In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy, also known as Helen of Sparta, or simply Helen, was the daughter of Zeus and Leda, and was a sister of Castor, Pollux, and Clytemnestra. In Greek myths, she was considered the most beautiful woman in the world, by marriage she was Queen of Laconia, a province within Homeric Greece, the wife of King Menelaus. Her abduction by Prince Paris of Troy brought about the Trojan War, elements of her putative biography come from classical authors such as Aristophanes, Cicero, Euripides and Homer. In her youth, she was abducted by Theseus, a competition between her suitors for her hand in marriage sees Menelaus emerge victorious. An oath sworn beforehand by all the suitors requires them to military assistance in the case of her abduction. When she marries Menelaus she is very young, whether her subsequent involvement with Paris is an abduction or a seduction is ambiguous. The legends recounting Helens fate in Troy are contradictory, Homer depicts her as a wistful figure, even a sorrowful one, who comes to regret her choice and wishes to be reunited with Menelaus. Other accounts have a treacherous Helen who simulates Bacchic rites and rejoices in the carnage, ultimately, Paris was killed in action, and in Homers account Helen was reunited with Menelaus, though other versions of the legend recount her ascending to Olympus instead. A cult associated with her developed in Hellenistic Laconia, both at Sparta and elsewhere, at Therapne she shared a shrine with Menelaus and she was also worshiped in Attica and on Rhodes. Her beauty inspired artists of all time to represent her, frequently as the personification of ideal beauty, Christopher Marlowes lines from his tragedy Doctor Faustus are frequently cited, Was this the face that launchd a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium. However, in the play this meeting and the ensuing temptation are not unambiguously positive, closely preceding death, images of her start appearing in the 7th century BC. In classical Greece, her abduction by—or elopement with—Paris was a popular motif, in medieval illustrations, this event was frequently portrayed as a seduction, whereas in Renaissance painting it is usually depicted as a rape by Paris. The fact that rape and kidnapping were interchangeable terms lends additional ambiguity to the story, the etymology of Helens name continues to be a problem for scholars. Georg Curtius related Helen to the moon, Émile Boisacq considered Ἑλένη to derive from the noun ἑλένη meaning torch. It has also suggested that the λ of Ἑλένη arose from an original ν. Linda Lee Clader, however, says none of the above suggestions offers much satisfaction. Inversely, others have connected this etymology to a hypothetical proto-indo-european sun goddess, in particular, her marriage myth may be connected to a broader indo-european marriage drama of the sun goddess, and she is related to the divine twins, just as many of these goddesses are. The origins of Helens myth date back to the Mycenaean age, the first record of her name appears in the poems of Homer, but scholars assume that such myths invented or received by the Mycenaean Greeks made their way to Homer
Leda and the Swan by Cesare da Sesto (c. 1506–1510, Wilton). The artist has been intrigued by the idea of Helen's unconventional birth; she and Clytemnestra are shown emerging from one egg; Castor and Pollux from another.
Theseus pursuing a woman, probably Helen. Side A from an Attic red-figure bell-krater, c. 440–430 BC (Louvre, Paris).
Helen and Menelaus: Menelaus intends to strike Helen; captivated by her beauty, he drops his sword. A flying Eros and Aphrodite (on the left) watch the scene. Detail of an Attic red-figurekrater c. 450–440 BC (Paris, Louvre)