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Helen of Troy Biography

Helen of Troy Image

HELEN (Lat., from Gk. The daughter of Zeus and Leda (q.v.), wife of Tyndareus (q.v.), King of Sparta, or, according to the epic poem Cypria, of Zeus and Nemesis, whom the god pursued in the form of a swan. Nemesis brought forth au egg, which was found by Leda, who on the birth of Helen reared her as her foster child. According to the ancient legend she was so exceedingly beautiful that at the age of 10 she was carried off by Theseus and Pirithous, but was recovered subsequently by her brothers, Castor and Pollux. Tyndareus afterward engaged her suitors, who numbered about 30, in a solemn oath to unite together to aid the husband whom Helen should choose, should any attempts be again made to carry her off. In accordance with this oath, her husband, Menelaus, when she was afterward carried off by Paris (q.v.), son of Priam, King of Troy, summoned all the princes of Greece to avenge the injury he had sustained and thus gave rise to the Trojan War. The ordinary legend states that after the death of Paris she voluntarily married his brother, Deiphobus, and that on the taking of Troy, in order to recover the favor of Menelaus, she betrayed Deiphobus into his hands. (See Æneid, vi, 517 ff.) Another version told how she fled to the temple of Aphrodite and was pursued with drawn sword by Menelaus; but such was the power of her beauty that he laid aside his thought of vengeance and took her once more as his wife. Their voyage home, was long, as they were driven to Egypt, but at last reached Sparta in safety, where the Odyssey shows them living in happiness. By her husband Menelaus she had one daughter, Hermione, but some writers said that by Theseus she was the mother of. Iphigenia. Of her death also there were many versions. Her grave was shown at Therapne, near Sparta, where she and Menelaus were worshiped. On the other hand, the. Rhodians told how she was driven out of Sparta after the death of Menelaus and came to her friend, Polyxo, in Rhodes. Polyxo, however, had lost her husband in the Trojan War and consequently forced Helen to hang herself to a tree. Hence Helen was worshiped at Rhodes in connection with the tree, as Helena. Another story told how she was translated by the gods to the Islands of the Blest, where she was wedded to Achilles. She received divine honors at many places and was believed by the sailors to appear in the single flame of St. Elmo's fire, which was regarded as a sign of disaster, while the double. flame, or Castor and Pollux, was believed to insure safety (see ELMO'S FIRE, ST.). In art scenes from the story of Helen are frequent and represent almost all the episodes in her eventful life. Stesichorus made Helen remain in Egypt, whither she had come with Paris on her way to Troy, detained by the Egyptian King, Proteus, who later restored her to her husband. Paris, he said, took to Troy only a phantom, for whom Greeks and Trojans fought. Much in the nature, of the legends of Helen and in the characteristics of her worship seems to indicate that she was originally a moon goddess, who has been superseded by Selene and Artemis and thus transferred to the heroic legends.

The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XI (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 106.