The Anatomy of a Misunderstood Woman: An Examination of Helen of Sparta

Figure 1. A Renaissance depiction of Helen’s arrival at Troy after her abduction. Painting by Dario di Giovanni, The Reception of Helen at Troy, ca. 1468, tempera on wood (spruce) panel, accessed March 28, 2024,

The Anatomy of a Misunderstood Woman: An Examination of Helen of Sparta

By Lily Burkin   


Greco-Roman depictions of religious and mythological women provide a unique lens through which femininity can be seen wielding influence over humanity, while also remaining subject to limitations compared to male counterparts and villainization when they threaten the social order. An infamous example of a woman shamed for her unusual actions is Helen of Troy, the countless narratives about whom—when synchronized—paint a complex and contradictory picture of her motivations within the Trojan War. Despite the influence Helen exerts over powerful male figures, narratives of the Trojan War attempt to strip her of autonomy and reduce her to the “most beautiful woman in the world,” even as she displays shocking levels of emotional and intellectual depth in her struggle for control over her personage.1

Even before the Trojan War begins, the myths regarding Helen’s birth foreshadow her desirability and later vilification in the eyes of the men who fight for her. In the collection of Greek myths, Apollodorus recounts two myths about Helen’s parentage, the first of which claims that Helen was born as a result of Zeus “[taking] the form of a swan” and “[having] intercourse with Leda.” According to the second, Zeus raped the goddess of vengeance, Nemesis, resulting in Helen’s existence (Library 3.10.7). Although Apollodorus’ Library of Greek Mythology was written centuries after the Homeric texts,2 this story is corroborated by the Cypria,3 another narrative written closer to Homer’s—preserved in Athenaeus’ Scholars at Dinner—that states “Nemesis once bore [Helen], united in love to Zeus… under harsh compulsion” (Cypria fr.10 West). While both myths establish Helen’s divine heritage, they also reflect the role that she will play leading up to the Trojan War. In the former myth, Zeus disguises himself to sleep with Leda, which resonates strongly with how Paris disguises his intentions toward Menelaus to infiltrate his household and steal his wife.4 While the latter foreshadows the vengeance strewn throughout texts regarding the Trojan War, and implicates a generational inevitability to her abduction.

Additionally, Zeus is also a crucial figure in the Trojan myth because he is regarded as an enforcer of the laws of hospitality,5 which Paris broke by tricking and dishonoring Menelaus (Library Epit. 3.6). However, this reading is somewhat complicated by the fact that Zeus allows the Trojans to temporarily win the conflict after Thetis’ supplication in the Iliad (Iliad 1.540) and is suspected “of favoring the Trojans” by his wife (Iliad 1.551-552). As well as the idea presented in Apollodorus’ Library that Helen was abducted “with the will of Zeus, so that [she] would become famous” and “to ensure that the race of demigods would be raised to glory” (Library Epit. 3.1). Despite this, the “glory” that Zeus wanted the Greeks to attain may stem from the protection of their cultural customs desecrated by the Trojan prince, as they viewed the abduction of Helen as an “insult to Greece” (Library Epit. 3.6). There is also a pervasive sense within the narrative that the impending fall of Troy is inevitable (Iliad 6.471), and therefore may be the manifestation of divine punishment against Paris for disobeying the laws of hospitality. Similarly, Nemesis’ rape by Zeus parallels her daughter’s abduction, and a sense of justice may be discerned in the fall of Troy as retribution for both Paris and Zeus’ transgressions against the women they violate.

Another myth regarding Helen’s childhood is also mentioned in Apollodorus’ Library, in which a young Helen was abducted by Theseus, only to be rescued by her brothers, who “marched against the city, captured it… and also took away Theseus’ mother, Aithra, as a captive” (Library 3.10.7). This myth is eerily reminiscent of the destruction of Troy, given that female relatives of active participants or those who were complicit in Helen’s abduction are taken into slavery as war prizes (Library Epit. 5.24) like Theseus’ mother. This early episode in Helen’s life indicates that whoever attempts to marry her against her will is destined to experience a loss of power and the subsequent humiliation of their female relatives at the hands of Helen’s male relatives. The portrayal of Helen as the daughter of Nemesis indicates that she has power over men’s fates, and therefore, can be a subject of double determination.6 Nemesis’ role as Helen’s mother reinforces her fate as a woman who brings tragedy to those who harm her.

