Entering the World of Helen of Troy

Helen lived—if she lived at all—around 1200 BC, in an era we call the Mycenaean age of Greece.  Helen actually came from Sparta, not Troy, but she became forever “Helen of Troy” when she eloped with the Trojan prince Paris, launching a thousand ships, (and today, a thousand hair-care products named after her).

I’d like to share some photographs I took while following Helen’s life in both Greece and Troy.

When Helen– the offspring of Leda, Queen of Sparta, and her tryst with Zeus in the form of a swan—was only a child, a Sibyl at Delphi foretold that she would cause a great war, and because of her many Greeks would die.  The crone’s rock is still there, near the temple of Apollo where the oracle would later sit.

Rock where the Sibyl gave her terrifying prediction about Helen causing a war.

What did Helen look like?  Today’s movies and paintings make her a blonde, but ancient Greek paintings show her as a brunette.  Homer merely tells us she was “white-armed, long robed, and richly tressed,” leaving the rest up to our imagination.

Ancient artist’s rendering of Helen, with Eros urging her on.

Helen had twin brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, and a sister, Clytemnestra.  Clytemnestra later grew up to be the classic avenging, murderous wife, stabbing her husband Agamemnon in his bathtub when he returned from the Trojan War.

In ancient times, different ruling houses had their own patron gods and goddesses.  In the novel, Demeter and her daughter Persephone are the protectors of Helen’s household.  In one episode, Helen is shown attending the mystery rites of the goddesses. These rites began in Mycenaean times and lasted in some form until recently.

The beautiful goddess Persephone, who spent only half the year on the earth, and the other half in Hades.
Until recently, women danced with such torches in the fields of Eleusis to honor the goddess; this carving dates back to ancient times. Mystery rites were held marking her daughter Persephone’s departure and return.

Snakes were also considered sacred, and many households kept a sacred snake. It was thought that if a snake at a sanctuary licked your ear you would receive the gift of prophecy.

Terracotta sacred snakes from Mycenaean Museum

When Helen lived in Sparta, it was not ‘Spartan’ as we know the term.  The military Sparta did not arise until some six hundred years after her time.  In Helen’s day, it was a place of sophisticated music, poetry, and dining.  The valley wherein it lay was very fertile, watered by the Eurotas River, and it was surrounded with the rugged Taygetus range of mountains; it was a beautiful, lush place with dramatic scenary.

The place where Helen’s palace stood, high above the city of Sparta.

The crown of Sparta passed through the woman, and so in choosing a husband Helen was also choosing the future king of Sparta.  After the customary suitors’ contest, where more than 40 men competed for her hand, she chose Menelaus of the house of Atreus in Mycenae, the younger brother of Clytemnestra’s husband Agamemnon.

Helen and her husband Menelaus, 6th century BC carving in the Sparta Museum

When Menelaus died, long after the Trojan War which he survived, he was buried in a  stone mausoleum high above the river Eurotas. One legend says that Helen was also buried there beside him, and that a visit to her tomb had the power to bestow beauty on supplicants. Certainly the site today is powerful and evocative.

Sign marking the entrance to the mausoleum site.
The lovely setting of the mausoleum.
The snowy peaks of Taygetus range in the background.
The Eurotas River far below; the funeral cars had to pass through it.

Helen and Menelaus lived peacefully for ten years, and had a daughter, Hermione.  But when Paris, a Trojan prince, came to Sparta on a diplomatic mission, he and Helen became inflamed with love and ran away together.  Paris was very handsome and allied with Aphrodite, the powerful goddess of love.

Statue of Paris, in the Sparta Museum.

Sparta is some thirty miles from the sea; the first night Paris and Helen only got as far as a small island just off the coast, called Cranae.  The photo, taken there, shows the spectacular sunsets they could have seen.

Glorious sunset over Cranae.

The Mycenaean world that Helen left behind has also left us many relics.

The citadel where Agamemnon ruled. A sprawling palace and fortress, it commanded the area.

Lions at gateway of Mycenae; first monumental sculpture of Greece.

This heavy type of bronze armor became outmoded in the Trojan war.

Mycenaean bridge of uneven boulders.

Palace bathtub of the sort Agamemnon was murdered in.

Homer calls Mycenae ‘rich in gold’ and these cups prove he was right.

Pure gold adornments for hair, clothes, and body.

The first thing that would have struck Helen as she approached Troy were its famous formidable walls.  Today they are only about a third as high as they stood in ancient times.  Troy was lost for many centuries and only rediscovered at the end of the 1800s.

Standing before the actual surviving walls is a stirring moment. Achilles, Hector, Odysseus and Paris fought here. Helen, Priam, and Hecuba looked down from the tops of these walls.

Today the east entrance is the best preserved; the famous Great Tower of Ilium, and the Scaean Gate, are gone.

So complete was the destruction of Troy that even the ruins are scanty. Tourists complained of there being little to see, so the Turkish Ministry of Tourism built this replica of the Trojan Horse, a popular amusement for visitors.

In the desolation of the old citadel of Troy, the wind still blows through the struggling trees and the plain of Troy, where the warriors clashed, spreads out below. In the novel Helen returns to it and encounters the vanished city, climbing to this spot where her palace had stood.

1 thought on “Entering the World of Helen of Troy”

  1. I recently finished listening to the audio book on Helen. It was so exquisitely done, as was the novel!
    I was very taken with the character development. Perhaps the story so deeply moved me as I am now in my sixties, and am experiencing the bittersweetness of loss in my own life.
    Thanks you.

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