Monday, May 18, 2015

Two Versions of the Epic: Helen of Troy, Worth Knowing

A Love that Launched a War

All of us are aware of the famous epic love story ‘Helen of Troy’. It forms the theme of an epic of immense proportion The Iliad attributed to the blind poet Homer. Homer was a Greek and he has given to posterity a wonderful saga of love and war.

Homer’s Version

The story as narrated by Homer is as follows. Prince Paris of the city kingdom of Troy was sent on a good will
 mission by his father King Priam to Sparta. On the way he was shipwrecked in a storm and washed to the sea-shore where the beautiful Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta was having a sojourn.

Helen and her hand maidens rescued Paris and love instantly blossomed between the two, Paris and Helen. Paris now resolved to take Helen away to Troy as his wife and consort. Paris spent some days at the court of Menelaus and received information that another ship will be arriving from Troy to take him back. He accordingly made plans to abduct Helen and take her away.

On a dark night he entered the chamber of the queen Helen, who willingly accompanied Paris to Troy. Homer continues with his tale and says that Menelaus and the Greeks were incensed and decided to attack Troy. The huge Greek army in an armada of a 1000 ships reached the shores of Troy and demanded that Helen and the treasure be returned to Menelaus. King Priam of Troy refused and that ignited a siege of Troy that lasted 10 years. In the end with the help of the warrior Achilles who killed Hector the elder brother of Paris the Greeks prevailed and Troy was burnt to ashes. Menelaus was able to take Helen back to Greece. Helen is popularly referred to as the‘face that launched a thousand ships’

Helen and Paris In Egypt ?

The Version of Herodotus

The above is the popular version of the story and has been accepted by Hollywood which has depicted the story of Helen on screen many times. But some historians however give a different account of this battle and story as depicted in The Iliad.

The source of these researchers is the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus who lived around the 5th century. This is a period about 300 years after the era of Homer. Herodotus is a much respected figure in world history and he in his Book2 of the Histories depicts an entirely different scenario of the love of Paris and Helen.

The first part of the Iliad and the history by Herodotus are synonymous. The tale of Paris being shipwrecked and falling in love and eloping are similar to the Iliad. But as per Herodotus the ship carrying Paris and Helen ran into a sea storm of immense proportion.

Herodotus mentions that this great storm threw Paris off course and he was wily nily forced to reach the coast of Egypt. When Paris reached the Egyptian coast some of his slaves and servants revolted against him and informed the King at Memphis, Proteus that a Trojan stranger has come from Greece where he has abducted a beautiful queen and stolen treasures.

Proteus immediately had Paris arrested and brought before him in court along with Helen. After due deliberation he was convinced that the complaint was correct. He ordered Paris to leave Egypt and kept Helen and the treasure back in Egypt, till such time king Menelaus could come and claim his right.

As a proof of this Herodotus mentions that there is a temple at Memphis dedicated to Helen the Spartan queen, who was resident for some time in Egypt. As per Herodotus Homer knew of the true tale, but gave it a romantic tint as an imaginative writer will do. Herodotus mentions that he had visited the temple and met the priests there who had vouchsafed that the temple was dedicated to Helen and not Aphrodite.

Thus when the Greek army reached Troy and asked for the return of Helen, they received a reply that there was no Helen as in real fact she was in Egypt. The Greeks did not believe the Trojan king and thus resolved to go to war. Herodotus argues that when the Trojan king replied that there was no Helen he was speaking the truth. If Helen was really there he would have handed her to Menelaus to avoid war.


Herodotus believes that the version written by him is the correct version. Historians are still debating the stories but generally the version of Herodotus is given greater credence. But all said and done the tale of the Trojan War and the abduction of Helen by Paris is one of the great romances that have enlivened the lives of millions all over the world as an example of true love and passion.

Hollywood has made many movies on this epic. The last movie Troy with Brad Pitt is certainly worth a visit.