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Helen of Troy

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In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy (Greek Ἑλένη Helénē, pronounced [helénɛː]), also known as Helen of Sparta, or simply Helen, was the daughter of Zeus and Leda, and was a sister of Castor, Pollux, and Clytemnestra. In Greek myths, she was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. By marriage she was Queen of Laconia, a province within Homeric Greece, the wife of King Menelaus. Her abduction by Prince Paris of Troy brought about the Trojan War. Elements of her putative biography come from classical authors such as Aristophanes, Cicero, Euripides and Homer (both The Iliad and The Odyssey).

In her youth, she was abducted by Theseus. A competition between her suitors for her hand in marriage sees Menelaus emerge victorious. An oath sworn beforehand by all the suitors (known as the Oath of Tyndareus) requires them to provide military assistance in the case of her abduction; this oath culminates in the Trojan War. When she marries Menelaus she is still very young; whether her subsequent involvement with Paris is an abduction or a seduction is ambiguous.

The legends recounting Helen’s fate in Troy are contradictory. Homer depicts her as a wistful figure, even a sorrowful one, who comes to regret her choice and wishes to be reunited with Menelaus. Other accounts have a treacherous Helen who simulates Bacchic rites and rejoices in the carnage. Ultimately, Paris was killed in action, and in Homer’s account Helen was reunited with Menelaus, though other versions of the legend recount her ascending to Olympus instead. A cult associated with her developed in Hellenistic Laconia, both at Sparta and elsewhere; at Therapne she shared a shrine with Menelaus. She was also worshiped in Attica and on Rhodes.

Her beauty inspired artists of all time to represent her, frequently as the personification of ideal beauty. Christopher Marlowe’s lines from his tragedy Doctor Faustus (1604) are frequently cited: „Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?“ However, in the play this meeting and the ensuing temptation are not unambiguously positive, closely preceding death and descent to Hell. Images of her start appearing in the 7th century BC. In classical Greece, her abduction by—or elopement with—Paris was a popular motif. In medieval illustrations, this event was frequently portrayed as a seduction, whereas in Renaissance painting it is usually depicted as a rape by Paris. The fact that rape and kidnapping were interchangeable terms lends additional ambiguity to the story.

The etymology of Helen’s name continues to be a problem for scholars. Georg Curtius related Helen (Ἑλένη) to the moon (Selene Σελήνη). Émile Boisacq considered Ἑλένη to derive from the noun ἑλένη meaning „torch“. It has also been suggested that the λ of Ἑλένη arose from an original ν, and thus the etymology of the name is connected with the root of Venus. Linda Lee Clader, however, says that none of the above suggestions offers much satisfaction.

Inversely, others have connected this etymology to a hypothetical proto-indo-european sun goddess, noting her name’s connection to the word for „sun“ in various indo-european cultures. In particular, her marriage myth may be connected to a broader indo-european „marriage drama“ of the sun goddess, and she is related to the divine twins, just as many of these goddesses are.

None of the etymological sources appear to support the existence, save as a coincidence only, of a connection between the name of Helen and the name by which the classical Greeks commonly described themselves, namely Hellenic or Hellenistic, after Hellen (/ˈhɛlɪn/; Greek: Ἕλλην) the mythological progenitor of the Greeks.

The origins of Helen’s myth date back to the Mycenaean age. The first record of her name appears in the poems of Homer, but scholars assume that such myths invented or received by the Mycenaean Greeks made their way to Homer. Her mythological birthplace was Sparta of the Age of Heroes, which features prominently in the canon of Greek myth: in later ancient Greek memory, the Mycenaean Bronze Age became the age of the Greek heroes. The kings, queens, and heroes of the Trojan Cycle are often related to the gods, since divine origins gave stature to the Greeks‘ heroic ancestors. The fall of Troy came to represent a fall from an illustrious heroic age, remembered for centuries in oral tradition before being written down. Recent archaeological excavations in Greece suggest that modern-day Laconia was a distinct territory in the Late Bronze Age, while the poets narrate that it was a rich kingdom. Archaeologists have unsuccessfully looked for a Mycenaean palatial complex buried beneath present-day Sparta. Recent archeological excavations at the Menelaion uncovered several findings including two Mycenaean mansions. These mansions that were destroyed, by an earthquake and by fire, are considered by archaeologists to be the possible palace of Menelaus and Helen. Excavations made from the early 1990s to the present suggest that the area around Menelaion in the southern part of the Eurotas valley seems to have been the center of Mycenaean Laconia.

