The story of Helen, wife of Menelaus of Sparta, and the consequences of her epic love triangle has been passed down the millennia and recounted by some of the greatest poets of all time, including Homer, Ovid, and Virgil. She was “the face that launched a thousand ships,” the greatest beauty of antiquity whose tryst and subsequent eloping with a young Trojan prince, Paris, led to Greek mythology’s bloodiest and most famous conflict: the Trojan War, which was said to last ten years and which claimed the lives of countless ancient heroes.
Per Britannica, various storytellers have forwarded alternate versions of Helen’s eloping with Paris. Some sources posit that the ancient beauty was in fact kidnapped, or that she received poetic justice by being hanged on the order of the Queen of Rhodes as punishment for the death of the queen’s husband in the Trojan War. For some audiences, it seems that Helen could not be permitted to be willingly unfaithful to her husband.
But though Helen has been made to suffer in some retellings of her story, the myth typically explains that her fate was not in her own hands, but those of the Gods. Traditionally, the set-up for Helen’s love triangle is an episode known as the Judgement of Paris, in which the young Trojan is made to judge a beauty contest between the Greek Goddesses Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite, according to the Theoi Project. Aphrodite promises Paris the love of the most beautiful mortal woman if he agrees she is the more beautiful Goddess … not taking into account that Helen was already married to Menelaus at the time.
The contradiction of a perfect Helen
For generations, academics have read and re-read the various tellings of the love triangle between Helen, Menelaus, and Paris, as told by various poets and playwrights to gain insight into social values in the age of antiquity. As previously noted, various versions of Helen’s story exist either in full or in fragments, and as the classical scholar Elizabeth Belfiore has pointed out, many storytellers alter the story to either simplify it or to turn the myth into an easily understandable morality tale; that Helen is either a perfect heroine who was kidnapped or an evil villain whose unchastity was the cause of the Trojan War (per The Classical Journal, via Jstor).
Belfiore argues that the plurality of the Helen myth within classical literature arises from an inherent contradiction within antiquity that the figure of Helen is purported to represent. She writes: “The contradiction arose because a woman’s arete, excellence, was felt to include both physical beauty, the power to attract men sexually, and chastity, the power to resist men: her physical excellence thus might easily conflict with her moral excellence. Nowhere was this conflict seen more clearly than in the case of Helen, the ideal of feminine excellence.”
Belfiore writes that only after Ovid does the idea of chastity as intrinsic to the feminine ideal begin to retreat, allowing for sexuality to provide a fitting motive to Helen’s actions.
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