Ladies of Legend: Helen and Cassandra

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp,

Trigger warning: references to rape and incest

It all began with Eris, the Greek goddess of discord and the original bad fairy at the christening – or in this case, at the wedding, showing up at the nuptials of Thetis and Peleus to make everyone simultaneously regret not inviting her and remember exactly why they didn’t by riling up the three most powerful goddesses in the Pantheon and starting one of the most famous wars in myth and legend. She brought with her a golden apple (never ever trust a golden apple) with an inscription on it reading ‘for the fairest’. Zeus, who might be all kinds of terrible but was smart enough to realise that was a mess he wanted no part of, hastily foisted the role of judge onto Prince Paris of Troy. Thanks to an ominous prophecy made at his birth, Paris was living as an anonymous shepherd at the time, in ignorance of his birthright. All that was about to change.

The three goddesses who felt the strongest right to the apple were Hera, Zeus’s wife and sister and queen of the gods; Athena, goddess of wisdom and war; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Each offered Paris an appropriately extravagant bribe depending on her governance. Hera promised power and riches, Athena assured him of good fortune in battle, but Aphrodite swore that he would have the most beautiful woman in the world as his own and Paris awarded her the apple – thereby making himself two implacable enemies, and an ally as fickle as she was powerful.

And who, might you ask, was the most beautiful woman in the world? According to Aphrodite, at least, it was the princess Helen, whose parentage was as mysterious as it was regal. In one version, Zeus took the form of a swan and came to Leda, daughter of the king of Aetolia and wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta, who fell pregnant from the union and bore an egg with three children within: Helen and her twin brothers, Castor and Pollux. Helen also had a mortal half-sister, Clytaemnestra, the child of Leda and Tyndaerus. Another version has Clytaemnestra (also spelled Clytemnestra) as Helen’s twin, originally married to Tantalus and later claimed as a spoil of war by Agamemnon of Mycenae, the man who widowed her. In yet another version, Zeus pursued the goddess Nemesis, who changed herself into a goose to escape – not that it stopped him. In this story, she gave her egg to Leda, who raised the children as her own.

Whatever her true origins, Helen had the blood divine and it showed. Her beauty rapidly became her curse. Before she was ten years old, Theseus (he of the Minotaur incident) had abducted her for a mockery of ‘marriage’ and her brothers had to come to her rescue. As she grew older, the number of her suitors grew to a number between 29 andd 99, which meant – in a neat mirror of Paris’s conundrum – that whoever eventually married Helen would have a great many resentful rivals to contend with afterwards. A solution was proffered by Odysseus of Ithaca: all the suitors would be sworn to accept Helen’s choice and support that man should the need ever arise.

It’s a serious oath. It is also an interesting indicator of Helen’s paradox. She had just enough choices to drown in, and none of them were offered for her benefit. Various versions of the legend give her up to five husbands over the course of her life: Theseus (ugh), Menelaus, Paris, Achilles and Deiphobus.

In the best known version, Helen married Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother. How much of that was her choice and how much was Tyndaerus’s influence is dodgy at best; Tyndaerus once gave the brothers his support in overthrowing their usurping uncle and after the marriage, gave Menelaus his throne. In reward for his good advice, Odysseus was given the hand of Penelope, Tyndareus’s niece. All very neatly settled for the king, except for a tricksy detail: Tyndaerus was not offering Aphrodite her due worship (or what she considered her due, anyway). That’s a lot of marriages to arrange when you’re on the outs with the goddess of love.

Helen gave birth to a daughter, Hermione, and three sons, Aethiolas, Maraphius, and Pleisthenes. Clytaemnestra also had four children: three girls, Electra, Chrystoethmis and Iphigeneia, and a son called Orestes. Both women lived as wives, mothers, queens – perhaps happy with their husbands, perhaps not, but untroubled by great events. And then, of course, Aphrodite happened.

She kept her promise to Paris. When he came to the Spartan court and met Helen there, the goddess of love smoothed the way for a wildly inadvisable love affair. Menelaus sailed to Crete during the (by now discovered and royally acknowledged) Trojan prince’s visit, and while he was gone Paris seduced Helen into returning with him to Troy. She took her treasures and her slaves – but not her children. Possibly it was Aphrodite’s influence again that caused the Trojans to consider Helen as Paris’s wife, though her husband ensured his existence could not be swept aside and before long Helen wasn’t popular at all. Only Paris’s brother Hector and his father Priam saw that she was not to blame for the devastation that followed in her wake. The gods were bad enough at their own relationships. When they got involved with mortals, it could get astonishingly ugly.

But Aphrodite was not the only one with a promise to keep, and Menelaus was quick to call upon the former suitors to fulfill their oath, with his brother taking charge of proceedings. A seer told Agamemnon that he could win over the will of the gods…by sacrificing Iphigeneia. Agamemnon sent for his wife and daughter, telling them that Iphigeneia was to marry the beautiful young Greek warrior Achilles. Then he slit her throat.

