One Starting Point in the Helen of Troy Myth
In the stories from Ancient Greece, Helen is arguably the most famous female character to appear. Helen was a daughter of Zeus, the most beautiful of all females, and also one of the causes of the Trojan War, for Helen was the woman whose face “launched a thousand ships”.
The abduction of Helen by Paris of Troy is often mentioned as the main reason why the Achaean (Greek) forces and those of Troy went to war, but the abduction of women in Greek mythology was relatively common, and rarely resulted in all out war. The reason why this abduction resulted in a war can be traced back to when the Suitors of Helen gathered, and the Oath of Tyndareus was undertaken.
Who was Helen?
Helen is now commonly known as Helen of Troy, but in reality she was Helen of Sparta.
Helen was born to King Tyndareus and Queen Leda of Sparta, although her birth was far from normal. Leda was regarded as one of the world’s beauties, and so became desired by Zeus. Zeus transformed himself into a swan so that he could lay with Leda, but on the same day Tyndareus also lay with his wife; from the two couplings were born four children. Helen and her brother Pollux were considered the children of Zeus, whilst Clytemnestra and Castor were the offspring of Tyndareus, although the king raised all four children as his own.
Helen is of course famous for being abducted by Paris, but that event was actually her second abduction, as when she was a child she was abducted by the Greek hero Theseus; Theseus believed that he was deserving of marrying a daughter of Zeus. Helen was quickly rescued from Athens when her brothers, Castor and Pollux, led an army into Attica.
Back in Sparta, Helen grew into a beautiful woman.
Helen of Troy
Eventually Helen came of age, and Tyndareus made it known that Helen was now free to marry if an eligible suitor came forward. News travelled quickly across Ancient Greece, and soon the most famous kings, princes and heroes were travelling to Sparta and the court of Tyndareus; Helen was already famous across the land for her beauty
There is no single universally agreed upon list of the suitors who travelled to Sparta, with most lists being based upon three main sources.
Catalogues of Women – Hesiod
The Catalogues of Women is a work that has historically been attributed to Hesiod, and is therefore thought to date from between 750 and 650BC. Only about a third of the work now exists in fragmented pieces, but the whole work tells of the relationships between mortal women and gods, and their offspring. Only 12 Suitors of Helen are named in the work, but it is assumed that other names are now missing.
Fabulae – Hyginus
Fabulae was the major work of the Roman writer Hyginus (c64BC to 17AD), and was a compendium of myths. Regarded as crudely written, Fabulae is often the only surviving reference for individual mythological stories. Hyginus lists 36 suitors.
Bibliotheca – Pseudo-Apollodorus
The Bibliotheca, or the Library, is a work from the 1st or 2nd century AD, a work which was erroneously attributed to Apollodorus. The work is about 80 percent complete, and includes a list of 31 named suitors.
A table of the combined names can be found at the bottom of this page.
Combining the three suitors creates a list of 45 individual Suitors, but only seven men appear on all three lists.
Odysseus – the son of Laertes, King of the Cephallenians, Odysseus would be called King of Ithaca, although Ithaca was just one part of the realm.
Menelaus – an exiled prince of Mycenae, who along with his brother, Agamemnon, had found sanctuary in the court of Tyndareus, after the death of their father, Atreus.
Ajax – Ajax the Great, was the son of the hero Telamon, and cousin to Achilles. Ajax having been trained by Chiron was regarded as a great warrior even before the Suitors of Helen gathered.
Philoctetes – the son of Poeas, the Thessalonian king, was a noted archer, and famed for being the inheritor of Heracles’ bow and arrows.
Protesilaus – came from Phylace, a city state of Thessaly, and was the son of Iphicles.
Menestheus – was the king of Athens and son of Peteos. Menestheus had been put on the throne of Athens by Helen’s brothers, Castor and Pollux, when they had usurped Theseus.
Elephenor – son of Chalcodon, and the King of the Abantes.
Other notable names that appear in the list of Suitors of Helen from one or more sources includes the likes of Ajax the Lesser, the prince of Locris; Diomedes, the mighty warrior and King of Argos; Patroclus, the lifelong friend of Achilles; Idomeneus, a prince of Crete; and Teucer, half-brother to Ajax the Great.
The lists of names often correspond to the list provided by Homer in the Iliad of the Catalogue of Ships that set sail for Troy. This makes it difficult to tell whether the original lists are true representations of the Suitors of Helen, or simply names of Achaean commanders and relatives.
There are notable names missing from the list of Suitors of Helen as well. Agamemnon is missing, but in most tales, the brother of Menelaus, is already married to Tyndareus’ other daughter, Clytemnestra. Achilles is also omitted, but the explanation given, is that the demi-god is too young to marry Helen.
Heroes of the Iliad
Problem for Tyndareus
With the Suitors of Helen gathered, Tyndareus then had the problem of choosing the most suitable husband for Helen. Many of the Suitors brought magnificent gifts, and most had the required stature in Ancient Greece to be worthy, but if Tyndareus chose one Suitor over the rest, conflict might follow.
Castor and Pollux were keeping order but they would be outmatched if a fight amongst all of the Suitors ensued.
The Oath of Tyndareus
It was Odysseus who came to the rescue of Tyndareus, by offering a solution to the king which would avoid bloodshed amongst the gather Suitors.
Odysseus realised that he was not as eligible as many of the Suitors gathered, and so had turned his thoughts to marrying Penelope, the daughter of Icarius, and therefore niece of Tyndareus. In exchange for his help, Odysseus sought the aide of Tyndareus in his quest to marry.
Odysseus suggested that Tyndareus should make each Suitor take an oath to protect whichever of them was chosen to wed Helen. Each Suitor agreed to the oath, the Oath of Tyndareus, and the oath was bound by the sacrifice of a horse.
Now no Suitor could resort to violence if they were not chosen, as to do so would see them break their oath, and also face the wrath of all the other Suitors.
Menelaus is Chosen
The Husband of Helen is Chosen
Free from fear of bloodshed, Tyndareus could now choose a suitable husband for Helen, although it is often said that Helen herself did the choosing. The successful Suitor of Helen would be Menelaus, and the choice was one by which all of the Suitors lived with.
Tyndareus would step down from the throne of Sparta, and place his new son-in-law upon it; Menelaus was now one of the most important kings in Ancient Greece.
The Abduction of Helen
Whilst the Suitors of Helen had not come to blows, bloodshed would soon engulf the Suitors. Paris, son of Priam of Troy, would abscond with Helen, after Aphrodite had effectively promised the Queen of Sparta to the prince.
Menelaus, and his brother Agamemnon, invoked the Oath of Tyndareus, and called forth all of the Suitors of Helen to gather their armies and ships to bring back Helen from Troy.
Lists of Suitors of Helen
Ajax the Great
Ajax the Great
Ajax the Great
Ajax the Lesser
Ajax the Lesser