Helen of Sparta is often accused of being the cause of the Trojan war. But was the war truly her fault or was Helen a pawn of the gods, a hapless victim? At what point did Helen’s beauty excuse the behavior of those around her?
Victim blaming is a phenomenon we’re familiar with in modern times. Women who suffer assault are asked about their personal habits, clothing choices, and whether they’ve indulged in alcohol or other substances. Little emphasis is placed on the perpetrators of violence. The same seems to be true in discussions of The Iliad. Helen’s beauty is even referred to as “the face that launched a thousand ships.”
Helen’s own part in the Iliad seems to be a fairly passive one. She is kidnapped several times, fought over, and finally returned to her husband and home. At no point does she act on her own behalf or show any real sign of her own will. Homer doesn’t bother mentioning her feelings in any of these scenarios. She seems an emotionless character, standing idly by while gods and men determine her fate. Even the other females in the tale seem to view her only as a pawn and blame her for the events. The goddess Aphrodite offers her as a “prize” to Paris, King Priam’s son, in a contest, and Oeneme, the nymph first wife of Paris, blames Helen for her husband’s unfaithful behavior. Helen is doomed from the start, to be nothing more than a pawn in her own story.
Origins of a Demigoddess
Even Helen’s birth was founded on the grounds of a woman used by a god. Zeus, known for his conquests, coveted the mortal woman Leda. When she rejected his first advances, he used a ruse to gain access to the woman. He took on the guise of a swan and pretended to be attacked by an eagle. When the swan sought refuge in the arms of Leda, he (presumably) resumed his male form and took advantage of the situation. Whether Leda was willing is a matter of some debate and is never made clear in mythology.
Regardless of whether the encounter was consensual, Leda finds herself with child. Following the encounter, Leda brought forth two eggs, evidence of the divine parentage of the children. Perhaps, Zeus was showing a sense of humor, having the mortal woman lay eggs rather than give birth in an ordinary manner. Certainly, he was claiming the offspring as evidence of his own fertility. From one egg hatched the beautiful Helen and her brother Polydeuces. From the other egg came mortals, Clytemnestra and Castor. The two brothers became known as the Dioscuri, divine protectors of sailors, while Helen and Clytemnestra would become footnotes in the Trojan War history. Helen would become the fought-over and sought after the presumed cause of the war, while Clytemnestra would marry her brother-in-law Agamemnon, who would lead the Greek forces against Troy in their bloody attempt to bring Helen home.
Even as a child, Helen was coveted by men. The Hero Theseus kidnapped her and took her to Athens, desiring to mature into his future bride. He left the child in the care of his mother and went adventuring, presumably to wait until she was fully mature before claiming her as his bride. Her brothers retrieved her and returned her to Sparta, where she was guarded until she was old enough to be courted properly. Because of her great beauty and status as the daughter of a king, Helen had no shortage of suitors.
Her stepfather, Tyndareus, was hard-pressed to choose between the many powerful kings and warriors who came to seek her hand. Choosing one king or warrior over another could be seen as a slight to those not chosen. This created a dilemma for Tyndareus. No matter which suitor he chose for his beautiful daughter, the others would be jealous and angry at being passed over. He was facing a potential war among those who were rejected. The choice of a husband could destabilize Sparta for the glorious Helen.
Advised by Odysseus, a man known for his cleverness, Tyndareus came to a solution. If the suitors could not all possess Helen, they could all be bound to defend her. To stop any potential fighting following Helen’s marriage, Tyndareus laid a requirement on Helen’s suitors. Whoever was not victorious in the competition for her attention would swear an oath to defend her marriage and protect her future husband. Each of those who wished to court her was forced to swear the oath, preventing them from turning on the successful candidate. This maneuver was known as the Oath of Tyndareus. The oath prevented the suitors from fighting amongst themselves and ensured that the beautiful Queen of Sparta and her husband would live in peace. In the end, a king, Menelaus, was successful. The pair were married and by most accounts lived happily enough until Paris’ kidnapping of Helen.
What Did Helen of Troy Look Like?
There is no true record of Helen’s looks. She is described as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” but the interpretation of that description is left to the reader’s imagination. Historians do know that the blond-blue-eyed Helen is likely a figment of the modern era’s imagination. The Greeks and Spartans of the period would have had African DNA. They were rumored to be tall and lithe but would likely have been dark-skinned, with thick dark hair. Green eyes were unusual but possible. There is some debate about the range of skin tones in the people of the day, but it is improbable that the porcelain-skinned blond woman is a true representative of the “most beautiful woman in the world.” Helen, like other ancient characters, was unlikely to look as Nordic as she is often portrayed.
