The Bronze Age Queen—Helen of Sparta

Celebrated as the most beautiful woman in the world, the allure of Helen of Troy née Sparta was the yardstick for which all women were measured—-and found inadequate. Her scandalous abduction by Paris from her Spartan home with Menelaus triggered a ten-year-long siege on Troy which was responsible for the countless deaths of Trojans and Greeks alike. Yet despite the abysmal carnage for which she was largely held culpable, Helen escaped Troy without a hair out of place. After the war, in one tradition Helen winds up in Egypt, but if Herodotus is to be believed, she spent the entire war there. Doubtless, the Greeks were unduly obsessed with a heroine they loved to hate and have the stories to show for it.

Unsurprisingly, most of the myths which encircle this fairest of all women, involve rape. Helen herself was the product of the rape between Zeus almighty, king of the gods, and the lovely Leda, queen of Sparta. While Leda was sunbathing on the banks of the River Eurotas, an enamored Zeus turned himself into a magisterial swan and had his way with her. As a daughter of the almighty Zeus, it is no small wonder that Helen was radiant. Then by some accounts at the tender age of seven Helen was kidnapped or raped by Theseus, the mythological first king of Athens. Theseus, like Zeus before him, was accustomed to defiling the gentler sex but a romantic interest in another daughter of Zeus—Persephone herself—-would soon lead him astray. Ultimately, Helen’s twin brothers—Castor and Pollux— restored her to their Spartan home.

All the same, Helen the “richly tressed” Spartan queen is best known for fleeing with Paris to Troy after his “diplomatic” visit to Sparta. But a question that has plagued many throughout the ages is did she elope with the flamboyantly handsome Prince Paris of her own volition? And what role, if any, did the goddess of love, Aphrodite, play in her kidnapping?

Finally, could the kidnapping of a queen—even one as dazzling as Helen— have been the sole reason behind a ten-year-long war between East and West?

Detail of Helen of Troy by Canova, Antonio

Recognized throughout the ages as Helen of Troy, she was always Helen of Sparta to the Greeks. Indeed, it must have come as no surprise to them that the face, which launched a thousand ships, was of Spartan origin. Spartan women were renowned not only for their beauty but notorious for being loose with their virtue as well. In a city-state that encouraged its citizen-wives to engage in marital infidelity, it is no wonder that they should be considered wanton by other Greeks. Doubtless, Helen as an unchaste foremother was an unequivocal role model who was even worshipped as a deity in her native home.

Although Helen was writ-large in the collective imagination of the ancient Greeks, it might be surprising to learn that, technically, she was not an ancient Greek. Instead, Helen hailed from the late Bronze age kingdom of Sparta. A gold-glittering powerhouse, the Mycenaean civilization preceded ancient Greece by several hundred years when these fierce seafaring warriors—known as the first Greeks— conquered the Greek peninsula from its earlier inhabitants in the sixteenth century BCE. Although they borrowed from their predecessors, the Minoans, the Mycenaeans were an advanced civilization with a writing system called Linear B used chiefly for record-keeping in their heavily bureaucratic culture. Alas, when it comes to lauding their cultural achievements for posterity, the Mycenaeans are frustratingly mute.

After the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization in the eleventh century BCE, ancient Greece entered a period known as the Greek Dark Ages referred to as such because there is no evidence of writing. But although the early Greeks were without writing they were not without stories. The story of Helen and the siege of Troy is believed to be amongst the oldest of humankind and would have been widely known to most Greeks. The so-called Greek Dark Ages lasted until ancient Greece became ascendent in the eighth hundred BCE beginning the Archaic age. Within a few generations, the poet known as Homer would transcribe his two epic poems—- the Iliad and the Odyssey— finally giving voice to the voiceless and chronicling a time over five hundred years prior when the Mycenaean civilization was still dominant.

