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Helen of Troy - Heroine or Goddess?

By Karen Pierce

Originally Published Imbolc 2000


In this article I would like to take a look at the Greek mythological heroine Helen of Troy, and try to discern whether there is any evidence to show that she was once a Goddess, but one whose status faded over time. I will start by giving a synopsis of her myth to familiarise everyone with her story, and will then discuss her birth and death in light of her potential divinity. Next I will look at her status as a heroine in myth and in historical times before moving on to the suggestion that she is perhaps a vegetation or solar deity.


Helen was the daughter of Leda and Tyndareus (though her true father was Zeus). She was reputed to be extremely beautiful, and when she reached the age to marry, many men, chiefs and kings came to court her. Realising the difficult situation the family were in, Tyndareus (via the inspiration of Odysseus) made all the suitors swear an oath - that they would come to the aid of whoever won Helen, should need arise. Menelaus was chosen (his brother, Agamemnon, being already married to Helen's sister, Clytemnestra), he and Helen married, and in time they had a daughter, Hermione.

Meanwhile, across the sea in what is now Turkey, a young shepherd/prince called Paris was chosen by the gods to be an arbitrator in a contest between three goddesses, as to who was the most beautiful. Each goddess offered him a bribe, Athena offered success in battle, Hera offered rule over Asia, and Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife (i.e. Helen). Paris chose Aphrodite, and thus set in motion the start of the Trojan War.

Paris came to Sparta, the home of Helen and Menelaus, and visited as a royal guest. When Menelaus had to depart to Crete, he left Helen to look after their guest, at which point Paris seduced, or raped her (depending on which variant you read). Paris took Helen and many rich goods back with him to Troy. When Menelaus discovered the betrayal he called in the suitors' oath, and a great Greek army was amassed and sailed to Troy to reclaim Helen. The war lasted ten years, many heroes were killed, and the gods joined in on both sides. Finally the Greeks won, with a little trickery (i.e. the wooden horse) and Helen and Menelaus were reunited. They sailed back to Greece and lived out the rest of their lives together.

There are many variants on the basic story (and many other stories interconnected), and the issue of whether Helen chose to go with Paris or was raped has generated much discussion. Within ancient sources she is usually castigated for being a loose woman, blamed for all the deaths in the Trojan War, and almost universally hated. Her actions do not demonstrate her to be a particularly bad woman, sometimes a little selfish or misguided, but not the evil whore many other characters accuse her of being.

The story of a woman whose abduction caused a ten year war would not at first glance seem particularly illuminating for the story of a goddess or a heroine, but a closer look will reveal just how special Helen was.


As mentioned above, although Helen's mortal parents were Leda and Tyndareus, her real father was known to be Zeus, who had also fathered one of her brothers, Polydeuces (though both he and his twin, Castor, are known collectively as the Dioscuri, ie sons of Zeus). There is also some doubt over Helen's mother, with several sources crediting the goddess Nemesis with this position. Commonly referred to as the Goddess of Retribution, her actions are not always conceived of in the negative sense. In Hesiod's Works and Days (197-201), when Nemesis leaves earth to join the other Gods mankind is believed to be worse off without her presence, and she can perhaps be seen to personify 'rightful vengeance' instead of pure retribution. Hesiod credits Nemesis' birth parthenogenically to Night, but this is not reflected in later sources who claim that Zeus was her father. Zeus also raped Nemesis, and thus Helen was born. In Greek mythology it is not unusual that Zeus should rape his own daughter, he does after all live in marriage with his own sister. This rape, however, caused shame and indignation for Nemesis, and she attempted to flee Zeus' advances by shape-changing into many different creatures, as he pursued her (see Cypria - Athenaeus 8.334B). Zeus finally caught up with her when she was in the form of a goose, and he a swan. After the rape, Nemesis subsequently gave birth to an egg from which Helen eventually hatched. The egg was found and brought to Leda who brought up Helen as her own daughter.

However, the more renowned version of Helen's conception is that it was Leda who was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan. The earliest extant reference to this story comes in Euripides' play Helen (16-23), but this appears to be the story that caught the imagination. The Nemesis version, although referred to throughout antiquity, remains largely un-remembered today.

