Helen of Troy

Mary Stone | November 25, 2022


Homer”s Helen, called Beautiful Helen in modern Greek and euphemistic in the Iliad, famous for her beauty, is the most ambivalent person (innocence or guilt) in Greek mythology. She was the daughter of Zeus or Tyndareus and wife of Menelaus, the king of Sparta.

Its “abduction” by Parris and its transfer to Troy became the occasion, according to the Iliad, of the longest war of all antiquity, the ten-year Trojan War, having previously stirred up all the ancient Greek kingdoms against Troy. Her presence in ancient Greek literature is dense and significant, not only in the Homeric epics, but also in lyric and choral poetry, Attic drama, rhetoric and historiography.

Following the famous remark of the ancient Greek Socratic Cynic philosopher Antisthenes (445-360 BC. ) “The principle of wisdom is the visitation of names”, but also the position advocated by the philosopher Kratylos in the Platonic dialogue of the same name that the names of persons and beings or things, for the most part, have not been set by some convention or confession (by law or ethos), but “by nature”, (a position which is maintained in modern Modern Modern Greek as an idiom in the valuation of a name “name and thing”), the etymology of the name Helen is attempted, starting from the Greek, of course, ancient literature.

The name Eleni is a shorthand main female name in the ancient Greek language. This means that the first letter was the digraph (F) which replaced the letter “δασεία”. Five groups of ancient Greek words argue for the “by nature” etymology of the name:

All the five groups of words above coincide in the concepts of brilliance, brightness, beauty. Aeschylus, allegedly one of the main accusers of Helen of Beauty, as will be mentioned below, in his play “Agamemnon”, by attempting a paraphrased pun with three adjectives, in fact develops a surprising verdict, thus coinciding with the saying of Plautus in his play “Persian”, “nomen est omen” (= name is an omen)

The various accounts of this person, sometimes divergent and sometimes complementary, are already found in almost all the relevant modern dictionaries and encyclopaedias as well as in many treatises on Homeric literature. Although from antiquity the Beautiful Helen, (allegedly also called “Helen of Sparta”, or, “Helen of Troy”, according to foreign relevant literature), gathered around her a multitude of praise and critics, mainly from the post-Homeric or more correctly Methodist narratives, in modern times, it has generally been identified with the concept of marital infidelity and the greatest devastation that a female presence can cause, when even the modern international expression ”serché la fame” (= look for the woman – as the cause) reduces the memory to it. This is basically due to Homer”s astonishing contrivance to involve Helen in his epics to cover only his own epic characters, leaving a provocative coupling of poetic innocence and guilt to be surrounded depending on the context. This dilemma was then passed on to the various methodical narratives, also by poets, divided into incriminating or exculpatory ones in order to serve again the necessary elements of the alleged poetry (tragedy, drama, etc.), with the consequence that an ambiguous and enigmatic Helen is projected in these literary genres as well, thus contributing to their success.

Indeed, poetic discourse, which proceeds from inspiration, in most cases becomes a great oppressor, where, by confusing the boundaries of falsehood and truth, it tends to coerce. This is easily seen in the effect of the mere quotation of a line from a well-known poem in the prose. Poetic coercion becomes more violent when it involves powers, existing principles and authorities, material desires, or even hopes and unreal fears, as is the case, for example, in thurias, tropes, or even in folk songs, and even more so in antiquity when people deified these concepts. Consequently, a thorough study on a person or event mentioned in poetry, in this case of Helen of Troy, requires beforehand a separation from any arbitrariness of the poetic discourse. In fact, when this study follows a rational method, it is certain that all those really peculiar elements and the fields of action of the pheromone will be revealed, while at the same time revealing both the greatness of the poetic inspiration and the surprising plots of the poetic composition about it, contrary to the reservations expressed by the French linguist-homilist Pierre Chantraine. A great and ingenious proposal for the study of Homer”s Helen is the one advocated by the Greek professor of ancient Greek literature at the University of Athens, Ioannis Th. Kakridis (1901-1992), allegedly as a schematic and streamlined modern Greek method, considering that the Eleanine dilemma was intended by both Homer and the Methodist poets. According to this proposal, therefore, Helen is studied under the following periods a) the pre-Homeric Helen, the Homeric Helen which is divided into sub-periods b) the Illiadic Helen and c) the Odyssean Helen and finally d) the Methodist Helen.

