What is Helen's Role in The Iliad?

Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

There would not have been a Trojan War without a woman to fight over. This lesson will explore the character Helen's involvement and influence in Homer's story 'The Iliad.'

The Iliad Background

Homer's great work The Iliad details the mythical final weeks of the Trojan War. This war between the Achaeans and the Trojans lasted for 10 years, but it all began with one woman: Helen. After all, it was she whom Christopher Marlowe was referring to when he penned the line, ''the face that launched a thousand ships.''

A Competition of Goddesses

Helen's biggest impact this story is to be the direct cause of the Trojan War. As it usually happened in Greek myths, the gods have a part to play in this story. There are three goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, who want to claim the golden apple of the Hesperides which belongs ''to the fairest.'' Zeus chooses the Trojan prince Paris to decide who should get the apple. Each goddess had promised him a reward if Paris chose her. He selects Aphrodite in part because she offers him the beautiful Helen.

Unfortunately, at this time Helen is already the wife of the leader of Sparta, King Menelaus. The road to this marriage had been an ordeal. Many suitors competed to marry Helen, but eventually Menelaus won. Because of the fierce competition, each man pledged to support the future husband of Helen.

When Paris came to Sparta for a wedding, he left with Helen. There are conflicting reports on how willingly Helen went with Paris. Either way, she left with Paris on his way back to Troy. Helen leaving triggers King Menelaus' jealousy. The Greeks and their armies go after her. The Trojan War begins when the people of Troy refuse to give Helen back to Menelaus.

Helen on the walls of Troy.

Guilt and Remembering Better Days

Over the next nine long years of war, Helen's attitude changes regarding her new Trojan husband.

The goddess Iris, in disguise, calls Helen over to view the fight between Menelaus and Paris. Iris comes to Helen while she is weaving a tapestry depicting a scene of Trojan heroes dying. This shows Helen feels guilty of all the loss of life she has caused. When Helen watches the fight, she feels a longing for her original husband, Menelaus.

Helen becomes increasingly contrary and antagonistic with Paris. The impact of the long war and the overwhelming number of dead weigh heavily on Helen. Her feelings for Paris cool during the story, while his indifference becomes even more evident. While she mocks him, he seems not to care at all. Instead of being in love with his equal, he views Helen as his possession.

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