Another compelling demonstration of double determination occurs in Homer’s Iliad in the conflict between Helen and Aphrodite. In the third book of the Iliad, Menelaus and Paris fight to determine the outcome of the Trojan War and, ultimately, who will claim Helen (Iliad 3.72-79). When Helen talks to Priam before the fight between her lovers, she states that she “[followed Paris] here, leaving [her] home” (Iliad 3.183)—indicating that she may not have been completely helpless when she was abducted by Paris. This sentiment is also echoed in The Odyssey when, in a conversation with Odysseus’ son, Helen states that “by [the time Odysseus infiltrated Troy, she] wanted to go home” (Odyssey 4.261), which is a strangely apathetic manner to describe her situation in Troy. However, in the Odyssey, Helen also goes on to say that “Aphrodite [had]… made [her] / go crazy” (Odyssey 4.262-263). The presentations of Helen in both the Iliad and Odyssey point to double determination as the cause of the war, as Aphrodite made Helen leave with Paris as a prize for his judgment but also, to an extent, Helen may have also wanted to leave with him.7 However, the dynamic between Helen and Aphrodite in the Iliad points to a much more sinister conclusion that robs Helen of her agency. When Helen hears from Iris that her husband is fighting:

Helen’s mind [is turned]

Into a sweet mist of desire

For her former husband, her parents, and her city.

           (Iliad 3.141-143)

Additionally, when she talks with Priam, she calls herself a “shameless bitch” for starting the war (Iliad 3.190). Helen’s grief for the life that she led before she left Sparta with Paris and her self-hatred indicate that she does not want to be in Troy.

This is further supported by Helen’s interaction with Aphrodite when the goddess attempts to coax Helen to bed (Iliad 3.417-421), as she insults Aphrodite by telling her that “maybe someday he’ll make [Aphrodite] his wife” (Iliad3.437). This is an extreme emotional reaction to the mere presence of the goddess of love, and, combined with her self-hatred earlier in the passage, indicates that Aphrodite has forced her to stay with Paris, as argued by Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen in an attempt to exonerate Helen from wrongdoing, offering possibilities for Helen leaving Sparta with Paris under the influence of Aphrodite, such as being unable to “reject and refuse it” because “Love has the divine power of the gods” (Encomium to Helen 19). Homer’s presentation of Aphrodite’s influence can therefore be read as an anthropomorphic demonstration of Gorgias’ claim that humans are subjugated by forces larger than themselves. However, Aphrodite’s control over Helen does not entirely seem to be a manifestation of her desires. In Book Three of the Iliad, after Helen insults Aphrodite, the goddess threatens to “make [Helen] repulsive to both sides [of the war]” and asks her to think about “where [she will] be” as a result (Iliad 3.444-445). As a result of this eerie response, when Helen goes to Paris’ bed in the third book of the Iliad, she does so in terror (Iliad 3.446) and under coercion from this extreme threat. She is described as:

[Pulling] her silvery white linens around her

And [walking] silently through the Trojan women,

Eluding them completely [while]

           (Iliad 3.447-449).

Helen pulls her clothes around her in an act of submission that is not so much reminiscent of a lustful woman going to see her lover as of a person who has been harmed, both by Paris and the goddess, and is attempting to protect herself even as she obeys the goddess’ orders. Therefore, given Helen’s longing to return to her husband as detailed earlier in the third book of the Iliad and her heated interaction with the goddess of love, Aphrodite’s influence on Helen does not seem to indicate a case of fully formed double determination, and if it is, it seems to have a very small bearing on Helen’s actions throughout the Iliad.

Despite this, Helen exerts a surprising amount of agency throughout the Iliad, which subverts her role as a woman within Paris’ household. In the sixth book, Hector confronts Paris about his absence from the battlefield (Iliad 6.341-347), and Helen responds by supporting Hector and inviting him to “sit down,” away from the conflict (Iliad 6.371). While Helen attempts to appease his anger (Iliad 6.372-373), she frames her argument by calling herself a “scheming, cold-blooded bitch” (Iliad 6.362). Although this may be a continuation of the self-hatred that pervades the third book of the Iliad, this may also hint at the amount of control that Helen has behind the scenes of the Trojan War. For example, in the Odyssey, Helen tells Telemachus about how she met Odysseus when he infiltrated Troy, and that “[she] saw through [Odysseus’] disguise and questioned him,” though “[she] would not reveal him to the Trojans” (Odyssey 4.250-251, 254). Odysseus’ encounter with Helen foreshadows his later adventures, in which he disguises himself during his encounter with the Cyclops (Odyssey 9.264-267) and the infiltration of his household to get rid of the suitors (Odyssey 16.272-275, 301-303). In these instances, nobody recognizes Odysseus’ identity until he chooses to reveal himself; therefore, Helen’s ability to see through his disguise demonstrates her intellect. When she attempts to talk to Odysseus and he remains silent (Odyssey 4.251), her actions parallel his encounter with Polyphemus, in which his refusal to give information about himself is paramount to his survival. However, while Polyphemus is depicted as Odysseus’ lesser, Helen seems his equal, as neither of them is fooled by the other—first in Helen seeing through his disguise and then in Odysseus refusing to talk to her. Helen’s intellect, or mētis,8 is also supported in other sources like Euripides’ Helen, in which she escapes marriage to the Egyptian king Theoklymenos through trickery (Helen 1055-1094, 1515-1625). Although Helen calling herself a “scheming, cold-blooded bitch” in the Iliad seems like an insult, this may actually be a representation of her agenda, which in this instance seems to require keeping the foremost Trojan warrior away from battle (Iliad 6.380-381).

