A sixth-century poet named Stesichorus wrote of Helen of Troy having been switched with a stand-in phantom Helen, a secular doceticism that turns the entire Trojan War into folly. Herodotus also knew of a story of Helen in Egypt which was told to him by Egyptian priests (Snodgrass 193).
Euripides’ play Helen or Helena, written about 412 b.c.e., begins with the title character lamenting her situation. She was whisked away to Egypt by Hera’s machinations against Aphrodite, and protected by Proteus. Now that Proteus has died, his tyrannical son, Theoclymenus, plans to force Helen to marry him.
The Greek warrior Teucer, brother of Ajax, enters and rages at Helen for causing the war, but she is courteous. He reports the deaths of Helen’s mother Leda and her brothers: Castor and Pollux (or Polydeuces), who are known as the Dioscori — the twins who are the constellation Gemini. All committed suicide over the disgrace of Helen. Helen tells Teucer of the systematic slaughter of all Greeks by Theoclymenus, and Teucer is grateful for the warning.
A chorus of captive Greek women laments with Helen. She says that all her life she was considered a freak (because of being born from an egg; but one initially wonders if she was referring to her beauty). Helen considers suicide since she believes Menelaus to be dead too.
The tide brings in Menelaus who is warned about the grecophobic policies. He hears about a Helen, daughter of Zeus, from Sparta, and is baffled. When he encounters Helen he still disbelieves, until a messenger reports that the illusion he thought was Helen vaporized, and the two are emotionally reconciled. Helen explains her situation, and the couple plans to find a way of escaping or dying together in a suicide pact. Helen hopes to win over Theonoe, the villain’s sister, and after considering the problem, Theonoe agrees to keep their secret as Menelaus continues posing as a vagrant. Helen will report the death of Menelaus and insist she needs a ship and lots of arms and supplies to carry out the funeral rites and sacrificing. Then, she says, she’ll return and marry Theoclymenus.
We hear a report that the plan worked, that the Egyptians fled from the Greeks when the escape became clear. Theoclymenus will have revenge on Theonoe, but the Dioscori appear, and in a typical deus ex machina fashion, calm the homicidal impulses. They even say that Helen will eventually be worshipped as a god. The play ends with Euripides’ formulaic choral lines (see Medea).
The critical question regarding this play is to what extent it was intended as a parody. The premise trivializes the key epic material of western culture, the cause of the Trojan War, and then offers a series of goofy reportings making everything seem arbitrary and throwaway.
Euripides. Helen. Trans. Philip Vellacott. Literature of the Western World. Vol. I. 5th ed. by Brian Wilke and James Hurt. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001. 877-911.
Powell, Barry. Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Cliffs Notes on Greek Classics. Lincoln, NE: Cliffs Notes, Inc., 1988.