Troy was unable to surrender Helen to Menelaos because every attempt to find a peaceful solution was thwarted by the Immortals. War was decreed from Mount Olympos and there was nothing Priam or Agamemnon could do to change that divine fate.

When the Trojan elders met to decide Helen's fate, several men urged King Priam to surrender Helen and her dowry to end the war. Several other men accepted bribes from Alexandros and urged Priam to keep fighting. The majority of Priam's elders and advisors saw Helen as the incarnation of divine beauty and thought that no price was too high to pay for her continued presence at Troy. King Priam decided to support his son's claim to Helen and the war continued.

After almost ten years of carnage, Alexandros thought that he could end the suffering of the besieged Trojans by fighting one-on-one with Helen's ex-husband, Menelaos. The two armies called a truce and took solemn oaths that if Alexandros defeated Menelaos, the Greeks would return to their homes and leave Troy unmolested … likewise, if Menelaos defeated Alexandros, the Trojans would surrender Helen and their city without further fighting.

The goddess Iris, in the guise of Helen's sister-in-law Laodike (Laodice) went to Helen in her chamber and told her of the impending fight. The disguised Iris suggested that Helen go to the city wall and watch as her Trojan husband and her Greek husband fought to the death. Helen went to a tower and watched the two armies as they laid down their arms and took their places to watch the fight between Alexandros and Menelaos.

Helen and Alexandros [Paris]

Helen and Alexandros [Paris]

The Immortals were not actually fighting on the battlefield but they were engaged in constant meddling. When Menelaos was obviously going to win the fight with Alexandros, Aphrodite swooped down and carried Alexandros away … she carried him to Helen's bedchamber. Aphrodite found Helen on a high tower of Troy where she was watching the fight with the other Trojan women. Assuming a disguise, Aphrodite told Helen to leave the tower and go to Alexandros. Helen recognized Aphrodite's divinity and asked why she was trying to beguile her. Aphrodite was not accustomed to being questioned or disobeyed by a mortal … she threatened Helen with her divine hatred if her commands were not obeyed at once. Helen went to Alexandros and confessed that she wished that she had been killed at birth because so much misery and suffering had been endured for her sake.

The last bitter days of the Trojan War saw the deaths of the Trojan prince Hector and the greatest warrior of all time, Achilles. With the best warrior in each army dead, the war was destined to go on indefinitely. The Greeks however had a brilliant idea. They built a giant Wooden Horse and concealed their best fighters inside. They then took their fleet to a nearby island where they could not be seen by the Trojans. The trick worked … the Trojans thought the Greeks had finally given up and returned to their homes and that the Wooden Horse was a peace offering in the form of a tribute to the lord of the Sea, Poseidon. Over the objections of the seer Laokoon (Laocoon), the Wooden Horse was brought inside the city.

Helen was suspicious of the horse and the intentions of the Greeks. Once the Wooden Horse was inside the city walls, she walked around it and imitating the voices of different men's wives, called out to see if any of the men she suspected to be hiding in the horse would answer. All the men hiding inside the horse remained silent. The Trojans began their victory celebration and when all their energies had been spent, relaxed into a wine-induced slumber.

The Greeks emerged from the Wooden Horse and the slaughter began. Troy was a large city and its toppling was not as organized as we might think. In the confusion, a man named Deiphobos (Deiphobus) found Helen and hastily married her. When Menelaos found out about the marriage, he killed Deiphobos and was reunited with the semi-divine Helen.

When the walls of Troy were finally toppled and King Priam and his family were either dead or enslaved, the invaders collected their treasures and slaves and sailed for home.

Helen and Menelaos

Menelaos finds Helen at Troy

Helen After Troy

Compared to the fate of some of the Greek survivors of the Trojan War, the homecoming of Helen and Menelaos was relatively uneventful. Their ships were blown off course by contrary winds and they made landfall in Egypt before reaching Sparta. They were entertained as the guests of King Polybos (Polybus) and Queen Alkandre (Alcandre) of Thebes for an indefinite time.

When it came time to leave Egypt, Queen Alkandre presented Helen with a golden distaff and a gold-trimmed silver basket on wheels. King Polybos gave Menelaos two silver bathtubs, a pair of tripods and ten talents of gold [570 pounds or 258.5 kilograms].

After leaving Egypt, we can assume that Helen and Menelaos returned to Sparta and tried to resume their lives. The news that Menelaos's brother Agamemnon had been murdered by his wife Klytemnestra (Clytemnestra) was disturbing … the fact that Klytemnestra was Helen's sister added an ominous twist to an already unsettling turn of events.