Iconographically we find a similar pattern, as although the version of Nemesis as Helen's mother was known there are very few representations of Nemesis in general. There is only one securely identified depiction of her on a Greek vase painting, and this picture does include Helen. It shows Helen being persuaded by Paris (with much help from Aphrodite and Peitho - the Goddess of Persuasion). Nemesis looks on and points an accusing finger - possibly she is pointing to the future consequences of Helen's decision. There is also a cult statue of Nemesis, at a sanctuary at Rhamnous, which features Helen on the base.

In sharp contrast there are very many depictions of Leda in Greek art. Generally she is shown with either a swan, or an egg. It would seem, however, that the majority of the depictions of Leda, especially with the swan, appear after the plays of Euripides have been produced, which leads us to suggests the possibility of his influence on the story. The pictures that depict Leda with an egg show her discovering it, and often looking surprised or shocked (she sometimes even runs away from the scene). Helen is sometimes shown emerging from the egg as a miniature human, rather than as a baby.

To sum up the aspects of Helen's unusual birth:

Although Leda is the traditionally known mother of Helen it is highly probable that the Nemesis version is of older origin.

Prior to Euripides' Helen there is no evidence of Leda having been raped by Zeus in the form of a swan. In fact there does not appear to be any rape story at all associated with Leda and the birth of Helen, until we reach Euripides. This is in contrast to the myth attached to Leda's bearing of the Dioscuri (see Homeric Hymn to the Dioscuri ). Iconographically Leda is seen finding the egg prior to Euripides, and afterwards she is depicted with a swan.

With the Nemesis version of the myth established Helen is revealed to have two divine parents, and thus should be regarded as divine herself.

If Leda does have any valid claim to be her mother, then Helen is the only mortal daughter of Zeus, this is significant in its exceptionality.


The exceptionality of Helen's conception and birth illustrate that she is at least semi-divine. Turning to the opposite end of her life, how is her death portrayed? I have said that once the Trojan War was over, Helen returned home to Sparta and spent the rest of her life with Menelaus, but then what? As is to be expected she has no mortal ending, instead she is either elevated to her rightful divine status, or she spends her days in the Elysian Fields. There is only one account of Helen's actual death, and this itself is at odds with the majority of sources. Pausanias (3.19.9-13) tells of a story, local to Rhodes, where Helen is hanged. In this version Helen lives on after Menelaus dies but is driven out of her homeland by his two sons - Nicostratus and Megapenthes. Her flight brought her to Rhodes where she believed she had a friend, Polyxo. This friend however turns traitor and wishes to avenge the death of her own husband, who died as a result of the Trojan War, on Helen. When Helen is out bathing Polyxo sends handmaidens, disguised as furies, to hound her and hang her from a tree. Pausanias ends the account by saying that it is for this reason that the Rhodians have a sanctuary of "Helen of the Tree".. This story is obviously an aetiological explanation for the sanctuary. The Rhodians worship a "Helen of the Tree" but it has been forgotten or misunderstood why this sanctuary was first established. Since this then is the only account of Helen's death, and it is an aetiological fabrication, we must look instead to what is said about her afterlife.

In ancient Greek myth the Elysian Fields and the Isles of the Blessed were two dwelling places for immortalised human beings. Similar in description it is difficult to tell what difference, if any, lay between them. Homer places Helen (and Menelaus) in the Elysian Fields, as does Apollodorus ( Epit . 6.30). Menelaus recovers his Spartan kingdom, and is subsequently made immortal by Hera, so that he and Helen can then go to the Elysian Fields.

From these two versions it would appear fairly important that Menelaus and Helen should be together. After all that has occurred, and Menelaus has reclaimed his wife, he is rewarded. That Helen goes to the Elysian Fields seems to be perfectly understandable - she is a daughter of Zeus, her place is not in the underworld, she is immortal. She and Menelaus are supposed to be together - for this to be possible he has to be immortalised too. In some ways this bears similarities to Helen's brothers, the Dioscuri. Since only Polydeuces was the actual son of Zeus, and therefore immortal, when Castor is killed his brother asks/begs for him to be immortalised so that they should not be separated in death. Their lives are thus spent split one day in 'heaven' the next in the underworld.

