Some of you may have even seen Troy, the movie with Brad Pitt playing a very sensitive Achilles and Orlando Bloom as a painfully wussy Paris. I love that movie, despite the fact that it's only loosely based on recorded myth, but seeing Helen was a big downer for me. I mean, she was hot (and that was great given my feelings about most artistic representations of the heroine), but what's awesome about Helen is that no one every can really know her. That she is profoundly multi-dimensional and beyond any one telling. Which brings me to my own telling: what do I do? I will try to tell you as much as I can so that you can choose the aspects you like best and make her into the woman of your dreams, just as she was meant to be.
I'm here to tell you the story how those infamous thousand ships got launched, but, since you can (and should) go ahead and read the Iliad to see the version focusing on such heroes as Achilles and Hector, I will begin with the woman who got the blame, and unlike Euripides' version, I will begin at the beginning.
Leda was the very beautiful Queen of Sparta and married to this dude Tyndareus by loved by that most fecund of all gods, Zeus himself. Only, this wasn't any ol' seduction, as you may remember, Zeus was quite creative, and in this case, he took the shape of a swan. Less than a year later, Leda lay two eggs. The first contained Helen and Polydeuces and the second held Clytemnestra and Castor (the idea being that Helen and her eggmate were Zeus' children, while the latter egg belonged to Tyndareus. Anyway, Helen grew up in Sparta getting more and more beautiful until just after she hit puberty and really began to follow in her mother's footsteps by getting abducted.
The abductor was the equally famous Theseus, King of Athens. He took her to Aphidna and they did their thing for a good while. One unlikely version says that their child was Iphigenia. At any rate, his goal of banging a daughter of Zeus now accomplished, the king moved on. But Helen was still a hot (in the slang sense) commodity, and her family - especially her brothers who were heroes in their own right - wanted her back. Castor and Polydeuces (the Dioscuri) attacked Athens and got Helen back and even took some girl slaves of their own while they were there. Back at the ranch, Clytemnestra was already married (first to Tantalus and then to Agamemnon who we will see later) but Helen, well, now that she was home her unmarried status became an immediate problem. As Mr. Robert Bell says, "Every red-blooded male in Greece who had heard of the gorgeous Helen dreamed of possessing her." And that was an economic problem for Daddy Tyndareus who had to pay for all the suitors coming to visit. Alternatively, the rule of Sparta was matrilineal and thus she was such a hot ticket because she also brought with her in marriage one of the most successful cities on the continent. Either way, she had a lot of suitors. Fortunately for Tyndareus, when Odysseus came (and ended up walking out with Penelope, Helen's cousin), he made a suggestion that suitors be required to swear an oath:
Whoever Tyndareus chose to be Helen's husband must be respected by the rest, and more than that, ready to defend that relationship against anyone who would try to steal her away.
Turns out, Tyndareus chose Menelaus. Menelaus kinda sucked. He was kind of like a noble, not-to-attractive, rich scrub (since most of his power and money came from his powerful brother Agamemnon - remember? the one that married Clytemnestra?). Yeah, well, anyway, when his grandad died he went for some rituals and met Paris (aka Alexander) and took him home and then LEFT him there while he took a trip to Crete. What?!? Well, I suppose he felt safe given the oath of the suitors. Well, Paris had a different kind of advantage given to him by the goddess Aphrodite herself. You can check out that story, here.
You ready for the abduction? Hah! Not yet. First she cranked out 4-5 kids. Menelaus' kids. Or possibly Menelaus' and a handy hunky slave's kids. Don't feel bad for Menelaus, kids, he was cheating on her when he was out mourning his grandfather. So, yes. Helen was a MILF. Incidentally, while Menelaus was out purifying himself one day (there was a famine, and if you've read Oedipus Tyrannos you know it's gotta be the king's fault) and he brought home Paris (aka Alexander aka Orlando Bloom). Now Paris was already convinced that he had been given Helen by Aphrodite, but he didn't mention that to Menelaus. Instead he bided his time and when the moment seemed right ... that is, the moment Menelaus left Paris in the house while he left town (this is a very Mafia moment here). Young, dashing, arrogant Paris was actually given extra hotness by Aphrodite to seal the deal and off they went in his ship back to Thebes. Now, I feel like I owe it to Helen to explain that there are a number of different versions of the "abduction". Some say it was by force, some say she went willingly, some remember that Aphrodite had cursed both daughters of Tyndareus to be unfaithful and hey look, she was already sleeping with slaves!, mostly, though, they say she fell in love. Even if she was in love, there was a whole lot of sorrow in her life and her relationships hurt a lot of people, not least of all Helen.