‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’
This quote is probably the most famous description of Helen of Troy. But it comes not from an ancient poet, such as Homer or Virgil. It actually comes from a sixteenth-century play, Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe, written over 2,000 years after Helen’s first literary appearance in Homer’s Iliad. The story of Helen of Troy is therefore one that has endured the test of time. Helen is a character who has beguiled and fascinated through the ages, from Homer’s epic poetry to Hollywood movies.
But why is the character of Helen so enduring? Is it her incredible beauty that captivates or her role in one of the bloodiest wars in history? Or is it, perhaps, the fact that the ‘real’ Helen remains elusive – was she a wronged woman and the victim of a brutal abduction, or was she a shameful adulteress, whose careless desires brought about the deaths of many thousands of people?
It is her depictions in the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome which have created this sense of intangibility and so it is to these sources that we must turn to try to unravel the enigma that is Helen of Troy.
Helen of Troy in Greek Mythology
Helen’s earliest mythological ancestry places her as the daughter of Zeus and the goddess Nemesis. However, the most common origin story is that she was the daughter of Zeus and Leda, an Aetolian princess who became queen of Sparta. Leda, a great beauty, was visited by Zeus in the form of a swan. The stories vary as to whether Zeus raped or seduced Leda, but the product of their union was Helen and her brother Pollux, who were born from an egg. Leda also gave birth at the same time to Clytemnestra and Castor, through natural means, as a result of her marriage to King Tyndareus of Sparta.
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In one mythological story, as a young girl, Helen is abducted by Theseus before being rescued by her twin brothers, Castor and Pollux. This episode perhaps acts as a precursor to her later journey to Troy.
Helen’s journey to Troy begins with a contest between three goddesses. Paris, a Trojan prince chosen for his fairness, is brought before Hera, Athena and Aphrodite with the unenviable task of deciding which of them is the most beautiful. Each goddess offers an incentive to sway Paris’ decision. But it is Aphrodite who wins him over with her gift of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta.
Soon Paris travels to Sparta, where Helen has married King Menelaus. Menelaus treats Paris with great hospitality. But on the day of his departure, Paris brings Helen aboard his ship at the final moment and the two sail away towards Troy, on the west coast of modern-day Turkey. The Greek fleet set sail for Troy, determined to avenge Menelaus’ honour and return Helen to him. So begins the ten long years of the Trojan War.
Helen of Troy in Homer
The line between myth and history was blurred in the ancient Greek world. Some argue that the epic poetry of Homer could represent a point at which myth becomes history. If this is so, then it is in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey where we see Helen emerge as an historical heroine. Historians are divided as to whether the Trojan War actually took place, but there is archaeological evidence that some destructive event happened at Troy around 1200 BC.
The Iliad, composed in the 8th century BC, is a poem about the gravest episode of the Trojan War. Homer focuses on the characters, both mortal and divine, who are woven into this tragic story of destruction and personal sacrifice. Interestingly, Helen, who played a key role in the outbreak of the war, only actually appears in three episodes of the poem.
When we first meet Helen she is weaving a tapestry depicting the scenes of the war. As she does so, the Trojan elders discuss her incredible, goddess-like beauty. As a woman who dutifully weaves at home and who is also beautiful to look at, she is presented as the embodiment of the feminine ideal in the Greek world.
Throughout the poem, Helen emphasizes the great shame she feels for the fate she has brought upon Troy. She also expresses a notable sense of regret at having left her former husband, Menelaus, and even refers to herself as a whore. This self-blame has the effect of making her a character who evokes pity from the audience.
In the Odyssey we meet Helen again, years after the Trojan War has ended. The victorious Greeks have all returned home and Menelaus has brought Helen back to Sparta. Here she is the obedient wife, lying passively at the feet of Menelaus and tending to her guests’ every need.
However, when Menelaus recounts her role in the Trojan horse episode we see another side to Helen. It is suggested that she tricked the Trojans into bringing the wooden horse into the city and handed victory to the Greeks – a duplicitous and cunning side to her nature is revealed.
In Homer, therefore, we see Helen possessing all the facets of a Greek woman, as seen through the eyes of men. She is compliant and beautiful but also prone to deceit and immorality.