Isocrates' Helen actually credits Helen herself with raising Menelaus to divine status. He says that she first deified her brothers, the Dioscuri, who had already undergone some form of divine transformation, and she then turned to Menelaus, to recompense him for all he had gone through because of her, she made him immortal, and an equal partner of her house and throne (61-63). Isocrates also mentions that even in his time the Spartans made sacrifices to Helen and Menelaus as gods, at their temple in Therapne.

Menelaus and Helen however do not always stay together after death. In Euripides' Orestes , Menelaus remains firmly mortal after Helen is rescued by Apollo during a murder attempt by Orestes. She is snatched away from the very brink of death (1629-1642) under the orders of Zeus her father. Apollo proclaims her fate, along with the other characters' at the end of the play. Helen is to live on immortal with Castor and Polydeuces her brothers, acting as a saviour to sailors. Menelaus, instead of being invited to join her, is told to take another wife instead. It is explained that Helen was basically an instrument of 'justice' to aid the eradication of many mortals/reduce the population of earth. She was a tool, or pawn of the gods, but now her work is done and the war is over she is to join her father and be viewed, and honoured by men as a goddess, and especially remembered by sailors.

Helen is however believed by some people (those of Crotona and Himera), according to Pausanias (3.19.9-13) to live on an island called 'The White Island' which was sacred to Achilles, as his wife. This 'White Island' appears to be somewhat akin to the Isles of the Blessed in concept. The idea of Helen being married to Achilles in the 'afterlife', although in many ways opposite to what we would expect, can be justified as a concept by some of the sources. Achilles was always too young to have been one of Helen's original suitors, but it was said of him that if he had been old enough there would have been no contest. They are of different generations, but as she is the most beautiful and he is the most heroic, they are both the best, and as such it is not difficult to see why some of the ancients could have conceived of a liaison of some sort between Helen and Achilles.

So far we can assuredly say that when Helen came to the end of her time on earth, she did not 'die' and go to the underworld. As semi-divine, or immortal in whatever sense, she has a 'life' after death. Once she has achieved this immortality, she does not remain hidden away in some rosy mythical blissful place, but is apparently seen by mortals, and affects their actions.

Herodotus recounts a tale whereby Helen appeared at her own temple in Therapne (SE of Sparta) and caused the ugly child of a wealthy family to become beautiful. Not a particularly important act to commit, on the surface, yet we should recall that Helen was renowned for her own beauty, and the effects she had on men. That she should give beauty to another is perhaps appropriate. According to Pausanias (4.16.9) a more useful appearance of Helen, this time with her brothers, the Dioscuri, prevented an attack on Sparta one night.

The majority of sources agree that Helen was some kind of divine being, and as such was elevated after her death to an immortal status. Poetic sources tell of various places she went to and whom she spent her time with (e.g. her husband Menelaus, or her brothers the Dioscuri), and historical sources say that she made various appearances in order to make something happen, or prevent an act. So was Helen actually worshipped as a divine being, immortal, deity, or heroine? Or were these accounts purely mythical tales?



I will go on to discuss the worship of Helen as a heroine in historical times, but first I would like to try and attempt to define what a 'heroine' was to the ancient Greeks. While we might find it relatively simple to offer a definition of what a male hero constituted, and provide plenty of corresponding examples; it is not so simple to define/suggest the female counterpart. If a typical example of a hero is Achilles who lives a short, glorious, battle-filled life, whom is his female counterpart (aside from Amazons - who were not Greek, but foreign and 'other'), and if Theseus and Heracles achieved fame for their great deeds, which female also accomplished magnificent tasks? We cannot match male to female, hero to heroine, in an exact manner. Each sex achieves its heroic glory in diverging ways, female heroism has to be measured differently to male heroic action. Two recent works, Lyons (1997) and Kearns (1998) do explore the nature of Greek heroines in ways that bring a greater clarification to the subject matter. Working with their ideas we are able to get a clearer picture of Helen.

Kearns identifies up to six categories which illuminate the nature of heroines, although she herself does not number them such we can list them thus:

1) Those who die young, or virginal - and are usually associated with girls' transition, or initiation rites.

