Helen of Sparta was perhaps the most inspired character in all literature, ancient or modern. A whole war, one which lasted for ten years, was fought over her. Not only that, nearly all the myths of the heroic age were threaded together in such a way that this most idealized of all wars was the culmination of various exploits, including the Argonaut, the Theban wars, and the Calydonian boar hunt. It is as though this event was in the destiny of every dynasty formed from the beginning of things.
Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, was a tantalizing enigma from the very first. She was flesh and blood certainly, but she was also immortal, since her father was none other than Zeus. Her mother was the beautiful Leda, queen of Sparta, who was ravished by the father of the gods in the form of a swan. Leda's husband was Tyndarecus, who later the same night, unaware of his feathered predecessor, also impregnated his wife. She produced two eggs, one of which yielded Helen and Polydeuces and the other of which contained Castor and Clytemnestra. While a swan's egg can be accepted for the sake of myth, it has never made much sense that the part of her pregnancy initiated by Tyndareus should produce an egg as well. This most curious of births has been subjected to all manner of combinations over the years. As delicious as the story of Leda was, some commentators even went so far as to suggest that Helen and the Dioscuri were conceived at Rhamnus in Attica by Zeus and Nemesis, the usually rather stern and sexless goddess whose job it was to curb excesses. Nemesis, not happy with being raped by a swan, laid an egg and left it. Leda found it, and when the egg hatched it produced Helen and the Dioscuri. In that case, Clytemnestra was not even a sister of Helen.
It is difficult to imagine the childhood of the famous egg-born quartet. Two of them could be injured, perhaps, but not fatally; two had special gifts that made them physically and mentally superior. Apparently there was no jealousy among them. Castor and Polydeuces were so closely attached they swore to die together, even if Polydeuces could not hope to fulfill this resolve. The relationship between Helen and Clytemnestra was not so simple. Helen was stunningly beautiful, and this must have caused Clytemnestra some wistful moments when inevitable comparisons were made.
When the sisters reached puberty, Helen was kidnapped. Both the aging Theseus, king of Athens, and his friend Peirithous, king of Larissa, wanted to have sex with one of Zeus' daughters before they died. Theseus chose Helen, whose remarkable beauty was already talked of far and wide. The abductors took her to Aphidna, a small city north of Athens, and left her in the safekeeping of one of Theseus' vassals. He put his mother, Aethra, with her as a guardian and companion. Inevitably, stories arose that Theseus took her into safekeeping to do Tyndarcus a favor. One of Tyndarcus' nephews was persistently pursuing her as a suitor, even at her very young age. Another story said the sons of Apharcus, Idas and Lynceus, stole her, which caused the famous fatal battle between them and the Dioscuri. There can be little question that Theseus took Helen's virginity. After all, that was the object of the kidnapping. Some suppose that he planned to keep her intact until she reached marriageable age. But the more realistic writers even gave the couple a child. Interestingly, but improbably, the child was Iphigeneia.
We cannot know how long Helen was at Aphidna. Theseus had accomplished his goal, so he left her and went with Peirithous to Hades to steal Persephone. This was foolhardy as it turned out, for both were imprisoned, Peirithous forever. The Dioscuri meanwhile raised an army and marched on Athens. The Athenians knew nothing of the outrage to their sister, but one Academus had knowledge of the facts and revealed the hiding place. The brothers razed Aphidna and delivered Helen, whom they carried home to...
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