In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy is known as the woman whose beauty sparked the Trojan War. But Helen’s character is more complex than it seems. When considering the many Greek and Roman myths that surround Helen, from her childhood to her life after the Trojan War, a layered and fascinating woman emerges.
Helen is among the mythical characters fathered by Zeus. In the form of a swan, Zeus either seduced or assaulted Helen’s mother Leda. On the same night, Leda slept with her husband Tyndareus and as a result gave birth to four children, who hatched from two eggs.
“Leda and the Swan” by Cesare da Sesto, copy of lost painting by Leonardo da Vinci (1515-1520). Image source .
From one egg came the semi-divine children, Helen and Polydeuces (who is called Pollux in Latin), and from the other egg came the mortals Clytemnestra and Castor. The boys, collectively called the Dioscuri, became the divine protectors of sailors at sea, while Helen and Clytemnestra would go on to play important roles in the saga of the Trojan War.
In another, older myth, Helen’s parents were Zeus and Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance. In this version, too, Helen hatched from an egg.
Helen was destined to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Her reputation was so great that even as a young child, the hero Theseus desired her for his bride. He kidnapped her and hid her in his city of Athens, but when he was away, Helen’s brothers, the Dioscuri, rescued her and brought her home.
As an adult, Helen was courted by many suitors, out of whom she chose Menelaus, the king of Sparta. But though Menelaus was valiant and wealthy, Helen’s love for him would prove tenuous.
Around this time there was a great event among the Olympians: the marriage of the goddess Thetis to the mortal Peleus. All the gods were invited to attend except for Eris, whose name means “discord.” Furious at her exclusion, Eris comes to the party anyway and tosses an apple to the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite on which is written “for the most beautiful.” Each goddess claims the apple is meant for her and the ensuing dispute threatens the peace of Olympus.
Zeus appoints the Trojan prince Paris to judge who is most beautiful of the three. To sway his vote, each goddess offers Paris a bribe. From Hera, Paris would have royal power, while Athena offers victory in battle. Aphrodite promises him Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife, and Paris names her winner of the competition.
“The Judgment of Paris” by Peter Paul Reubens (ca. 1638). Paris contemplates the goddesses while Hermes holds up the apple. Athena is nearest to Hermes with her characteristic weapons by her side, Aphrodite is in the middle with her son Eros hugging her leg, and Hera stands on the far right.
To claim the prize promised by Aphrodite, Paris travels to the court of Menelaus, where he is honored as guest. Defying the ancient laws of hospitality, Paris seduces Helen and flees with her in his ship.
Roman poet Ovid writes a letter from Helen to Paris, capturing her mix of hesitance and eagerness:
I wish you had come in your swift ship back then,
When my virginity was sought by a thousand suitors.
If I had seen you, you would have been first of the thousand,
My husband will give me pardon for this judgment!
(Ovid, Heroides 17.103-6)
“The Abduction of Helen” by Gavin Hamilton (1784).
Paris sails home to Troy with his new bride, an act which was considered abduction regardless of Helen’s complicity. When Menelaus discovers that Helen is gone, he and his brother Agamemnon lead troops overseas to wage war on Troy.
There is, however, another version of Helen’s journey from Mycenae put forth by the historian Herodotus, the poet Stesichorus, and the playwright Euripides in his play Helen. In this version, a storm forces Paris and Helen to land in Egypt, where the local king removes Helen from her kidnapper and sends Paris back to Troy. In Egypt, Helen is worshipped as the “Foreign Aphrodite.” Meanwhile, at Troy, a phantom image of Helen convinces the Greeks she is there. Eventually, the Greeks win the war and Menelaus arrives in Egypt to reunite with the real Helen and sail home. Herodotus argues that this version of the story is more plausible because if the Trojans had had the real Helen in their city, they would have given her back rather than let so many great soldiers die in battle over her.