2) Those who experience sexual intercourse with a male deity - thus acting in a genealogical function, as they become the mothers of heroes.

3) Priestesses who are institutors of cults.

4) Eponymous heroines who are involved in the founding of places, and give their names to such.

5) Old women, who have much experience of married life.

6) Those afflicted with madness.

Heroines can cross over some of the categories, as I feel Helen does, but since she does not fit into all the definitions, I will only focus on the ones she does, and see to what extent she conforms fully to those frameworks.

1) - Girls' Transition Rites - Often heroines, as young maidens, are worshipped as part of initiation or transition rites, often in conjunction with Artemis - the virgin goddess who offers protection to maidens and women in childbirth. The mythological story surrounding these heroines will usually involve them dying a premature death, and normally when they are still virgins or unmarried. It is clear that Helen is not a maiden who dies young, or virginal, in fact quite the opposite could be said to be true. However this has not prevented her from being seen to be involved in some form of girls' transition, or initiatory experience. Theocritus' Idyll 18 is a wedding song for Helen, supposedly sung by young girls, who within it weave flowers into garlands to hang on a Plane tree, pour libations of oil by the tree and celebrate rites in honour of Helen. Theocritus has the young girls supposedly singing the song outside the doors of Menelaus' house. In a way these maidens are mourning the loss of their companion who will no longer play with them, but has become a wife.

In one version of her story, Helen is abducted by Theseus when she is dancing at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, thus another link to girls' transition rites. Elsewhere we also have mention of a festival called the Helenephoria, which is perhaps a reference to the same, or a similar, celebration that Theocritus has composed about.

2) Mother of Hero - genealogical function. Heroines who do not die young and virginal usually progress to the next stage of a woman's life - that of motherhood. Often being courted or raped by a male deity, they become mothers of heroes. As Kearns (102) reminds us, this is the earliest attested to definition of being a heroine, as seen in the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women .. Helen progresses from maidenhood to marriage and motherhood, but is never courted or raped by a god. Her partners are all human, and as such she never produces a hero as a son. Despite being credited with up to fourteen children in different sources, she is never renowned for being a mother.

3) Priestess and institutor of a cult - Often a heroine will be a priestess at a particular shrine or sanctuary, possibly one she herself has instituted. Upon her death, she is worshipped at the shrine, sometimes in conjunction with the deity previously worshipped. Helen is known to have been worshipped at several shrines most specifically at Therapne. She is also, however, credited with setting up a shrine to Eileithyia according to Pausanias (2.22.6), after she had given birth to Iphigeniea. We might align this event with category 1, where Helen is also associated with transition rites, and with Artemis. Since Artemis is concerned with childbirth, here we have Helen specifically setting up a shrine after she has given birth.

4) Eponymous heroines - although Helen does not give her name to any city or polis which she has founded, there is some evidence of various springs being named after her, and Menelaus.

As far as the categories Kearns identified are concerned, Helen can be seen to play some part in at least three of them. Helen is also unusual in that she is the only mortal daughter of Zeus. She is a heroine because she is a famous and notable mythological female, however, she is not worshipped, or regarded, as a heroine by her contemporaries, it is only after her death (within her mythological lifetime), and outside of the mythology that she is honoured. When she achieves cult status it is partly as a partner to Menelaus (e.g. at their shrine in Therapne). Helen is therefore a heroine who achieved divine status within poetic and literary sources.


Due to the comments and observations made by several writers (Herodotus, Isocrates and Pausanias) we know that some form of cult worship to Helen still existed in the historical period. Various locations for shrines connected to Helen are mentioned the main, or primary, shrine we are aware of is the one at Therapne, just east of Sparta, though there is another sanctuary near the tomb of Alcman, and a Plane tree Grove.

During the last century various excavations at a site in Lakonia have indeed revealed a shrine that is most probably the one referred to in the literary sources. The site of the Menelaion is on a high escarpment, to the east of Sparta, looking down on the town and the Eurotas valley. A number of archaeologists have dug at this site, most notably Hector Catling with the British School at Athens, who has been digging at the site and the surrounding area since the early 1970's. Though it was Ludwig Ross in the 1830's who was the first to identify the remains of this site as the historically referred to shrine of Helen and Menelaus at Therapne. It was also he who coined the modern usage of the term the 'Menelaion' for the shrine in 1833. Although as I will come to argue, the shrine was in honour of both Helen and Menelaus, the name, 'Menelaion' is one that was also used in ancient times - primarily by later sources such as Polybius (5.18).

