Why We Should Remember Menelaus, the King Lost in his Wife’s Shadow
Menelaus, the mythological king of Mycenaean Sparta, is perhaps best remembered as the husband of Helen of Troy. While lost in his wife’s shadow, his story is inexorably entwined with that of the Trojan War and the abduction of Helen, and he played a major role in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Not only did the Trojan prince Paris kidnap his wife, kicking off the Trojan War, but Menelaus is remembered for his role as the leader of the Spartans who fought at Troy and for his seemingly endless quest to get back home to Sparta.
The Family Tree of Menelaus in Greek Mythology
Menelaus was the younger brother of Agamemnon, the overall commander of the Greek army. Compared to his brother Agamemnon, Menelaus enjoyed a happier ending, for he was eventually reunited with Helen and returned to Sparta. Menelaus did face some troubles on the journey home from Troy to Sparta, which are recounted in Homer’s Odyssey. In addition to the two works by Homer, Menelaus is also mentioned in a few other classical works of literature written by several authors.
The name “Menelaus” has been translated to mean “wrath of the people.” According to Greek mythology, Menelaus belonged to the House of Atreus. This royal house was founded by the notorious Tantalus, who was the great grandfather of Menelaus. Menelaus’ grandfather was Pelops, who was killed by Tantalus, and served to the gods during a feast as a test of their omniscience.
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The gods, of course, knew what was being served to them, and did not eat the meat. Only Demeter, who was distracted by the abduction by Hades of her daughter Persephone, absent-mindedly ate Pelops’ shoulder. In the end, Tantalus was sent to Tartarus to suffer eternal punishment, whilst Pelops was brought back to life.
The role of Menelaus is fundamental to the story of the Trojan War. (magann / Adobe Stock)
Menelaus’ Complex Family History
Menelaus’ father was Atreus, after whom the mythical royal house was named. Due to a conflict with their father, Atreus and his brother Thyestes, along with their mother Hippodamia, were exiled, and ended up in Mycenae. Eventually, the two brothers struggled for the throne of Mycenae, with Atreus ultimately emerging victorious.
Atreus’ victory was not to last. Thyestes, who was eager to exact revenge on Atreus, consulted an oracle and was told that if he had a son with his own daughter, the boy would grow up to kill Atreus. Thyestes therefore raped his own daughter Pelopia, who gave birth to Aegisthus. The prophecy came true and Thyestes became the ruler of Mycenae.
Consequently, Atreus’ sons, Menelaus and his older brother Agamemnon, fled from Mycenae. The two brothers first went to the Polyphones, the ruler of Sicyon, and thence to Calydon, whose ruler was Oeneus. Eventually, Menelaus and Agamemnon sought to return to Mycenae to seize the kingdom back from Thyestes.
Therefore, the two brothers headed to Sparta, which was ruled by Tyndareus, the most powerful Greek king at that time. Tyndareus agreed to support the military expedition of Menelaus and Agamemnon. Thus, with Tyndareus’ aid, Menelaus and Agamemnon succeeded in defeating their uncle. As the elder of the two, Agamemnon became the new ruler of Mycenae.
Helen of Troy is remembered in Greek mythology as the most beautiful woman in the world. Oil painting by Gaston Bussière from 1895. (Vassil / CC0)
The Genesis of Helen of Troy in Greek Mythology
Helen, as most already know, was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Although Tyndareus is reputed to be Helen’s father, she was in fact commonly regarded to be the daughter of Zeus. According to the myth of Leda and the Swan, Helen’s mother, Leda, who was an incredibly beautiful woman, attracted the attention of Zeus. Therefore, the god transformed himself into a swan, and fell into the arms of Leda, whilst feigning escape from an eagle. Zeus used this opportunity to have intercourse with Leda.
On the same day, Leda, who was already married to Tyndareus, slept with her husband. Consequently, and quite bizarrely, Leda laid one or two eggs, depending on the version of the story, which hatched into four children – Clytemnestra, Helen, Castor and Pollux (the latter two known collectively as the Dioscuri).
