I Look like my father. Everyone agrees about that. “Hermione, you’re the very likeness of King Menelaus!” they used to tell me when I was a child. “Red hair and all!”
This was not a compliment. I knew what they meant: You don’t look the least bit like your mother.
My mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. Everyone is in agreement on that, too. Her name is Helen—Helen of Sparta at one time, but later Helen of Troy, after she went away with the Trojan prince and left me behind with my father. There was some disagreement about whether she went willingly or if the prince abducted her. Knowing my mother, I would not be surprised if it was her idea—she and the prince sailing off while my father was away, and taking most of my father’s treasure with them. It’s something she would do.
My father went to war against Troy, vowing to get Helen back and his treasure, as well. I’m not sure which was more important to him—his wife or his gold. Most likely it was his honor that was at stake, sending him and his brother—Agamemnon, king of Mycenae—and a vast array of armies from all around Greece to fight and to die, all because of my mother.
Helen’s story has been told many times, by many men. But this story is mine.
The Magnificent Helen
When I was young, my mother used to tell me tales about her early life. Even her birth was unusual. Her mother—my grandmother, Leda—was married to Tyndareus, king of Sparta. one evening as Leda walked in the palace garden by the River eurotas, a huge swan with gleaming white feathers stepped out of the water and approached her. When Leda leaned down to pet the gorgeous bird, she lost her balance and fell in love. I don’t know precisely what happened in the garden that night—my mother was vague about it—but in due time Leda gave birth to an egg the color of blue hyacinths. Her seducer was actually the great god Zeus, ruler of all immortal gods and mortal beings, who had disguised himself as a swan. The egg hatched, and a beautiful baby girl emerged. Whether he suspected the truth of the situation or not, Tyndareus accepted the baby as his own daughter and named her Helen. “I doubt that Leda told my father about the swan, but the midwife surely mentioned the egg,” my mother told me. Helen joined a family of twin brothers, Castor and Pollux, and a sister, Clytemnestra. “It was an uneventful childhood,” she said. “Until I was kidnapped.”
Even as a young girl, Helen was irresistibly beautiful. Men could not keep their eyes off her. Theseus was one of them. The son of Poseidon, god of the sea and of earthquakes, Theseus had made up his mind to marry a daughter of Zeus, and Helen was certainly the most desirable. He had a terrible reputation for abducting women—whatever Theseus wanted, Theseus took.
“I remember it all very well,” said my mother. As she told me this, we were bathing in a large pool in the palace, heated with rocks from a fire, while our maids scrubbed us with sponges and rinsed us with warm water poured from silver pitchers. “I was about your age, barely eleven. My breasts had not yet budded. I knelt at a temple, making an offering to the goddess Artemis, when suddenly this brute galloped up on his horse, seized me, and carried me off.” Helen smiled dreamily, looking almost pleased as she described the scene.
“Weren’t you scared?” I asked. “I would have been.”
“Oh, I was frightened of course, but Theseus kept telling me not to be afraid, that he wouldn’t hurt me. He promised to take me to a place where I would be very safe and feel quite contented. ‘My brothers will be furious,’ I warned him. ‘Castor and Pollux will come for you, and they will kill you!’ This was not a lie. The Dioscuri—that’s what my twin brothers were called—would never have allowed me to be harmed without seeking revenge.”
Our maids stood waiting nearby with drying cloths and perfumed oil to rub on us. As I climbed out of the pool, my mother’s eyes flicked over my naked body, still flat as a young boy’s. She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Will you never get any curves, Hermione?” she asked, sighing. “You have no more shape than a door post.”
I blushed, embarrassed, and reached for a drying cloth to cover myself.
The maids pretended not to hear. My mother rose and stepped from the pool, confident of her own beauty, her shapely body and graceful limbs, smooth and white and perfect as marble.
“Theseus told me tales as we rode through the night,” my mother continued, her eyes half-closed as the maids went about their tasks. I could see the admiration in their glances. “Always about how wonderful he was. He claimed he had founded the city of Athens and had a great palace there. Such a braggart! Men are like that, you know.”
I didn’t know, but I nodded sagely, because like the maids I wanted to hear the rest of the story.
According to Helen, she and her abductor arrived toward dawn at a small village, where Theseus handed her over to his mother, Queen Aethra. “The old queen told a few stories of her own!” Helen said, laughing. “On her wedding night she slept first with her husband, King Aegeus, and then later with Poseidon, so that her son had some of both fathers and was both human and divine. A demigod.”
Like your own parents, I thought. I was thinking of Zeus, the magnificent swan who’d made love to my grandmother. I understood that my mother, too, was a demigod.
Theseus planned to keep young Helen hidden away until she was old enough to marry, and she stayed for several years in Queen Aethra’s care. “It was very pleasant there,” my mother said. “Theseus kept his word and didn’t bother me. He went off on another wild adventure, this time to visit Hades, god of the underworld. Hades offered him a seat, pretending to be hospitable, but when Theseus sat down, his buttocks stuck fast to the bench! Hissing serpents surrounded him, the Furies with snakes in their hair lashed at him, and a fierce three-headed dog, Cerberus, sank his teeth into his arms and legs. eventually he managed to get away, but he left a part of his buttocks there.” My mother stifled a laugh. “When Theseus married someone else, his children all had flat behinds. A proper punishment for a man who made a habit of abducting young girls!”
My mother’s maids draped her in a finely woven peplos that reached to her ankles, fastened it on her shoulders with jeweled brooches, and cinched her narrow waist with a belt of golden links.
“How did you ever get away?” I asked.
“After several years my brothers found me,” Helen said. “Assured that I was still a virgin, they brought me back to Sparta. Queen Aethra came with me, for I’d grown fond of her.”
Aethra, now very old, was still with my mother. She had taken charge of my little brother, Pleisthenes, who adored her.
“And then,” I prompted, “you married Father.” “Yes,” she sighed. “But it was very complicated.”
I knew that. With Helen, it was always complicated.