Although it would be interesting and important to find evidence for the worship of Helen at a shrine in Therapne dating back to the Mycenaean Age it appears that there is no archaeological evidence showing so. There are signs of occupation and use of the site and surrounding area during the Mycenaean period, but no recoverable shrine or area of worship. If Helen was revered as a deity or heroine in this period in this locality there is no archaeological evidence to demonstrate it, so why was the later shrine placed there?

In the era when the idea of hero-cults first began to gain in popularity, would not the inhabitants, or leaders, of 8th century BC Lakonia look to where they could see evidence of previous occupation - evidence of where their heroes, Helen and Menelaus, might have lived and died. Mycenaean ruins on top of the, now labelled, Menelaion Hill would feasibly have been visible in the 8th century BCE. If a people were looking into the past, consciously looking back to a heroic age since gone, would they not have looked around their own landscape for traces of this heroic past, and having seen the ruins on top of the hill, have surmised that this is where their heroes lived, or that this was 'politically' an ideal location to visualise their community 'ancestors', and begin to venerate them. This idea may have been taken further with the premise that their heroes might be entombed there too. The shrine is built upon a natural outcrop, which was subsequently enclosed by a platform (to presumably even up the ground). This outcrop might have appeared to be a natural tomb for Helen and Menelaus, or at least suggest the possibility of a burial place for heroes.

During the 8th century a greater focus was being put on temples and sanctuaries, which is partly attributed to the emergence of the polis. Although Sparta was not the average 'Greek polis' the founding of the shrine at Therapne in the 8th century plausibly fits with this hypothesis.

Although we cannot prove that religious activity occurred on the site of the shrine before the 8th century, after that date we do have the existence of the shrines, and epigraphical evidence that Helen and Menelaus were worshipped there. In 1975 a trench cut into the north east terrace fill of the shrine revealed two bronze objects both inscribed. The first was a pointed aryballos that dates to the second quarter of the 7th century BC. Its inscription reads: " Deinis dedicated these to [Helen wife of] Menelaus ". This is scratched around the mouth of the vase. The second object was an 'harpax' an unusual object described by Catling (1975, 267) as "a small socketed instrument ending in a ring from which once radiated twelve curved prongs." This object may once have been used in ritual sacrifice, possibly as some form of meat hook. Along the handle of this object is scratched the dedication "For Helen", it probably dates to the 6th century BCE. Over the next decade a couple more inscribed objects were discovered with mention of either Helen or Menelaus.

What this iconographical evidence can tell us, or suggest to us, is that the name 'Menelaion' which Ludwig Ross gave to the shrine in the 1830's, and which Catling found so appropriate in 1977, should perhaps be considered a misnomer. This is Helen's shrine, or at least a shared shrine with Menelaus, but it is not exclusively his. Although the sample of inscriptions is small, there are objects dedicated to Helen alone, just as there are to Menelaus.

It seems fairly apparent then, taking into account both the literary evidence and the archaeological evidence that the shrine at Therapne was used to worship both Helen and Menelaus - either as a couple or as individuals. Though I would be inclined to favour the idea that the shrine was either originally, or primarily, Helen's (and after all it is only she who has appeared within its vicinity, and not Menelaus) there is no evidence to back up this theory. So we can only state that it was a shared shrine. Although there was some belief that Helen and Menelaus were buried there so far no burials have been discovered.


The question now arises whether Helen was in actuality a Goddess in her own right, albeit one whose divinity had faded, so that she tended to be remembered as a semi-divine heroine rather than a fully fledged Goddess?

The idea that Helen is a 'faded' goddess is of course not new. Farnell, amongst others, discussed the idea in the early decades of the 20th century, though he later changed his mind and dismissed the theory as sterile and unnatural (1921, 324). More recently Clader (1976), Skutsch (1987) and West (1975) amongst others have explored the possibility, to a far greater extent and the idea has gained in credence.

