Academic Papers,  History

The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships

Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand faces, is mentioned throughout Greek mythology. However, despite the stories told about her, there is not much known about the person Helen. Did Helen exist, and if so was she as beautiful as legend would like us to believe? Was Helen the real reason that Troy was attacked and fell? Could Helen just be an excuse that was made up in order to bring the land that Troy was on under Sparta rule? And was Helen even there? To know if Helen of Homer and Virgil are real, one must look at the Myths about Helen of Troy, and the facts that we know about Troy and Greece in time period.

Helen according to legend, was the daughter of Zeus and a mortal woman named Leda. According to this legend, Zeus came in a form of a swan. He was fleeing an eagle when he met Leda, and entered her bed and had sexual relations with her.[1] Because of this union with Zeus and later that night with her husband, Tyndareus, Leda gave birth to two eggs, out of which hatched Castor and Clytemnestra from one, and Polydeuces and Helen out of the other. The boys Castor and Polydeuces were so close that they were known as the Dioscuri, and they swore to die together. The girls were not so close. Helen was beautiful and from an young age had many suitors after her, whereas Clytemnestra was not. When Helen reached puberty, she was kidnapped by Theseus and his friend Peirithous. Her brothers, the Dioscuri, raised an army and attacked Athens and rescued their sister, and took Aethra and Peirithous’ sister as personal slaves for Helen. While all of this was going on Clytemnestra was married to Tantalus. Clytemnestra was later married to Agamemnon after he killed Tantalus. After Helen’s return to her father, Tyndareus, there multiple of suitors that wanted to marry her. Tyndareus chose Menelaus to marry Helen.[2]

Now in the time period that Helen lived in was about 13th century B.C. to 12th century B.C. Women in that time did not have much say about anything in their lives. Helen was expected to obey Tyndareus, her father, and later Menelaus. Helen did not get a say in who she married, and she was expected to give herself to Menelaus whenever he wanted. Helen was expected to keep Menelaus house, rear his children, and spend her time with wool-work or weaving. Helen was expected to not interact with other men and remain faithful to Menelaus. Menelaus however did not have to be faithful to Helen at all. It was the norm for men in that time to seek other women for the love of desire. Helen for a time fulfilled the obligations required of her as Menelaus’ wife as she gave birth to Hermione, Aethiolas, Maraphius, Pleisthenes, and possibly Nicostratus.[3]

By the time Menelaus brought Paris to Sparta, Helen had already long fulfilled her obligations to Menelaus. Paris had long heard of Helen’s beauty and her lineage. As it is shown by the number of suitors she had, and her kidnapping at a young age, it was desirable to have for a wife the daughter of Zeus. If Helen and Menelaus had lived in Athens, there would have been little chance that Paris would be able to set eyes upon her, and if he did meet her, he would not be able to see her beauty as she would have been covered. Alas, Helen did not reside in Athens but in Sparta. There the women were little clad and had more freedoms to go out as they saw fit. For Menelaus most likely saw Helen as a prize and used her beauty and lineage to bring prosperity to his kingdom.

According to legend, Helen was promised to Paris by Aphrodite as a reward for choosing her as the fairest goddess over Hera and Athena. Aphrodite had neglected to mention that Helen was already married and that for Paris to have her, he would have to raid Menelaus house.[4] Legends also mentioned that a Famin hit the part of Greece that Menelaus ruled, and to appeised the gods, Menelaus went to Troy to observe the rites that were preformed at the graves of Lycus and Chimaereus, sons of Prometheus. While he was there he met Paris who had just killed his friend by accident. According to Joseph William Hewitt, Paris in need of ritual purification would have been exiled from Troy until he had been purified. It is most likely that Priam asked Menelaus to take Paris back with him to Sparta until Paris was purified.[5] The amount of time needed would depend on what the Oracle of Apollo dictated. The amount of time for Paris’ purification is unknown, what is known however is that he spent several days at Menelaus house in preparation for his purification. While Paris was at Menelaus’ house, he met Helen. There is no doubt that Menelaus introduced Paris to Helen. He would have been proud to show off his prize that was considered the most beautiful women in the world, that was his wife. Everyone in the area including Priam had heard of Menelaus’ wife, and heard the tales of her conception and birth.

