Note: Helen of Troy (below) was not the same person as the Amazon Helene or the friend of Aphrodite Helene, nor was she the same person as Hellen (son of Deucalion and Pyrrha, the ancestor of the Greeks), nor Helenus, son of King Priam of Troy.
According to Roman mythology, Leda bore Helen and Polydeuces to Zeus while at the same time bearing Castor and Clytemnestra to her father and husband Tyndareus, the King of Sparta. In some versions, Helen is a daughter of Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance.
As the story goes, Zeus cohabited with Leda in the form of a swan on the same night as her husband, King Tyndareus. To the former she gave birth to Helen and Polydeuces, and to the latter, Clytemnestra and Castor. In some versions she laid two eggs from which the children hatched.
Two Athenians, Theseus and Pirithous, pledged to marry daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen, and he and Pirithous kidnapped her and decided to hold onto her until she was old enough to marry. Pirithous chose Persephone. They left Helen with Theseus' mother, Aethra and travelled to the underworld, domain of Persephone and her husband, Hades. Hades pretended to offer them hospitality and set a feast; as soon as the pair sat down, snakes coiled around their feet and held them there.
When it was time for Helen to marry, many Greek kings and princes came to seek her hand or sent emissaries to do so on their behalf. Among the contenders were Odysseus, Menestheus, Ajax the Great, Patroclus and Idomeneus, but the favourite was Menelaus who did not come in person but was represented by his brother Agamemnon, both of whom were in exile, having fled Thyestes. All but Odysseus brought many and rich gifts with them.
Tyndareus would accept none of the gifts, nor would he send any of the suitors away for fear of offending them and giving grounds for a quarrel. Odysseus promised to solve the problem in a satisfactory manner if Tyndareus would support him in his courting of Penelope, the daughter of Icarius. Tyndareus readily agreed and Odysseus proposed that, before the decision was made, all the suitors should swear a most solemn oath to defend the chosen husband against whoever should quarrel with the chosen one. This stratagem succeeded and Helen and Menelaus were married. Following Tyndareus' death, Menelaus became king of Sparta because the only male heirs, Castor and Polydeuces, had died and ascended to Mt. Olympus.
Some years later, Paris, a Trojan prince came to Sparta to marry Helen, whom he had been promised by Aphrodite. Helen fell in love with him and left willingly, leaving behind Menelaus and Hermione, their nine-year-old daughter.
Menelaus called upon all the other suitors to fulfill their oaths, thus beginning the Trojan War. Virtually all of Greece took part, either attacking Troy with Menelaus or defending it from them.
Helen's relationship with Paris varies depending on the source of the story. In some, she loved him dearly (perhaps caused by Aphrodite, who had promised her to Paris). In others, she was a cruel, selfish woman who brought disaster to everyone around her, and she hated him. One version claims Hermes fashioned a likeness of her out of clouds at Zeus' request, and Helen never even went to Troy.
When Paris died in the war, his brother, Deiphobus, married Helen. He was then killed by Menelaus. Helen returned to Sparta with Menelaus. After Menelaus' death, Helen was exiled by their son, Megapenthes.
This is why Helen was often known as "the face that launched a thousand ships". Note that the idea of Helen's face launching a thousand ships is postclassical - it comes from Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, in which Helen makes a cameo, but well-remembered, appearance.
"Is this the face that launched a thousand ships And burned the topless towers of Ilium?"
An estimation of her life based on the traditional dates of the Trojan War:
- 1225 BC - Birth of Helen to King Tyndareus of Sparta and his wife Leda. Thanks to her beauty she will later be considered daughter of Zeus.
- 1213 BC - At the age of twelve Helen is abducted by King Theseus of Athens who marries her against her father's and brothers' consent. During the absence of Theseus, her brothers Castor and Polydeuces help a revolt by his cousin Menestheus. Menestheus gains the throne and returns Helen to her brothers. According to some versions Helen was pregnant and a few months later gives birth to Iphigeneia. She trusts her daughter to her married sister Clytemnestra who will raise her as her own. Soon Menestheus of Athens and other Kings and princes gather at Sparta as Helen's suitors.
- 1212 BC - Tyndareus marries Helen to Menelaus of Mycenae. Menelaus' brother is King Agamemnon who is married to Helen's sister Clytemnestra. Helen soon gives birth to Hermione. The early deaths of her brothers Castor and Polydeuces, soon make Menelaus Tyndareus successor at the throne of Sparta.
- 1203 BC - After nine years of marriage, Paris of Troy visits Sparta and in Menelaus absence convinces Helen to flee with him. Menelaus discovers that his wife and guest betrayed him and starts contemplating war. King Priam of Troy marries Helen to Paris. Menelaus preparations of war and gathering of allies and armie took him ten years according to some versions.
- 1194 BC - Beginning of the Trojan War.
- 1184 BC - Paris mortaly wounded in battle. Priam marries Helen to Deiphobus, a younger brother of Paris.
- April 24, 1184 BC - Fall of Troy. Deiphobus is slain by Menelaus who reclaimes Helen as his wife. They sail on their return jurney but get stranded on the soars of Egypt.
- 1176 BC - After spending eight years in Egypt, they manage to set sail again and reach the soars of Peloponnesus. According to Euripides they visit Mycenae, arriving shortly after the murders of King Aegisthus, who was Menelaus first cousin, and Queen Clytemnestra, who was Helen's sister, by their common nephew Orestes, the new King of Mycenae. Orestes attempts to kill his aunt but fails. The royal couple return to Sparta.
- 1174 BC - According to the Odyssey, Telemachus of Ithaca visits Sparta seeking information for his father Odysseus. Menelaus and Helen reply that they haven't heard of him since they left Troy ten years ago. They mourn their many lost relatives and friends.
- 1154 BC - According to Pausanias, Menelaus dies of old age and natural causes. Megapenthes, his illegitimate son, seizes the throne and exiles Helen. He soon loses the throne to his first cousin King Orestes of Mycenae who is married to Hermione, the only legitimate daughter of Menelaus and Helen and half-sister of Megapenthes. By this point Orestes had also seized the vacant thrones of Argos and Arcadia and becomes the sole ruler of Peloponnesus. Helen seeks refuge to Rhodes near Polyxo, widow of Tlepolemus, an old friend of hers. But Tlepolemus was famously the first man to be killed during the Trojan War. In revenge for her husband's death, Polyxo ordered her maidens to pretend to be the ghosts of the many dead seeking revenge from Helen. Helen committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree. After her death she will be deified.