In most sources, including the Iliad and the Odyssey, Helen is the daughter of Zeus and Leda, and the wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. Euripides‘ play Helen, written in the late 5th century BC, is the earliest source to report the most familiar account of Helen’s birth: that, although her putative father was Tyndareus, she was actually Zeus‘ daughter. In the form of a swan, the king of gods was chased by an eagle, and sought refuge with Leda. The swan gained her affection, and the two mated. Leda then produced an egg, from which Helen emerged. The First Vatican Mythographer introduces the notion that two eggs came from the union: one containing Castor and Pollux; one with Helen and Clytemnestra. Nevertheless, the same author earlier states that Helen, Castor and Pollux were produced from a single egg. Pseudo-Apollodorus states that Leda had intercourse with both Zeus and Tyndareus the night she conceived Helen.

On the other hand, in the Cypria, part of the Epic Cycle, Helen was the daughter of Zeus and the goddess Nemesis. The date of the Cypria is uncertain, but it is generally thought to preserve traditions that date back to at least the 7th century BC. In the Cypria, Nemesis did not wish to mate with Zeus. She therefore changed shape into various animals as she attempted to flee Zeus, finally becoming a goose. Zeus also transformed himself into a goose and mated with Nemesis, who produced an egg from which Helen was born. Presumably, in the Cypria, this egg was somehow transferred to Leda. Later sources state either that it was brought to Leda by a shepherd who discovered it in a grove in Attica, or that it was dropped into her lap by Hermes.

Asclepiades of Tragilos and Pseudo-Eratosthenes related a similar story, except that Zeus and Nemesis became swans instead of geese. Timothy Gantz has suggested that the tradition that Zeus came to Leda in the form of a swan derives from the version in which Zeus and Nemesis transformed into birds.

Pausanias states that in the middle of the 2nd century AD, the remains of an egg-shell, tied up in ribbons, were still suspended from the roof of a temple on the Spartan acropolis. People believed that this was „the famous egg that legend says Leda brought forth“. Pausanias traveled to Sparta to visit the sanctuary, dedicated to Hilaeira and Phoebe, in order to see the relic for himself.

Two Athenians, Theseus and Pirithous, thought that since they were both sons of gods, both of them should have divine wives; they thus pledged to help each other abduct two daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen, and Pirithous vowed to marry Persephone, the wife of Hades. Theseus took Helen and left her with his mother Aethra or his associate Aphidnus at Aphidnae or Athens. Theseus and Pirithous then traveled to the underworld, the domain of Hades, to kidnap Persephone. Hades pretended to offer them hospitality and set a feast, but, as soon as the pair sat down, snakes coiled around their feet and held them there. Helen’s abduction caused an invasion of Athens by Castor and Pollux, who captured Aethra in revenge, and returned their sister to Sparta.

In most accounts of this event, Helen was quite young; Hellanicus of Lesbos said she was seven years old and Diodorus makes her ten years old. On the other hand, Stesichorus said that Iphigeneia was the daughter of Theseus and Helen, which obviously implies that Helen was of childbearing age. In most sources, Iphigeneia is the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, but Duris of Samos and other writers followed Stesichorus‘ account.

