Claimed to be the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy or Helen of Sparta, and also known as “the face that launched a thousand ships” was in Greek mythology the main cause of the Trojan war. She was daughter to Zeus and Leda, although her putative father was said to be Tyndareus and some argued that her mother may have been Nemesis. Helen’s twin sister Clymnestra and twin brothers Castor and Pollux were always
there to recapture and protect her during her downfalls.
At the age of twelve, Helen experienced her first abduction. She was kidnapped by Theseus, a Greek hero, who put her under the protection of his mother, Aethra. Helen’s twin brothers, the Dioscuri, came to her rescue, which led to the Spartans invasion of Athens and the recapturing of Helen. This also resulted in the Dioscuri taking Aethra hostage as revenge on Theseus.
Life With Menelaus
Helen became Queen of Sparta after marrying King Menelaus. They had one daughter, Hermione, and three sons, Aethiolas, Maraphius, and Pleisthenes. This marriage marked
the beginning of the end of the age of heroes.
The Trojan War
Paris, son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, had gone to Sparta to attend the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, whose wedding ceremony was being organized by Zeus. Eris, the goddess of discord, was very upset by the fact that she was not invited to the wedding, but showed up anyway and was denied entry. She expressed her anger by throwing a golden apple into the crowd of goddesses (Hera, Athena and Aphrodite) and declared it “to the fairest”. The three goddesses all demanded to be given the apple. Paris was given the task of deciding which goddess was most worthy of the apple. Aphrodite had told him that she would give him the most beautiful girl in the world and, ultimately, Paris chose her to give the apple to in exchange for Helen of Troy. This led to Helen’s second abduction, as Paris brought her back to Troy with him. They later married and had children. When Menelaus received the news that Helen had gone (or been taken) to Troy, he called upon all the suitors who were under oath to protect and fight for Helen if she were ever to be abducted again, thus beginning the infamous Trojan War.
The legendary Trojan War took place in the late Bronze Age and was fought between the Greeks and the defenders of Troy. It is said in Greek tradition that the war was started as a way for Zeus to avoid overpopulation, but was most evidently started as a way to return Helen to Menelaus. Menelaus had offered to fight Paris one-on-one to settle the argument over Helen and to avoid the rest of the war. Paris agreed, throwing the first spear but missing Menelaus who then threw his spear right through Paris’ shield. They fought for a while, when Aphrodite intervened, spiriting Paris back to the comfort of his own bedroom. Paris returned to war, killing multiples of Greeks, including Achilles. Philoctetes, the son of Achilles, gained revenge by killing Paris.
With the war on-going, the Greeks came up with a new plan to gain victory. They brought the Trojans a gift, a large wooden horse, which consisted of an army of Greek men. The Trojans took this as a sign of resignation from the Greeks and brought the horse inside the walls of Troy. The Greeks exited the horse, opened the walls of Troy to let the rest of the army in, and they began their attack. The Greeks took victory and recaptured Helen once again.
Upon returning to Sparta, Helen continued living with Menelaus for quite some time. He chose to forgive Helen for marrying and having children with another man as it is possible she had no choice. Some sources state that it is possible Helen later relocated to Mount Olympus to start fresh.
Helen was play written by Euripides in 412 BCE after the Sicilian Expedition, which was an Athenian expedition in Sicily that took place in 415 BCE. It followed much of the same plot line as her traditional story, but many manipulations had been made. The play followed a different sense of structure than the Homeric version we are used to. Firstly, Euripides disregarded any sense of familiarity for the majority of the play in order to make the audience uneasy, but when the play finally fell into place, the audience felt much relief and they finally began settling into the story once the plot line changed slightly to portray
the version that they knew. It is likely that Euripides did this in order to keep the audience on their toes and intrigued.
As most tragedies, Helen began with one character on stage talking about the setting and what set this play apart from others: “that Proteus is dead”. Proteus was said to have kept Helen safe while Zeus sent Paris to Troy unknowingly with a phantom version of Helen. Helen also mentioned two main characters who would appear throughout the play – Theoclymenus and Theonoe. Following this prologue, the play goes on.
Helen was told that Menelaus never returned to Greece after the completion of the Trojan War, which made her available for marriage. Theoclymenus was very fond of Helen, alas his marriage proposal. Helen was a little skeptical about Menelaus’ fate, so she had asked Theonoe, sister to Theoclymenus, to find out if the king really was dead. Menelaus arrived later in Egypt, where Helen was currently, and they recognized each other despite several years apart. Menelaus was hesitant at first, as he believed he hid Helen in a cave to keep her safe the many years earlier, but it was only a phantom image of the beautiful woman. The couple had come up with a mastermind plan to escape Egypt to be together once again. Menelaus pretended to be a messenger who arrived in Egypt to confirm the king’s death. Helen told Theoclymenus that she and the messenger had a strong connection and were going to be married, and Theoclymenus only wanted the best for Helen, so he gifted her a boat for their wedding ceremony, which is when the couple escaped.
This is followed by Menelaus re-entering the stage, shipwrecked as it would seem, and he delivered a soliloquy. Theoclymenus had learned of their trick and had almost killed his sister for not telling him she had known Menelaus was alive. He was stopped by Helen’s brothers just in time.
Was Helen Actually Beautiful?
It was said by Guido delle Colonne, an author from the thirteenth century, that Helen was too beautiful, as he states that “Helen was famous for excessive loveliness” as if it was a bad thing that she was so beautiful (Maguire, 2009, pg. 35). Giovanni Pietro Bellori, a Renaissance art historian, said that Helen was not beautiful enough – “Helen was not as beautiful as they pretended, for she was found to have defects and shortcomings, so that it is believed that she never did sail for Troy, but that her statue was taken there in her stead” (Maguire, 2009, pg. 35). Helen’s looks and beauty are very hard to decipher from antiquity, but Maguire told us what we know of her physique. It is said that Helen had blonde curly hair, as it is “curly and golden” (Maguire, 2009, pg. 47). Helen was said to move like a goddess and sway gracefully by Joseph of Exeter in his Iliad of Dares (Maguire, 2009, pg. 48). A very popular way of denoting her beauty is the lack of detail we are given from any sources in antiquity, such as when Homer referred to Helen as having “the face of immortal goddesses” (Maguire, 2009, pg. 49). One source we have for a very small detail on Helen’s face is John Lyly, an English writer and poet. At the beginning of Lyly’s Euphues (1578) it is stated that Helen had a small scar on her face, but it is possible that this fact is made up as there are no references to confirm this. With this being all we know about Helen’s physical looks, it is hard for modern society to call her the most beautiful woman in the world.
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