The Legend of Helen of Troy – Part Two
The Iliad of Homer concerns the tenth and final year of the Trojan War. Throughout this tale, Helen regrets her part in causing the war and longs to return to her husband and daughter, Hermione. The other Trojans scorn her, with the city elders saying:
We cannot blame the Trojans or the well-grieved Achaians,
For enduring pain all this time for the sake of such a woman,
For she looks mightily like an immortal goddess in beauty.
But even so, let her board one of their ships,
So she is not left here, a punishment for us and our children.
(Homer, Iliad 3.156-60)
Exemplifying this point, in Vergil’s Aeneid, the protagonist Aeneas calls her “the nightmare of both Troy and her homeland” and he considers killing her (Vergil, Aeneid 2.567-88).
The Trojan king Priam, however, treats Helen kindly. As they look out over the city walls together, Priam points to Agamemnon, Odysseus, Ajax, and other warriors, while Helen describes them as she knew them. Although she wishes to go home, Helen nevertheless gives useful and honest information about her former allies to the Trojans.
Since the war is rooted in the conflict between Paris and Menelaus, the two warriors agree to hand to hand combat. Paris, the inferior warrior, is choked by his helmet strap and almost killed, until the goddess Aphrodite magically transports him to the safety of his palace, since she still favors him for choosing her in the contest with the apple. But when Paris returns to the palace, Helen is not pleased with his cowardice. She tells Aphrodite to marry Paris herself and take on the shame of being the wife of a coward. She then says to Paris:
You’ve come back from battle, but you should have died there,
Beaten by a stronger man, he who was my husband before you.
(Homer, Iliad 3.428-9)
Helen’s shame over Paris’ cowardice highlights an important belief of this age, that a man’s worth lies in his arete, which means bravery, especially as estimated by other men. Both Hector and Achilles exemplify this trait and are widely considered valiant. Paris is contrarian, having eschewed Athena’s promises of valor in war in favor of the love offered by Aphrodite.
As the war wages on, Paris kills Achilles with an arrow, before he too is killed. While Paris is dying, the Trojans appeal to his first wife, Oenone, who has the gift of healing. But, still heartbroken, Oenone lets Paris die, killing herself shortly after.
Death of Achilles by Peter Paul Rubens, 1630-1632. Image source.
The war ends when the Greeks pretend to sail away and leave behind a huge hollow horse as an offering to the gods. The best Greek warriors hide inside the horse and the Trojans bring it inside. To test whether there is anyone hiding within, but without damaging the gift for the gods, the Trojans have Helen walk around it, imitating the wives of those within. Clever Odysseus keeps them from falling for the trick and shouting out in response. Again we see Helen aiding the Trojans, making her true allegiance at this time hard to determine.
“The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy” by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1773). Image Source.
That night, the Greeks break out of the horse and raze Troy to the ground. Since Paris’ death, Helen had been married to his brother Deiphobus. Helen leads Menelaus and Odysseus to Deiphobus and they cut off his arms, ears, and nose, killing him.
When the war is won, the Trojan women become slaves to the conquering Greeks. In Euripides Trojan Women, Queen Hecuba, the wife of Priam, mother of Hector and Paris, blames Helen for her dead children and her fate as a slave. The play’s chorus agrees:
Poor Troy! You have lost countless men
All for one woman and her hateful bed!
(Euripides, Trojan Women 780-1)
In this version of the story, Helen’s fate is to be killed by her husband Menelaus. In, Homer’s Odyssey, however, the two sail home together, reunited as husband and wife. The next time we see them, they are celebrating the wedding of their daughter Hermione to Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles.
The couple also hosts Telemachus while he searches for his father Odysseus, who never returned after the Trojan War. They all weep as Menelaus speaks of Odysseus’ many toils and the fact that he has not returned home.
Helen in her grief puts a drug in her wine that eases suffering and keeps one from crying, the properties of which she learned from the Egyptians. She then tells the story of the Greeks conquering Troy:
The other Trojan women wailed aloud, but my heart rejoiced!
For in my heart I had already hoped to return home.
And I lamented the madness Aphrodite gave me,
When she led me there from my beloved native land,
When I turned my back on my daughter, my home, and my husband,
A man lacking nothing in wisdom or beauty.
(Homer, Odyssey 4.259-64)
Euripides provides another version of the end of Helen’s life in his play Orestes. Pursued by her bloodthirsty nephew, Helen is rescued by the god Apollo and carried off to Olympus to reunite with her brothers, the Dioscuri, who have become the constellation Gemini. There, she is made an immortal goddess.
The character Helen is alternately victim and criminal, loyal wife and heartless adulteress. As each poet and playwright added to her legend over centuries, the character grew in complexity, yielding the layered woman we know as Helen of Troy.
Featured image: Triumphant Achilles. Image source.
Euripides Helen; Trojan Women; Orestes
Herodotus, The Histories
Homer, Iliad; Odyssey
Lucian, Judgment of Paris
Ovid, Heroides V, XVI, XVII