Although Helen attempts to distract Hector in Book Three, there are hints throughout the text that indicate their kinship. Helen’s connection with Hector invites a parallel between their marriages, as Helen’s union with Paris serves as an inverse of the traditional and loving relationship between Hector and his wife, Andromache. While Hector is shown as the ideal hero determined to fight for honor and family, Paris is depicted as a coward. At the beginning of the third book of the Iliad, Paris initially “[invites the Greeks’] best to fight him to the death” (Iliad 3.25) but then, when he sees Menelaus, his demeanor changes (Iliad 3.36-37) and Hector chastises him as a “desperate womanizing pretty boy” (Iliad3.45). Paris’ actions are reinforced by Aphrodite’s favor toward him, as when he faces Menelaus in combat, Aphrodite takes him back to “his vaulted bedroom” (Iliad 3.400-409). This is another instance of double determination, in which Paris’ instinct to flee Menelaus is reinforced by the goddess’ actions.

Paris’ cowardice is also linked to his appearance, as when Aphrodite tries to entice Helen to see him after the fight, she states:

He’s propped up on pillows in [Helen’s] bedroom

So silky and beautiful you’d never think

He’d just come from combat…

            (Iliad 3.417-420).

This description of Paris separates him from the Greek ideal of a warrior, instead sexualizing him and placing him in a feminine role as he waits inside the household. This is compounded because Helen is brought from the masculine outdoor space into the domestic sphere to meet him, inverting the traditional ancient Greek gender dynamic.9 Throughout the Iliad, Helen continues to embody a masculine role as she chastises Paris—telling him that “[he] should have died out there” (Iliad 3.456)—, urges him to fight on the battlefield (Iliad 3.460), and continually insults him. Helen’s reaction to Paris emphasizes her hatred for him, contrasts her with Andromache—who begs her husband to stay close to her (Iliad 6.453-455)—, and resembles Hector’s attempt to bring Paris into the war.

Although Helen seems to want to return to Menelaus—and her behavior toward Paris demonstrates little affection—she remains a curious figure as it appears that she is not only struggling against the Trojans. For example, in the Odyssey, Menelaus describes the events leading up to the fall of Troy, and states that:

[Helen] went around the hollow belly [of the Trojan horse]

touching the hiding place and calling on

[the] Greeks by name; [and] put on different voices

for each man’s wife.

           (Odyssey 4.277-280).

While Helen may be quietly fighting the Trojans in the Iliad, the Odyssey paints a mercurial image of her in which she keeps Odysseus’ identity a secret (Odyssey 4.253-254) in one moment, and in the next, attempts to reveal the Greeks. These inconsistencies that pervade the Homeric text indicate that Helen is not subversive simply because she longs to go home, but rather due to the traditional aspects of ancient Greek life that, in her abduction, were trampled. Zeus, Helen’s father, is an important aspect of the Trojan myth because he is the god who represents xenia, or the sacred relationship between guests and their hosts.10 The fall of Troy served as divine retribution for Paris’ transgression against the laws of hospitality when he kidnapped Helen.

