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This article is about the mythological figure Helen of Troy. For other meanings of the word see Helen (disambiguation).

In Greek mythology, Helen (Greek: Ἑλένη, Helénē), also known as Helen of Troy, was the daughter of Zeus and Leda and the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. She was the sister of Castor, Polydeuces, and Clytemnestra. Her abduction by Paris brought about the Trojan War.


[edit] Etymology

The name's etymology is open to speculation. If it has an Indo-European etymology, it is possibly a suffixed form of a root *wel- "to turn, roll"<ref>Template:Cite web</ref> or "to cover, enclose" (compare Varuna, Veles), or of *sel- "to flow, run". The latter possibility would allow comparison to Vedic Saraṇyū, who is abducted in RV 10.17.2, a parallel suggestive of an Proto-Indo-European abduction myth.

The name is in any case unrelated to Hellenes, as is sometimes claimed ("Hellenes" being from the root *sed- "to sit, settle").

[edit] Life of Helen

[edit] Birth

According to one myth, Leda bore Helen and Polydeuces (Pollux), children of Zeus, while at the same time bearing Castor and Clytemnestra, children of her husband Tyndareus, the king of Sparta. As the story goes, Zeus took the form of a swan and slept with Leda on the same night as her husband, King Tyndareus. To Zeus, she gave birth to Helen and Polydeuces, and to Tyndareus, Clytemnestra and Castor. In some versions, she laid two eggs from which the children hatched. In other versions, Helen is a daughter of Nemesis, the goddess who personified the disaster that awaited those who show hubris.

[edit] Marriage to Menelaus

Two Athenians, Theseus and Pirithous, pledged to wed daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose the child Helen. He and Pirithous kidnapped her and decided to hold onto her until she was old enough to marry. Pirithous chose Persephone, the wife of Hades. They left Helen with Theseus' mother, Aethra, and travelled to the underworld, the domain of Hades, to kidnap Persephone. Hades pretended to offer them hospitality and set a feast. As soon as the pair sat down, snakes coiled around their feet and held them there. Helen was subsequently rescued by her brothers, Castor and Pollux, who returned her to Sparta.

When it was time for Helen to marry, many kings and princes from around the world came to seek her hand or sent emissaries to do so on their behalf. Among the contenders were Odysseus, Menestheus, Ajax the Great, Patroclus and Idomeneus, but the favorite was Menelaus, who did not come in person but was represented by his brother Agamemnon, both of whom were in exile, having fled Thyestes. All but Odysseus brought many rich gifts with them.

Tyndareus would not choose a suitor, or send any of the suitors away, for fear of offending them and giving grounds for a quarrel. Odysseus promised to solve the problem if Tyndareus 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. This stratagem succeeded and Helen and Menelaus were married. Following Tyndareus' death, Menelaus became king of Sparta because the only male heirs, Castor and Polydeuces, had died and ascended to Mount Olympus.

[edit] Suitors of Helen

Several lists of her suitors were compiled, since the suitors of Helen were later the heroes of the Trojan War. This one is from Apollodorus:

Odysseus, son of Laertes; Diomedes, son of Tydeus; Antilochus, son of Nestor; Agapenor, son of Ancaeus; Sthenelus, son of Capaneus; Amphimachus, son of Cteatus; Thalpius, son of Eurytus; Meges, son of Phyleus; Amphilochus, son of Amphiaraus; Menestheus, son of Peteos; Schedius and Epistrophus, sons of Iphitus; Polyxenus, son of Agasthenes; Peneleos, son of Hippalcimus; Leitus, son of Alector; Ajax, son of Oileus; Ascalaphus and Ialmenus, sons of Ares; Elephenor, son of Chalcodon; Eumelus, son of Admetus; Polypoetes, son of Perithous; Leonteus, son of Coronus; Podalirius and Machaon, sons of Aesculapius; Philoctetes, son of Poeas; Eurypylus, son of Evaemon; Protesilaus, son of Iphiclus; Menelaus, son of Atreus; Ajax and Teucer, sons of Telamon; Patroclus, son of Menoetius.<ref>Apollodorus, Library 3.10.8</ref>

This list is not complete; Apollodorus earlier mentions Cinyras king of Cyprus <ref> Apollodorus, Epitome 3.9.</ref> and Enarophorus and later mentions Idomeneus king of Crete<ref>Apollodorus, Epitome 3.13.</ref> Another list was compiled by Hesiod and, later by Hyginus.