It is extremely difficult to be able to separate the strands we have. As stated, in the poetic sources we are presented with Helen as a heroine who achieved divine status (as her birth-right/paternity dictated) but whether this story of Helen, Menelaus and Paris, and the Trojan War masks a story about a goddess, or what about some kind of semi-historical event we cannot say. The 'hero' cult of Helen grew up in the 8 th - 6 th century BCE along with others at the time, and much of the archaeological remains we have, and literary sources, refer only to this 'hero cult' period, but this does not rule out the possibility of a cult or form of worship of Helen as a goddess prior to this time.


I mentioned above the one account of Helen's death, on Rhodes, which we have discredited as an aetiological explanation. That passage, however, is important in that it noted that Helen was worshipped on the island as 'Helen of the Tree'.. We may surmise that at this island sanctuary images of Helen as a goddess were hung on trees. Lindsay (1974, 225) makes the suggestion that: "The idea of the Hanged Goddess substantially derived from the custom of hanging images or masks in trees, and ritual fillets helped to create the idea of the rope - though beyond the custom lay the belief in the tree as a form or image of the Earth Mother." Helen is not the only maiden to hang from a tree, and there are notable parallels with the myths of Ariadne and Phaedra (amongst others). Helen is linked elsewhere to Plane trees, and a festival at Sparta called the Helenia, believed to be celebrated in spring or early summer, had young girls hanging garlands on her holy tree. Theocritus Idyll 18 describes these activities and locates them at the time of Helen and Menelaus' wedding. This suggests that Helen was some sort of vegetation deity, in addition, we have an abduction motif attached to Helen which can be paralleled with Perspehone and Ariadne.

Paris was not the first man to abduct Helen, she was previously taken by the hero Theseus when she was a young girl. Her brothers, the Dioscuri, managed to rescue her and bring her home - some sources claim she remained virginal, whilst others claim that she became pregnant by Theseus. The child that she bore was called Iphigeneia, and she subsequently gave her to her sister Clytemnestra to bring up (Iphigeneia was the maiden who was sacrifiiced by Agamemnon so that the Greek fleet could have a fair wind to sail to Troy - if Iphigeneia was Helen's daughter, then we have the daughter being sacrificed for the mother).

Theseus was aided in his abduction attempt by his friend Perithous, they next went down to the underworld to attempt to snatch Persephone. Both heroes wanted to marry a daughter of Zeus, but this adventure proved to be their undoing. Persephone is of course the archetypal vegetation goddess, who spends the winter in the underworld and who returns at spring to bestow her blessings on the land. Theseus also 'abducted' Ariadne from Crete - although a mortal princess in mythology, she is also known to be an old Minoan Nature Goddess.

Theseus then is involved in the abduction (or attempted abduction) of three Vegetation Goddesses. Should we assume these are separate myths, or are they all variations on a theme? Helen is of course later abducted by Paris, and subsequently has her name linked with a variety of men - again perhaps just a variation, or repetition, of a theme.


In my earlier synopsis of Helen's story there was one element which I neglected to mention, and that was the recurring references to Egypt. There are some versions of Helen's myth that claim that Helen did not go to Troy at all, but went to Egypt instead (a place that is neither near Sparta, or Troy, nor in any way en route between them). Herodotus claims that Paris landed in Egypt on his way home, and when the authorities learned of his misadventures they confiscated the stolen goods, including Helen, and sent Paris back to Troy. The Greeks refused to believe that Helen was not in Troy, and thus sacked the city before checking the story out.

Other versions, such as Euripides' play, Helen, claim that a phantom Helen was taken to Troy, and the real Helen was transported to Egypt for safe keeping until the war was over. Whichever version should be believed there is no escaping the fact that Helen, at some stage, was in Egypt. Even Homer explains that Helen and Menelaus visited Egypt on their way home from Troy, having been blown off course. So why is Egypt so important? It may have something to do with Helen's Vegetation Goddess aspect, in that when she leaves for winter (or is abducted) she has to go somewhere, and Egypt is a convenient place to locate her. On the other hand it might be as West suggests, that because Egypt was the only land in the south known to the early Greeks; that Helen went away to the south like the sun when the winter came, and that her return was celebrated at the Heleneia in the spring.