Ovid’s Heroides give us an idea of how ancient and, in particular, Roman authors imagined Helen in her youth: she is presented as a young princess wrestling naked in the palaestra; an image alluding to a part of girls‘ physical education in classical (and not in Mycenaean) Sparta. Sextus Propertius imagines Helen as a girl who practices arms and hunts with her brothers:

[…] or like Helen, on the sands of Eurotas, between Castor and Pollux, one to be victor in boxing, the other with horses: with naked breasts she carried weapons, they say, and did not blush with her divine brothers there.

When it was time for Helen to marry, many kings and princes from around the world came to seek her hand, bringing rich gifts with them, or sent emissaries to do so on their behalf. During the contest, Castor and Pollux had a prominent role in dealing with the suitors, although the final decision was in the hands of Tyndareus. Menelaus, her future husband, did not attend but sent his brother, Agamemnon, to represent him.

There are three available and not entirely consistent lists of suitors, compiled by Pseudo-Apollodorus (31 suitors), Hesiod (11 suitors), and Hyginus (36 suitors), for a total of 45 distinct names. There are only fragments from Hesiod’s poem, so his list would have contained more. Achilles‘ absence from the lists is conspicuous, but Hesiod explains that he was too young to take part in the contest. Taken together, the list of suitors matches well with the captains in the Catalog of Ships from the Iliad; however, some of the names may have been placed in the list of Helen’s suitors simply because they went to Troy. It is not unlikely that relatives of a suitor may have joined the war.

Six Suitors listed in all three sources

Nineteen Suitors listed by both Apollodorus and Hyginus

One Suitor listed by Apollodorus and Hesiod

One Suitor listed by Hesiod and Hyginus

Three Suitors listed only by Hesiod

Ten Suitors listed only by Hyginus

Five Suitors listed only by Apollodorus

Tyndareus was afraid to select a husband for his daughter, or send any of the suitors away, for fear of offending them and giving grounds for a quarrel. Odysseus was one of the suitors, but had brought no gifts because he believed he had little chance to win the contest. He thus promised to solve the problem, if Tyndareus in turn would support him in his courting of Penelope, the daughter of Icarius. Tyndareus readily agreed, and Odysseus proposed that, before the decision was made, all the suitors should swear a most solemn oath to defend the chosen husband against whoever should quarrel with him. After the suitors had sworn not to retaliate, Menelaus was chosen to be Helen’s husband. As a sign of the importance of the pact, Tyndareus sacrificed a horse. Helen and Menelaus became rulers of Sparta, after Tyndareus and Leda abdicated. Menelaus and Helen rule in Sparta for at least ten years; they have a daughter, Hermione, and (according to some myths) three sons: Aethiolas, Maraphius, and Pleisthenes.

The marriage of Helen and Menelaus marks the beginning of the end of the age of heroes. Concluding the catalog of Helen’s suitors, Hesiod reports Zeus‘ plan to obliterate the race of men and the heroes in particular. The Trojan War, caused by Helen’s elopement with Paris, is going to be his means to this end.

Paris, a Trojan prince, came to Sparta to claim Helen, in the guise of a supposed diplomatic mission. Before this journey, Paris had been appointed by Zeus to judge the most beautiful goddess; Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite. In order to earn his favour, Aphrodite promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world. Swayed by Aphrodite’s offer, Paris chose her as the most beautiful of the goddesses, earning the wrath of Athena and Hera.

In western painting, Helen’s journey to Troy is usually depicted as a forced abduction. The Rape of Helen by Francesco Primaticcio (c. 1530–1539, Bowes Museum) is representative of this tradition.

In Guido Reni’s homonymous painting (1631, Louvre, Paris), however, Paris holds Helen by her wrist, and leave together for Troia.

