Bradford McCormick, a reader of this blog, mentioned Helen of Troy in a comment and got me thinking. What did happen to that crazy lass after Troy fell? Well, turns out the answer, as told by Steve Theodore on Quora, is both complicated and fascinating.
A Happy Ending
As he explains, the most well-known and widespread version of Helen’s fate is, interestingly, also the most reticent. In the Odyssey, young prince Telemachus goes to Sparta hoping to get news of his missing father, still absent ten years after the fall of Troy. He goes to the palace of Menelaus and is received by Menelaus and Helen. They are a comfortable, affectionate, middle-aged couple — the only blot on their domestic happiness is the fact that they never had a son. The poem offers no explanation of how they were reunited or reconciled (the whole thing is in Odyssey, IV).
There are, however, some darker undertones in this cozy picture; both Menelaus and Helen bear scars from their adventures over the previous twenty years. But these are muted: the dominant note is resigned sadness rather than outrage, terror, or PTSD. They will share a drink and shed a tear for those who lost their lives in the war — but even then, vengeance and score-settling between Menelaus and his wife are nowhere in evidence.
In this version, Helen is happy to be home.
This is one the most enigmatic moments in all of Greek literature. How do we get from Helen the object of desire, Helen the heedless floozy, Helen the victim of terrible trauma, Helen the suicidal captive, to Helen the comfortable middle-aged hausfrau, serving drinks for her fond old hubby? If nothing else, the Odyssey’s Helen plumbs the psychological gulf that separates from the world of Homer – surely, we think, it can’t be this easy to kiss and make up?
But it’s not just us who want to know more, to understand how we could get to this resolution. The unanswered questions in this scene ripple throughout the rest of the Greek canon, creating many contradictory ways of envisioning Helen, her role, and her fate.
The “False Helen”
That quiet interlude in Sparta includes one detail that formed the basis of an entire tradition about who Helen really was. In the Odyssey, the poet makes a point of mentioning that the couple had returned to Sparta via Egypt:
While he deliberated, from her tall, scented room came Helen, like Artemis of the golden spindle: and her companion Adreste placed a finely-wrought chair for her, Alcippe brought a soft wool rug, and Phylo a silver basket, a gift from Alcandre, wife of Polybus in Egyptian Thebes, where men own homes that reveal the greatest wealth.
Odyssey IV, 121ff
Several poets — most famously, the tragedian Euripides in his Helen — used that Egyptian interlude to resolve the tension between Helen-the-runaway-bride and Helen-the-cherished-wife by magicking it away.
In Helen, Menelaus arrives in Egypt only to find that the woman he had captured at Troy was in fact a magical illusion, shaped from a cloud — a phantom created by Hera and Zeus in order to provide a pretext for the war:
…she made our marriage void by handing over to Paris, King Priam’s son, not me in person but a breathing ghost that looked exactly like me, a phantom she shaped out of ether.
So, Paris thought he had me in his arms but all he had was his imagination.
And then Zeus added to all these problems something of his own making. A plan to lessen Earth’s burden of too many mortals and, at the same time, to make known to everyone, once and for all who was the bravest man in the whole of Greece. So, he concocted a war between the Greeks and the poor Trojans!
My name and not my body was placed as a trophy between the spear of the Greeks and the bravery of the Trojans.
The reunited couple (whose marriage, in this telling, was merely interrupted rather than violated) escape from Egypt by working together to deceive a lecherous pharaoh. This Helen is a sympathetic heroine – she’s the victim of a terrible slander concocted by the gods themselves, but she cannot help feeling responsible for all the bloodshed done in her name. She’s no mere passive, captive princess either; it’s Helen who contrives the trick which lets them escape Egypt.
This upbeat explanation of Helen’s fate was a quite widespread version in antiquity, although it always coexisted with darker alternatives. Euripides’s version is the most famous but the story of the “false Helen” and the escape to Egypt was not his personal invention. It was clearly circulating pretty early — the oldest known example comes from the poet Stesichorus, two centuries before Euripides.
According to legend, his first work on the Trojan war told the story in the traditional way, that Helen eloped voluntarily. Suddenly, the story goes, he was struck blind by Helen’s power from beyond the grave. Realizing his mistake he wrote a second version which told the “true” story of her flight to Egypt and regained his sight:
She further displayed her power to Stesichorus the poet; for, having used insulting language concerning her at the commencement of an ode, he rose up bereft of eyesight; but when, recognising the cause of his affliction, he composed his recantation, as it is called, she restored to him the faculty of sight.
Isocrates, Helen, 64
The desire to let Helen off the hook reflects, in part, the fact that in many Greek cities Helen held the same semi-divine status as heroes like Theseus, Heracles, and her brothers, Castor and Pollux. The Spartans, for example, had two different shrines to Helen and Menelaus, one of which can still be seen today. As Isocrates noted:
Since then she has power both to punish and reward, it is the duty of the wealthy to propitiate and honour her with offerings, sacrifices, and processions, and of philosophers to endeavour to speak of her in terms worthy of the material at hand; for such is the tribute that it befits the educated to pay.
