Few figures from Greek mythology are as famous, or controversial, as Helen of Troy, and this has been true since ancient times.
For those who have somehow never heard of her, Helen of Troy was born Helen of Sparta, the daughter of the mortal queen, Leda, and the king of the gods, Zeus. The principal legend (of course there are several and we’ll get into that later) is that Zeus came to Leda as a swan, made love to her (for all intents and purposes, Leda appears to have been a very willing participant in her seduction in addition to being adventurous on the bestiality front), either shortly before or shortly after her own husband, Tyndareus, had done the same (sans swan form, one hopes). Nine months later, Leda gave birth to a pair of eggs, each containing a boy and a girl infant. The first contained Tyndareus’ children, the mortal Clytemnestra and Castor; the second contained Zeus’ children, the immortal demi-gods Helen and Pollux. You would think this miraculous birth would have been pegged for the end of times sign it was, but Leda and Tyndareus apparently took this in stride and raised their four chicks (get it?) relatively without incident until Helen hit puberty.
That’s when she was abducted for the first time, by no less than Theseus, the king of Athens and famed killer of the Minotaur. Castro and Pollux manage to get her back, but it’s not a good sign of what’s to come and Tyndareus, knowing this, decides to marry her off as quickly as possible. The problem is, Helen is so beautiful EVERYBODY wants to marry her and virtually every king in the known world shows up, or sends his sons, and all of them bring friends. Tyndareus is so worried he will offend somebody that he defers making his decision for as long as possible (in some versions, years) until he can finally come up with a plan. The most popular legend is that everybody’s favorite smart guy, Odysseus, shows up, though already happily married, basically to watch the fun and Tyndareus asks him for advice. Odysseus, of course, has a plan, and first gets all the kings and princes courting Helen to agree to accept whoever is declared Helen’s husband and uphold the sanctity of their marriage, and then, in a novel move for the time, lets Helen pick her own husband, so as to remove all blame from her father. Helen picks Menelaus, the younger and not particularly distinguished brother of Agamemnon, king of Argos, who is already betrothed to Clytemnestra, Helen’s sister. Her choice is pretty much the one NOBODY expected and so the various suitors accept it almost immediately, figuring there must be something wrong with Helen to go for the runt of the liter. The truth is, Helen probably just picked the man she knew would be easiest for her to control (modern interpretation) or she may have even genuinely loved him, probably because he’s a more sensitive guy than the average Greek tyrant (the romantic interpretation). Either way, they are wed, and Tyndareus abdicates so that Menelaus and Helen can rule Sparta. Agamemnon marries Clytemnestra, so the brothers and the sisters become Greece’s biggest celebrity monarchs over night. For a while, it looks like everything will be okay.
And then a Trojan prince named Paris comes to town and everything falls apart. Ostensibly on a diplomatic mission, Paris falls in love with and either seduces or kidnaps Helen, taking her back to Troy and breaking pretty much every rule of hospitality (enormously sacred to the Greeks and the Trojans). To some extent, Paris feels justified in doing this- he had been promised Helen as a bride by the goddess Aphrodite, after he awarded her a golden apple that the goddess Eris had deigned worthy of only “the fairest” goddess on Olympus. Since Aphrodite is one of the protector goddesses of Troy, this probably accounts for why Priam, king of Troy, agrees to shelter the miscreant couple, and essentially tells the Greeks they can accept Helen’s weight in gold or they can accept nothing at all, but what they won’t be getting back is Helen. Menelaus, of course, wants her back, as by now Helen has not only mothered at least one daughter by him (Hermoine), but she’s grown into the most beautiful woman alive and let’s not forget her status as a daughter of Zeus. Additionally, Troy has been controlling the entrance to the Black Sea for years and so any excuse for a war is a good one as the Greeks have grown tired of paying passage taxes on the trade routes. Menelaus invokes the oath that Tyndareus and Odysseus struck with all the suitors and the Greeks declare war on Troy, with Agamemnon in the lead (who, considering he wasn’t part of the oath of Tyndareus, is most definitely there for ulterior motives). It takes two years for the troops of the various city-states to amass, and once the fleets of the Argives hit shore on enemy territory the war lasts another ten years. By the time it ends, two of the most powerful and advanced cultures of the world are decimated and in ruins and the dead are numberless.
The rest, as they say, is history… or mythology. Even in their own times, the Greeks weren’t sure how much of the saga of the Trojan War was truth, and how much was legend. What they all agreed on, though, is that it marked the end of the Age of Heroes, that time in Greece when the gods roamed the land, monsters and magic were pervasive, and heroes rose up to make the world a better place. In typical Greek style, the end of the world didn’t come with floods or fires or plagues of Biblical proportion, but rather with just plain old social chaos after virtually every significant leader of the known world is killed in the Trojan War, and the ones who survive make it home only to discover everything in various arrays of disorder, from angry housewives (Clytemnestra, for instance, most famously murders Agamemnon the day he gets back) to entire kingdoms lost to occupying armies, pirates or other external forces. Only a handful of regions survive relatively unscathed or are able to rebuild themselves. One of them is Egypt, something which we’ll talk about more later.
The fascination and controversy surrounding Helen starts with her “abduction”, and essentially revolves around the classic question of any cuckolded husband whose world view is, shall we say “old fashioned” (read: misogynist): did she go of her own free will, or was she raped? The difference being, of course, that Helen’s own willful participation in her ill-fated second marriage casts her as either a victim or a villain. Either way, she’s still a scapegoat, occupying a place in Greek mythology held only by one other person: the first woman, Pandora, who is the classical world’s equivalent to the Judeo-Christian figure of Eve. Like Pandora, Helen is a divine emissary, and can be seen as essentially a trap dressed up pretty by the gods, a time bomb with a smile that is intended to make humanity suffer. Some poets, like the famously anti-woman Hesiod, used both Pandora and Helen as examples to uphold a widely accepted belief that women were a curse upon humanity- especially if they were pretty- and best off subjugated by men, who could only come to grief through loving them. But Hesiod’s opinion was hardly indicative of all Greek perspective, and just as Greek women were held in different regards depending on the region or era, portrayals of Helen ranged from sympathetic to damning long before she was romanticized by Renaissance writers and painters like Marlowe (who coined the famous phrase “the face that launched a thousand ships” when Helen makes a cameo in his play, Dr. Faustus). In our age, Helen has been reclaimed (and re-written) by modern feminists such as Marion Zimmer Bradley and Margaret Atwood, turned into the ultimate woman “cursed” by her own desirability. Euripedes himself painted several different portraits of Helen, using her as a canvas to express his rage over the treatment of women, the futility of war, and the dangers of vanity and self-absorption. Over the next few weeks, as we get closer to Theater Pub’s reading of his play, Helen, I’ll explore some of the different masks this famous face has worn.
Check in next week for another segment of Stuart Bousel’s ruminations on Helen of Troy, and don’t miss Theater Pub’s free dramatic reading of Helen on Tuesday, February 14th, Valentine’s Day, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale!