Helen of Troy: Story & History

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  • 0:01 Helen of Troy
  • 0:22 Helen's Divine Lineage
  • 1:02 Helen's Kidnapping
  • 1:22 Helen's Marriage
  • 2:06 The Trojan War
  • 3:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies and 27 graduate credits in American history. She will start coursework on her doctoral degree in history this fall. She has taught heritage of the western world I and II and U.S. history I and II at a community college in southern New Jersey for the past two years.

According to myth, Helen of Troy's beauty was the cause of the Trojan War, which is why she has been called 'the face that launched a thousand ships.' In this lesson, you'll learn about the most enduring myths of Helen of Troy.

Helen of Troy

Helen of Troy has captured the imagination of artists and writers for ages. According to popular mythology, her beauty was the cause of the Trojan War that would plague her part of the world for an entire decade. This is why she has been referred to as 'the face that launched a thousand ships.' Her legendary beauty was the result of her divine lineage.

Helen's Divine Lineage

In most accounts of her birth, Helen was the daughter of Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods, and a mortal woman named Leda, Queen of Sparta. As the story goes, Zeus appeared to Leda in the form of a swan and the pair conceived Helen. Instead of a regular birth, Leda gave birth to eggs, which eventually hatched and yielded Helen and her siblings. Some accounts report that Helen was the only birth to result from this union.

In other versions of the myth, Helen is the daughter of Zeus and a goddess named Nemesis. Thus, the true origins of the myth of Helen of Troy remain unclear. However, the first known record of her name comes from the poet Homer.

Helen's Kidnapping

Once Helen reached young adulthood, she was the focus of many suitors. In one version of her story, Theseus, the king of Athens, even went as far as kidnapping her. In response, Helen's brothers, Castor and Pollux, launched an invasion of Athens. They were successful and soon returned their sister to her home.

Helen's Marriage

After this incident, she reportedly had many suitors who vied for her hand in marriage. Accounts of the actual number vary from as little as 11 to as many as 45. Fearing the retaliation of the rejected suitors, Helen's stepfather, King Tyndareus, refused to select a husband for his daughter. Instead, he enlisted the help of the hero Odysseus.

Cleverly, Odysseus asked that all suitors swear an oath to defend the chosen one against any retaliation after the decision was made. After all the suitors agreed to this oath, Menelaus was chosen as Helen's husband. After Tyndareus stepped down as king, Menelaus and Helen became the rulers of Sparta.

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