Unfortunately, traces of the pre-Homeric Helen are not easily identifiable, precisely because no literary evidence of this period has survived. But they can be traced, necessarily, in the Homeric epics, which are the oldest surviving texts, where the general perception of Helen and elements of her (appearance, origin, character, etc. ) are more often depicted as allusions, considered to be very familiar to the listeners of the Epics, as well as from archaeological finds (temples, sanctuaries, votive offerings, etc.), or from surviving ancient works of art (reliefs, vase paintings, etc.). Homer calls her the daughter of Zeus after his contact with Leda, whom he visited by transforming himself into a white swan, thus claiming, according to this myth, to be the blood sister of Dioscorus Castor and Polydeuces. At the same time, however, Homer considers her the daughter of the mythical hero of Argos, Tyndareos and Leda, and therefore the sister of Clytemnestra, Timandra, as well as Castor and Polydeuces, called in this myth Tyndarides, thus giving her heroic origin from Sparta and the wider Argos. It is noted that the myth of Helen”s birth by Tyndareos is said to be much older than that of her birth by Zeus.

The Tyndarean birth myth

Tyndareos is a descendant of the mythical indigenous first king of Laconia, Lelegas.Specifically, Lelegas, united with the Naiad Cleocharia, became the father of Evrotas, whose daughter Sparta married Lakedaemon, the son of Zeus and the nymph Taygetis. From this union were born Amyclas (the eponymous hero of Laconian cities), Hyacinth and Cynortas. The son of the latter was Perieres who married Gorgophoni, daughter of the Argive hero Perseus and Andromeda, with whom he had many children, Hippocononta, who was killed by Hercules, and Icarius (father of Penelope), Tyndareus, Apareas and Lefkiphon, of whom the last three, either in person by their works or by their children, dominated the Laconian myths in the last pre-Homeric era or the era of the heroic kings.

Tyndareos, after the death of his father, became King of Sparta, but his half-brother Hippocon and his 12 sons managed to overthrow him and seize power. Then Tyndareus, taking refuge with his brother Icarius in the palace of Thestius (king of Aetolia) and assisting him in operations against his surrounding enemies, asked for his help as well as that of many other prominent heroes and kings of the time, including Heracles and Cepheus (king of Tegea), in restoring him to the throne of Sparta. Indeed they appealed victoriously and Tyndareus was restored as king, while Thestius offered him his beautiful daughter, Leda, as his wife. Tyndareos had seven children after Leda, five daughters, Phoebe, Philonoi, Timandra, Clytemnestra and Helen, and two sons, the twins Castor and Polydeuces (national heroes of Laconia).

The Zeus birth myth

This myth, later than the previous one, differs only as to the paternity of both Castor and Polydeuces, now called Dioscuri instead of Tyndarides, and the beautiful Helen. The substitution of only the paternity of these persons may be interpreted either by the desire of the Laconians to attribute divine descent to their native heroes, or, more probably, that Zeus is identical with Tyndareos, whose name was originally a nickname for Zeus of Taygetis, who was subsequently relegated to a secondary local hero after the Doric conquest of the wider region of the southern Peloponnese. But considering that these persons were identified with celestial bodies and brilliant phenomena of nature, on account of observations, no other presence could be given to them except the birth of Zeus, thus enjoying divine honours.

But before this myth was fully formed, there was a transitional one concerning only Polydeuces in order to interpret the successive appearances of the heavenly bodies identical with him and Castor. According to this one-sided myth, the Thesthia Leda was joined on the same night by her husband Tyndareus and the ruler of heaven, Zeus. From this intercourse Castor is said to be the son of Tyndareus, therefore mortal and subject to old age and death, while Polydeuces is the son of Zeus, who is immortal. The life they each enjoyed “successively” as will be interpreted below was based on the exquisite devotion of the immortal Polydeuces to his mortal brother Castor whose fate he wished to share.

