Trojan Epics: 3 Helen and her abduction

Tintoretto (1519–1594), The Rape of Helen (1580), oil on canvas, 186 x 307 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Zeus’s plan for a war between the Greeks and Trojans had advanced well. Peleus and Thetis were married, and she was soon to become pregnant with Achilles, who would become the leading warrior of the Greeks. The feast at their wedding allowed Eris to set up the beauty contest between the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. That was judged by Paris, Prince of Troy, who accepted Aphrodite’s bribe of the most beautiful woman in the world, who was revealed to be Helen.

Helen’s origins are the subject of dispute. Later Roman accounts, the basis of most more recent paintings, claim she was the outcome of the union of Leda, wife of Tyndareus, King of Sparta, with Zeus, in the form of a swan. Those dating back to the time of the Cypria and the Epic Cycle are more complex, and make Helen’s mother Nemesis, the personification of public disapproval.

In the Greek version, Zeus appeared to Leda as a swan. Both he and Tyndareus impregnated Leda at about the same time, but as Zeus was then in the form of a swan, her twin pregnancies resulted in two eggs: one hatched into Castor, who was human because his father was Tyndareus; the other hatched into Polydeuces (Latin Pollux), who was divine as his father was Zeus. Despite their different fathers, the twins were known as the Dioskuroi, who were later to rescue Helen.

In the older accounts, when Nemesis was being pursued by Zeus she tried shape-shifting to avoid being raped by him. Unfortunately for her, when she changed into a goose, Zeus became a gander and she succumbed. Being a goose at the time, she too laid an egg, and that was found and taken to Leda to care for and presumably incubate with those of the Dioskuroi. Thus, Leda was Helen’s foster-mother.

Unknown follower of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Leda and the Swan (early 1500s), oil on panel, 131.1 × 76.2 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

This interpreted copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Leda and the Swan, probably painted in the early 1500s and now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, summarises the later account of Helen’s unique birth, with two eggs and a fourth baby, Clytemnestra. Later paintings, perhaps wisely, concentrated on Leda and Zeus, and skipped the incredible egg phase altogether.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Leda and the Swan (E&I 221) (c 1578-83), oil on canvas, 167 x 221 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Tintoretto and his workshop painted Leda and the Swan in about 1578-83, and wittily include two caged birds, a duck and what appears to be a parrot, with a cat taunting the duck.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Leda (1865-75), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Moreau started his early Leda in 1865 but abandoned it incomplete in 1875.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Leda and the Swan (c 1882), watercolor and gouache on paper, 34.2 × 22.2 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Moreau’s later watercolour of Leda and the Swan (c 1882) revisits this myth as another static display of female beauty, with the added twist of a large, dark aquiline bird by Leda’s feet. Although this could be an eagle, the bright red at its base suggests the flames of a phoenix just starting to self-combust. This is a curious combination of symbols of self-renewal through cyclical combustion, and a woman who laid eggs. I have yet to see a coherent explanation.

Joseph Stella (1877–1946), Leda and the Swan (1922), oil on copper, 108 x 118.1 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Joseph Stella’s Leda and the Swan (1922) also follows that more modern tradition.

According to most accounts, when Helen was still under age, she was abducted by Theseus, the ‘hero’ who abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Helen’s adopted brothers the Dioskuroi were unimpressed by this, so they paid Theseus a visit, and persuaded him to return their step-sister. In return for her son’s offence, Aethra, mother of Theseus, was made Helen’s slave, and wasn’t freed until after the fall of Troy many years later.

This myth was the subject of the final painting in the Prix de Rome in 1817, and provides two paintings here.

Léon Cogniet (1794–1880), Helen Delivered by Castor and Pollux (1817), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. By VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

Léon Cogniet’s Helen Delivered by Castor and Pollux (1817) was deemed the winner, and established his career as a major narrative painter.

Jean-Bruno Gassies (1786–1832), Castor and Pollux rescuing Helen (1817), oil on canvas, 113.2 x 145.4 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the better runners-up was Jean-Bruno Gassies’ Castor and Pollux Rescuing Helen (1817). The woman being escorted away at the left may have been intended to be Theseus’ mother Aethra, although she appears remarkably young.

Helen’s beauty only grew over time, and her hand was sought by many suitors in a contest organised by her brothers Castor and Polydeuces. Among those suitors were many prominent figures, including Odysseus.

Helen’s father, King Tyndareus, feared that in choosing between her suitors he would offend and cause trouble. The suitors therefore agreed to swear an oath, under which they would all defend the successful suitor in the event that anyone should quarrel with them, the crucial Oath of Tyndareus. Under that, Menelaos, King of Sparta, was chosen as Helen’s husband, and the couple later had a daughter, Hermione, and possibly sons too.

