I’m reading an engaging book, Helen of Troy by Bettany Hughes. The author uses ancient literature, modern archeology, and personal visits to ancient sites to unravel the Helen’s myth. Was she a goddess? A slut? A woman with no voice or one who made her own way? Do we judge her too harshly? Have we ever heard of her? Can this Bronze Age woman be explained?
I’m sufficiently enthralled to bring some of Helen’s story, as told by Homer in the Iliad and interpreted by Hughes, to your attention.
Once upon a time, Leda, Queen of Sparta, was married to Tyndareus, and perhaps she remained so. Of course, there was a “problem.” The queen was either cursed or blessed, depending on your point of view, by her great beauty. One day, as Leda bathed in the Europa River, the god Zeus saw the queen, turned himself into a swan, and ravished her. Was she a victim or a participant? Depends which artist paints the picture.
In the aftermath, Queen Leda brought forth two eggs. One story says the queen was already pregnant when Zeus met her. Another that she lay with her husband the same day she was with the swan. At any rate, a shepherd found the eggs in the foothills of Mount Taygetus and took them to the palace. [Sidebar: How did he know where to take them? How did they hatch?] Zeus’ children, Helen and her brother Polydeuces hatched from one egg. King Tyndareus’ children Castor and Clytemnestra, emerged from the other.
Royal Helen is now a hazy Bronze Age figure – known through the eyes and stories of others. What do we know about Mycenaen girls? Probably they were mothers by the age of twelve, grandmothers at twenty-four, and dead before the age of thirty. Mycenae was a young society.
One day Helen danced with other girls her age along the banks of the Europa River. Theseus, King of Athens, saw her and took her. [It occurs to me the Europa River was not a safe place for women.]
Like Helen, Theseus also had a god for a father – Poseiden. Perhaps not unreasonably, he thought he should have a wife of equivalent parentage. If she was physically beautiful and the heir to Sparta, so much the better. Theseus he took his prize to his mother Aethra for safekeeping while he went to Hades with his friend Pirithous. In his absence, Helen’s brothers Castor and Pollux rescued their sister.
Time passed. King Tyndareus, Leda’s husband, decided it was time for Helen to marry. Suitors came from all over Greece. There were athletic contests. There were treasures brought as gifts. In a time before money, this meant actual goods – herds of cattle, for example. Helen was more than a beauty; she was land and power. The right to rule passed through the female line. Whoever won Helen got Sparta as a bonus prize. [Or was it the other way around?] Under the circumstances, it’s hard to know if Helen’s physical appearance was as beautiful as claimed, or if it was enhanced by her material wealth.
Menelaus, who won Helen’s hand, was not at the competition. He was, however, the younger brother of King Agamemnon, husband of Helen’s sister Clymenestra. Agamemnon poured treasure into Tyndareus’ coffers. Helen made her choice.
In years to come, Helen would have another fateful choice. Come back next week, and I’ll finish telling Helen’s story.
Featured Image: Bust of Helen of Troy by Antonion Canova, Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Photo by Yair Haklai, 2009. Creative Commons Attribution. Wikimedia Commons.
Leda & the Swan – Leda et le Cygne – by Gustave Moreau, US Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.
Leda & the Swan – Peter Paul Rubens. US Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.
Helen of Troy by Evelyn de Morgan. US Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons
Bettany Hughes. Helen of Troy. Goddess, Princess, Whore. London: Jonathan Cape. 2005.