Ten years after arriving back at Sparta, Helen and Menelaos were visited by Telemachos (Telemachus) who was seeking news of his father, Odysseus, who was last seen at Troy and had not returned to his home on the island of Ithaka (Ithaca). Telemachos was traveling with one of King Nestor's sons named Peisistratos (Peisistratus) … both young men were welcomed by Helen and Menelaos because Nestor and Odysseus had been loyal comrades of Menelaos during the Trojan War and fought hard for Helen's freedom. When he first saw Helen, Telemachos thought that she looked as divine as the goddess Artemis.

As Menelaos recounted the stories of the war and the death of Peisistratos's brother Antilochos (Antilochus), the men began to weep. Helen discretely mixed a calming drug she had acquired in Egypt into the wine the men were drinking. The drug worked as prescribed … the king and his two guests resumed their composure and were able to cope with their grief without tears.

When Telemachos and Peisistratos were preparing to leave Sparta, Helen gave Telemachos a shining robe that she had woven herself. She told him that when he found a woman to marry, he should give the robe to her to wear during the marriage ceremony. In the sky above, Helen and Telemachos observed an eagle attack a goose … Helen knew that it was an omen from her father Zeus which was meant for Telemachos. She told him that it was a prophecy indicating that Odysseus would eventually return to his home and family.

The Children of Helen

In The Iliad, we are told emphatically that Helen had only one child, a daughter named Hermione, because the Immortals decreed that she would have only one child. Although Hermione is not mentioned in The Iliad, we can assume that she was born before Helen left Sparta with Alexandros [Paris] because when we encounter her in The Odyssey, Hermione is preparing to marry Achilles's son, Neoptolemus (Neoptolemos).

When Telemachos visited Sparta seeking news of his father Odysseus, he arrived as Hermione was departing to marry Neoptolemus. Menelaos's son Megapenthes who was born to a slave women, was preparing to marry a Spartan woman who is only identified as the daughter of Alektor (Alector).

If Hermione was born before Helen left Sparta with Alexandros, she would have been approximately twenty years old when Telemachos arrived at Sparta. However, if Hermione was born after the Trojan War was over, she would have been only ten years old when she was departing to marry Neoptolemus.

In a text written after The Iliad and The Odyssey, Catalogues of Women and Eoiae, we are informed that Helen and Menelaos had a son named Nikostratos (Nicostratus) who is described as a scion of Ares [god of War]. We are also told that Helen and Menelaos also had another son named Pleisthenes. There is no other mention of Nikostratos or Pleisthenes but after the death of Menelaos, Megapenthes drove Helen from Sparta. We might assume that Megapenthes then became the king of Sparta.

While at Troy, Helen is reputed to have had a son with Alexandros named Aganus. Using all the available sources, Helen is said to have had four children: Hermione, Nikostratos, Pleisthenes and Aganus.

What Really Happened?

The story of Helen and the Trojan War as told in The Iliad and The Odyssey seems to be the final word as to what happened in those distant times but there is another version to the story that needs to be considered.

The historian Herodotus lived circa 484-425 BCE and when he visited Egypt, he was told a completely different story about Helen and the fall of Troy.

Herodotus relates that after fleeing Sparta, Alexandros and Helen did not sail directly to Troy. Contrary winds forced them to Egypt and into the Nile River. There was a shrine to Herakles (Hercules) in that part of Egypt where slaves could seek sanctuary. Alexandros's slaves deserted their master and with the protection afforded by the shrine of Herakles, denounced Alexandros and told the local governor the circumstances under which Helen had been taken from her home.

When King Proteus of Egypt heard the story, he had Alexandros and Helen brought before him for judgment. As Proteus questioned Alexandros as to how he and Helen came to be in Egypt, Alexandros lied but the slaves revealed the truth to the king.

Proteus declared that Helen would be given asylum in Egypt but Alexandros would be required to leave Egypt within three days. Alexandros left Egypt and returned to Troy alone. When the Greeks besieged Troy, the Trojans truthfully informed them that Helen was not there but the Greeks did not believe them until after they had sacked the city and saw the truth for themselves. Menelaos then went to Egypt and retrieved Helen. When Menelaos and Helen tried to sail from Egypt, they were forced back by northerly winds. Menelaos took two Egyptian children and sacrificed them in order to appease the Winds. The Egyptians were outraged and chased Menelaos to Libya but he was able to elude them and secretly return to Sparta.

Herodotus believed that the Immortals allowed the Greeks to destroy Troy in order to punish the Trojans for the foul deeds of Alexandros. Of course, we are more familiar with Homer's poetic version of Helen's plight. In The Iliad, Helen and Alexandros returned to Troy and when Menelaos demanded her return, Alexandros refused … the ten year Trojan War began. After the fall of Troy, Helen was released from the enchantment of Aphrodite and resumed her marriage with Menelaos.

Helen's abduction was not an isolated historical event. The mainland Greeks and the Greeks who had colonized Asia Minor had a long history of kidnapping women from each other. A generation before the Trojan War, Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, had taken Medeia (Medea) from her home and according to Herodotus, the failure to return Medeia was one of a series of events used to justify the kidnapping of Helen.

