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Helen of Troy

Page history last edited by hcauley1 10 years, 6 months ago

Helen of Troy: Abduction and the Trojan War

Circa 1200 BC


Helen of Sparta, later of Troy, plays an important role not only in Greek mythology but in rhetoric as well. The story of the woman declared the most beautiful on Earth has inspired poems, odes, art works, songs, plays, and most particularly, debates and speeches. She is the basis of legends that have survived to modern day, appearing in various works of Greek literature, including Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, Sappho's poetry, the tragedy Agamemnon, Euripedes’s Trojan Women, Virgil’s Aenid, and Herodotus's Histories. In Elizabethan times, playwright and poet Christopher Marlow commemorated Helen in a poem that continues for many to be the complete summation of her contribution to Greek history: She was “the face that launched a thousand ships” (Cartwright).


Historians approximate that Helen’s birth occurred around 1220 B.C., twenty years before the Trojan War. Studies conducted by Marcelo Magnasco of the Laboratory of Mathematical Physics at Rockefeller University in New York and Constantino Baikouzis at the Observatorio Astronómico in La Plata, Argentina, calculated the date of the war based on an eclipse mentioned in Homer’s stories. The two scientists traced the eclipse to 1178, and by working through the time lines of The Odyssey and The Iliad, established that the date of the Trojan Horse battle was 1188. The siege of the city was said to last 10 years, putting the abduction of Helen at 1198 (Highfield).


The daughter of Leda, the queen of Sparta, and the god Zeus, Helen first became the object of desire when she was abducted as a young girl prior to her marriage to King Menelaus of Sparta. Knowing this, the king convinced her many suitors to promise that if she were ever abducted again, they would join forces to bring her back to safety.


Despite Helen’s marital status, she became the obsession of Paris, who, according to mythology, was selected by Zeus to name the most beautiful goddess. Despite seductive offers from Hera and Athena, Paris picked Aphrodite, based on her promise to help him capture the most beautiful human woman, Helen. His daring deed of abduction that carried Helen away from Sparta and his determination to keep her were root causes of the Trojan War. During the battle, Paris was killed by Philoctetes (“Paris”).


In the aftermath of the conflict, Helen did return to Menelaus and Sparta, where she resumed her royal position. But the affair created a debate that formed the basis of classic speeches such as The Encomium of Helen, a title shared by works of both Gorgias and Isocrates. The story forms the basis of two key questions posited by rhetoricians. First, did Helen betray the soldiers hidden in the Trojan Horse, thereby engaging in an act of deliberate treason, or did she remain true to her husband and his people? Second, was she a wanton adulteress with undisciplined emotions who was not abducted, but rather a willing participant in what amounted to an elopement?


The debates over Helen’s complicity versus her victim status continue into recent writings as well. In 2005, scholar Helen Bettany, author of “Helen the Whore and the Curse of Beauty,” describes the classic beauty as alternately “damned” and “applauded” for having a sexual adventure. While others considered Helen “a feeble thing swept along to Troy on the tide of Paris’ libido,” others such as Shakespeare dubbed her a “strumpet” (37). Bettany also posits that the ancient Greeks considered Helen’s situation “the crime of a goddess,” since her “excessive sexual charisma was a gift of Aphrodite” (38). In 2010, A. Doyle, in his essay, “Unhappily Ever After? The Problem of Helen in Odyssey,” presents both views of Helen’s actions, characterizing the abduction as, in fact, an “elopement” on one hand, while on the other describing her actions as “pro-Greek,” leading her to spy on the Trojans who were her captives and ultimately betraying them to her rescuers. But Doyle also claims that Helen reveals more of her human than divine side by wavering in her loyalties, “changing sides yet again as she rejoices at the success of the Greek mission.” Regardless of which position a debater may take, it is difficult to disagree with Doyle’s contention that Helen’s actions led to “the destruction of nations, citadels, and societies” (4-9).


Works Cited
Cartwright, Mark. “Trojan War.” ancient.eu.com. Ancient History Encyclopedia. 15 May 2013.

 Web. 17 Nov. 2013.

Doyle, A. “Unhappily ever after? The problem of Helen in Odyssey.” Akroterion. 55 (2010): 1-18.

Highfield, Roger. “Scientists calculate the exact date of the Trojan horse using eclipse in

Homer.” telegraph.co.uk. Telegraph Media Group Limited. 24 June 2008. Web. 16 Nov.


Hughes, Bettany. “Helen the Whore and the Curse of Beauty.” History Today. 11.55 (Nov. 2005):

37-39. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

“Paris.” Brittannica.com. 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.



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