Herodotus says that the gods had the real Helen whisked away and hidden safely in Egypt, while giving a doppelgänger of hers to Paris. That the Trojans and the Greeks had fought over a ghost.
Euripides in his tragedy “Helen” picks ups this version of the story and weaves a plot where, ten years later, Helen meets Menelaus in Egypt. He returns from Troy and is shipwrecked. The new king of Egypt, son of the recently deceased Proteus, hates the Greeks and wants to marry Helen despite her will. Like Paris, he too has fallen under the spell of her beauty. In the end Menelaus recognises his true, and faithful, wife and they manage to escape back to their home in Sparta.
Helen of Troy is one of those ambivalent female characters that Euripides loves to deconstruct. She may not posses the darkness of Medea but Helen is equally tragic. Because of her thousands of young men will kill each other in battle, the greatest heroes of Troy and Greece. She will be the cause that Troy is destroyed, sacked, ruined. And all that not because she plotted or wished any harm to anyone, but because of her beauty. Like all tragic heroes, she cannot change her fate. Gods have decided that her beauty would be the cause of destruction, that she would be death. Then the gods decide to play one more game: they send a ghost to Troy and let everyone fight over it. The gods are ruthless. They play with people like people play with dolls.
“Οὐκ ἦλθον ἐς γῆν Τρῳάδ’, ἀλλ’ εἴδωλον ἦν”, says Helen in the play. (“I did not come to the land of Troy, it was a phantom”).
And the messenger replies: “Τί φῄς; Νεφέλης ἄρ’ ἄλλως εἴχομεν πόνους πέρι;” (“What are you saying? We have suffered because of a mere phantom?”)
Euripides wrote the play after the Sicilian Expedition where Athens suffered a humiliating defeat. It was the beginning of the end for the great city, and the poet wanted his audience to understand that war was the root of all evil; and that war was about nothing. There was no Helen in Troy. There was no glory in Sicily. The gods played with human weaknesses, hoping perhaps that the mortals will grow wiser once they suffer. But do we?
Consider the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – weren’t they wars about nothing? Isn’t any war really about nothing? About ghosts?
The gods had put the real Helen under the protection of Proteus, the king of Egypt. Proteus is the son of Poseidon; his name means the “first born”, the “primal”. He is a sea god who, like water, adapts and changes shape. Reality is protected by change, or change is what hides reality from our senses. Change confuses us. We long for stability; and that is our fall. Our tragedy is that we cannot help but being constantly deluded.