:"This article is about the mythological figure Helen of Troy. For other uses, see Helen (disambiguation) and Helen of Troy (disambiguation)."

In Greek mythology, Helen (in Greek, "polytonic|Ἑλένη" – "Helénē"), better known as Helen of Sparta later Helen of Troy, was the daughter of Zeus and Leda, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta and sister of Castor, Polydeuces and Clytemnestra. Her abduction by Paris brought about the Trojan War. Helen was described by Christopher Marlowe as having "the face that launched a thousand ships."


"Helen" or Helene is probably derived from the Greek word, meaning "torch", or "corposant", or might be related to "selene", meaning "moon". [ [http://www.behindthename.com/php/view.php?name=helen Behind The Name] ]

If it has an Indo-European etymology, it is possibly a suffixed form of a root *"wel-" "to turn, roll" [cite web| url=http://www.bartleby.com/61/roots/IE565.html| title=American Heritage Dictionary: Indo-European roots: wel| accessdate=2006-07-03] or "to cover, enclose" (compare "Varuna", "Veles"), or of "*sel-" "to flow, run". The latter possibility would allow comparison to Vedic "Saraṇyū", who is abducted in RV 10.17.2, a parallel suggestive of a Proto-Indo-Asian abduction myth.

The name is in any case unrelated to Hellenes, as is sometimes claimed ("Hellenes" being from the root "*sed"- "to sit, settle").

Life of Helen


In most sources, including the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey", Helen is the daughter of Zeus and Leda. ["Iliad" 3.199, 418, 426; "Odyssey" 4.184, 219; 23.218.] Euripides' play "Helen", written in the late 5th century BC, is the earliest source to report the most familiar account of Helen's birth: that Zeus, in the form of a swan, was chased by an eagle, and sought refuge with Leda. The swan gained her affection, and the two mated. Leda then produced an egg, from which Helen was born. [Euripides, "Helen" 16-21, 257-59.]

On the other hand, in the "Cypria", one of the Cyclic Epics, Helen was the daughter of Zeus and the goddess Nemesis. ["Cypria", fr. 9 "PEG".] The date of the "Cypria" is uncertain, but it is generally thought to preserve traditions that date back to at least the 7th century BC. In the "Cypria", Nemesis did not wish to mate with Zeus. She therefore changed shape into various animals as she attempted to flee Zeus, finally becoming a goose. Zeus also transformed himself into a goose and mated with Nemesis, who produced an egg from which Helen was born. [Athenaeus 8.334b-d, quoting the "Cypria"; "Cypria", fr. 10 "PEG".] Presumably in the "Cypria" this egg was given to Leda; in the 5th century comedy "Nemesis" by Cratinus, Leda was told to sit on an egg so that it would hatch, and this is no doubt the egg that was produced by Nemesis. [Cratinus fr. 115 "PCG"; see Gantz p. 320 on this fragment.] Asclepiades and Pseudo-Eratosthenes related a similar story, except that Zeus and Nemesis became swans instead of geese. [Asclepiades 12F11, Pseudo-Eratosthenes "Catast." 25.] Timothy Gantz has suggested that the tradition that Zeus came to Leda in the form of a swan derives from the version in which Zeus and Nemesis transformed into birds. [Gantz, p. 320.]

Abduction by Theseus

Two Athenians, Theseus and Pirithous, pledged to wed daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen, and Pirithous vowed to marry Persephone, the wife of Hades. Theseus and Pirithous kidnapped Helen and left her with Theseus' mother, Aethra, while they traveled to the underworld, the domain of Hades, to kidnap Persephone. Hades pretended to offer them hospitality and set a feast. As soon as the pair sat down, snakes coiled around their feet and held them there. Helen was subsequently rescued by her brothers, Castor and Pollux, who returned her to Sparta. [The most complete accounts of this narrative are given by Apollodorus, Diodorus 4.63.1-3, and Plutarch, "Theseus" 31-34.]

