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Helen of Troy

[In this story in rhyme of the fortunes of Helen, the theory that she was an unwilling
victim of the Gods has been preferred. Many of the descriptions of manners are versified
from the Iliad and the Odyssey. The description of the events after the death of Hector,
and the account of the sack of Troy, is chiefly borrowed from Quintus Smyrnaeus.]
The character and history of Helen of Troy have been conceived of in very different ways
by poets and mythologists. In attempting to trace the chief current of ancient traditions
about Helen, we cannot really get further back than the Homeric poems, the Iliad and
Odyssey. Philological conjecture may assure us that Helen, like most of the characters of
old romance, is "merely the Dawn," or Light, or some other bright being carried away by
Paris, who represents Night, or Winter, or the Cloud, or some other power of darkness.
Without discussing these ideas, it may be said that the Greek poets (at all events before
allegorical explanations of mythology came in, about five hundred years before Christ)
regarded Helen simply as a woman of wonderful beauty. Homer was not thinking of the
Dawn, or the Cloud when he described Helen among the Elders on the Ilian walls, or
repeated her lament over the dead body of Hector. The Homeric poems are our oldest
literary documents about Helen, but it is probable enough that the poet has modified and
purified more ancient traditions which still survive in various fragments of Greek legend.
In Homer Helen is always the daughter of Zeus. Isocrates tells us ("Helena," 211 b) that
"while many of the demigods were children of Zeus, he thought the paternity of none of
his daughters worth claiming, save that of Helen only." In Homer, then, Helen is the
daughter of Zeus, but Homer says nothing of the famous legend which makes Zeus
assume the form of a swan to woo the mother of Helen. Unhomeric as this myth is, we
may regard it as extremely ancient. Very similar tales of pursuit and metamorphosis, for
amatory or other purposes, among the old legends of Wales, and in the "Arabian Nights,"
as well as in the myths of Australians and Red Indians. Again, the belief that different
families of mankind descend from animals, as from the Swan, or from gods in the shape
of animals, is found in every quarter of the world, and among the rudest races. Many
Australian natives of to-day claim descent, like the royal house of Sparta, from the Swan.
The Greek myths hesitated as to whether Nemesis or Leda was the bride of the Swan.
Homer only mentions Leda among "the wives and daughters of mighty men," whose
ghosts Odysseus beheld in Hades: "And I saw Leda, the famous bedfellow of Tyndareus,
who bare to Tyndareus two sons, hardy of heart, Castor, tamer of steeds, and the boxer
Polydeuces." These heroes Helen, in the Iliad (iii. 238), describes as her mother's sons.
Thus, if Homer has any distinct view on the subject, he holds that Leda is the mother of
Helen by Zeus, of the Dioscuri by Tyndareus.
Greek ideas as to the character of Helen varied with the various moods of Greek
literature. Homer's own ideas about his heroine are probably best expressed in the words
with which Priam greets her as she appears among the assembled elders, who are
watching the Argive heroes from the wall of Troy: --"In nowise, dear child, do I blame
thee; nay, the Gods are to blame, who have roused against me the woful war of the
Achaeans." Homer, like Priam, throws the guilt of Helen on the Gods, but it is not very
easy to understand exactly what he means by saying "the Gods are to blame." In the first
place, Homer avoids the psychological problems in which modern poetry revels, by