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In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was the most beautiful (mortal) woman in the world, the Face That Launched a Thousand Ships. But what was it like having her as a mother? Was she a Mommie Dearest nightmare or a doting dame… or somewhere in between?
Hermione the Heartbreaker
Helen's most famous child is her daughter, Hermione, whom she had with her first husband, Menelaus of Sparta. Her mother abandoned little Hermy to run off with the Trojan Prince Paris; as Euripides tells us in his tragedy Orestes: She was “the little daughter she had left behind when she sailed off with Paris to Troy.” Orestes, Helen's nephew, says that, while Helen was “away” and Menelaus was chasing her down, Hermione's aunt Clytemnestra (Helen's half-sister) raised the little girl.
But Hermione was fully-grown by the time Telemachus paid Menelaus a visit in the Odyssey. As Homer recounts, “He was sending Hermione as bride to Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, that breaker of ranks of men, for he had promised her to him, and sworn an oath at Troy, and now the gods brought it about.” The Spartan princess was quite the looker, just like her mom-Homer claims her “beauty was golden Aphrodite's”-but that marriage didn't last.
Other sources have different accounts of Hermione's marriage. In Orestes, she's promised to Neoptolemus, but Apollo proclaims that her cousin Orestes-who holds her hostage for her father's good behavior in the play-will wed her. Apollo tells Orestes, “Furthermore, Orestes, your Fate declares that you will marry the woman at whose throat you are holding your sword. Neoptolemus, who thinks that he will marry her, will not do so.” Why is that? Because Apollo prophesies Neoptolemus will kick the bucket at the god's sanctuary of Delphi when the young man goes to ask for “satisfaction for the death of Achilles, his father.”
Hermione the Home-Wrecker?
In another of his plays, Andromache, Hermione has become a shrew, at least as it related to how she treated Andromache. That woman was the widow of the Trojan hero Hector, enslaved after the war and forcibly “given” to Neoptolemus as his concubine. In the tragedy, Andromache complains, “My lord abandoned my bed, the bed of a slave, and married the Spartan Hermione, who now torments me with her cruel abuse.”
Why did the wife hate her hubby's slave? Hermione accuses Andromache “of using drugs of magic powers against her, of making her barren and of making her husband despise her.” Andromache adds, “She says I'm trying to force her out of the palace so that I can take over as its rightful mistress.” Then, Hermione proceeds to mock Andromache, dubbing her a barbarian and making fun of her plight as her husband's slave, cruelly quipping, “And so, I can speak to you all as a free woman, indebted to no one!” Andromache fires back that Hermione was as much of a shrew as her mom: “Wise children must avoid the habits of their evil mothers!”
In the end, Hermione regrets her heinous words against Andromache and her sacrilegious plots to pull the Trojan widow from the sanctuary of Thetis (Neoptolemus's divine grandmother), violating the right of sanctuary Andromache had invoked by clinging to Thetis's statue. An undercover Orestes arrives on the scene, and Hermione, fearful of her hubby's retribution, pleads with him to help her get away from her husband, whom she thinks will punish her for plotting to kill Andromache and her kid by Neoptolemus.
Hermione beseeches her cousin, “I beg you, Orestes, in the name of our mutual father, Zeus, take me away from here!” Orestes agrees, claiming Hermione actually belonged to him because they were engaged before her father promised her to Neoptolemus, but Orestes was in a bad way-having killed his mom and being cursed for it-at the time. At the end of the play, not only does Orestes take Hermione away with him, but he also plots to ambush Neoptolemus at Delphi, where he'll kill the king and make Hermione his wife. Off-screen, they get married; with hubby number two, Orestes, Hermione had a son named Tisamenus. The kid didn't have such good luck when it came to being a king; the descendants of Heracles kicked him out of Sparta.
What about Helen's other children? Some versions of her story feature her abduction at an early age by the Athenian king Theseus, who'd sworn a pact with his BFF Pirithous that each of them would abduct a daughter of Zeus. The poet Stesichorus claims that Theseus's rape of Helen produced a little girl, Iphigenia, whom Helen gave to her sister to raise to maintain her own virginal image; that was the same girl whom her purported father, Agamemnon, sacrificed to get to Troy. So Helen's daughter may have been murdered to get her mother back.
Most versions of Helen's tale, though, feature Hermione as Helen's only child. In the eyes of the heroic Greeks, that would've made Helen a failure at her one and only job: producing a male child for her husband. Homer mentions in the Odyssey that Menelaus made his illegitimate son Megapenthes his heir, noting that “his son was the dearly beloved child of a slave, for the gods, gave Helen no more issue, once she had borne that lovely girl Hermione.”
But one ancient commentator says that Helen had two kids: “Hermione and her youngest-born, Nicostratus, a scion of Ares.” Pseudo-Apollodorus confirms, “Now Menelaus had by Helen a daughter Hermione and, according to some, a son Nicostratus.” A later commentator suggests Helen and Menelaus had another little boy, Pleisthenes, whom she took with her when she fled to Troy, adding that Helen also bore Paris a son named Aganus. Another account mentions that Helen and Paris had three kids-Bunomus, Corythus, and Idaeus-but sadly, these boys died when the roof of the family home in Troy collapsed. R.I.P. Helen's boys.