In most accounts of this event, Helen was quite young; Hellanicus of Lesbos said she was seven years old and Diodorus makes her ten years old. [Hellanicus 4F134; Diodorus 4.63.1-3.] On the other hand, Stesichorus said that Iphigeneia was the daughter of Theseus and Helen, which obviously implies that Helen was of childbearing age. [Stesichorus, fr. 191 PMG.] In most sources, Iphigeneia is the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, but Duris of Samos and other writers followed Stesichorus' account. [Gantz, pp. 289, 291.]

Marriage to Menelaus

When it was time for Helen to marry, many kings and princes from around the world came to seek her hand or sent emissaries to do so on their behalf.

Several lists of her suitors were compiled, since the suitors of Helen were later the heroes of the Trojan War. This one is from Apollodorus [Apollodorus, "Library" 3.10.8] :

This list is not complete; Apollodorus earlier mentions Cinyras king of Cyprus [ Apollodorus, "Epitome" 3.9.] and Enarophorus and later mentions Idomeneus, king of Crete [Apollodorus, "Epitome" 3.13.] Another list was compiled by Hesiod and, later by Hyginus.

All suitors brought many rich gifts with them, with the exception of Odysseus.

Helen's father, Tyndareus, would not choose a suitor, or send any of the suitors away, for fear of offending them and giving grounds for a quarrel. Odysseus promised to solve the problem if Tyndareus would support him in his courting of Penelope, the daughter of Icarius. Tyndareus readily agreed and Odysseus proposed that, before the decision was made, all the suitors should swear a most solemn oath to defend the chosen husband against whoever should quarrel with him. This stratagem succeeded and Helen and Menelaus were married. Following Tyndareus' death, Menelaus became king of Sparta because the only male heirs, Castor and Pollux, had died and ascended to Olympus.

eduction by Paris

Some years later, Paris, a Trojan prince, came to Sparta to marry Helen, whom he had been promised by Aphrodite after he had chosen her as the most beautiful of the goddesses, earning the wrath of Athena and Hera. Some sources say that Helen willingly left behind her husband Menelaus and Hermione, their nine-year-old daughter, to be with Paris, but, since Aphrodite promised Helen to Paris, there is some ambiguity about whether or not Helen went willingly. Some scholars have argued that Helen's abduction by Paris was in fact a rape (termed abduction as per the ancient understanding of raptus). Sources from Herodotus to material culture support this view. Ancient vases depict both the shameless Helen who went willingly to Troy and abduction stories in which Helen is taken by force.

Helen's relationship with Paris varies depending on the source of the story. In some, she loved him dearly (perhaps caused by Aphrodite, who had promised her to Paris). In others, she was portrayed as his unwilling captive in Troy, or as a cruel, selfish woman who brought disaster to everyone around her, and she hated him. In the version used by Euripides in his play "Helen", Hermes fashioned a likeness of her out of clouds at Zeus's request, and Helen never even went to Troy, spending the entire war in Egypt. In all, she is described as being of magnificent beauty.

Fall of Troy

When he discovered that his wife was missing, Menelaus called upon all the other suitors to fulfill their oaths, thus beginning the Trojan War. Almost all of Greece took part, either attacking Troy with Menelaus or defending it from them.

Menelaus had demanded that only he should slay his unfaithful wife; but, when he raised his sword to do so, she dropped her robe from her shoulders, and the sight of her beauty caused him to let the sword drop from his hand.


Herodotus offers a differing account in which Helen never arrived in Troy. In that account Paris was forced to stop in Egypt on his way home. While there, his servants told the Egyptians that Paris had kidnapped the wife of Menelaus, who had offered Paris hospitality. The Egyptians scolded Paris and informed him that they were confiscating all the treasure he had stolen (including Helen) until Menelaus came to claim them and that Paris had three days to leave their shores.


Helen returned to Sparta and lived for a time with Menelaus, where she was encountered by Telemachus in "The Odyssey". According to another version, used by Euripides in his play "Orestes", Helen had long ago left the mortal world by then, having been taken up to Olympus almost immediately after Menelaus' return.