When Did Helen Live?

We cannot be exactly sure when Helen lived and died but we can make some assumptions:

Using the above crude calculations and assuming the Trojan War took place circa 1250 BCE, Helen would have been born circa 1270 BCE and lived at least until circa 1240 or 1230 BCE.

The Reality of Helen

Helen

The question has to be asked, Was Helen a real woman? I have no difficulty in saying emphatically, Yes! Helen was as real as anyone you know.

For those who choose to believe that Helen was a mythological figure or simply a fictional character in a fabricated story, I can only offer my sympathies for your lack of historical perspective.

It is easy to forget that many of the characters of so called Greek Mythology were actually flesh and blood human beings … some of them were a mixture of human and divine blood but my point remains valid. Characters like Herakles (Heracles), Jason, Theseus, Perseus, Antigone, Agamemnon and Helen actually walked on this earth and the stories we read about them are only slightly embellished accounts of their glorious and sometimes tragic lives.

For those of us who do not question Helen's reality, another serious question has to be asked, Was Helen the most beautiful mortal woman to ever walk the earth? Again, I would have to emphatically say, Yes … absolutely … there's no question about it!

In the ancient world, Helen was not simply known for her beauty … she was renowned for it! When a woman's beauty or grace was described in ancient poetry, she was either compared to a goddess or to Helen. Even when the war was turning bad for the Trojans, several of the city's elders saw Helen on the city walls and confided to one another that Helen had the likeness of a goddess and that she was such a lovely vision of womanhood, they did not regret the hardship and misery her presence caused.

When I think of legendary feminine beauty, the only other woman who immediately comes to mind is Kleopatra (Cleopatra) of Egypt. Kleopatra caused turmoil in Rome, the death of Julius Cesar and the war between Marcus Antony and Octavian. Like Helen, Kleopatra was also a Greek.

The rivalries and warfare caused by Kleopatra cannot in any way compare to the loss of human life, the toppled empires, personal anguish and violent atrocities committed for the sake of Helen. Helen was in no way imaginary or ordinary … she was appreciated for her extraordinary beauty and grace while she was alive and she has been the focus of art and literature for 3,500 years because no woman has ever matched her feminine exquisiteness.

Where's the proof? There a very few images of Helen that have survived to our time. Why is that so? There are several reasons:

1) The Trojan War took place circa 1250 BCE … very few pieces of Greek art have survived from that time;

2) The Spartans were not inclined to indulge in the sort of idolatry that typified many of the other Greek cities … as a Spartan, Helen was loved and honored but she was not the subject of art other than at her shrine in Sparta;

3) The Athenians of the Classical Age despised Helen … not because they thought she was the cause of the Trojan War but because she was a Spartan. When the Spartans won the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians used their art and theater to denounce their Spartan overlords … to portray Helen as beautiful, feminine or desirable was not possible in the climate of hatred towards Sparta that the Athenians indulged. The Athenian poets referred to Helen in a variety of disrespectful and obscene names … likewise, Athenian artists knew better than to produce an image of Helen for fear of violent retaliation.

The Daughter of Nemesis or Okeanos?

There are other aspects of Helen's birth that must be considered. The Kypria states that Helen was the daughter of Zeus and Nemesis, the goddess of Divine Retribution. If that is true, that would mean that Helen was not half-mortal but fully immortal. This might explain some aspects of Helen's life but it seems highly improbable. There is also the speculation that Helen was the daughter of Zeus and Okeanos [Ocean]. This seems highly unlikely and is only given a brief mention. The Nemesis connection seems like a romantic notion but Helen as the daughter of Okeanos does not seem possible.

The belief that Helen was raised by Leda and King Tyndareus of Sparta is essential to the events which served as the foundations of the Trojan War as related in The Iliad. However, having Nemesis as Helen's mother does have a certain symbolic appeal. As the goddess of Divine Retribution, Nemesis could easily be linked to the theme presented in The Iliad where Zeus is determined to punish the Trojans. With Zeus and Nemesis working together, the Trojans could not fail to understand the source of their troubles. The main problem with that line of reasoning is that Nemesis is not mentioned in The Iliad.

I am including the connections between Helen, Nemesis and Okeanos only because they are part of the surviving literature and for that reason must be given some consideration.

Helen of Troy?

We of course refer to Helen as Helen of Troy but in The Iliad she was referred to as Helen of Argos. It wasn't until well over a thousand years after the Trojan War that we encounter her as Helen of Troy. That name was used by some of the Athenian poets and I suspect they did that to draw attention away from Helen's true origins in Sparta [Argos] and tried to transplant her fame and glory to Asia Minor where the Athenians had colonial settlements.

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