Ancient History & Civilisation

Helen of Troy:
Homer launches a durable hit

The face that launched a thousand ships? Oh yeah, the ravishing Helen of Sparta. (She was born a Spartan; the Troy add-on came later.) Didn’t she elope with a guy named Paris? And cause the Trojan War somehow?

Well, yes and no.

Before reading further, keep in mind that her entire story with all its contradictions and implausibilities is the equivalent of an early reality show. Yes, there were Mycenaean princesses in the twelfth century B.C. And yes, there were places called Sparta, Troy, and Athens, and indeed, they often fought wars.

Helen’s dad was King Tyndareus of Sparta, although the god Zeus also claimed paternity. When she was twelve, King Theseus of Athens abducted and raped her. In some accounts, she gave birth to his child. Eventually, Helen’s brothers engineered a revenge kidnapping to return Helen to Sparta.

Although a little shopworn, Helen was put on the eligible bride list. Masses of suitors responded. Frankly terrified at the mob of aroused males around the palace door, Tyndareus stressed over his decision. Odysseus, one of the suitors, sensing an opportunity, offered to help Tyndareus if the king would support his courtship of the babe he really had his eye on: Penelope of Ithaca. Odysseus then devised an oath that all the suitor dudes had to take. He made them agree to defend whoever won the bride, swearing the oath on the innards of a freshly killed horse, so everybody knew the king was dead serious.

The contest for Helen’s hand in marriage was on.

The suitor competition was won by Menelaus, partly because he had pricey guy-toys—sixty ships. He and Helen settled in, starting having babies. He was tickled at daddyhood—plus Tyndareus had stepped down, and they were now rulers of Sparta.

On the other side of the Mediterranean lived a young prince of Troy named Paris. For some inexplicable reason, Olympia’s head deity Zeus tapped Paris to judge his upcoming “most beautiful goddess” contest— there were three contestants, and boy, did Aphrodite want to win. She offered Paris a bribe: name her as hottest goddess, and she would make sure that he would win the world’s most beautiful mortal woman. Paris readily obliged, and the love goddess got the crown, enraging rival deities Athena and Hera.

Now it was Aphrodite’s turn to hold up her end of the bargain. So she helped Paris get himself invited to Sparta, where King Menelaus threw a nine-day welcoming feast for him. During the partying, Paris started wooing Menelaus’s wife, even writing “I love you, Helen!” on the wine-spattered tablecloth one night. Fortunately, Menelaus noticed nothing. Soon thereafter, he was called to faraway Crete to bury his grandfather; naturally he asked Helen to run the kingdom and entertain their guests.

He had barely sailed out of sight when Paris and Helen made plans to run away. She’d already been abducted once, so she knew the ropes. Thinking ahead, she left all but one of her kids behind but had the foresight to pack gold, some palace treasures, and five serving women.

After various adventures at sea, the couple arrived in Troy to great acclaim. To a man, the Trojans thought Helen was totally hot. Soon after their arrival, Helen found a stone dripping blood near the castle and immediately recognized it as a powerful aphrodisiac. From that moment on, she dribbled it on Paris’s cereal every morning to keep that testosterone percolating. Soon fertile Helen began popping out more babies.

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Helen of Troy, the most popular reality show of the twelfth century B.C., was all about making love and war.

Meanwhile King Menelaus had returned from Crete and was quite disgruntled at the abduction of Helen. He immediately went to Mycenae to lobby his brother-in-law Agamemnon. “Dang it, I’m the injured party here! Paris really abused my hospitality.”

Agamemnon sympathized. “If our demand for Helen’s return, and a decent compensation offer, aren’t forthcoming from King Priam, Paris’s father, we’ll go to war!”

King Priam stonewalled them; so Menelaus immediately rounded up all the suitors who’d stood on the bloody horse entrails and sworn that they’d defend whoever won Helen’s hand, insisting that the crime needed swift punishment. Or, as he put it, “Nobody’s wife is safe!”

In that shaky fashion, the Trojan War began, with most of the Greek kings and leaders siding with Menelaus against the Trojans.

Helen may not have launched a thousand ships (a few hundred is more like it), but she was an amazing catalyst.

During the war’s ten-year duration, Helen would come to regret her part in it—and the Trojans would come to hate her for the deaths she caused. But not Paris’s family. In fact, when Paris got killed, Helen coolly moved on to his brother Hector—and then to his youngest brother.

When Troy surrendered, the city afire, Helen once again confronted her husband Menelaus, who’d sworn to kill his faithless wife with his own sword. As the enraged king lifted it to strike, Helen let her robe slip from her shoulders. At the sight of her still-magical breasts, he dropped his weapon. Pretty awesome, given the number of children she’d birthed and nursed.

We don’t know much more, other than that cults devoted to Helen of Troy sprang up around Greece, from Sparta to the Greek islands and Athens. Even more extraordinary is the worshipful durability of her legend to the present day.

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