Although Helen is sometimes depicted as being raped by Paris, Ancient Greek sources are often elliptical and contradictory. Herodotus states that Helen was abducted, but the Cypria simply mentions that, after giving Helen gifts, „Aphrodite brings the Spartan queen together with the Prince of Troy.“ Sappho argues that Helen willingly left behind Menelaus and their nine-year-old daughter, Hermione, to be with Paris:

Dio Chrysostom gives a completely different account of the story, questioning Homer’s credibility: after Agamemnon had married Helen’s sister, Klytaemnestra, Tyndareus sought Helen’s hand for Menelaus on account of political reasons. However, Helen was sought by many suitors, who came from far and near, among them Paris who surpassed all the others and won the favor of Tyndareus and his sons. Thus he won her fairly and took her away to Troia, with the full consent of her natural protectors. Cypria narrate that in just three days Paris and Helen reached Troy. Homer narrates that during a brief stop-over in the small island of Kranai, according to Iliad, the two lovers consummated their passion. On the other hand, Cypria note that this happened the night before they left Sparta.

The Rape of Helen by Tintoretto (1578–1579, Museo del Prado, Madrid); Helen languishes in the corner of a land-sea battle scene.

El Juicio de Paris by Enrique Simonet, c. 1904. This painting depicts Paris‘ judgement. He is inspecting Aphrodite, who is standing naked before him. Hera and Athena watch nearby.

At least three Ancient Greek authors denied that Helen ever went to Troy; instead, they suggested, Helen stayed in Egypt during the duration of the Trojan War. Those three authors are Euripides, Stesichorus, and Herodotus. In the version put forth by Euripides in his play Helen, Hera fashioned a likeness of Helen (eidolon, εἴδωλον) out of clouds at Zeus‘ request, Hermes took her to Egypt, and Helen never went to Troy, spending the entire war in Egypt. Eidolon is also present in Stesichorus‘ account, but not in Herodotus‘ rationalizing version of the myth.

Herodotus adds weight to the „Egyptian“ version of events by putting forward his own evidence—he traveled to Egypt and interviewed the priests of the temple (Foreign Aphrodite, ξείνης Ἀφροδίτης) at Memphis. According to these priests, Helen had arrived in Egypt shortly after leaving Sparta, because strong winds had blown Paris’s ship off course. King Proteus of Egypt, appalled that Paris had seduced his host’s wife and plundered his host’s home in Sparta, disallowed Paris from taking Helen to Troy. Paris returned to Troy without a new bride, but the Greeks refused to believe that Helen was in Egypt and not within Troy’s walls. Thus, Helen waited in Memphis for ten years, while the Greeks and the Trojans fought. Following the conclusion of the Trojan War, Menelaus sailed to Memphis, where Proteus reunited him with Helen.

Helen on the Ramparts of Troy was a popular theme in the late 19th-century art – seen here a depiction by Frederick Leighton.

In a similar fashion to Leighton, Gustave Moreau depicts an expressionless Helen; a blank or anguished face.

Painting by Walter Crane

When he discovered that his wife was missing, Menelaus called upon all the other suitors to fulfill their oaths, thus beginning the Trojan War. The Greek fleet gathered in Aulis, but the ships could not sail, because there was no wind. Artemis was enraged by a sacrilegious act of the Greeks, and only the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, could appease her. In Euripides Iphigenia in Aulis, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia’s mother and Helen’s sister, begs her husband to reconsider his decision, calling Helen a „wicked woman“. Clytemnestra (unsuccessfully) warns Agamemnon that sacrificing Iphigenia for Helen’s sake is, „buying what we most detest with what we hold most dear“.

Before the opening of hostilities, the Greeks dispatched a delegation to the Trojans under Odysseus and Menelaus; they endeavored to persuade Priam to hand Helen back without success. A popular theme, The Request of Helen (Helenes Apaitesis, Ἑλένης Ἀπαίτησις), was the subject of a drama by Sophocles, now lost.