[edit] Seduction by Paris

Some years later, Paris, a Trojan prince, came to Sparta to marry Helen, whom he had been promised by Aphrodite after he had chosen her as the most beautiful of the goddesses, earning the wrath of Athena and Hera. Helen fell in love with him, as the goddess had promised, willingly leaving behind Menelaus and Hermione, their nine-year-old daughter, to be with her new love.

Helen's relationship with Paris varies depending on the source of the story. In some, she loved him dearly (perhaps caused by Aphrodite, who had promised her to Paris). In others, she was portrayed as his unwilling captive in Troy, or as a cruel, selfish woman who brought disaster to everyone around her, and she hated him. In the version used by Euripides in his play Helen, Hermes fashioned a likeness of her out of clouds at Zeus's request, and Helen never even went to Troy, having spent the entire war in Egypt. In all, she is described as being of magnificent beauty. [1]

[edit] Fall of Troy

When he discovered that his wife was missing, Menelaus called upon all the other suitors to fulfill their oaths, thus beginning the Trojan War. Almost all of Greece took part, either attacking Troy with Menelaus or defending it from them.

Late in the Trojan War, Paris was killed by Philoctetes. After Paris died, his brother, Deiphobus, married Helen until he was killed by Menelaus.

Menelaus had demanded that only he should slay his faithless wife; but, when he raised his sword to do so, the sight of her beauty caused him to let the sword drop from his hand. Instead, he led her in safety to the Greek ships.

[edit] Herodotus

According to Herodotus Helen never went to Troy. Paris was forced to stop in Egypt on his way home. While there, his servants told the Egyptians that Paris had kidnapped the wife of Menelaus, who had offered Paris hospitality. The Egyptians scolded Paris and informed him that they were confiscating all the treasure he had stolen (including Helen) until Menelaus came to claim them and that Paris had three days to leave their shores.

Herodotus goes further by claiming that Homer was aware of this story and chose to ignore it for poetic reasons. It is mentioned in "The History" Book 2 Line 116 through 117. Herodotus also tells us that at the beginning of the war the Trojans informed the Greeks that they did not have the treasure or Helen. The Greeks did not believe them until after they sacked Troy, after which they sent Menelaus to Egypt to reclaim what was his.

[edit] Fate

Helen returned to Sparta and lived for a time with Menelaus, where she was encountered by Telemachus in The Odyssey. After Menelaus' death, Helen was exiled by Menelaus's son, Megapenthes. 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 Olympus almost immediately after Menelaus's return.

In some versions,[citations needed] however, Helen was forever sorrowful and silent after her return to Sparta, mostly due to the death of her beloved Paris. Because of her grief, she could not love Menelaus as she once had, and he (Menelaus) could not love her for what she had done, though he kept her by him for reasons of greed and anger. After Menelaus died by the poison of a snake, Helen travelled back to the deserted Troy because of her dream. There, she was reunited again with Gelanor who had married another woman. Gelanor led her to the Shrine of Paris where she died with her last words: "Paris, I come."[citation needed]

[edit] Timeline

The following is an estimation of her life based on the traditional dates of the Trojan War:

  • 1225 BC - Birth of Helen to King Tyndareus of Sparta and his wife Leda.
  • 1213 BC - At the age of twelve Helen is abducted by King Theseus of Athens who marries her against her father's and brothers' consent. During the absence of Theseus, her brothers Castor and Polydeuces help a revolt by his cousin Menestheus. Menestheus gains the right to the throne and returns Helen to her brothers. According to some versions Helen was pregnant and a few months later gives birth to Iphigeneia. She trusts her daughter to her married sister Clytemnestra who will raise her as her own. Soon Menestheus of Athens and other kings and princes gather at Sparta as Helen's suitors.
  • 1212 BC - Tyndareus marries Helen to Menelaus of Mycenae. Menelaus' brother is King Agamemnon who is married to Helen's sister Clytemnestra. Helen soon gives birth to Hermione. The early deaths of her brothers Castor and Polydeuces, soon render Menelaus Tyndareus' successor on the throne of Sparta.
  • 1203 BC - Nine years after Helen's marriage, Paris of Troy visits Sparta and in Menelaus' absence convinces Helen to flee with him. Menelaus discovers that his wife and guest have betrayed him and starts contemplating war. King Priam of Troy marries Helen to Paris. Menelaus' preparations for war and gathering of allies and armies took him ten years according to some versions.
  • 1194 BC - Beginning of the Trojan War.
  • 1184 BC - Philoctetes, armed with Heracles' bow, shoots and kills Paris. Priam marries Helen to Deiphobus, a younger brother of Paris.
  • April 24, 1184 BC - Fall of Troy. Deiphobus is slain by Menelaus, who reclaims Helen as his wife. They sail on their return journey but are stranded on the shores of Egypt.
  • 1176 BC - After spending eight years in Egypt, they manage to set sail again and reach the shores of the Peloponnesus. According to Euripides they visit Mycenae, arriving shortly after the murders of King Aegisthus, who was Menelaus' first cousin, and Queen Clytemnestra, who was Helen's sister, by their common nephew Orestes, the new King of Mycenae. Orestes attempts to kill his aunt but fails. The royal couple return to Sparta (or else Helen is taken off by Apollo)
  • 1174 BC - According to the Odyssey, Telemachus of Ithaca visits Sparta seeking information about his father Odysseus. Menelaus and Helen reply that they have not heard of him since they left Troy ten years ago. They mourn their many lost relatives and friends.
  • 1154 BC - According to Pausanias, Menelaus dies of old age and natural causes. Megapenthes, his illegitimate son, seizes the throne and exiles Helen. He soon loses the throne to his first cousin King Orestes of Mycenae who is married to Hermione, the only legitimate daughter of Menelaus and Helen and half-sister of Megapenthes. By this point Orestes has also seized the vacant thrones of Argos and Arcadia and become the sole ruler of the Peloponnesus. Helen seeks refuge in Rhodes near Polyxo, widow of Tlepolemus, an old friend of hers. Tlepolemus was famously the first man to be killed during the Trojan War. In revenge for her husband's death, Polyxo orders her maidens to pretend to be the ghosts of the many dead seeking revenge on Helen. Helen commits suicide by hanging herself from a tree. After her death she is deified.

[edit] Trivia

Inspired by the line "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships...?" from Marlowe's play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, it was determined that a Millihelen is the amount of beauty that can launch one ship.

[edit] References


[edit] Media

The Private Life of Helen of Troy was an early silent film. Helen then became one of the main characters in Wolfgang Petersen's epic movie, Troy, which starred Brad Pitt as Achilles, Eric Bana as Hector, Orlando Bloom as Paris, Peter O'Toole as Priam, Saffron Burrows, Brendon Gleeson as Menelaus, Julie Christie as Thetis, Sean Bean as Odysseus, Diane Kruger as Helen and Brian Cox as Agamemnon. The movie was released in May 2004.

A television version of Helen's life up to the fall of Troy, Helen of Troy was shown prior to the release of the above film. It starred Sienna Guillory as Helen, Matthew Marsden as Paris, Rufus Sewell as Agamemnon, John Rhys-Davies as Priam and Emilia Fox as Cassandra.

Helen is also a central character in the Kolchak: The Night Stalker episode The Youth Killer. In the modern day, Helen has relocated to Chicago and, by means of running a new dating service, selects physically perfect people to sacrifice to Hecate for eternal life and beauty. However, one of her sacrifices had a glass eye which he failed to mention on his application, and upon Kolchak's announcement of this fact to Helen, Hecate becomes angry and turns Helen into stone. Helen was played by Cathy Lee Crosby.

[edit] Sources

[edit] External links

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ca:Helena da:Helena (græsk mytologi) de:Helena (Mythologie) el:Ωραία Ελένη es:Helena de Troya fr:Hélène (mythologie) ko:헬레나 (신화) it:Elena (mitologia) he:הלנה lt:Helenė hu:Helené (mitológia) nl:Helena (mythologie) ja:ヘレネ pl:Helena Trojańska pt:Helena de Tróia ro:Elena ru:Елена Прекрасная sr:Лепа Јелена sv:Helena (mytologisk gestalt) tr:Helen uk:Єлена zh:海伦 (神话)


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