Dating to the twelfth century BCE, many now believe that the Trojan War—between Mycenaean Greece and Troy—-was an actual event and may have contributed to the collapse of the Mycenaean Civilization. As background, Troy was a vassal state of the Hittite Empire in northwestern Anatolia (present-day Turkey). The most robust ancient “historical” account of the Trojan War comes to us from the Iliad. Yet, for all its endurance, the Iliad recounts a mere fifty-two days in the ten-year-long siege ending not with the Trojan citadel’s fiery finale but with the somber funeral of the Trojan hero, Hector. While the story of the Trojan War is incomplete in the Iliad, Helen lives most fully in this epic where it is never in doubt on whose behalf the war is being waged.

Walls of Troy, Hisarlik, Turkey

In Book Three of the Iliad, an alienated Helen’s first utterance to King Priam of Troy is a gloomy one: “if only death had pleased me then, grim death that day I followed your son to Troy, forsaking my marriage bed, my kinsmen and my child….” Objectified throughout but never a mere object, Helen has a voice and uses it repeatedly to regret what the abduction has wrought. But she is nobody’s fool. In order to appeal to the sympathy of others Helen continually berates herself. Though she blames herself, others—primarily males who are dazzled by her splendor— tend to hold her blameless. Even King Priam himself contends: ”I don’t blame you, I hold the gods to blame.”

Conversely, a feckless Paris is quick to cast blame on the gods for the Trojans’ predicament, and for his trouble is treated unsympathetically throughout the epic. A swaggering Paris “with the skin of a leopard slung across his shoulders” flauntingly parades himself on the rampart in front of the Greeks. But upon first sight of his beefy counterpart, the out-for-blood “war-like” Menelaus, a frightened Paris slinks away “cringing with death” like a coward. Paris’s own brother, Hector, berates him for his spinelessness: “You…curse to your father, your city and all your people, a joy to our enemies, rank disgrace yourself.” Ultimately, Paris agrees to the contest between himself and Menelaus but not before casting blame for his predicament on the gods: “….don’t fling in my face the lovely gifts of golden Aphrodite. Not to be tossed aside, the gifts of the gods… could we ever choose them for ourselves.” Helen and Paris are contrasted throughout as opposites in accountability. While Helen takes full responsibility for her role in the abduction—or elopement— for his part an unwitting Paris puts the blame solely on Aphrodite. Does Paris have cause to do so?

The antecedent action preceding the kidnap comes from a myth referred to as the “Judgment of Paris.” Upon discovering she was not invited to a lavish Olympian wedding party, a furious Eris, goddess of strife, tossed a golden apple at the banquet table with the inscription “calliste” or “for the fairest.” Naturally, the three Olympian goddesses in attendance each believed the golden apple was for her, so a scuffle between them ensued. To restore order, Zeus was asked to judge the fairest. Unwilling to make enemies among two of the goddesses—- especially since one of them was his wife—- Zeus enlisted the help of Paris in the decision.

Athena, the stalwart warrior goddess, promised Paris wisdom and great luck in battle if he chose her as the fairest. Hera, the goddess of marriage, childbirth, and wife to Zeus promised Paris power and throneships if he chose her. Even so, becoming the greatest of all warriors or the most powerful in the land was nothing to a young man who had been raised as a shepherd. But when Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world—-Helen of Sparta—the contest was over. Showing all the introspection for which he would become famous, Paris made his decision for Aphrodite on the spot. It was of no consequence to either the callow Paris or the goddess of love herself that Helen was already married to Menelaus—king of Sparta.

The Judgement of Paris by Enrique Simonet Lombardo

Yet, long before Paris kidnapped Helen the Greeks had set the stage. In an agreement, called the “Oath of Tyndareus” (named after Helen’s stepfather) at Helen’s wedding the Greeks agreed to unite as a force and provide military assistance if Helen was ever stolen. Because of the whims of a goddess working on behalf of her simple subject, the united military might of the Mycenaean Greeks would soon descend on the solitary citadel of Troy.