Homer paints a poignant, lonely picture of Helen in Troy. She is filled with self-distaste and regret for what she has caused; by the end of the war, the Trojans have come to hate her. When Hector dies, she is the third mourner at his funeral, and she says that, of all the Trojans, Hector and Priam alone were always kind to her:

These bitter words reveal that Helen gradually realized Paris‘ weaknesses, and she decided to ally herself with Hector. There is an affectionate relationship between the two of them, and Helen has harsh words to say for Paris, when she compares the two brothers:

After Paris was killed in action, there was some dispute among the Trojans about which of Priam’s surviving sons she should remarry: Helenus or Deiphobus, but she was given to the latter.

During the fall of Troy, Helen’s role is ambiguous. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Deiphobus gives an account of Helen’s treacherous stance: when the Trojan Horse was admitted into the city, she feigned Bacchic rites, leading a chorus of Trojan women, and, holding a torch among them, she signaled to the Greeks from the city’s central tower. In Odyssey, however, Homer narrates a different story: Helen circled the Horse three times, and she imitated the voices of the Greek women left behind at home—she thus tortured the men inside (including Odysseus and Menelaus) with the memory of their loved ones, and brought them to the brink of destruction.

After the death of Hector and Paris, Helen became the paramour of their younger brother, Deiphobus; but when the sack of Troy began, she hid her new husband’s sword, and left him to the mercy of Menelaus and Odysseus. In Aeneid, Aeneas meets the mutilated Deiphobus in Hades; his wounds serve as a testimony to his ignominious end, abetted by Helen’s final act of treachery.

However, Helen’s portraits in Troy seem to contradict each other. From one side, we read about the treacherous Helen who simulated Bacchic rites and rejoiced over the carnage of Trojans. On the other hand, there is another Helen, lonely and helpless; desperate to find sanctuary, while Troy is on fire. Stesichorus narrates that both Greeks and Trojans gathered to stone her to death. When Menelaus finally found her, he raised his sword to kill her. He had demanded that only he should slay his unfaithful wife; but, when he was ready to do so, she dropped her robe from her shoulders, and the sight of her beauty caused him to let the sword drop from his hand. Electra wails:

Alas for my troubles! Can it be that her beauty has blunted their swords?

Helen returned to Sparta and lived for a time with Menelaus, where she was encountered by Telemachus in Book 4 of The Odyssey. As depicted in that account, she and Menelaus were completely reconciled and had a harmonious married life – he holding no grudge at her having run away with a lover and she feeling no restraint in telling anecdotes of her life inside besieged Troy.

According to another version, used by Euripides in his play Orestes, Helen had long ago left the mortal world by then, having been taken up to Mount Olympus almost immediately after Menelaus‘ return. A curious fate is recounted by Pausanias the geographer (3.19.11–13), which has Helen share the afterlife with Achilles.

Pausanias the geographer has another story (3.19.9–10): „The account of the Rhodians is different. They say that when Menelaus was dead, and Orestes still a wanderer, Helen was driven out by Nicostratus and Megapenthes and came to Rhodes, where she had a friend in Polyxo, the wife of Tlepolemus. For Polyxo, they say, was an Argive by descent, and when she was already married to Tlepolemus, shared his flight to Rhodes. At the time she was queen of the island, having been left with an orphan boy. They say that this Polyxo desired to avenge the death of Tlepolemus on Helen, now that she had her in her power. So she sent against her when she was bathing handmaidens dressed up as Furies, who seized Helen and hanged her on a tree retro kits football, and for this reason the Rhodians have a sanctuary of Helen of the Tree.“

Tlepolemus was a son of Heracles and Astyoche. Astyoche was a daughter of Phylas, King of Ephyra who was killed by Heracles. Tlepolemus was killed by Sarpedon on the first day of fighting in the Iliad. Nicostratus was a son of Menelaus by his concubine Pieris, an Aetolian slave. Megapenthes was a son of Menelaus by his concubine Tereis, no further origin.

In the tragedy Trojan Women of Euripides which takes place in Troy just after its fall we learn that Helen will be taken back to Greece where a death sentence awaits her.