Similarly, Helen’s actions in the Iliad and Odyssey may not simply be a product of synchronic myth, but serve to “test” the men around her, as Agamemnon does with his soldiers in Book Two of the Iliad (Iliad 2.78-80). For example, in the Odyssey, when Helen mimics the wives of the Greek soldiers, Odysseus and his men succeed because he “prevented [them] from going” (Odyssey 4.284) and, when one of the soldiers was tempted to answer, “Odysseus’ hand clamped shut his mouth / and saved [them] all” (Odyssey 287-288). Helen’s mimicry of the Greek wives is an attempt to lure the soldiers out of the horse, implicating that she supports the Trojans. However, this scene is comparable to Zeus’ unpredictability during the Trojan War, as he allows the Trojans to start to win so that the Greeks will value Achilles (Iliad 1.540-541), whose vengeance against Hector eventually leads to the fall of Troy (Iliad 24.780-795). In this scene, Helen serves as a trial that the Greeks must overcome by restraining themselves, even when they hear their wives—whom they had not seen in a decade—calling for them.11 Similarly, in Book Six of the Iliad, Hector avoids the temptation that Helen offers when she invites him to “come inside and sit down” (Iliad 6.372)—a trial compounded by his own wife’s pleas (Iliad 6.453)—for the greater good of Troy. In contrast, Paris is unable to restrain himself; when he is given chances to prove his worth by fighting in the battles he started, he instead decides to “slack off” (Iliad 6.551). The trial that Helen poses to these men determines their worth as heroes and, ultimately, their victories on the battlefield.

However, another interpretation of the trials that Helen poses is that they represent the sacrifices necessary for the restoration of traditional marriage in the aftermath of the Trojan War. The Iliad ends with the death of Hector and the destruction of a traditional marriage, the impact of which is increased when considering that Helen’s attempts to evade Aphrodite failed (Iliad 3.427-450), and she was seduced by Paris (Iliad 3.456-475). Despite the seemingly hopeless ending of the Iliad, the Odyssey continues the story and depicts the reunion of traditional families, both with the restoration of Odysseus to his wife and son and the restoration of Helen as Menelaus’ wife. In the Odyssey, Odysseus faces trials in which he is tempted by wicked female figures, and his return home hinges on his ability to leave them behind to reunite with his wife (Odyssey 23.233-244).

Interestingly, in their reunion, Penelope also equates herself with Helen and expresses that she and Helen both felt “the [same] passion that… caused [her] grief,” implying that they are both beholden to Aphrodite’s influence (Odyssey23.224-226). Penelope expresses a kinship with Helen—as she feared that “some bad man / Would [fool] her with lies” just like Paris tricked Helen (Odyssey 23.219-224). Penelope also mirrors Helen in that she is highly sought after by the suitors and, when her husband returns home, provides a test to verify Odysseus’ identity (Odyssey 23.173-220). If Helen and Penelope’s experiences parallel each other, they both serve as the ultimate reward for their husbands’ temperance. In a parallel to Odysseus’ trials, Helen poses a challenge to the soldiers inside of the Trojan Horse, and by resisting the allure of the imitations of their wives, the Achaeans can sack Troy and are allowed to return home to their real wives. Although Helen’s behavior is incredibly inconsistent, the trials she poses to the male figures around her reaffirm traditional Greek values that are threatened, or even destroyed, by the Trojan War and allow a successful homecoming for those who can navigate them and survive.

The widespread use of Helen by various authors in texts about the Trojan War implicates diverse interpretations of her character. However, Helen’s consistently elusive and contradictory behavior across ancient Greek literature serves to accentuate her powerful influence over the Trojan War and the men who fought in it. In syncretizing the various myths about her life—such as those regarding her parentage and earlier abductions—with her epic and tragic depictions, a fascinating image is created of a highly sought-after woman who stands on the precipice between desirability and disgust, godhood and humanity, and ultimately, purpose and perplexity in response to the events of her own life. In examining the liminal figure of Helen of Troy, not only are we able to question the “blood-red fabric” that she and the poet use to shape her place in the narrative of the Trojan War (Iliad 3.129), but also, allow her to inhabit the simultaneous role of a weaver pulling the strings and a subject made of thread.


Lily Burkin (she/her) is a sophomore studying English at the University of California Berkeley. 



  1. Kristina Chew, “Strife, Love, Honor, Fame – How Does the Odyssey Become the Iliad All Over Again?” (Lecture, University of California Berkeley, July 10-11, 2023).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Joachim Latacz, “Cypria” in Brill’s New Pauly, Hubert Cancik et al., editors (2006).
  4. Chew, “Strife, Love, Honor, Fame.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Kristina Chew, “Homer’s Odyssey (Books 5-12): Odysseus, Achilles, and How to Be a Hero” (Lecture, University of California Berkeley, July 6, 2023).
  9. Kristina Chew, “Hesiod (ca. 750 BCE) – First Chaos, Then Fire, Then a Jar” (Lecture, University of California Berkeley, July 11-12, 2023).
  10. Kristina Chew, “Homer’s Odyssey (Books 1-4): Kleos (Fame), Honor (Timē), Xenia (Guest-Friendship), Nostos (Homecoming)” (Lecture, University of California Berkeley, July 5, 2023).
  11. Ibid.



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