Helen of Troy


Helen, in Greek mythology, the most beautiful of women; daughter of Leda and Zeus, and sister of Castor and Pollux and Clytemnestra. While still a young girl Helen was abducted to Attica by Theseus and Polydeuces, but Castor and Pollux rescued her. Later, when she was courted by the greatest heroes and chieftains of Greece, her foster father, Tyndareus, fearful of their jealousies, demanded that each suitor swear to defend the rights of the man Helen chose. She then married Menelaus, who, when Paris carried her off to Troy, reminded her former suitors of their oath. They then recruited an army and defeated the Trojans in the Trojan War.

Some legends say that Paris forcibly abducted Helen; others that she fell in love with him and went willingly. In one peculiar account, originating in Stesichorus and used by Euripides, Helen was rescued by Proteus in Egypt, who substituted in her stead a phantom that sailed to Troy with Paris. Proteus then cared for Helen until Menelaus finally claimed her. In the Iliad and Odyssey, Helen becomes Paris' wife but is in sympathy with the Greeks. She is easily reconciled with Menelaus after the war, and they return to a peaceful life at Sparta.

There are several other accounts of the story of Helen. Some say that after she and Menelaus returned to Greece, Orestes vengefully tried to kill her but that Zeus deified her. She bore Menelaus one daughter, Hermione, and, by some accounts, a son, Pleisthenes. Helen had cults in Sparta and elsewhere and is considered by some scholars to be a "faded" goddess—perhaps an ancient fertility goddess—who became a mortal woman.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Helen of Troy: Selected full-text books and articles

Medea; Hippolytus; Electra; Helen By Euripides; James Morwood Clarendon Press, 1997
Helen of Troy and Her Shameless Phantom By Norman Austin Cornell University Press, 1994
Women on the Edge: Four Plays by Euripides By Euripides; Bella Zweig; Bella Zweig; Mary-Kay Gamel; Mary-Kay Gamel; Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz; Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz; Ruby Blondell; Ruby Blondell Routledge, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "Helen" begins on p. 217
Helen By Euripides; Robert Emmet Meagher University of Massachusetts Press, 1986
FREE! Troy: Its Legend, History and Literature: By S. G. W. Benjamin Charles Scribner's Sons, 1880
Librarian’s tip: Chap. II "Helen"
FREE! Tales of Troy and Greece By Andrew Lang; H. J. Ford Longmans, Green, 1907
Gods and Heroes of the Greeks: The Library of Apollodorus By Apollodorus; Michael Simpson; Leonard Baskin University of Massachusetts Press, 1976
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Ten "Agamemnon and Menelaus, Sons of Atreus, and Their Marriages with Clytemnestra and Helen" and Chap. 11 "The Trojan War"
Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality By Bruce S. Thornton Westview Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Two "The Golden Child of the Bloody Foam" and Chap. Seven "Wives and the Order of the House"
The Myths of Greece & Rome By H. A. Guerber Biblo-Moser, 1990
Librarian’s tip: Chap. XXV "The Trojan War"
The Legends of Troy in Art and Literature By Margaret R. Scherer Phaidon Press, 1964 (2nd edition)
The Seege or Batayle of Troye: A Middle English Metrical Romance By Mary Elizabeth Barnicle H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1927
The Fall of Troy in Early Greek Poetry and Art By Michael J. Anderson Clarendon Press, 1997
Troilus and Criseyde By Geoffrey Chaucer; Barry Windeatt Oxford University Press, 1998
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