The basic myth in which Zeus becomes the father of Dioscorus and Helen is accompanied by wonderful incidents, parts of which are also found in foreign mythologies. In particular, the main heavenly power, Zeus, in order to conquer the beautiful Leda, transforms himself into a white swan by staging a chase by an eagle that had been transformed by the goddess Aphrodite (anthropomorphic concept of beauty). Upon spotting the pursuing white swan, Leda immediately took him in her arms. From this intercourse, Leda gave birth to two eggs, from one of which, after nine months of incubation, were born the glorious Dioscuri and from the other the beautiful Helen, who would become light-eating deities. According to the account of Apollodorus, during the said intercourse of Leda with the celestial swan, the latter was transformed into a goose.

Similar myths with mythical birds (goose, or duck, or vulture) laying golden eggs are also found in the traditions of other peoples. It should be noted that a similar incident is also found in the cosmogony of the Orphics, where the black-winged Nyx (Nyx), fertilized by the wind, gave birth to an egg from which, after the necessary time had elapsed, the radiant god Eros with golden wings emerged as the deity of the perpetuation of life.

In this myth, Leda, as well as Leto whose name is perhaps identical to hers, becomes the personification of the night when in the last stage she emerges towards the east as if the white swan (the white hue of the sky during the twilight) is being persecuted and taking it in her arms, the two stars that illuminate the world and their luminous energy (Helen) are born a little later, which has a corresponding effect on nature.

As the earthly place of this miraculous birth of Dioscorus and Helen are said to be either the foothills of the amazing, from the pyramidal peak, Taygetos, or the Amykles, or even near the island of Pefnos on the west coast of Laconia, according to the version of Alcmanus, a place for which the ancient Messenians claimed that once belonged to them and opposed the Dioscurians. Also Lycophron of Chalcidice in his poem “Alexandra” describes Helen as “Pephnae”, claiming that she was born on the island of Pephnus. This myth, with the final formulation that Polydeuces and Helen are the children of Zeus, while Castor and the other daughters of Leda (Clytemnestra, Timandra and Philonoe are of Tyndareus, therefore mortal), is the most prevalent in ancient Greek literature, especially in lyric poetry and the arts. Its influence on the ancient Greek world was so strong that many parts of it were even passed on to the traditions that through the centuries are still preserved to this day. A typical case is the tradition of the dyeing of red eggs (traditional colour of the Laconians), which alludes to the coming of the spring sun. On 22 August 2020, a sculpture in the shape of an egg and depicting the union of the swan Jupiter and Leda was inaugurated by the Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni and the archaeology professor Petros Themelis, which was placed on the island of Pefnos.

Demystification of egg laying

In fact, no strange or abnormal event had occurred in the birth of Helen and her twin sisters whose birth seems to have been perfectly normal, relatively easy and safe. From the relevant description of the myth it appears that both Helen and her brothers, or at least only Polydeuces, after a nine-month pregnancy, were born in the ”amniotic sac”, thus giving the image of an egg. This is the so-called “visor” or “visor” as it is called today in popular expressions. This fact was the cause of stimulating the imagination and related fiction as understood by the ancient Greeks, even involving Zeus in the miraculous egg-laying of Leda, which has been the main subject of most artists, painters and sculptors throughout the centuries. It should be noted that at that time of the Mycenaean period, particular knowledge of gestation was very limited, coming mainly from observation of domestic animals. Infant mortality was extremely high, and the care of newborns was incomplete and difficult, depending of course on the social class of the parents. Consequently, it was understandable that there was a strong public interest in the birth and care of royal offspring in particular.

According to ancient Greek tradition, a person born with a visor was considered particularly favoured by the Olympian gods, lucky, lucky, keeping a particularly bright and beautiful face. Modern medicine admits that children born with a visor have a particularly clean face without ever showing hemangiomas or spots or other kinds of blemishes, hence called “clean-faced”. In ancient times, the part of the amniotic membrane that covered the face of the child, whether male or female, became a talisman, which was worn throughout life, usually on the child”s chest, in order to protect it from any harm. This popular perception is still maintained as a custom, in similar cases, even today in many parts of Greece.

