That Helen never really eloped with Paris, that the Achaeans and the Trojans fought their great war over an ethereal eidolon conjured up by divine spite, and that the true Helen went instead to live in Egypt is a story known to most classical scholars from the expiatory Palinode of Stesichorus (c. 640-555 b.c.), the Helen of Euripides (c. 480-406), and (in a less fanciful variant) the Histories of Herodotus (c. 484-425). But the legend is of far more ancient provenance.
It was known in Sparta even when Menelaus and Helen still reigned, and had begun to spread along the Eurotas valley before Troy fell, and was the common lore of Lacedaemonian artisans and peasants before the ship bearing their king and queen sailed into the dark waters of the port of Gytheion. Helen herself heard of it the day after reaching harbor, from one of the Helot girls given to her as handmaidens for the triumphal procession to Therapne; and it provided her a few moments of amusement to think how foolish it made Menelaus look to suggest that he had returned from the war not with his recreant wife but only with a dream of a woman. But for the next few days she gave the tale no thought.
In the following weeks, however, as the hideously gradual royal progress crept across the alluvial plains stretching between the looming gray ridges of Taygetus and Parnon and wound along the edges of dry ravines, skirting farms and villages and olive groves, often accompanied by the discordant songs of the local rustics, Helen reflected upon the story more and more frequently, with an ever deeper fascination. Sometimes at night, after Menelaus had fallen asleep, she would leave her tent and look toward the far rises where distant shepherds’ fires gleamed in the darkness like stars floating above the ocean, as if this land she despised had melted altogether away, and allowed herself the fantasy that, rather than the dreary hovels of Sparta or the pale argillaceous foothills to the north or the prospect of the grim Dorian citadel awaiting her, the morning would reveal a fabulous land of sparkling sands, vast temples, emerald river basins . . .
How thoroughly she had forgotten Sparta’s squalor, she often thought to herself during that journey. And already how remote seemed her memories of Troy’s great golden walls, the opulence of Priam’s palace, the high bright houses of the city. Now she must return to this rude, hard people she had never cared for, with their sullen satisfaction in their own terseness and their impatience with subtlety. She had loved the Trojans’ oriental delight in periphrasis and elegant bombast, and their insatiable appetite for everything splendid, intricate, and oblique, and even the languid postures and inhuman aspects of their gods—like that hauntingly terrific image of Poseidon on Tenedos.
But perhaps, she thought, it really was all an illusion. Or perhaps she was the illusion, and her memories only the dreams of a phantom. True, she recalled it all. Above all she recalled, with an aching tenderness, how that lissome youth, with his long perfumed locks and his almost epicene beauty, had borne her away at night and lain with her for the first time among the fragrant grasses of the island of Kranai, while soft salt breezes poured over them from a sea made violet and sapphire in the morning twilight. Yet now even that seemed as if it had hardly ever happened.
This was not an entirely new feeling. Even as a young girl, she had occasionally suspected that the world she knew was somehow false, that it was not her true home, that she was not who she seemed to be (even to herself). And now she found it almost plausible that every man who had embraced her, from that night on Kranai onward, had been like Ixion coupling with Nephele, and that she had all along been only her own phantom, and that her true self had been—and still was—somewhere else, very far away.
In the long years after her return to Sparta, Helen often dreamed that she was standing on the high walls of Troy, looking down to where the Scamander glittered among dark grasses and bone-white rocks as it flowed down to the blue and silver sea. But occasionally, and far more vividly, she dreamed that she was wandering at evening in the porches of a great temple built in a strange style, among immense statues of bulls and of gods with the faces of beasts—cats and crocodiles—and that far off she could see a verdant river plain, and still further off a sea of golden sand stretching to the horizon, shimmering beneath a sky of deep translucent blue and a moon that shone like burning glass.
When the Samaritan sorcerer Simon had found her in a brothel in Tyre, Helen had been barely more than a girl, though she had practiced her trade for seven years. Her uncommon beauty had made her a favorite of the house’s clientele of merchants and sailors, as well as a source of considerable profits, and so she was astonished when she learned that this odd and troubling man, who it seemed made his living as some kind of itinerant holy man, had possessed the wherewithal to buy her away from her owners. At first she was afraid of him, though there was also something about him she found compelling: something in the entrancing limpidity of his dark eyes, and in the strangely melodious intonations of his voice (despite the harsh Levantine accent of his Greek), and in the guileless earnestness with which he disclosed to her his secret teachings about himself—and about her.
The same night in which he led her away from the brothel he sat with her on a low harbor wall and, as they gazed out at a brilliant moon shining upon the sea, he told her that he was God incarnate, who had descended from a divine Fullness, a realm of eternal light, to find her and deliver her from captivity, and through her to bring salvation to all. She was, he told her, the divine Epinoia, the first emanation of the divine mind, who had languished in bondage to malign angels age upon age, passing through countless lives of degradation, again and again, fettered in flesh and forgetfulness.
Most of what he said she found incomprehensible. But he went on for hours, telling her of the divine All, of Nous and Epinoia, of the Hebrew Demiurge, of the Archons and Angels who had created the world and then enviously imprisoned her, their mother, in matter; he recounted how in each age she had been an object of contention among the angels, and so also among men, and how as Helen of Troy she had been fought over by gods and nations . . .
Here, at least, was a name she recognized. A few years before, a young tutor of wealthy merchants’ sons had made surreptitious use of her services on several occasions, and on account of her name had related to her the story of the Trojan War more than once; and she, starved for any diversion, had taken it in and held it in memory. She could not help, therefore, but take some pleasure in the thought that she had once been the most beautiful and famous of women, the object of every desire. But she found the Samaritan’s words preposterous.
In the year that followed, she traveled as his consort, spoke the words he gave her to speak, watched him perform wonders, and hid her distraction well during the long discourses with which he enchanted his followers. And sometimes she allowed herself to wonder whether indeed he had not, amid the nonsense of his elaborate mythologies, touched upon the truth about her, or upon some portion of the truth. Ever since childhood, and certainly ever since she had been made a prostitute by those who owned her, she had known moments when she had felt as if it were all a terrible dream, an illusion visited upon her out of some invisible but redoubtable power of spite, and as if she were not truly there at all, and as if this world were not her true home. And even now she could not avoid sometimes feeling that perhaps her true self had always been—and still was—somewhere else, in a place of light, far away.
At night, she often dreamed of the brothel and of her misery there, and would sometimes wake in tears. Occasionally, though, and more vividly, she dreamed she was gazing from high city walls upon a shining river flowing across a plain of white rocks and dark grasses, down toward a pale strand where dark ships were drawn up upon the sands, and out into a vast glittering silver bay. And on very rare occasions, far more vividly still, she dreamed that she lay with a beautiful youth in the morning twilight, among fragrant grasses stirred by soft breezes, fresh with salt, blowing over them from a violet and sapphire sea.