Helen of Troy – did she fall madly in love with Paris and leave her husband Menelaus for a romantic adventure? An act that eventually led to the Battle of Troy? Or is this just one big misinterpretation? 

The guest law states that you should open the door for anyone – friend, foe or stranger
The conventional notion is that the Battle of Troy starts when Helen falls in love with Paris, a prince of Troy, and runs away with him. This is insinuated in several Greek writings, including the Odyssey. In the Iliad, precisely the book that tells of this event, it is not mentioned with a single word. Instead, we listen to Helen’s lamentation over having to belong to such a coward like Paris, instead of her beloved husband. There is a comment from Menelaus that describes what actually happened (the Iliad, book 13). I believe two things may have confused Greeks in later centuries and other interpreters: the guest law and women’s strong position in the pre-Christian Nordic region. My reasoning is based on an intriguing new theory by the Italian nuclear physicist Felice Vinci, who claims that the Battle of Troy could have taken place in the north.

Until the Middle Ages, the guest law was of significant importance in the Nordic region. The guest law stipulates that if someone knocks on the door – friend, foe, or stranger – the person should first be invited and offered a meal. Thereafter, any matters will be discussed. A civilized person, and perhaps above all a chieftain who should be open-handed and generous, was expected to follow the guest law. Most likely, the guest law is very old. According to archaeologists it appears that the power elite in the Bronze Age societies in the Nordic region strengthened their positions through contacts and alliances maintained by exchange of gifts.[1] In an interesting passage in the Iliad (book 6), Ajax battles against Glaucus but they interrupt the fighting when they realize that their grandfathers were guest-friends.

Bronze collar, Helen, Paris, Troy, the battle of Troy, Homer and the Iliad
This type of bronze collar was worn by wealthy women in the Bronze Age in Scandinavia. The collar is displayed at the Swedish History Museum. Photo by the author.

What really happened according to the Iliad
The background of the war, according to the Iliad (see for example the Iliad, book 13), is as follows: One day when Menelaus is not at home, Paris and his warriors come and knock on the door. Helen follows the guest law and lets Paris and his companions into the house, whereupon they kidnap her. They also steal the treasures and valuables in the home. This brazen coup is comparable to the Sarajevo assassination, a single event that also became the beginning of a war. In the Iliad, Helen bitterly regrets that she was so naive and credulous. Her remorse is often assumed to be due to her infatuation, but this is not evident from the Iliad. A more likely interpretation is, in my opinion, that she regrets that she ever let Paris in. Helen also complains about her ignominious fate of being married to a dishonorable man (Paris). In the Iliad, Helen is regarded as a victim, while the blame for the war is imposed on Paris. (Interestingly, the descriptions of Helen are somewhat different, or biased, in the four translations that I have used. In some translations, Helen appears a little more guilty, or naive, than in others.)

One can deduce from the Iliad that the war does not start immediately after the looting and kidnapping of Helen. The poem tells that Menelaus and Odysseus at first travel to Troy and try to negotiate (the Iliad, book 3 and 11). Negotiations fail, however. Only then Menelaus determines, or perhaps especially his brother Agamemnon, to sack Troy and take back Helen and her treasures. They devote a couple of months to convince chieftains around the Baltic Sea to participate in the war. Therefore, it takes quite some time before the attack can be carried out. As Vinci points out, Helen has probably been kidnapped sometime in the spring, the year before the battle of Troy. This explains why Helen is gone for a total of twenty “years”. (A more reasonable time span is twenty months. More on this topic in the next blog post.) Many chieftains are willing to join Agamemnon in his attack on Troy, though they are probably more interested in looting and glorious battles than in Helen.

Women’s strong position in the Nordic Bronze Age explains Helen’s actions
Why then the prevailing view that Helen fell in love with Paris, ran away with him, and left her husband and children behind? My guess is that the guest law was not as pronounced several centuries later in Greece, making it incomprehensible to Greeks of that time why Helen felt obliged to let Paris in. Furthermore, women had a low status in ancient Greece. That Helen on her own accord let strangers into the house, men too, when her own husband was not at home, was possibly seen as an act of infidelity in itself.

In the Iliad, we often read that it is Helen’s treasures, perhaps her dowry, which Paris and his men steal in the looting. Alternatively, depending on translation, it is Helen who has brought her treasures. That is correct in terms of family relationships. Helen is daughter of Tyndareus, the former ruler of Sparta. Her husband, Menelaus, comes from regions further north, Argolid, where his brother Agamemnon is chieftain of Mycenae (today’s Copenhagen, according Vinci). Menelaus has thus made a wealthy marriage, which has also made him the ruler of Sparta. Therefore, the theft is, above all, about Helen’s treasures, and not Menelaus’s. And the possessions are still seen as Helen’s. A comparison can be made with Odysseus’s wife Penelope (the Odyssey, book 2), whose land and possessions are brought back to her and her family in the event of Odysseus’s death. It was therefore important to keep careful track of who brought what into the marriage, even when many years had passed, just like in the Viking Age in the Nordic region.

Placing Homer’s Iliad in the north reveals another story and solves many mysteries. This is also the reason for me writing my book ILION – to tell what has never been told before.

© Malena Lagerhorn

Next blog post: The Battle of Troy – did it last nine years or only nine months?

[1] Tom Carlsson, “Bronsålderns hantverk och handel”, i: Anders Kaliff (red.), Skenet från det förflutna (Riksantikvarieämbetets förlag 1995) ; Jonathan Lindström, Bronsåldersmordet (Norstedts förlag 2009).