According to the Iliad, the abduction of Helen, wife of the king of Sparta, sparked the 10-year-longTrojan War. Helen is thought to have been born around 1225 b.c.e. According to Homer, who is credited as author of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, Helen’s father was the god Zeus, and her mother was Nemesis, a goddess who fled Zeus by changing into a goose. Zeus became a swan so that he could mate with her. The resultant egg, containing Helen, was found by a shepherd who brought it to the king and queen of Sparta, Tyndareus and Leda. Another legend names Leda as Helen’s mother, seduced by Zeus in his swan guise. Leda laid two eggs, one with Helen and her brother Polydeuces, and a second containing Clytemnestra and Castor. Helen’s brothers and protectors are collectively known as the Dioscuri. When Helen was kidnapped, the Dioscuri raised an army and retrieved her. They died before the Trojan War commenced.
Helen’s sister Clytemnestra had married twice by the time Helen returned to Sparta; her second husband, Agamemnon, had murdered her first husband. Legends recount that between 29 and 99 suitors from all parts of Greece came to court Helen, including Odysseus, Ajax, Ajax the Greater, and Patroclus—all of whom would play roles in the Trojan War. Tyndareus, Helen’s human father, made the men swear to defend the chosen bridegroom, then selected Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, as Helen’s husband. During the first nine years of their marriage Helen had at least one child and possibly as many as five. As Tyndareus’s sons had died, Menelaus eventually became king of Sparta.
In a separate series of events, the goddess Aphrodite promised Paris, prince of Troy, that he should possess the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris arrived in Sparta, and—while Menelaus was attending his grandfather’s funeral—Paris took Helen, her personal slaves, and a great deal of treasure and set sail for Troy. Menelaus led an embassy to Troy demanding Helen’s return. When that failed, he reminded the many suitors of their oath. Armies were raised, and the Trojan War began. Various authors described amours between Helen and Achilles, or Priam’s other sons during the long war.
Most agree that when Paris was killed, two of his brothers fought over Helen. Deiphobus won and married her. After 10 years of war, Troy was burned and sacked. In some tales Helen helped the Greeks storm Troy by giving the signal to the army outside, but in the Odyssey Homer says that she taunted the men hiding in the Trojan horse by imitating their wives’ voices. Menelaus killed Deiphobus and rushed at Helen, determined to kill her as well but once again fell under the spell of her beauty. Anxious to set sail and bring his newly recovered wife home, Menelaus neglected to make proper offerings to Athena.
The offended goddess caused Menelaus and Helen to be driven off course for eight years. Although Euripides says that Helen was carried away by Apollo to become immortal, and other legends describe her suicide or murder, most authors return Helen to Sparta and a life of quiet prayer, weaving, and virtue.