Isocrates, Helen, 66
As always in the contradictory world of Greek mythology, multiple overlapping answers are inevitable. Wherever it came from, though, this squeaky-clean Hollywood retelling is probably the single most popular version of the many competing Helens in antiquity.
Nonetheless, as with comic book characters, you can always find alternate tellings of Greek myths — even in works from the same author. Like any modern comic canon, artists and writers revisited the most compelling characters again and again, reinterpreting them from a multitude of conflicting and sometimes irreconcilable points of view.
The most famous literary version of the confrontation is in Euripides’s Trojan Women, done just three years before his Helen quoted above. In this play, there is no coziness, no familiarity, and no forgiveness. A pitiless Menelaus arrives to haul Helen home to Sparta for execution. The Trojan women of the play’s title don’t see Helen as a passive prize to be fought over without rancor. They see her as the woman who brought ruin to their city and they want to kill her:
“Has anyone ever caught you tying a noose around your neck, or sharpening a knife?” they cry, “that’s what a brave woman would have done, if she really loved her first husband!”
In this version, there is no warm glow of domestic reconciliation. Helen’s defense is less than convincing: Don’t blame her, blame queen Hecuba who gave birth to Paris. Blame Aphrodite, who made Paris irresistible to her. Blame Menelaus, for letting Paris into his home. And in any case, Greece has benefitted from the whole affair: who now controls the Aegean? In any case, it’s not her fault:
If you must punish anyone, Menelaus, then punish Zeus!
Trojan Women, 915ff
This weaselly defense works about as well as you’d expect. Menelaus agrees with the Trojan women that Helen deserves to die: he just wants to handle matters himself, and Helen is dragged off stage to be sent back to Sparta for execution.
Nevertheless, the audience knew their Odyssey, and how this would end. Euripides leaves a tiny teaser in Menelaus’ final scene:
Hecuba: Don’t listen to her, Menelaus! Don’t betray all those battle mates of yours who were killed for her sake. I beg you, on their behalf and on behalf of my sons!
Menelaus: That’s enough, old woman. I don’t care at all about what happens to her. Men, take her to the ships. We’ll send her off to Sparta.
Hecuba: In that case, Menelaus don’t let her get aboard the same ship as yours.
Menelaus (laughing): Oh, why is that? Has she gained that much weight?
Hecuba: No, but there’s no lover who doesn’t love his lover forever.
Menelaus: Perhaps… but it depends upon the heart of the loved one.
Trojan Women, 1045ff
Helen’s irresistible beauty became the common way to explain how Helen the captive (who, in the Iliad, calls herself a “cold, scheming bitch”) became the domesticated Queen Helen of the Odyssey. She was a demigoddess of incomparable beauty; men were simply helpless around her.
A Woman Scorned
All the rage of Greek manhood could not lay a finger on the daughter of Zeus and the favorite of Aphrodite. This might be a commentary on the divine power of her parentage, or on the moral fiber of your average Achaean. In either case, the voices which berate, accuse, or threaten Helen in the aftermath of the war belong primarily to women. We’ve already met Hecuba, but she wasn’t the only woman who wanted Helen dead. In his Orestes, Euripides shows us Helen from the point of view of an angry and embittered woman: her niece, Electra (thankfully, no relation to my wife, as far as I know).
Here, Helen doesn’t simply return home as if nothing has happened. Electra and her followers have just murdered Helen’s sister, Clytemnestra, to avenge the death of Agamemnon. Sparta is on the verge of civil war, and Electra’s faction isn’t overawed by Helen’s charms:
Our uncle, Menelaos, has just arrived from Troy. The harbour of Nauplia is cluttered with his fleet. All his ships are anchored there.
After he left Troy he wandered about the seas for a very long time.
He was afraid about his wife’s welfare though. Sent her off to the palace in the middle of the night last night, ahead of him, to escape the wrath of those whose sons were killed beneath the tall towers of Troy. He was afraid they might throw stones at her.
Helen! She’s taken on the role of the “ill-fated one!”
She’s in there now, crying and grieving the death of her sister and all the misfortunes that her family has suffered.
Electra and her brother Orestes, having avenged their father, want protection from Menelaus. Unfortunately — in large part, because Helen is so unpopular — he’s unwilling to go out on a limb for them. In despair, they plan to murder Helen and her daughter to punish Menelaus and rally everyone who suffered because of the war to their cause.
Electra: Murder her, men! Kill her, men! Plunge your swords into her, men! Hit her again and again, men! This is the whore who has betrayed her husband and her land! This is the whore who has killed thousands of Greek men! Killed them and maimed them by the roaring waters of the Trojan river, Scamander! By the battlefields where iron let loose tears upon tears!