Following her success in the Judgement of Paris, Aphrodite now had to assist Paris in obtaining his bribe. She took him back to the forests on Mount Ida, where craftsmen built ships to carry Paris and Aphrodite’s son Aeneas to Greece. During this, prophetic warnings were given by Helenos and Cassandra telling of the fateful outcome for both Paris and the city of Troy.

In spite of those warnings, Paris sailed his ships to Gythion in Greece, where he disembarked and made his way to Sparta. On the way he visited the Dioskuroi. Given their previous rescue of Helen, and later absence from the war with Troy, that may have been an important visit.

For nine days, Menelaos entertained Paris as a guest, while Paris plied the king’s wife with gifts, presumably in secret. On the tenth day, Menelaos was called away to Crete for his grandfather’s funeral. He left his house in Helen’s charge, reminding her to ensure their guests were well cared-for, although clearly not in the way that Paris was intending.

Given its importance to subsequent events and the whole story, you might have expected clarity over how Helen and Paris became partners. Instead, there are multiple and conflicting accounts leaving everything in doubt.

Francesco Primaticcio (1504–1570), The Rape of Helen (c 1530-39), oil on canvas, 155 × 188 cm, Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Most of the early paintings, such as Primaticcio’s The Rape of Helen from about 1530-39, show Paris abducting Helen against her will. Here, a youthful Paris is carrying her from the city of Sparta into one of his ships, ready to sail off to Troy with his prize.

Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574), Panorama with the Abduction of Helen Amidst the Wonders of the Ancient World (1535), oil on canvas, 147.3 x 383.5 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

Maerten van Heemskerck’s magnificent Panorama with the Abduction of Helen Amidst the Wonders of the Ancient World (1535) puts the same story into a world-view panorama including classical ‘wonders’ such as the Colossus of Rhodes. Helen is here part of a small raid on Sparta which also took other prizes.

Tintoretto (1519–1594), The Rape of Helen (1580), oil on canvas, 186 x 307 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

For Tintoretto, The Rape of Helen (1580) was nothing short of war. As an archer is about to shoot his arrow, and another Trojan fends off attackers with a pike, Helen, dressed in her finery, is manhandled onto Paris’s ship like a stolen statue.

Guido Reni (1575–1642), The Rape of Helen (c 1626-29), oil on canvas, 253 x 265 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

By the seventeenth century, the painted story was changing. Guido Reni’s The Rape of Helen, from about 1626-29, shows Paris leading Helen away with her maids and courtiers in attendance. She doesn’t look at all happy, and is far from willing, and Eros stands with a finger raised as if to warn that he will use his bow very shortly.

Juan de la Corte (1597–1660), The Rape of Helen (c 1620-50), oil on canvas, 150 × 222 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Juan de la Corte’s The Rape of Helen (c 1620-50) is also more ambiguous. Helen is being grasped around her waist by one of the Trojans, but seems to have resigned herself to her fate.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), Helen Brought to Paris (1776), oil on canvas, 143.3 x 198.3 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

By 1776, when Benjamin West painted Helen Brought to Paris, this has started to look very consensual, although still a seduction by Paris. As Paris kneels before her in supplication, Aphrodite and her son Eros draw the figure of Helen towards him. Note how Helen is wearing predominantly white clothing, and unlike Aphrodite shows only a modest amount of flesh.

Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807), Venus Persuading Helen to Fall in Love with Paris (1790), oil on canvas, 102 × 127.5 cm, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

A few years later, Angelica Kauffman pursues a very similar line in her Venus Persuading Helen to Fall in Love with Paris (1790). So maybe Paris didn’t have to abduct Helen after all, but Aphrodite and Eros had to persuade the queen to allow herself to be seduced.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Love of Helen and Paris (1788), oil on canvas, 146 × 181 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by Livioandronico2013, via Wikimedia Commons.

For Jacques-Louis David, it was all about The Love of Helen and Paris (1788). The couple pose in front of their bed with its rumpled sheets. He is naked and playing his lyre, his cheeks flushed. She wears diaphanous clothing that has slipped off her right shoulder, and her cheeks are distinctly flushed too. Watching over them is a small statue of Aphrodite.

Older Greek accounts make it clear that the couple made love before leaving the house of Menelaos, and that when they departed they took with them a substantial amount of valuable property.

Knowing that they were at sea and heading back to Troy, Hera called up a storm, and their ships were blown to the east to reach Sidon in Phoenicia, where they obtained themselves some fine weavers, who accompanied them back to Troy. Once they were finally back in that city, the couple were married in public.

Meanwhile, Helen’s step-brothers the Dioskuroi ended up in a fight with the brothers Idas and Lynkeus, probably over the theft of cattle. Idas thrust a spear into Castor, causing a fatal wound. His immortal brother Polydeuces prayed to his father Zeus, resulting in the two brothers spending half their time in the heavens, and half under the earth, in a perpetually semi-divine state matching the behaviour of the stars named after them.

In the next article, I’ll look at the prior history of Troy, and the Greek response to the abduction of Helen.