A basic characteristic of all the above myths was the legend of Helen”s unsurpassed beauty, which had spread throughout ancient Greece as the most beautiful woman in the ancient world. A fact on which all admirers and critics alike agree, both in the period of Homeric Helen and the period of the Methodist Helen.

Rapture of Helen by Theseus

It is noted that in Greek mythology the various myths on the subject of the “abduction of a daughter” by gods or demigods in most cases are allegorical secularization of an ancient priestly myth of Creto-Mycenaean, if not Cycladic, origin, where successive fluctuations, appearances – presences of beings or phenomena of nature, such as e.g. in vegetation, celestial bodies or other phenomena, etc. At the same time, however, they may interpret a seizure – conquest of territory, following a war conflict, which comes to the victor and which is embellished (morally) as a marriage of the latter with the offspring (daughter) of the defeated. The myth of the abduction of Helen by Theseus combines both of the above interpretations, considering Helen either an immortal goddess or a mortal heroine, revealing at the same time a prehistoric conflict between Athenians and Spartans (Achaeans and Dorians).

The myth evolves at a time when the Dioscouri (or Tyndarides), having already grown up, evolving into brilliant national heroes of the Laconians, had invaded Messinia where their uncle Lefkippos reigned, in order to kidnap his two daughters, essentially their cousins, the famous Lefkipides, who bore the names Phoebe and Ilaeira, (the abduction of the Lefkipides), in order to then marry them. It was then that the mythical king, the hero of Attica – Athens, Theseus against Sparta, who was both sunny and with distinctly chthonic characteristics, rebelled against Sparta. Arriving there and apparently occupying some territory, he and his friend Perithus, (king of Lapithos who had sided with him), were amazed to see in a temple of Artemis the beautiful Helen, aged only 7 years (according to Ellanikos), or more correctly 17 years (according to Diodorus the Sicilian and Stesichorus), dancing with amazing grace. So returning he decided to kidnap her, having previously cast lots by which she came to Theseus, as the Laconians claimed, who brought her to Attica to marry her, as he had likewise previously kidnapped Ariadne, (who had abandoned, or was forced to release – abandoned in Naxos), or married the Amazon Antiope and later Phaedra. Returning to Attica, Theseus, accompanied by Piraeus, delivered Helen to his mother Aithra, who resided at Aphidnes, to raise her and keep her company. At this point, Stesichorus claims that Theseus eventually married her, without formalizing this marriage, thus provoking the gods against him, and the fruit of their union was Iphigenia. On hearing of this abduction and a short time later, the Dioscuri, having assembled a capable and worthy army, set out against Theseus, in order to free and bring back their sister. This expedition took place at the time Theseus, having previously promised help to Pirithun, had both gone to Epirus, to the king of the Molossians, Aydoneus, in order to dare to kidnap his daughter called Koris, or in another myth to the underworld to kidnap Persephone, on behalf of the latter who was very desirous. According to another myth Theseus and Perithus went to Taenaros and from there they descended to the realm of Hades. In both individual myths there was a tragic end for Piraeus, while Theseus managed to be rescued after the intercession of Heracles. This coincidence of timing is indeed a wonderful find of ancient mythoplasmic Attic angina (intelligence). Thus arriving in Attica with their army, the Dioscuri demanded from the Athenians the immediate surrender of their sister, proceeding to search for her, but without plundering and destroying her (a fact that would later lead to their being honoured as deities by the Athenians). Eventually they discovered the hideout where their sister was hiding, at the suggestion of the inhabitants of Dhekelia, who from that time, as Herodotus tells us, acquired special privileges such as the privilege of imperfection and presidency in ancient Sparta, which they retained until classical times. Then the Dioscuri, by freeing their sister and taking captive Theseus” mother and sister Piraeus, making them their sister”s handmaidens, returned to Sparta