If Hector had his way, the fighting might have been over before all was lost. In order to quell the bloodshed Hector pleaded with the Greeks to “hear the challenge of Paris, the man who caused our long hard campaign” and urged all Trojans and Greeks to lay down their arms while Paris and Menelaus “fight it out for Helen and all her wealth in a single combat.” A contest between a strong-armed Menelaus and a flashy featherweight should have been over in short order and it nearly was: “Lunging at Paris, he grabbed his horsehair crest, swung him round….was gouging his soft throat—Paris was choking, strangling….”

Witnessing the battle in horror, Aphrodite straightaway whisked her favorite from certain death on the battlefield by Menelaus’s mighty sword—- and to the safety of his bedroom. After all, Paris is a lover, not a fighter. Imagine Menelaus’s dismay, finding an empty helmet in his raised fist instead of the lifeless head of Paris. Without delay, Aphrodite invites Helen to join Paris in his bed. “Quickly—Paris is calling for you, come back home…he’s glistening in all his beauty and his robes!” Not merely the goddess of love, Aphrodite’s very nature induces desire in others, regardless of consequence. But Helen has been through this once before and is not eager to return. It is at this stage that Helen gives as good as she gets. Of all the characters in the epic, Helen is the only one brave enough to defy a deity: “Maddening one, my Goddess, oh what now? Lusting to lure me to my ruin yet again? Where will you drive me next?” These are strong words for a mere mortal to utter to a goddess and Aphrodite turns on her: “Don’t provoke me—-wretched, headstrong girl!….. I might make you the butt of hard, withering hate from both sides at once, Trojans and Achaeans (Greeks)…..” And because the goddess could make life even more unpleasant for her, Helen begrudgingly accepts her role as a love object to Paris but later rebukes him: “So, home from the wars! Oh would to god you’d died there, brought down by that great soldier, my husband long ago.”

Alas, life was wearisome for the beauty of the world. With her strings pulled by Aphrodite, the most coveted object of desire was subject to a desire over which she had no control. Though she is the most contrite of the three characters who had a part in the kidnapping— Helen is the least culpable of them. After all, even Paris had some agency in determining which goddess’s gifts he most desired.

Although the Greeks loved to cast blame on Helen for starting the war, they were quick to come together in her defense. But were the Greeks united solely to recover Helen? As desirable as she was, Helen was not the only Spartan booty Paris pilfered. In addition to stealing away with the Spartan queen, Paris nicked the Spartan treasure as well. The truth is to the Mycenaean Greeks, Helen was much more than meets the eye. During the Mycenaean era, the last undying vestiges of the old matriarchal order were present; it was through Helen that Menelaus became king thus Spartan treasure would have been the queen’s to steal not the king’s. Women from royal families were kingmakers thus even a plain Helen from a powerful state would have been highly desirable to a foreign power.

Eight of the seventeen times that Helen’s name is used in the Iliad, the word “ktema” (treasure) is mentioned alongside it. In the duel when Paris squares off against Menelaus, we hear— time and again—-how it is “Helen’s treasure,” not Menelaus’s, for which the battle is fought. A question that has plagued scholars throughout the ages is, was the war waged to restore the treasure or to restore the queen? One must remember that a Menelaus without a heritable queen—-and her significant treasure—-would have made him vulnerable to internal strife and foreign invasion. What choice did Menelaus have but to fight to restore her?

While many now believe that the Trojan War was a historical event, is it possible to suppose that a kidnapped queen helped set it off? As literary and archaeological artifacts of the Mycenaean era surface, a portrait has emerged of prominent royal women who had access to great wealth and power. Even as goods were traded rigorously between foreign powers, in order to secure state relations royal women could have been traded as well. Similarly, it is not improbable that the kidnapping of a royal woman from one nation-state to another could have severed ties between them—-as the story that has been told and retold for thousands of years suggests.

However, after the downfall of Troy, what became of the Spartan royal couple on whose behalf the war was fought? In one tradition, an enraged Menelaus stormed through the scorched Trojan citadel intent on slaying his errant wife but instead was starstruck, famously dropping his sword upon first sight of the ever-resplendent Helen. In an irony of ironies, Menelaus would quietly reunite with Helen and the two would return to Sparta living happily ever after— or so they say.

Published in Classical Wisdom – March

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