It was while Paris was undergoing his purification did he seek to seduce Helen. Yet he would have to be careful about it, as Greek culture allowed the murder of someone trying to seduce another’s wife. For Helen it must have been a great opportunity. Menelaus was old when he married her, and he was not chosen for his looks, but what he could provide Helens’ father, Tyndareus. Here was Paris, the son of the Troy king Priam, who was very handsome, and close in age to Helen. Yet despite what they both wanted, they were unable to have, as the time for Paris’ purification came to an end, he would be soon be leaving. And while Menelaus was at his house the two would not be able do anything. According to legend, that as Paris’ period of purification drew near, Menelaus was called to Crete to attend to his grandfather, Catreus, who had passed away. Menelaus left Paris to Helen. This lead to Paris and Helen eloping.[6]

There are conflicting theories about how Helen left with Paris. One theory is that Paris kidnapped her, and another states that Helen left willingly with Paris. Both theories are very possible. Helen may wanted to stay loyal to Menelaus, as what was considered honorable for a women to do in Ancient Greece. And it is very likely that after spending most of her life without any chose on how she wanted to spend it, she leaped at the chance to spend her time with a handsome man. Paris had everything Menelaus lacked; youth, and looks; and everything Menelaus had. Despite the different theories on how Helen left, it is clear that Helen left with Paris and sailed for Troy.[7]

As soon as Menelaus had heard about Paris taking Helen, he begged his brother, Agamemnon to raise an army to retrieve her. To the Greeks it was unthinkable for someone to steal someone else’s wife. However, they were lured by the chance to acquire wealth, slaves, and more land. The spot that Troy rested upon was a desirable spot for any kingdom to control the sea trade routes. Controlling Troy would mean considerable wealth for the kingdom in control of Troy. Agamemnon may have wanted to capture Troy, but he would have to do it without the rest of Greece. However, with the abduction of Helen, Agamemnon used the oath given by Helen’s suitors, and inflame Greece with the injustice that was done to his brother, and amassed a 1000 ships to go rescue Helen.[8]

Despite the theories about Helen of Troy, nothing is ever certain about Myths. If Helen of Troy existed, if she was the most beautiful and that it was because of her that Troy was sacked we may never know. However, to the Greeks for many centuries, the stories about Helen, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Paris and so forth was fact not myth.

 

Biography 

[1] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Leda,” Encyclopædia Britannica, February 19, 2018, , accessed July 24, 2018, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Leda-Greek-mythology.

[2] “About Helen of Troy,” Gwendolyn Bennett’s Life and Career, , accessed July 24, 2018, http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hd/abouthelen.htm.

[3] Mark Cartwright, “Women in Ancient Greece,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, July 27, 2016, , accessed July 24, 2018, https://www.ancient.eu/article/927/women-in-ancient-greece/. ; “About Helen of Troy,” Gwendolyn Bennett’s Life and Career,.

[4] “About Helen of Troy,” Gwendolyn Bennett’s Life and Career

[5] Joseph William Hewitt, “The Necessity of Ritual Purification after Justifiable Homicide,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 41 (1910): 108; 111, accessed July 24, 2018, doi:10.2307/282718.

[6] “About Helen of Troy,” Gwendolyn Bennett’s Life and Career

[7] “About Helen of Troy,” Gwendolyn Bennett’s Life and Career

[8] James Davidson, “The Rape of Helen,” The Guardian, January 17, 2008, , accessed July 25, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jan/17/greekmyths.greekmythsfeatures1.

 

About the Author

Frances LeJeune is a student at Catholic Distance University that has multiple cats, dogs, and chickens. She will be receiving her Associate degree June 2019.  This essay was submitted on July 24, 2018 for the class HUM — 251 — Ancient Civilization that was taught by Dr. Charles Rieper.

 

 

Frances Lejeune is a student at Catholic Distance University and is a Theology Major. She is expected to receive her Associates June of 2019. She also writes about day to day life about living with depression, anxiety and loss.

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