It took ten whole years to assemble the Greek army, since most of them either didn’t want to fight over a woman they weren’t actually married to or (very understandably) didn’t like Agamemnon. But assemble the army he did. It would be another ten years before the war reached its bloody end.

Meanwhile, in Troy, let’s meet a woman with spectacular relationship problems of her own: Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba and sister of Paris. She was the one to recognise him as a prince of Troy, after he won all the events at a funeral games and Cassandra’s other brothers were humiliated enough to murderously bad sports. Paris took refuge in the temple of Zeus, where Cassandra found him and brought him home.

She had a veritable horde of siblings, actually, well over fifty. Her sisters included Creousa, Laodice and Polyxene; her eldest brother was Hector, followed by Paris, Deiphobus, Hellen (Cassandra’s twin), Polydorus and Troilus. Cassandra was beloved of the sun god Apollo. He tried to buy his way into her bed with the gift of prophecy – which she accepted, but she changed her mind on accepting him. Apollo, it should be pointed out, was exactly the type of male deity to use the term ‘friend-zoned’. Unable to withdraw his gift, he went with the path of maximum spite and swore that whatever prophecy she made, no one would ever believe her.

Cassandra foresaw that Paris and his love for Helen would bring about the destruction of Troy. When the Greeks, worn down by long years of fighting and relying once again on the trickery of Odysseus, placed their notorious wooden horse outside the gates of the city, Cassandra told everyone exactly what would happen. When the warriors concealed in the body of the horse sacked her home, Cassandra took refuge at the statue of Athena. She should have been safe there. She was not. The prince of Locris, known as the Lesser Ajax, dragged her from the temple and raped her. Athena destroyed his ship on his way home from the war and Poseidon personally drowned him – but while it’s nice to know justice was done, none of that protected Cassandra.

As a spoil of war, she was claimed by Agamemnon, who took her with him on his return to Mycenae. Cassandra told Agamemnon they would both die there, only to have her desperation dismissed as ravings. Clytaemnestra had to wait a long time for her vengeance, but once the murderer of her little girl was within her reach, she wasted no time. Having once been taken as a spoil of war, you might think she would have fellow feeling for Cassandra. Instead, she murdered her.

Agamemnon had fathered two sons with Cassandra, twin boys called Teledamus and Pelops; neither survived the savagery of Mycenae, dying at the hand of Clytaemnestra’s lover and accomplice Aegisthus.

So, what about Helen? A Greek queen all in the arms of a Trojan prince, her heart would be broken no matter which way the dice fell. During battle, Helen would stand on the city walls and point out the Greek leaders on the field; but Odysseus entered Troy twice, disguised, and she let him pass by. Though Paris was still a favourite of Aphrodite and subject to her formidable protection, all the gods had a stake in the outcome of this war. He shot down Achilles in vengeance for the brutal killing of Hector, only to be slain by an arrow himself.

After his death, Helen took up with his brother Deiphobus, but he was no incentive for her to stay loyal to Troy. Odysseus slipped into the city to steal away the Palladium – a holy statue of Athene held in Troy, weakening the goddess’s partiality to the Greeks – and Helen told him exactly how to find it. Yet even after that, she was not Odysseus’s ally. When his wooden horse was brought into the city and the Trojans were celebrating what they believed was victory, Helen approached the horse and called out to the warriors within with stunningly accurate mimicry of each of their wives’ voices in turn. Odysseus, master of the underhanded trick, kept his wits about him enough to prevent his companions succumbing to Helen’s voice and emerging from the horse.

After the fall of Troy, when Paris’s family had been slaughtered or enslaved – Deiphobus among the dead – Helen retreated to the temple of Apollo. Menelaus found her there. The story goes that Helen did not speak a word in her defence, simply bared herself for him to run her through, but as soon as Menelaus saw her breasts he was helplessly hers again. Which strongly smacks of Aphrodite’s influence, bawdy and unpredictable and cunning as she was.

So Helen went home to Sparta. The versions of her later life vary wildly. Homer’s Helen became a model wife, insisting that Menelaus come with her when she was deified. In another Zeus rescued her from the vengeful attack of Pylades, lover of Clytaemnestra’s daughter Electra, who blamed Helen for all the disaster that came from the war. A much more fun alternative has Helen hooking up with an Achilles who did not die, the two of them enjoying immortality on an island getaway in the Euxine Sea.

Other stories take a harsher view. Helen became a sacrifice, or was murdered by Achilles’ despairing mother, or even committed suicide to escape the guilt of the war. Because beautiful women are always responsible for the pointless cruelties of grown men, you know, and ten years is not a long enough time for said grown men to recognise that no cause in the world could be worth so much bloodshed, least of all a spurned husband’s pride.

Helen and Cassandra are opposite sides of the same impossible dilemma. The capricious love of the gods gave both women extraordinary powers and extraordinary grief – but they have always been more than the beautiful tragedies of Troy.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

1 thought on “Ladies of Legend: Helen and Cassandra

  1. Pingback: The Third Day Part 3/Winter: Season 1 Episode 5 Tuesday- The Daughter Recap – Metawitches

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