In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was considered the most beautiful woman on Earth (in fact she was not from Troy, but she dwelt there for a long time).
There were several versions about her birth.
In one of this versions, Helen of Troy's mother is Leda, the wife of Tyndareus, king of Sparta, and her father is Zeus. He appeared as a swan to Leda, that's why she laid an egg, and the beautiful Helen was born from that egg.
Another version makes her the daughter of Nemesis: trying to escape from Zeus, who would follow her everywhere, the goddess Nemesis took different shapes, and when she transformed into a goose, Zeus transformed into a swan - later the goddess laid an egg, that she abandoned in a forest. A shepherd found it and took it to Leda, who kept it safely until it opened. When she saw the beauty of the little girl born from the egg, Leda brought her up as her own daughter.
Helen of Troy had two brothers: Pollux (or Pollydeuces, who was Zeus' son too) and Castor, and a sister, Clytaemnestra - the last two were Tyndareus' children.
When she was about ten, she was seen by Theseus and Piritous, who both fell in love with her. They cast lots and Theseus won, so he kidnapped her and took her to Aphidnae, where he entrusted her to his mother, Aethra. Helen of Troy's brothers, the Dioscuri, went after her, while Theseus and Piritous were gone to kidnap Persephone. Someone told them where Helen was hidden, and they took her back, together with Aethra (Theseus' mother), who became Helen of Troy's slave until the end of the war of Troy.
During this adventure, some say that Theseus respected her, but others say she bore a daughter to him, Iphigenia (who was brought up by Helen's sister, Clytaemnestra, in order to help Helen maintain her reputation).
When Helen came back home, Tyndareus, her father, decided it was time to marry her. As word about her beauty had spread all over Hellas, all the kings, princes and heroes of Greece came and tried to win her hand. Her father was afraid that her choosing one of them over the others might lead to war, so he followed Ulysses' advice and made all of them take an oath to respect Helen's choice and to help her future husband, should something happen. So Helen chose Menelaus, who later became king of Sparta.
At the wedding of Thetis and Peleus, all the gods were invited, except for Eris, the goddess of discord. That's why she decided to take revenge, and she threw in the middle of the goddesses a golden apple, on which it was written: "To the most beautiful". Hera, Athena and Aphrodite claimed the apple. Zeus didn't want to be trapped in this fight, so he decided it should be Paris to judge who was the most beautiful.
In order to get the apple, Hera promised to make him a powerful king, Athena promised to make him wise and undefeated and Aphrodite promised to give him as a wife the most beautiful woman on Earth, that is Helen. Paris didn't think twice (if you ask me, he didn't even think once) and he decided to give the apple to Aphrodite, who thus became the first "Miss Universe" (while Helen of Troy, being just a woman, would be "Miss World", right?).
So Paris went to Sparta, where he was a guest at king Menelaus' court. When the king had to leave for Crateus' funeral, Helen had to take care of the guests. Paris managed to seduce Helen with his beauty and with rich gifts and took her away with him (smart woman, Helen of Troy - she also took a lot of her husband riches with her; but she left her daughter Hermione, so maybe she wasn't so smart after all).
Some say she didn't agree to all this, others say it was her own father who gave her to Paris, others yet blame it on the gods' decisions - but it's quite probable that Helen was seduced by Paris' beauty AND richness.
When they arrived in Troy, Helen was received by Priamus and Hecabe, who were amazed by her beauty. Soon, Menelaus went to ask her back, but Paris refused, so the poor husband had no choice but to remind the other Greek kings about their oath. And that's how the war of Troy began - this also explains why the Trojans hated the beautiful Helen.
During the war, Helen of Troy's behaviour wasn't very consistent. The Illiad says that she stood on the walls of the city, showing the trojans the Greek kings and telling them their names. When the Trojan horse was introduced into the city, Helen suspected what was inside, so she went near it and imitated the voices of the Greek warriors' wives. They had to make an enormous effort to keep silent. Other times, she would help the Greeks. When Ulysses entered Troy, disguised as a beggar, she recognized him, but said nothing, and later helped him steal the Palladium statue. During the night in which Troy fell, she signalled with a torch from her room, for the Achaean ships (if you ask me, she did it because she realized the Greeks were about to win, so she wanted to be on the safe side).
In the tenth year of war, Paris was killed, and Priamus decided to give Helen as a prize to the most valiant. Deiphobus won the contest (in which Helenus and Idomeneus also participated) and married Helen (wait a minute, didn't it count that she was already married?).
The night Troy was conquered, Helen hid away all the weapons in Deiphobus' house, so as he couldn't defend himself. When Menelaus arrived, he killed Deiphobus and he wanted to kill Helen of Troy too - but it was enought for her to show him a naked shoulder, that he dropped the sword and forgave her. When the Greeks saw Helen arriving, safe and sound, they wanted to stone her to death - but her beauty made them drop the stones.
The return trip of Menelaus and Helen (of Troy) to Sparta wasn't easy. They had to wander for eight long years before getting home.
Euripides says that Menelaus and Helen arrived in Argos the day when Orestes killed Clytaemnestra and Aegystus. When he saw Helen, Orestes wanted to kill her, too, as she was responsible for everything that had happened to his family. That's when Zeus sent Apollo to kidnap Helen and then he made her immortal (of course, after all the bad things she cause, she was made immortal - but what do you want, Zeus was her daddy).
According to other traditions, she came back to Sparta with her husband and became a model wife (maybe she was just getting old and her beauty was not what it used to be).
When Menelaus died, she was banned from Sparta by his sons, as a punishment to all the sorrow she had caused. She took refuge in Rhodes, where she had a friend, Polyxo. But Polyxo's husband, the king, had died in the war of Troy, so she decided to punish Helen for it - that's why she dressed her servants as erynies and sent them to frighten Helen when she was taking a bath - in the end, she was so scared, that she hanged herself.
Anyway, there is also a legend according to which Helen and Achilles, who had become immortal, too, got married and lived happily ever after on the White Island (Leuké), near the mouth of the river Danube.
As you see, beauty is not always a gift, even if it helped Helen sometimes. The wise people of Troy couldn't really blame the war on her, as they considered it quite normal to fight for beauty. There are also others who say that Helen was not guilty at all, as it was not her who went to Troy, but a phantom, made by Hera (or Zeus) from a cloud.
It is also probable that the legend of Helen of Troy was only meant to give a more poetical explanation for an otherwise "normal" war, that is a war for the riches of the city of Troy. But we would have been poorer without this poetical explanation...
- (maybe) with Theseus: Iphigenia
- with Menelaus: Hermione, Nicostratos (but some consider Nicostratus only Menelaus' son)
- with Paris: Helen (a daughter who was killed by Hecuba), Idaeus and three other sons who were all killed by a roof that collapsed during the conquest of Troy.
If you want to see how Helen of Troy was represented in the movies, here is a short selection:
- In this film, it's worth looking at Achilles (Brad Pitt), while the choice of Helen was a little bit discussed:
In this film from 1956, most people agree Helen (the Italian actress Rossanna Podesta') is very sexy:
And there is another film, called after Helen of Troy:
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