According to Pausanias the geographer (3.19.10.):

"The account of the Rhodians is different. They say that when Menelaus was dead, and Orestes still a wanderer, Helen was driven out by Nicostratus and Megapenthes and came to Rhodes, where she had a friend in Polyxo, the wife of Tlepolemus. For Polyxo, they say, was an Argive by descent, and when she was already married to Tlepolemus, shared his flight to Rhodes. At the time she was queen of the island, having been left with an orphan boy. They say that this Polyxo desired to avenge the death of Tlepolemus on Helen, now that she had her in her power. So she sent against her when she was bathing handmaidens dressed up as Furies, who seized Helen and hanged her on a tree, and for this reason the Rhodians have a sanctuary of Helen of the Tree."

Tlepolemus was a son of Heracles and Astyoche. Astyoche was a daughter of Phylas, King of Ephyra who was killed by Heracles. Tlepolemus was killed by Sarpedon on the first day of fighting in the "Iliad". Nicostratus was a son of Menelaus by his concubine Pieris, an Aetolian slave. Megapenthes was a son of Menelaus by his concubine Tereis, no further origin.

In Simonianism, it was taught that Helen of Troy was one of the incarnations of the "Ennoia" in human form.


*"The Private Life of Helen of Troy", an early silent film.

*In 1928, Richard Strauss wrote the German Opera "Die ägyptische Helena", "The Egyptian Helena", which is the story of Helen and Menelaus's troubles when they are marooned on a mythical island.

*In 1956, an Italian-made epic titled "Helen of Troy" was released, directed by Oscar-winning director "Robert Wise" and starring Italian actress "Rossana Podestà" in the title role.

*A television version of Helen's life up to the fall of Troy, "Helen of Troy".

*Appeared in the episode 12 of Season 1 called "Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts" in "". Played by Galyn Görg, Helen was supposedly a close friend of Xena's and sent out a messenger to fetch her during the Trojan War.

*Helen of Troy is referenced in the climactic scene of "The Truth About Cats & Dogs"

*In 2004, Helen was in the film "Troy", played by Diane Kruger. In this adaptation she does not return to Sparta with Menelaus, but leaves Troy with Aeneas when the city falls.

*Margaret George wrote an epic adult novel, "Helen of Troy", in 2006, told through Helen's first-person narrative.

*Esther Friesner wrote a young-adult novel, "Nobody's Princess", published in 2007, of Helen's childhood and early life.

*Caroline B. Cooney also wrote a young-adult novel, "Goddess of Yesterday", where Helen is one of the main characters.

Modern culture

*Inspired by the line "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships...?" from Marlowe's play "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus", Isaac Asimov jocularly coined the unit "" to mean the amount of beauty that can launch one ship. [ [http://asimovhumanists.org/AboutIsaacAssimov2.htm The Humanism of Isaac Asimov] ]

*The band Genesis wrote and performed two songs that referred to Helen. The song "Ripples" from their 1976 album titled "Trick of the Tail" includes the line..."The face that launched a thousand ships." The song "Blood on the Rooftops" from their 1976 album titled " [Wind & Wuthering] ", includes the line "Seems Helen of Troy has found a new face again."

*The song "The Third Temptation of Paris" by Alesana tells the story of Helen and Paris from the viewpoint of Paris.

*Henry Rider Haggard wrote a novel,"The World's Desire" in which Odysseus finds Helen in Egypt as a priestess and they wed.

*The modernist poet H.D. wrote an epic poem Helen in Egypt from Helen's perspective. [http://www.amazon.com/Helen-Egypt-New-Directions-Paperbook/dp/0811205444 H.D. "Helen in Egypt"]

*The Australian singer/song writer "Jon English" wrote a 1990 rock opera Paris which tells the story of love and the Trojan War. A handful of small plays have appeared based on this musical work. A larger "Paris" musical will start in July 2008. [http://www.jonenglish.com.au/paris/paris_stage.php?

ee also

*Simon Magus and Ennoia




*Cicero, "De inventione" II.1.1-2
*Servius, "In Aeneida" I.526, XI.262
*Lactantius Placidus "Commentarii in Statii Thebaida" I.21

External links

* [http://whitedragon.org.uk/articles/troy.htm An analysis of the legend including historical evidence of worship as a goddess.]

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