Biography of Helen of Troy, Cause of the Trojan War

The Rape of Helen of Troy, 17th century tapestry kept in Cheverny Castle, Loire Valley, France.
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Helen of Troy is a character in Homer's classic epic poem, the "Iliad," written in the 8th century, and about the Trojan War, imagined by the Greeks to have occurred about five hundred years earlier. Her story is one of the most dramatic love stories of all time and said to be one of the main reasons for a ten-year war between the Greeks and Trojans, known as the Trojan War. Hers was the face that launched a thousand ships because of the vast number of warships the Greeks sailed to Troy to retrieve Helen.

Fast Facts: Helen of Troy

  • Known for: She was the most beautiful woman in the ancient Greek world, daughter of the king of the Greek gods, and the cause of the 10-year-long Trojan War between Troy and Sparta.
  • Birth: In Sparta.
  • Parents: The king of the gods, Zeus, and the wife of the Spartan king Tyndareus, Leda; or perhaps Tyndareus himself and the goddess of retribution, Nemesis, who gave Helen to Leda to raise.
  • Siblings: Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux. 
  • Spouse(s): Theseus, Menelaus, Paris, Deiphobus, Achilles (in the afterlife), perhaps five others. 

In the "Iliad," Helen's name is a battle cry, but her story is not told in detail: the "Iliad" is chiefly a man's story of the conflicting passions and struggles of men on opposing side of a great battle. and the Trojan War were central to the early history of ancient Greece. Stories the details of Helen's story are provided in a group of poems known as the "epic cycle" or the "Trojan War Cycle," written in the centuries after Homer. The poems known as the Trojan War Cycle were the culmination of many myths about the ancient Greek warriors and heroes who fought and died ​at Troy: while none of them have survived to this day, they were summarized in the second century CE by the Latin grammarian Proclus and in the ninth century CE by the Byzantine historian Photius.

Early Life

The Trojan War Cycle is based on a story from the legendary period of ancient Greece, a time when it was common to trace lineage to the gods. Helen is said to have been a daughter of the king of the gods, Zeus. Her mother was generally considered to have been Leda, the mortal wife of the king of Sparta, Tyndareus, but in some versions, the goddess of divine retribution Nemesis, in bird form, is named as Helen's mother, and the Helen-egg was then given to Leda to raise. Clytemnestra was the sister of Helen, but her father wasn't Zeus, but Tyndareus. Helen had two (twin) brothers, Castor and Pollux (Polydeuces). Pollux shared a father with Helen and Castor with Clytemnestra. There were various stories about this helpful pair of brothers, including one about how they saved the Romans at the Battle of Regillus.​

Helen's Husbands 

The legendary beauty of Helen attracted men from afar and also those close to home who saw her as a means to the Spartan throne. The first likely mate of Helen was Theseus, hero of Athens, who kidnapped Helen when she was still young. Later Menelaus, brother of the Mycenaean King Agamemnon, married Helen. Agamemnon and Menelaus were sons of King Atreus of Mycenae, and were therefore referred to as Atrides. Agamemnon married the sister of Helen, Clytemnestra, and became king of Mycenae after expelling his uncle. In this way, Menelaus and Agamemnon were not only brothers but brothers-in-law, just as Helen and Clytemnestra were not only sisters but sisters-in-law.

Of course, the most famous mate of Helen was Paris of Troy, but he wasn't the last one. After Paris was killed, his brother Deiphobus married Helen. Laurie Macguire, writing in Helen of Troy From Homer to Hollywood, lists the following 11 men as husbands of Helen in ancient literature, proceeding from the canonical list in chronological order, to the 5 exceptional ones:

  1. Theseus
  2. Menelaus
  3. Paris
  4. Deiphobus
  5. Helenus ("ousted by Deiphobus")
  6. Achilles (Afterlife)
  7. Enarsphorus (Plutarch)
  8. Idas (Plutarch)
  9. Lynceus (Plutarch)
  10. Corythus (Parthenius)
  11. Theoclymenus (attempt - thwarted -- in Euripides)

Paris and Helen

Paris (also known as Alexander or Alexandros) was the son of King Priam of Troy and his queen, Hecuba, but he was rejected at birth, and raised as a shepherd on Mount Ida. While Paris was living the life of a shepherd, the three goddessesHeraAphrodite, and Athena, appeared to him asking him to award the "fairest" of them the golden apple that Discord had promised one of them. Each goddess offered Paris a bribe, but the bribe offered by Aphrodite appealed to Paris most, so Paris awarded the apple to Aphrodite. It was a beauty contest, so it was appropriate that the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, had offered Paris the most beautiful woman on earth for his bride. That woman was Helen. Unfortunately, Helen was taken. She was the bride of the Spartan king Menelaus.

Whether or not there was love between Menelaus and Helen is unclear. In the end, they may have been reconciled, but meanwhile, when Paris came to the court of Menelaus as a guest, he may have aroused unaccustomed desire in Helen, since in the "Iliad," Helen takes some responsibility for her abduction. Menelaus received and extended hospitality to Paris. Then, when Menelaus discovered that Paris had taken off for Troy with Helen and other prized possessions Helen may have considered part of her dowry, he was enraged at this violation of the laws of hospitality. Paris offered to return the stolen possessions, even though he was unwilling to return Helen, but Menelaus wanted Helen, too.

Agamemnon Marshals the Troops

Before Menelaus won out in the bid for Helen, all the leading princes and unmarried kings of Greece had sought to marry Helen. Before Menelaus married Helen, Helen's earthly father Tyndareus extracted an oath from these, the Achaean leaders, that should anyone try to kidnap Helen again, they would all bring their troops to win back Helen for her rightful husband. When Paris took Helen to Troy, Agamemnon gathered together these Achaean leaders and made them honor their promise. That was the beginning of the Trojan War.

Sources

  • Austin, Norman. "Helen of Troy and Her Shameless Phantom." Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008. Print.
  • Macguire, Laurie. "Helen of Troy from Homer to Hollywood." Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.
  • Scherer, Margaret R. "Helen of Troy." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 25.10 (1967): 367-83. Print.