In Simonianism, it was taught that Helen of Troy was one of the incarnations of the Ennoia in human form.

From Antiquity, depicting Helen would be a remarkable challenge. The story of Zeuxis deals with this exact question: how would an artist immortalize ideal beauty? He eventually selected the best features from five virgins. The ancient world starts to paint Helen’s picture or inscribe her form on stone, clay and bronze by the 7th century BC. Helen is frequently depicted on Athenian vases as being threatened by Menelaus and fleeing from him. This is not the case, however, in Laconic art: on an Archaic stele depicting Helen’s recovery after the fall of Troy, Menelaus is armed with a sword but Helen faces him boldly, looking directly into his eyes; and in other works of Peloponnesian art, Helen is shown carrying a wreath, while Menelaus holds his sword aloft vertically. In contrast, on Athenian vases of c. 550–470, Menelaus threateningly points his sword at her.

The abduction by Paris was another popular motif in ancient Greek vase-painting; definitely more popular than the kidnapping by Theseus. In a famous representation by the Athenian vase painter Makron, Helen follows Paris like a bride following a bridegroom, her wrist grasped by Paris‘ hand. The Etruscans, who had a sophisticated knowledge of Greek mythology, demonstrated a particular interest in the theme of the delivery of Helen’s egg, which is depicted in relief mirrors football cheap jerseys.

In Renaissance painting, Helen’s departure from Sparta is usually depicted as a scene of forcible removal (rape) by Paris. This is not, however, the case with certain secular medieval illustrations. Artists of the 1460s and 1470s were influenced by Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae, where Helen’s abduction was portrayed as a scene of seduction. In the Florentine Picture Chronicle Paris and Helen are shown departing arm in arm, while their marriage was depicted into Franco-Flemish tapestry.

In Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1604), Faust conjures the shade of Helen. Upon seeing Helen, Faustus speaks the famous line: „Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium.“ (Act V, Scene I.) Helen is also conjured by Faust in Goethe’s Faust.

In Pre-Raphaelite art, Helen is often shown with shining curly hair and ringlets. Other painters of the same period depict Helen on the ramparts of Troy, and focus on her expression: her face is expressionless, blank, inscrutable. In Gustave Moreau’s painting, Helen will finally become faceless; a blank eidolon in the middle of Troy’s ruins.

The major centers of Helen’s cult were in Laconia. At Sparta, the urban sanctuary of Helen was located near the Platanistas, so called for the plane trees planted there. Ancient sources associate Helen with gymnastic exercises or/and choral dances of maidens near the Evrotas River fabric defuzzer. Theocritus conjures the song epithalamium Spartan women sung at Platanistas commemorating the marriage of Helen and Menelaus:

Helen’s worship was also present on the opposite bank of Eurotas at Therapne, where she shared a shrine with Menelaus and the Dioscuri. The shrine has been known as „Menelaion“ (the shrine of Menelaus), and it was believed to be the spot where Helen was buried alongside Menelaus. Despite its name, both the shrine and the cult originally belonged to Helen; Menelaus was added later as her husband wholesale christmas socks. Isocrates writes that at Therapne Helen and Menelaus were worshiped as gods, and not as heroes. Clader argues that, if indeed Helen was worshiped as a goddess at Therapne, then her powers should be largely concerned with fertility. There is also evidence for Helen’s cult in Hellenistic Sparta: rules for those sacrificing and holding feasts in their honor are extant.

Helen was also worshiped in Attica along with her brothers, and on Rhodes as Helen Dendritis (Helen of the Trees, Έλένα Δενδρῖτις); she was a vegetation or a fertility goddess. Martin F. Nilsson has argued that the cult in Rhodes has its roots to the Minoan, pre-Greek era, when Helen was allegedly worshiped as a vegetation goddess. Claude Calame and other scholars try to analyze the affinity between the cults of Helen and Artemis Orthia, pointing out the resemblance of the terracotta female figurines offered to both deities.

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