Helen of Troy in Euripides
Euripides was a Greek playwright who wrote a number of tragedies in the 5th century BC. He seems to view Helen as a fascinating character, since she appears in no less than three of his plays.
In both The Trojan Women and Orestes Helen is condemned for her role in the Trojan War. The criticism of her is particularly harsh in The Trojan Women where, in the aftermath of the war, Helen is condemned to death by her former husband Menelaus. When she pleads for mercy it is a woman, Queen Hecuba of Troy, who persuades Menelaus to stand firm. She argues that Helen was fully complicit when she left Sparta with Paris and that she was a shameful adulteress. Hecuba also brands Helen as a manipulative opportunist stating that she would renounce either Troy or Greece if it suited her purpose.
However, in the play Helen Euripides takes a very different approach. Here he follows a version originally created by the 6th century BC poet Stesichorus which places Helen in Egypt for the duration of the Trojan War. Meanwhile, in Troy, a phantom Helen is acting destructively in her place, having been sent by the goddess Hera.
In this strange tale, Euripides appears to be absolving Helen of any blame regarding the war with Troy. Instead, she is presented as a passive figure whose reputation is subject to and dishonored by the will of the gods.
Euripides therefore explores both extremes in terms of Helen’s culpability. On the one hand, she is the complicit adulteress and on the other she is the wronged bystander. But is there another, more convincing version of Helen to be found?
Helen of Troy in Sappho
Sappho was a female lyric poet from the Greek island of Lesbos. Writing in the 7th century BC, she is one of the very few female poets from the ancient world whose work has survived today. Sappho wrote love poetry dedicated to both men and women and Fragment 16 is a poem in which she likens her love interest Anaktoria to Helen of Troy.
In the poem, Sappho presents Helen as a woman who is the subject of desire rather than its object. It is Helen who actively leaves Menelaus for Paris rather than being led away by Paris, against her will. Sappho therefore gives Helen agency, she is not merely a passive bystander.
Unlike with Homer and Euripides, there is no sense of judgement from Sappho towards Helen. She is not described as either shameful or a whore. Instead, she is presented as a woman who felt a great love which could not be ignored. Despite having a noble husband, only child and loving parents in Sparta, she followed her heart to Troy.
The focus in this portrayal of Helen is on the power of love and desire, which the poet describes as ‘the greatest beauty earth can offer’. For Sappho, Helen was neither a whore nor a victim of abduction, she was a woman who fell deeply in love, even though this was a love which had dire consequences.
Helen of Troy in Greek and Roman Art
From the 7th century BC, Athenian vase painters were depicting scenes from mythology and epic poetry on their wares. Famous characters such as Achilles, Hercules and Odysseus soon became key sources of inspiration. Unsurprisingly, Helen of Troy, a woman famed for her outstanding beauty, can be found often in both Greek and Roman art.
With the introduction of the black-figure technique in Greek vase painting, small areas of white paint could be added for specific detail. The vase painting above depicts Helen with pure white skin to allude to her beauty and to differentiate her from the other figures, but this detail also serves as a reference to the epithet often used by Homer to describe her – ‘white-armed Helen’.
The imagery of Helen found in vase paintings, frescoes and stone reliefs appears to reflect the varied presentation of her character in the literary sources. In some instances, such as the vase painting above, she appears to be entertaining Paris and there is an element of seduction about her stance as she plays with her dress. Equally common are the representations of her being taken to Troy against her will.
Funerary urns and caskets often used tragic scenes from mythology as decoration. The funerary urn pictured above is an Etruscan interpretation of the abduction of Helen. Here Helen is being loaded onto Paris’ ship along with other possessions. She is also shown being supported by two men as if to emphasize her vulnerability and lack of free-will.
The abduction story is found often in Roman art. In this Pompeian wall painting, Helen appears to be shocked and disorientated as she is escorted or forced onto a ship by two slaves. The ominous presence of a soldier hovers in the background as a reminder of her newly captive state.
After considering some of the varied literary and artistic impressions of Helen of Troy it is arguably impossible to unravel the ‘real’ Helen, particularly where she is presented by men through the prism of idealization. However, perhaps it is Sappho who provides the most honest representation of Helen. In her poem, Helen is neither a victim nor a whore, instead she is given her own voice and it is one which acknowledges the consequences of her actions but still chooses love above all else.