Despite the reality of the Spartans’ likely genetic makeup, many of the paintings of Helen, and certainly subsequent Western interpretations, would have her a high-cheeked, slim maid, with long blond hair that waves and curls around her shoulders. Her lips are prim and plumply pink, and her eyes are various shades of deep blue, green, or brown. She is always portrayed as dressed in rich, flowing robes that cling enticingly to the curves that are, again, unlikely in the tall, slim Spartans. Homer and other historians never give a physical description to Helen.
Why should they? Helen, like many women in ancient Greek mythology, is not a real woman. She is a figurehead, an object to be desired, stolen, manipulated, valued, revered, and abused. She seems to have little to no will of her own but rather washes to and fro on the waves of the storyteller’s will and the other characters in the play. From the use of her mother by Zeus to her kidnapping by Theseus to her later kidnapping by Paris, Helen is an object to be coveted rather than a character with a mind or voice of her own. Even Oenone, Paris’ nymph first wife, blames Helen for the attention she receives, complaining:
She who is abducted so often must offer herself up to be abducted!
(Ovid, Heroides V.132)
A woman scorned, Oenone blames Helen for her husband’s infidelity and wandering eye, completely ignoring Paris’ own choices in the matter. When Paris was chosen to judge between the goddesses in a divine beauty contest where Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena each offered him a bribe. Hera offered him land and power. Athena, prowess in battle and the wisdom of the greatest warriors. Aphrodite offered him the hand of a beautiful woman in marriage – Helen’s. Paris chose Aphrodite to win the contest.
When he discovered that Helen was already wed, it did not slow him down for a moment. He gained entry to the castle by being invited and then broke all of a guest/host relationship’s traditions. His kidnapping of Helen wasn’t just a capital crime against the royal family, it was also fundamentally rude. The stories vary between whether he seduced Helen or took her against her will. Either way, the result was the same. Menelaus invoked the Oath of Tyndareus, and the Trojan War began.
What Happened to Helen of Troy After the War?
Paris, of course, was destined to fall in the Trojan War. Though it was largely fought between his older brother Hector, and Helen’s brother-in-law, Agamemnon, Paris managed two kills of his own. Both were carried out with a bow and arrow rather than in hand-to-hand combat. Paris himself fell victim to Philoctetes, one of the Greek warriors. He managed to shoot Achilles with a poisoned arrow. The arrow struck Achilles’ heel, the only place the hero was vulnerable.
Ironically, Paris fell to the very weapon he favored. Philoctetes had inherited the bow and arrows of the great warrior Hercules. Either he or his father had done Hercules the favor of lighting his funeral pyre when no other was present to perform the task. Hercules, in gratitude, gifted the magic bow to him. It was with this weapon that the hero fired upon Paris, striking him down.
Some versions of the story inform the reader that Helen, grieved, and perhaps afraid of Menelaus’ vengeance when she was retrieved, went to Mt. Ida herself to plead with Oenone to heal Paris. In a fit of temper, Oenone refused. It is said that after Paris’ death, the nymph came to his funeral, and in regret and grief, threw herself into the fire, dying with her unfaithful husband.
Whatever became of Oenone, Helen was given to Paris’ next brother, Deiphobus. When she had the opportunity, however, she betrayed him for Menelaus. When the Greek army captured Troy, Helen returned to her Spartan husband, Menelaus. Whether she was ever in love with Paris, he was dead, and her husband had come to retrieve her. Once again, she was rescued from her kidnapper and returned home, where she lived out her days with her first husband.
How Did Helen Start the Trojan War?
Whether Helen was complicit in her own kidnapping, it was her stepfather’s ploy to prevent a conflict that started the war. Had Tyndareus never extracted his famous oath from her suitors, the kidnapping likely would have been met with a rescue mission. Even as a prince of Troy, Paris would have been unlikely to be able to hold on to his prize, with her brothers, the Dioscuri, to rescue her from the clutches of any mortal foolish enough to try kidnapping her.
Because of Helen’s great beauty and Tyndareus’ fear that her suitors’ jealousy would make life difficult for her new husband, he had extracted the oath. The Oath of Tyndareus, which all of her suitors had been forced to take, was the true cause of the war. Under the oath, invoked by Helen’s jealous husband, the ancient world’s forces were called together to descend upon Troy and retrieve the stolen prize.
In the unlikely event that Helen was indeed seduced by Paris, who was, after all, a beautiful and clever man, the blame is still difficult to pin upon her. She was given in marriage by her father to a husband she may or may not have chosen herself. From birth, she was a trinket, passed around between jealous and power-hungry men.
Helen’s own desire is not considered important enough to warrant a mention in The Iliad, so we don’t know whether she was complicit in starting the war or was merely a pawn. Whether or not she wanted to escape to Troy with Paris, she had no choice in the matter. No one asked Helen what she thought or wanted.
The Aftermath: Helen in The Odyssey
Following the events of The Iliad, Helen, by all accounts, is returned to Sparta with King Menelaus. Paris is dead, and there is nothing more to hold her in Troy, even if the city hadn’t been defeated and utterly destroyed. She has nothing to look back to and returns to Sparta to live out her life there as Menelaus’ wife, as her stepfather had first intended. Presumably, she is pleased to be returned to her homeland. While Odysseus makes his epic journey back home from Troy, seeking out adventure and mayhem along the way, his son remains in his homeland of Ithaca, awaiting his return.
Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, was only an infant when Odysseus left for the Trojan war. Odysseus did not leave his family willingly. When the Oath was invoked, he tried to avoid joining the war by feigning insanity. To demonstrate his lack of sense, he hooks an ox and a donkey to his plow and starts sowing his fields with salt. Palamedes, one of Agamemnon’s men, is sent to bring Odysseus into the war. To expose Odysseus’ ruse, Palamedes places Telemachus as an infant in front of the plow. Odysseus is forced to turn away rather than allow his son to be trampled, so his attempt to pretend incompetence fails.
Several of the suitors were similarly enticed into the war against their own wills. Achilles’ mother, Thetis, feared the outcome of an oracle. The prophecy stated that Achilles would either live a long and uneventful life or gain a great deal of glory for himself and die young. In a desperate effort to protect her son, Thetis had disguised him as a woman and sent him to hide among the maidens of Skyros. Odysseus discerns the boy’s true identity. He lays out several treasures and weapons. While the maidens, including the disguised Achilles, are examining the treasures, Odysseus sounds a war horn. Instinctively, Achilles clutches a weapon, prepared for battle, revealing himself as a warrior.
Odysseus was known for his cleverness and smooth talk. Telemachus should, perhaps, be known for his determination and resolve. Odysseus had been missing from his home in Ithaca for 20 years. The Trojan war had ended, and yet he still had not returned home. The first four books of the Odyssey follow his adventures as he seeks his father.
While Odysseus was still trapped on the island of Ogygia, held by the nymph, Calypso for seven years, his son was searching for him. The gods have determined that Odysseus should return, and so Athena intervenes. She assumes the appearance of Mentes, the king of the Taphians. In this guise, she goes to Ithaca and advises Telemachus to stand up against the suitors who are pursuing Penelope, Odysseus’ wife. He is then to go to Pylos and Sparta to gain information on his father. Telemachus tries, unsuccessfully, to remove the suitors before heading out to Pylos. There, Telemachus and Athena, still disguised as Mentes, are received by Nestor. Nestor sends his own son to accompany Telemachus to Sparta.
When he reaches Sparta, Telemachus meets Helen, Queen of Sparta, and her husband, Menelaus. Menelaus is grateful to Odysseus for his assistance in retrieving his bride, and so receives the boy warmly. Helen and Menelaus assist Telemachus, recounting the prophecy of Proteus to the boy, revealing Odysseus’ captivity on Ogygia. At this point, Homer has come to the end of his use of the character Helen. Greek mythology recounts the story of Telemachus’ return home and his discovery of his father.
The Restoration of a Warrior
Odysseus returned to Ithaca with the assistance of the Phaeacians. Odysseus is in disguise, staying with a swineherd, Eumaeus. The swineherd has been hiding Odysseus while he plots his return to a position of power. Upon his arrival home, Telemachus joins his father and assists him in returning to the castle.
When Odysseus returns, he finds his wife beset by suitors. Penelope has put off her suitors for 10 years, employing various techniques to hold them at bay. She had begun by telling them that she couldn’t possibly choose a suitor until she had completed a complex tapestry. Every night, she would tear out her work, halting any forward progress. When her ruse was discovered, she was forced to finish the tapestry. Next, she set a series of near-impossible tasks for the suitors.
When Odysseus arrives, the suitors are trying their hand at one of her challenges. The challenge is to string Odysseus’ own bow and shoot it accurately, firing an arrow through twelve axe handles. Odysseus not only completes the challenge, but he also does so with ease, beating every other suitor soundly. Once he has proven his prowess, Odysseus turns and kills every one of the suitors, with the help of Telemachus and some faithful servants.
Even then, Penelope must be certain that Telemachus’ father has truly returned to her. She sets one final test. Before she agrees to accept him as her husband, she demands that Odysseus move her bed from its place in the bridal chamber. Odysseus refuses. He knows the secret of the bed. One of the legs is actually a small olive tree, and the bed can not be moved without destroying it. He knows this because he himself planted the tree and built the bed as a wedding gift to his bride. Convinced, Penelope accepts that her husband returned home to her after 20 years, through his efforts and with the help of Telemachus.