Where other Greek men may have quailed, Orestes — who has already murdered his own mother, and is on the edge of madness — doesn’t hesitate. But as lunges to make the final blow, Helen simply disappears like an illusion crafted out of ether. Baffled and outraged, Orestes takes Helen’s daughter Hermione hostage. Menelaos and his men prepare to storm the palace where Orestes and Electra are holed up; the city is about to explode into civil war. Out of nowhere, Apollo appears and forces them to reconcile. Helen, he says, has been taken up into the heavens and granted immortality as a star, like her brothers. Orestes is sent off to Athens for trial (though Apollo tells him in advance he’ll be acquitted) and on his return, he’ll be married to Hermione. Menelaus is instructed, as an afterthought, to find himself a nice girl and remarry. Order is restored — a key landing place for any Greek tragedy.
This version starkly juxtaposes the human and the divine Helen. The natural resentments of all the many people impacted by Helen’s actions are a key driver of the conflict — right up to the moment where they are erased by Apollo’s intervention. Helen may not have been a particularly good woman but she was Zeus’s daughter and Aphrodite’s favorite and that, in the end, was what counted. Euripides is notoriously the inventor of dramatic deus ex machina; here as elsewhere, he relies upon the overriding power of the divine to try to bind up the irreconcilable human needs. The end of the Orestes is simultaneously the harshest and the most exalted depiction of Helen’s fate, its contradictions hogtied — if not resolved — by heavenly fiat.
The Trojan View
Not everyone in antiquity was satisfied with that kind of forcible resolution of the tension between Helen the divinity, Helen the adulteress, and Helen the bad-luck charm. It’s not an accident that the most lasting negative image of Helen’s later life appears in the Aeneid which — not unlike the Trojan Women — starts from a Trojan point of view.
As the Trojan hero Aeneas searches the burning ruins of Troy for his family, he spies Helen taking refuge at an altar of Vesta.
Afraid of Trojans angered at the fall of Troy,
Greek vengeance, and the fury of a husband she deserted,
she, the mutual curse of Troy and her own country,
had concealed herself and crouched, a hated thing, by the altars.
Fire blazed in my spirit: anger rose to avenge my fallen land,
and to exact the punishment for her wickedness.
Yet again, Helen’s supernatural protections override human revenge. But this time the mechanism isn’t male weakness. Aphrodite (or rather Venus: this is a Roman poem after all) stays Aeneas’s hand. She shows him the gigantic forms of the gods as they tear Troy apart before his eyes; Helen (as she has herself claimed in so many other continuities) is just a pawn in the divine game:
You do not hate the face of the Spartan daughter of Tyndareus, nor is Paris to blame: the ruthlessness of the gods, of the gods, brought down this power, and toppled Troy from its heights!
However, the Aeneid has a very complex relationship with divine fiat. Helen may not be to blame for the fall of Troy in the eyes of Venus (who, after all, really put her up to the whole affair) but the poem still can’t forgive her.
In this variant, when Paris dies in the last year of the war, Helen remarries Deiphobus, the greatest remaining Trojan warrior after Hector. In this retelling (as in the Odyssey) Helen knows beforehand about the deadly payload of the Trojan Horse. Here. however, she chooses to aid the Greeks in order to buy forgiveness for herself. Here’s how the ghost of Deiphobus reports the last night of Troy to Aeneas in the underworld:
You know how we passed that last night in illusory joy:
and you must remember it only too well.
When the fateful Horse came leaping the walls of Troy,
pregnant with the armed warriors it carried in its womb,
she led the Trojan women about, wailing in dance,
aping the Bacchic rites: she held a huge torch in their midst,
signalling to the Greeks from the heights of the citadel.”
I was then in our unlucky marriage-chamber, worn out with care,
and heavy with sleep, a sweet deep slumber weighing on me
as I lay there, the very semblance of peaceful death.
Meanwhile that illustrious wife of mine removed every weapon
from the house, even stealing my faithful sword from under my head:
she calls Menelaus into the house and throws open the doors,
hoping I suppose it would prove a great gift for her lover,
and in that way the infamy of her past sins might be erased.
The Trojan-friendly version is a deliberate inversion of the story told in the Odyssey: Helen may be a pawn of the gods but she’s also a scheming traitor who betrays her last husband as casually as she had betrayed her first. It may be that Roman audiences (there’s no evidence for a cult of Helen in Rome) were less invested in Helen’s divine glamor, or simply that the Aeneid’s ambivalence about pat answers extended to any effort to grant her divine immunity. We never see Menelaus and Helen together in the Aeneid but it’s hard to believe they ever lived a quiet domestic life in this universe!
Many thanks to Steve Theodore for his excellent answer!