Mourners of Helen

When the beautiful Helen reached the age of marriage, thus making her highly sought after, as was natural, many kings and royal offspring from all over the ancient Greek world came to the palace of Tyndareos, some in person and others with delegations – embassies, offering rich gifts, in order to ask for her hand. Of all these, 45 distinctive names have survived, which are reported in fragments in relevant lists compiled by Hesiod. The Dioscuri played a leading role in the selection of the most suitable for Helen”s future husband, while the final decision was made by Tyndareus. Based on the above lists, the following are listed as suitors of Helen of Beauty (in alphabetical order): Agapioras, Agaios, Agaios the Locrian, Aias the Locrian, Aias the Telamonian, Alcmaeon, Amphilochus, Amphilochus, Antiochus, Ascalaphus, Diomedes, Elephinoras, Epistrophus, Eumelus, Eurypylus, Thalpius, Thoas, Ialmenus, Idomenus, Clytheus, Leontes, Leontes, Lycomedes, Machaon, Meges, Menelaus, Menestheus, Menestheus, Mirionius, Nereus, Nereus, Odysseus, Patroclus, Penelope, Podaleios, Podarkis, Polyxenus, Polypisites, Prothos, Protosilaeus, Protesilaeus, Sthenelos, Shthenius, Shendius, Tefcros, Telopolemos, Pheidippus, Phimios and Philoctetes. It is noteworthy that these tables of Helen”s suitors do not include great heroic kings of that time, such as Agamemnon, who is said to have represented his brother Menelaus in the assembly of suitors, while he had already married Helen”s sister, Clytemnestra, and Achilles, who may have been too young to marry, as well as the hero and king of Tegea, Echemus, who may have already married Helen”s other sister, Timandra. On the contrary, the suitors include the son of Piraeus, Polypitis.

Oath of Tyndareo

In Greek mythology, the oath of Tyndareos, or “the oath of Helen”s suitors”, is the name given to the oath which Tyndareos imposed on Helen”s suitors and which they were obliged to take before her future husband was chosen. In particular, the large attendance of so many powerful suitors was likely to frighten Tyndareos in his choice of the future husband, which could create huge conflicts with perhaps tragic consequences for Sparta. In solving this phobic problem, Tyndareos” co-defender was Odysseus, who proposed the prior commitment of the suitors with a sacred oath that not only would they respect any choice of future husband but would also hasten to protect him against any insult he might receive from his marriage to Helen. This proposal was immediately accepted and Tyndareos, inviting all the above suitors to a place outside Sparta, on the road to Arcadia, and proceeding there to a solemn sacrifice of a horse to the gods, invited the suitors to take the sacred oath. Indeed the suitors, accepting the above decision and invitation of Tyndareos came and making libations at the altar and holding each other”s right hand, invoking the gods swore that “whoever and if Helen becomes a wife, everyone else will defend him and if someone wanted to kidnap her from her matrimonial house and take her husband”s place, they will all join armed forces against the kidnapper and will burn down his city (state), whether he is a Greek or a barbarian”. It is noted that this oath had to give both Agamemnon, for fear that he might abandon Clytemnestra for the sake of Helen, and Odysseus who had come as a suitor, but without wedding gifts, which justifies, most likely, a promise on the part of Tyndareo to marry his niece Penelope, daughter of his brother and contractor, Icarus. The place of this oath was later called “the grave of the horse” (as Pausanias mentions).

Marriage with Menelaus

Finally, Tyndareos chose Menelaos, grandson of the legendary Pelops and son of the great royal house of Atreus of Mycenae, as the future husband of his daughter Helen. Tyndareos, after the promised swearing in of the suitors, is said to have allowed Helen herself to choose from among them her future husband, whom, with the help of Aphrodite, her heart would desire. Thus followed a solemn ceremony during which Helen herself crowned Menelaus with a wedding wreath. The marriages of Menelaus and Helen were celebrated in Sparta where they became kings after the alleged abdication of Tyndareus and Leda, while the marriages of Odysseus and Penelope followed. Menelaus and Helen reigned for many years, having seven children, of whom one or two were bisexual, namely, five sons and two daughters, Nicostratus, Aethiola, Thronius, Pleisthenes, Morraphus, and Hermione and Melita. During their reign, Agamemnon managed to return to Mycenae and take over as king, driving out the usurper of the throne and his uncle Thyestes, thus becoming the two Atreides, (Menelaus and Agamemnon), the most powerful kings of their time, while a few years later followed the great campaign against Troy that ended in the well-known Ten Years” War.

