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Paris and Helena

Quick Facts

Him: Paris, Trojan prince
Her: Helena, wife and queen to Menelaus, King of Sparta
Setting: Greece, 1194 BC

Background: Paris of Troy is given the right to judge a beauty competition between three goddesses, choosing Aphrodite in the end. As a reward for picking her, the Greek goddess of love promised him the most beautiful woman in the world. Helena, the queen of Sparta, would be his prize – and the Trojan War was launched when her husband, Menelaus, discovers his wife is missing.

Born the daughter of the god Zeus and Spartan queen Leda, wife of Tyndareus, Helena was considered a worthy mate for both her extraordinary beauty – English poet Christopher Marlowe would later call hers the “face that launched a thousand ships” – and stature as the child of the highest Greek god. Upon reaching the age at which she was eligible for marriage, suitors came from kingdoms all over the world with vast wealth to win over the Spartan king.

After much deliberation, Tydraneus chose Menelaus as the recipient of his fair daughter’s hand. Odysseus, one of the suitors, had gotten his fellow pursuers to agree to defend the honor of whomever was chosen, thus Menelaus received more than just a striking wife – he gained a formidable army that would come in handy later on.

Paris, for his part, was far away at the time. Charged by Zeus with judging a beauty contest between three goddesses – Aphrodite, Athena and Hera – and made his selection based on a guarantee from the first he would have the most stunning woman in all the world if he chose her. (Athena and Hera were none too pleased to lose out.)

The problem, of course, was that the young woman in question, Helena, was already married. At this point in the story, the details begin to conflict: Paris arrives on the pretense of seeking a truce with Menelaus then either abducts or seduces the queen, spiriting her away without the Spartan king knowing what had occurred. In some counts, Paris’ cause is helped by an intervention from Eros (Cupid), fires an arrow at Helena just before the Trojan prince arrives, causing her to fall in love with him immediately.

Menelaus, remembering the oath sworn by his competitors and fellow kings when courting Helena, calls his fellow Greeks together and they sail across the sea to the gates of Troy. At first, Menelaus and Odysseus attempt to use diplomacy to claim Helena – the result, though, is nine years of war in which Paris is ultimately killed as the city is sacked after the Spartans get behind the walls through the infamous Trojan Horse.

After the victory by her homeland, conflicting reports describe the fate of Helena: she returns to Sparta, is taken up to Olympus or died in exile on the island of Rhodes. She would go on, in some areas, to be revered as a demi-goddess.

Immortalized by Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the story of Paris and Helena is viewed by many as the first love triangle in the recorded history of Western civilization. In some ways, you could point to this as the love story that launched them all: Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere, Romeo and Juliet, etc. In the end, it is brushed aside in favor of its more flowery successors – this relationship caused a war, after all – due to public fascination with Shakespeare, in particular.