Queen Helen of Sparta came to be known as Helen of Troy because of the legendary story involving her being taken or lured away from her husband, Menelaus, by Prince Paris of Troy. This incident sparked the Trojan War between the Greeks and Trojans, and garnered Helen a tarnished reputation among the Greek population. Despite Helen’s legacy as the greatest beauty of her age—the face that launched a thousand ships, as it were—there was more to the Spartan queen than her looks. She was a daughter of Zeus, making her a demigoddess, and some ancient storytellers wondered if there was more to the story than Helen’s usual characterization as the flippant queen or the damsel in distress. In fact, Euripides (c. 485-406 BCE), a playwright who wrote some of the strongest roles for women, preserved a tradition of the myth in which Helen was saved by the gods from the disgrace of being kidnapped by Paris. According to this version of the story, she was actually in Egypt for the entirety of the Trojan War. Unfortunately, although the gods saved their kinswoman, Helen, from personal defilement, they could not do the same for her reputation. In Euripides’ play, Helen tells the audience:
“Hera, taking it amiss that she had not won the divine beauty contest, turned my marriage to thin air for Alexandros [aka Paris] and gave to the son of King Priam not my real self but a breathing phantom which she had moulded in my likeness from heavenly ether…As for my real self, Hermes took me up and hid me in the clouds in the upper air’s embrace—for Zeus did not cease to care about me—and brought me to live in this house of Proteus [in Egypt], the man he had judged the most virtuous of all mortals, so that I could keep my marriage with Menelaos undefiled” (Euripides, Helen, approximately lines 30-50).
Such was the way Euripides attempted to do damage control with the stories of Helen and the gods involved in her life. In this version of the story, rather than the gods allowing Helen to be tossed around like a prize, Euripides instead envisioned Helen’s godly relatives making some effort to somewhat protect her from what fate otherwise had in store. After the Greeks completed their harrowing years-long campaign against the Trojans, Menelaus, on his journey home, was driven off course to Egypt. This occurred in the original tellings of Trojan War stories and Helen was with him during the unexpected adventure. In Euripides’ version of the tale, however, it was the fake phantom version of Helen that Menelaus possessed before arriving in Egypt. During his Egyptian stop, so the story goes, Menelaus was separated from the convincing phantom and was subsequently reunited with the real Helen.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped black Figure Amphora with a Marriage Procession and a Woman Escorted by Two Warriors, dated circa 540-520 BC, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the LACMA).
- Euripides’ Helen, translated by James Morwood in Medea and Other Plays (Oxford University Press, 1997, 1998, 2008).
- The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.