Generally, Helen and Pollux are said to be the children of Zeus, whereas Clytemnestra and Castor were the children of Tyndareus. According to another version of the myth, the eggs were actually laid by the goddess Nemesis, and Leda simply served as the foster mother of the four children who hatched from them.
In one myth, Helen, whilst still a young girl, was abducted by Theseus, the hero best-known for his slaying of the Minotaur, and brought back to Athens. As Theseus and his friend Pirithous were the sons of gods, they felt that he had the right to marry a divine/semi-divine wife, and decided to abduct the daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen, abducted her, brought her back to Athens, and gave her to his mother, Aethra, for safekeeping.
The two friends then went to the Underworld, as Pirithous, rather foolishly, decided to abduct Persephone, the wife of Hades. Whilst Theseus was away, the Spartans, led by Castor and Pollux, rescued their sister by attacking Athens. They succeeded in doing so, and captured Aethra as well. Theseus’ mother became Helen’s slave, and only regained her freedom at the end of the Trojan War.
The abduction of Helen of Troy against the backdrop of the wonders of the ancient world. (Public domain)
Helen of Troy, the Oath of Tyndareus and her Marriage to Menalaus
As the most beautiful woman, Helen had many suitors, which included some of the most powerful men of ancient Greece. The list of Helen’s suitors is provided by several ancient authors, and includes such famous heroes as Telamonian Ajax, Diomedes, Odysseus, and, of course, Menelaus. Incidentally, during the contest for Helen’s hand in marriage, Menelaus, who was ultimately chosen to be her husband, was absent, but represented by Agamemnon.
In any case, with so many heroes vying for Helen’s hand, Tyndareus found himself in a tight spot, as he knew that whomever Helen marries, the rest of the suitors would be dissatisfied, and quarrels would arise. It was the crafty Odysseus who came up with a solution. Although he came as a suitor, Odysseus did not bring any gifts, as he knew that he did not stand a chance against so many illustrious men.
Odysseus did not go home empty handed, thanks to the deal he struck with Tyndareus. In return for his help in solving his problem with the suitors, Tyndareus agreed to aid Odysseus in his courting of his niece, Penelope. Therefore, Odysseus proposed that before Tyndareus made his decision, the suitors should swear an oath to defend the man chosen for Helen from any others who may wish to pick a quarrel with him. This is the so-called Oath of Tyndareus.
After the oath was sworn by the suitors, Tyndareus was able to give the hand of Helen in marriage to Menelaus, while he gave Agamemnon the hand of his other daughter Clytemnestra in marriage. According to one version of the story, this happened after Menelaus’ marriage to Helen, and was meant to appease Agamemnon for losing the chance to marry the most beautiful woman in the world. In time, Tyndareus abdicated, and Menelaus became the new ruler of Sparta.
‘The Rape of Helen’, by Francesco Primaticcio. (Public domain)
The Abduction of Helen and the Trojan War
After being on the throne of Sparta for some time, Helen was abducted once again, this time by Paris, a Trojan prince. Legend has it that Eris was angry at the gods for not being invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Being the goddess of strife, Eris obtained her revenge by throwing a golden apple with the inscription “To the Fairest One” amidst the guests. Consequently, the three goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite began to quarrel over the apple.
Although Zeus was asked to mediate, he declined, and instead, sent the goddesses to Troy, where Paris would decide who should get the golden apple. The Trojan prince ultimately chose to give the apple to Aphrodite, who promised him the most beautiful woman in the world. Therefore, Paris went to Sparta, and was welcomed by Menelaus. Shortly after the Trojan’s arrival, Menelaus had to leave the city to attend the funeral of his maternal grandfather, Catreus.
Paris seized this opportunity to claim his prize. With the help of Aphrodite, the Trojan prince succeeded in seducing and abducting (or eloping with) Helen. Naturally, when he returned, Menelaus was furious. He summoned the most powerful Greek rulers by invoking the Oath of Tyndareus. A thousand Greek ships were launched against Troy, 60 of which were commanded by Menelaus himself. When the Trojans refused to surrender Helen, later known as Helen of Troy, war was declared.