Helen: Secondary deity

According to the various archaeological findings and the literary sources that have survived, it is revealed that the Beautiful Helen enjoyed divine honours both in ancient Sparta, where there were two temples dedicated to her, the Menelaion, in Therapnes and another one near the settlement of Platanitsa, as well as in Argos, Arcadia, Corinth, Boeotia, Attica (Athens), which was honoured together with the Dioscouruses on the feast of Anakia in the Anakio sanctuary, Thessaly, Rhodes, and even in Italy and ancient Egypt. According to the beliefs of the ancient Greeks, since Helen was worshipped in familiar temples and depicted on cult statues and xanaxes, as acknowledged by ancient writers such as Isocrates, Helen of Dios was a secondary goddess in Greek mythology. The character and protection of this deity is inferred from the following facts:

Aphrodite, according to the promise she had made to Paris, arranged for them to feel strong mutual love and so Paris took her willingly to Troy.

Trojan War and different versions

After the death of Paris, she married his brother Diphobos. After the fall of Troy, he followed Menelaus to Sparta, where they arrived after eight years of adventures. From then on they lived quietly for the rest of their lives.

However, another myth has Menelaus sailing into Egypt and meeting the real Helen of Troy, who confides in him that the Helen they were fighting for in Troy was a false vision. This myth is referred to by the poet Stesichorus in his famous regression, which survives in Plato”s Phaedrus, the tragic poet Euripides in his anti-war drama Helen, and the contemporary poet George Seferis in his poem Helen.

Homer in the Iliad presents Helen as a human being with a lineage, avoiding judgment and condemnation, but often shows her condemning herself by using the adjective “canine” for herself. Although she loves Paris, she leaves him because he is not brave. Homer describes her as a callicon (omorphomallous), a caliparion (omorphoface), a leukolenon (white-bearded), a tanypplon (omorphon-clothed), etc., but also a rigedan (horrible), because she caused the destruction of many heroes. For the same reason, Aeschylus misuses her name and calls her eleven, elandron, eleptolin (a disaster for ships, men, and states). She sometimes regrets and longs for her homeland, Sparta, her husband and daughter Hermione.

The lyric poets (Ibicus, Alcaeus) consider her to be responsible for the war and associate her with infidelity. Sappho refers to Helen not to condemn her as the cause of war, but to vindicate Eros, who is capable of causing terrible suffering. In Euripides, but not in all of his plays, she is presented more as a victim than as a proconsul of evil.

Modern sources


  1. Ελένη (μυθολογία)
  2. Helen of Troy
  3. ^ Interchangeable usage of the terms rape and elope often lends ambiguity to the legend.[example needed]
  4. Επίκτητος “Διατριβαί” Ι΄.17,12
  5. a et b (en) Linda Lee Clader, Helen: The Evolution from Divine to Heroic in Greek Epic Tradition., Brill Archive, 1976, 63 f.
  6. (en) Otto Skutsch, “Helen, her Name and Nature.” In: Journal of Hellenic Studies, 107 (1987), pp. 188–193.
  7. (en) Steven O”Brien, “Dioscuric Elements in Celtic and Germanic Mythology”. In: Journal of Indo-European Studies, 10:1–2 (Printemps-Été, 1982), pp. 117–136.
  8. 1 2 Augias C. I segreti di Roma (итал.): Storie, luoghi e personaggi di una capitale — 2007. — P. 3. — 424 с. — ISBN 978-88-04-56641-0
  9. Гермиона // Энциклопедический словарь — СПб.: Брокгауз — Ефрон, 1893. — Т. VIIIа. — С. 539.
  10. Ярхо, 1987.
  11. Helena // Реальный словарь классических древностей / авт.-сост. Ф. Любкер ; Под редакцией членов Общества классической филологии и педагогики Ф. Гельбке, Л. Георгиевского, Ф. Зелинского, В. Канского, М. Куторги и П. Никитина. — СПб., 1885. — С. 597.
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