We should now look a little more closely at Helen's brothers to see what part they play in this story. Previous studies, including those by West and Skutsch, demonstrate that the Dioscuri, the divine twins, have counterparts in many different mythologies. They can be seen as Hengist and Horsa in Germanic myths, as the Asvins in the Indian Rigveda, and they appear in folksongs of various countries in the Baltic area. They are two figures who are closely associated with horses and have a connection to the daughter of the sun - usually trying to win her hand in marriage, or abduct her from her husband.

The Dioscuri are not suitors of Helen, for they are her brothers, but they do try to protect her from other men. When Theseus abducts her they rescue her. That they fail to rescue Helen when she is stolen by Paris is explained by the story that they had already died (and become immortalised) before they could join the battle at Troy. However, mythologically we can see that their role has been replaced/usurped by the brothers Menelaus and Agamemnon. Both brothers are involved in the courtship of Helen, as Agamemnon comes to woo her on his brother's behalf. When Paris steals her the brothers take an army to reclaim her. Whilst, just as the Dioscuri are only half divine (one mortal, one not - but they share their divinity in the afterlife), Menelaus is immortalised (for being Helen's husband) but Agamemnon is murdered and rests in the underworld.

Meanwhile, since the Dioscuri cannot pay suit to the sun maiden as she is their sister, they instead turn their attention to a set of twin maidens, the Leucippides (White Horse maidens). These girls had been promised in marriage to another set of twin brothers, Idas and Lynceus. The Dioscuri abduct the Leucippides, and end up fighting Idas and Lynceus, this results in death for all but Polydeuces. The maidens' names are Phoebe and Hilaera, which are both suitable names for sun maidens. Phoebe means 'shining' and is the name of a daughter of the sun elsewhere; Leda apparently also has a daughter of that name - though there may be some confusion with the Leucippides. Hilaera is a epithet that is normally applied to fire, or to the moon. Their father Leucippus, or White Horse, can be associated with dawn, daylight, and the sun, as the white horses pull the chariot of the sun across the sky.

So we see that the motifs are still apparent, even though mythology has anthropomorphised the characters into mortals.

Etymological evidence has connected Helen's name to *svarana - 'the shining one' and as such she can also be connected to torches, fire, and natural occurrences of fire-balls, which we might label St. Elmo's Fire. Skutsch discusses the corposant suggesting that it was originally called 'Helen's Fire' and that while her brothers, the Dioskouroi, tended to be regarded as saviours - especially to those at sea (when they appeared as a double light), Helen tended to be feared (as the appearance of a single light).

The etymology of Helen's name, and her roots in Indo-European mythology are beyond the scope of this article. The nature of Helen is not a simple idea for discussion as much has gone into her make-up. What I do believe is that we would be foolish to regard Helen as merely a mortal heroine in a tale of abduction. There are far greater and wider implications, and what the studies by Skutsch, Clader, and others, have demonstrated is distinct possibilities that 'Helen of Troy' may have descended mythologically from a sun-maiden and/or vegetation goddess. A figure who goes south in the winter and is rescued/brought back in the spring by twin riders.

I think we can realistically regard Helen as a divine figure, and although the nature of her divinity may have altered over the centuries, she was worshipped and believed in as a divine power. We may have only explicit archaeological and literary evidence of Helen being revered alongside Menelaus in a Spartan hero-cult, at a shrine in Therapne, but we should not close our minds to her wider divine, mythological past-history.


  • Catling, H. (1975) 'Excavations of the British School at Athens at the Menelaion, Sparta, 1973-75.' Lakonikai Spoudai 2: 258-69.

  • Clader, L.L. (1976) Helen: The Evolution from Divine to Heroic in Greek Epic Tradition. Leiden: Brill.

  • Farnell, L.R. (1921) Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • Lindsay, J. (1974) Helen of Troy: Woman and Goddess . London.

  • Skutsch, O. (1987) 'Helen, Her Name and Nature.' Journal of Hellenic Studies 107: 188-93.

  • West, M.L. (1975) Immortal Helen. Castle Cary: Castle Cary Press.


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