Statue showing Menelaus with the corpse of Patroclus during the Trojan War. (BlackMac / Adobe Stock)
Menelaus During the Trojan War
During the Trojan War, Menelaus was, unsurprisingly, protected by the goddesses Athena and Hera, since they were displeased by Paris’ judgment. Although Menelaus was not the greatest of the Greek heroes who fought at Troy, he is recorded to have slain seven or eight Trojan heroes. Additionally, Menelaus is a prominent figure in Homer’s Iliad.
Menelaus has been remembered as one of the heroes who fought to retrieve the corpse of Patroclus from the battlefield, and was the only one, prior to Nestor’s chiding, who was courageous enough to accept Hector’s challenge to single combat. In the latter, Agamemnon, who knew that his brother was no match for Hector, manages to talk Menelaus out of it, and in the end, it was Telamonian Ajax who fought Hector.
Additionally, Menelaus faced Paris in single combat early in the Iliad. A truce was called in the tenth year of the war, and the duel between Menelaus and Paris was an attempt to resolve the conflict once and for all. Paris would have been killed, as he was no match for Menelaus, had it not been of the intervention of Aphrodite, who magically whisked him away from the battle when he was on the verge of defeat. A squabble ensued regarding the outcome of the battle, and the truce ended abruptly when a minor wound was inflicted on Menelaus, as a result of an arrow fired by a Trojan archer.
Helen of Troy and her husband King Menelaus. (Public domain)
Menelaus, the Trojan Horse and his Mediterranean Odyssey
In the end, the Trojans were defeated, thanks to Odysseus’ ruse – the Trojan Horse. Menelaus was one of the Greeks who hid in the horse. Following the destruction of Troy, Menelaus was reunited with Helen, thought there are several versions as to what happened next. In all accounts, Menelaus intended to kill Helen for her betrayal, but changed his mind when he saw her beauty. Subsequently, Menelaus took Helen back to his ships and sailed for Sparta.
The journey home, however, was not an easy one for Menelaus, as he spent several years wandering around the Mediterranean. In Homer’s Odyssey, Menelaus recounts his travels after the Trojan War to Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, when he visits the Spartan king to seek news of his father. Telemachus (and the audience of the Iliad) learn that the gods, who were offended because the sacrifices due to them were neglected, prevented Menelaus from going home.
During his years of wandering, Menelaus accumulated a great amount of wealth, and eventually arrived in Egypt. It was here that Menelaus learned from the sea god Proteus why he was kept from reaching Sparta. After appeasing the gods, his seemingly endless odyssey came to an end and Menelaus was finally able to return home to Sparta.
Menelaus and Helen had a daughter, Hermione, who was born long before the Trojan War began. Hermione’s hand in marriage had been promised to both Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, and Orestes, the son of Agamemnon. According to one version of the myth, both betrothals were made by Menelaus, though another states that only one betrothal was made by Menelaus, whilst the other by Tyndareus.
In any case, Hermione ends up marrying Neoptolemus, and this marriage is mentioned in the Iliad. The marriage, however, turns out to be an unhappy one for Hermione, as Neoptolemus preferred his mistress, Andromache. In the end, Neoptolemus is killed by Orestes, who subsequently takes Hermione as his wife.
After his odyssey, Menelaus ruled Sparta for the rest of his life. Compared to many of the Greek heroes who fought at Troy, Menelaus was fortunate. He retrieved Helen after the Trojan War and, while wandering the Mediterranean to reach home he was able to amass a fortune. As the son-in-law of Zeus, he was promised a place in the Elysian Fields after his death. When their earthly lives came to an end, Menelaus and Helen are said to have voyaged to Elysium, to spend eternity in paradise.
Top image: King Menelaus, seen here finding Helen at Troy, is best known as her husband. Source: Public domain
By Wu Mingren
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