Don’t Cuck the King! The Tragedy of Menelaus

Helen of Troy.

A name that has gone down in history, and to some extent, infamy.

But there is a problem with that moniker…

Helen wasn’t from Troy.

She was, in fact, a Spartan woman by birth, and by royal blood line.

Her mother was Leda, Queen of Sparta; however, her patronage is unclear.

Her father might have been Zeus, masquerading as a Swan.

Biological paternity asides, she was raised as the daughter of King Tyndareus, Leda’s ever faithful husband. Meanwhile, the theme of Leda and the Swan (Zeus, being kinky (again)) became a recurring motif for Renaissance artists.

Leda_and_the_Swan_1505-1510
Leda and the Swan, copy by Cesare da Sesto after a lost original by Leonardo Da Vinci, 1515–1520. Helen was born from one of the eggs that Leda ‘birthed’.

Regardless of who her father was, she was raised a Spartan. And when the time came for marriage, it proved tricky…

Because she was the most beautiful woman ever born.

*

Her adopted father invited many a mighty suitor to win the hand of his fair daughter, but he was terrified, as he should have been. Zeus himself had faced a similar conundrum with Aphrodite, Goddess of Sexual Love:

Zeus, king of the Gods, knew better than to let the immortal Pre-Olympian Goddess Aphrodite of Beauty and Erotic Love walk among his fellow Gods, which is why he married her off to the deformed weapon forger, and child of Hera, Hephaestus.

That did not deter her admirers; Aries came for her, as did Hermes (their union is the source of the word Hermaphrodite).

So what was Tyndareus to do with his daughter, the beauty Helen?

The suitors had already arrived; it was then that Odysseus addressed the grieving king.

He suggested picking lots, with a caveat; the losers would swear an oath, a sacred binding life-pledge of allegiance to the winner.

The seeds of the Trojan War were planted…

And Menelaus, son of Atreus, younger brother of Agamemnon, won the lottery, and the girl.

*

Now, there other tales that should be told:

Eris, and her Apple of Discord, holds many clues as to what would soon unfold.

However, the key point is this:

While Menelaus went to the Island of Crete to honor his dead grandfather, Catreus (son of no other than King Minos himself, making Ariadne Menelaus’ aunt), his beloved wife went away with the prince of Troy, Paris.

And that’s the rub: yes, there was divine intervention involved; Aphrodite had used Helen as bait for Paris, all to get a golden apple for herself…

But there is no indication that Helen was abducted, let alone raped, something that is tragically commonplace in Greek mythos.

No, indeed, Helen appears to have been willing – even eager – to go with Paris back to Troy (or Ilium, hence the name of the Iliad).

So much so that many modern recreations depict Menelaus as a monstrous male, one who was abusive to his wife.

Perhaps he was even cruel to their daughter, Hermione. She  was only nine when Helen fled. However, that isn’t the picture that the poet Sappho leaves us with: in Sappho’s poetry, Helen fled without a concern in the world for her child, or her parents:

Some say a host of horsemen, others of infantry and others
of ships, is the most beautiful thing on the dark earth
but I say, it is what you love
Full easy it is to make this understood of one and all: for
she that far surpassed all mortals in beauty, Helen her
   most noble husband
Deserted, and went sailing to Troy, with never a thought for
   her daughter and dear parents.

— Sappho, fragment 16

*

So what did the wronged (or just plain angry) King of Sparta do?

He invoked the pledge, the one that Odysseus had initially suggested to Menelaus’ father-in-law, King Tyndareus of Sparta : anyone who wronged the husband of Helen would feel the wrath of all of her former suitors.

And so a thousand ship gathered, under Menelaus’ brother’s command: all to return Helen to Sparta…

This war effort would take ten years, at an unimaginable cost.

Agamemnon would end up sacrificing his own daughter, with terrible repercussions (more on Iphigenia, and by extension, Clytemnestra and Electra later)…

Was it worth it?

*

Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships…

Helen, whose name has haunted painters, poets and priests down to this very day…

And her husband, King Menelaus, who would stop at nothing – nothing – to return her to Sparta…

Don’t cuck the king – it will only end in blood stained tears…

However, in the end, after ten years of fighting, after carnage, sacrifice and a Trojan Horse,

Menelaus won the day…

And while we still refer to her as Helen of Troy,

She would live out the remainder of her days as Helen,

Queen of Sparta…

Helen_Menelaus_Louvre_G424
Attic red-figure crater, ca. 450–440 BC, found in Gnathia (now Egnazia, Italy). Currently housed in the Louvre, Department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, Sully wing, Campana Gallery. Aphrodite is on the left, while her son Eros (Cupid) flies overhead.

*

Asides from Homer’s Iliad and Sappho’s fragment, there are many other references to Menelaus and Helen from the classical world, especially in the arts.

There is even a side branch of mythos that deals with Menelaus’ and Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, whose life struggle included incest, cannibalism and murder.

Woe unto the house Atredies…(my node to fans of Dune).

But in terms of narrative, Homer is still the most verbose poet in terms of Helen and Menelaus.

And at nearly ten hours for the average reader to digest, all we can say is:

Praise be Helen, who not only launched a thousand ships, but nearly as many pages as well.

Happy reading!

(that’s why Zeus made audio books…)

Zeuxis_Selecting_Models_for_His_Painting_of_Helen_of_Troy
Zeuxis selecting models or his Painting of Helen of Troy, circa 1778

 

2 thoughts on “Don’t Cuck the King! The Tragedy of Menelaus

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