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Culture

Helen of Troy – The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

“Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Peleus’s son, of Achilles,” reads the opening line of Homer’s Iliad. The epic poem chronicles the second to last year of the Trojan War and the destruction that follows Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors. Yet, the Iliad is not just the story of Achilles, but an epic tale of the fall of the city of Ilios, another name for Troy. 

Though Homer’s epic is dominated by Achilles and other men, there would be no war without the women in their lives—specifically, Helen. There is no war, no epic, no ships to be launched without Helen of Troy. But, to see Helen only as a beautiful woman and her beauty as destructive would take away from the importance of her role in Greek mythology. 

Who was Helen? 

Before Helen was a face worth starting wars over, she was just a girl living on the Greek island of Sparta. Helen was the daughter of Zeus, king of the gods, and Leda, queen of Sparta. Leda laid with Zeus, who took the form of a swan; whether or not Leda willingly laid with Zeus has been debated for centuries. Either way, that same night Leda laid with her husband, Tyndaerus, king of Sparta. Both these sexual encounters led to the birth of Helen, along with her siblings, Clytmenstra, Castor and Pollux. Clytmnestra and Castor were King Tyndaerus’s children, while Helen and Pollux were Zeus’s. Being the child of a god made Helen a demi-god, and with divinity, comes great beauty. From a young age, all of Greece knew of her appearance. 

Helen’s First Abduction

As a young girl, Helen was abducted by the famous Greek hero Theseus. He believed that he deserved a wife who was the child of a god and of great beauty. Luckily, Helen was rescued shortly after being taken by Spartan forces. 

Marriage 

When Helen came of age, her parents decided she was ready to find a worthy suitor and a husband who would be the future king of Sparta. Tyndareus hosted a tournament, and men from all over Greece came to compete for Helen’s hand in marriage. In the end, Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon (king of Mycenae and Clytmnestra’s husband), married the famous beauty. Fearing the men who lost to Menelaus would try to abduct Helen, an oath was sworn. The oath, an idea that the wily Odysseus came up with (who married Helen’s cousin Penelope), stated that if any man ever came to abduct Helen from Menelaus, all of Greece would come to her rescue. This oath was an essential part of the events leading to the Trojan War. 

The Judgement of Paris 

Across the Mediterranean on the hills of Mount Ida, outside the kingdom of Troy, a young, handsome shepherd was approached by three beautiful women. The women turned out to be goddesses and needed this young man, who called himself Paris, to resolve a dispute. The goddesses were attending the marriage of the goddess Thetis and Peleus (Achilles’s parents) when a golden apple rolled down the aisle. All three goddesses lunged for it and could not agree to whom the apple belonged. Carved into the golden skin was the phrase te kalliste, translating to “to the most beautiful.” Unknown to the three goddesses, Eris, goddess of discord, rolled the apple down the aisle to cause trouble for not being invited to the wedding. Nonetheless, the three goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, approached Paris to award the apple to one of them. Each goddess promised him an enticing prize: Hera offered Paris that he’d be king and remembered forever, Athena offered him military power and wisdom, and Aphrodite offered him Helen. 

Following his judgement, Paris wandered to the nearby city of Troy. There he discovered he was not the son of a shepherd, but a prince of Troy. His true identity was Prince Alexander, son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. He was left by his parents to die as a baby on Mount Ida because of a curse that said the child would bring destruction to the city. 

Paris & Helen

Of course, Paris’s family ignored the fact that the arrival of their cursed son would bring destruction to the city. King Priam and Queen Hecuba welcomed their lost son back with open arms, thus leading to Paris to visit Sparta on business, where he met Helen. At this point in time her husband, Menelaus was away. 

Whether Helen went willingly or was abducted by Paris, there is much discussion. Some sources say Paris took Helen with force. Many western paintings depict this abduction as “the rape of Helen,” as she did not want to leave Sparta, her husband or her daughter, Hermoine. Other sources say Helen left willingly. Whether of her own free will or under Aphrdoite’s influence, Helen left with Paris, leading to the Trojan War. 

The War & Aftermath 

Helen was not welcomed in Troy upon her arrival. She married Paris, becoming known as Helen of Troy. Across the sea, Menealus gathered the men who vowed to protect Helen at all costs, and led by his brother, Agemenom, the Greeks set sail for Troy. 

What followed was a ten-year war of mass destruction. In the end, the Greeks won with the deception of the Trojan Horse, crafted by Odysseus (who has his own ten-year journey home in Homer’s the Odyssey). Following the fall of the city, Paris was killed along with most of his family and Helen was taken back to Menelaus.

Depictions & Importance 

In the Odyssey, Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, visits Helen and Menelaus in Sparta in search of his father. Here, Helen speaks and acts much more than she does in the Iliad. In Homer’s first epic, we barely see her, yet she is blamed for starting the war. Even in the Odyssey, Helen is depicted as manipulative and cunning, drugging Menelaus and their dinner guests. She’s seen as a beautiful woman, but destructive in nature. 

Kalon kakon—“the beautiful evil.” Helen was believed to be a prime example of this ancient belief. The idea of “the beautiful evil” was coined by Hesiod in the seventh century BC. In the ancient world, beauty was seen as its own power and so for Helen to be walking around as “the most beautiful woman in the world” meant that she was also the most dangerous. Thus, leading to her becoming the scapegoat for the Trojan War. Homer, and many male authors following him, dubbed Helen as “Helen the Whore.” Her beauty was her fatal flaw, making Helen the one at fault. 

In Euripides’s play The Trojan Women, set after the war, Queen Hecuba (Paris’s mother and Helen’s mother-in-law) was captured by the Greeks and taken as a slave. Hecuba called Helen a whore and even told Menealus she would be pleased if he killed Helen. Even though Euripides is one of the few ancient poets to write about women in a better light, here he still pits them against one another. Instead of blaming her son, Hecuba blames Helen. 

In his play Helen, Euripides created an alternate version of Helen who does not go to Troy at all. Instead, this Helen spends her time living in Egypt, while the gods send an eidolon (an image of Helen made of air) to Troy. When the war was over, eidolon-Helen was returned to the gods.  

Whether it’s Homer, Euripides or the modern retellings of Helen’s story, her cultural significance cannot be argued. Helen was one of the first women to be objectified, to be affected by the standards of beauty and the ideals of men. She was a woman who experienced societal pressure just for being a woman, like many of us modern day women can relate to. Centuries later, men still place the blame on women and pit us against each other because of our looks and talents.

She was not a whore. 

She was not to blame. 

She was not Helen of Sparta. 

Or Helen of Troy. 

She was just Helen.

Recommended Reading:

Helen of Troy by Bettany Hughes 

The Odyssey by Homer (translated by Emily Wilson) 

Circe by Madeline Miller 

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes 

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood 

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Sydney Epstein

New School '22

Sydney Epstein is an artist and writer from Boston, MA. She is in her final year at The New School. Sydney is double majoring in photography and creative wiring with a minor in screenwriting. When she's not creating, she'll have her head buried in a good book, at the gym, or FaceTiming her dog. Follow her on Instagram @sydeps.jpg for dog pics, poems, and more!
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