Herodotus Tells Tales From Egypt’s Hoary Past! Today’s installment: Helen of Troy!
After Pharaoh died or was deposed, he was succeeded not by his own son but by a prominent aristocrat of Memphis, a man Homer called Polybus and Herodotus calls Proteus. It’s possible Herodotus misunderstood something and Proteus was actually a Prouti, which was apparently a title. Like thinking Dracula’s first name was Count?
Anyway, Proteus was king or at least local bigwig in Memphis, when Paris showed up. You remember Paris from a little thing called the Trojan War, right? He kidnapped Helen, fled across the sea to Troy, and all the Greek heroes teamed up to recover her?
According to this story, Paris and Helen fled Greece by way of Egypt, on account of a storm blew them off course. Their ship put in at the mouth of the Nile, and Paris made repairs and waited for the winds to change.
Meanwhile Paris’s various servants were not cool with the whole kidnapping of Helen thing. The fact that Helen was super into it did not figure; she was someone else’s property and they felt bad about aiding and abetting Paris’s theft.
So they left his ship and went to a nearby shrine to Heracles, which in ancient times (and in Herodotus’s own time this persisted) had a policy of granting asylum to slaves and servants willing to act as whistle-blowers against their masters.
Proteus’s man Thon, the local cop, found out from the shrine’s priests that Paris abducted Helen. (Thon is mentioned very briefly in the Odyssey, in Book IV, as the husband of Helen’s Egyptian poison-supplier Polydamna, by the way.) Thon wasted no time alerting Proteus about the Trojan criminal camped out on the shore. Proteus ordered Paris arrested and brought to him.
Cut to Paris in Proteus’s court.
“Paris, Paris, Paris,” Proteus said, clucking his tongue. “Whatever are we going to do with you?”
“Let me go with a present?” Paris suggested.
“No. I’d execute you, but it seems unsporting to kill a man who just blew into Egypt by accident, and whose crimes weren’t committed here. Seducing Helen, stealing Helen away from her husband Menelaus, robbing Menelaus of various valuables…” Proteus ticked off the crimes of Paris on his fingers. “You are yourself a guest of Egypt, just as you were a guest of the House of Atreus. I cannot break the rules of hospitality, just because you did. So I will let you go.”
“Awesome!” cried Paris.
“But I’m keeping Helen here,” added Proteus.
And so Helen became the prisoner/guest of the pharaoh in Memphis, and Paris went to Troy empty handed.
Menelaus led the Greek army to Troy and besieged the city, as told in the Iliad. When Troy was finally opened, he discovered that Helen wasn’t there (just as the Trojans had been shouting at him over the city walls for years). So he sailed to Egypt and picked Helen up from Memphis, where she’d been waiting.
But Menelaus was also kind of a dick, because when he left Egypt he abducted a couple of local kids and sacrificed them to Poseidon, the jerk.
Herodotus is well aware that this story doesn’t quite jibe with the popular account of the Trojan War, but he points to evidence in Homer mentioning Paris’s travels and Helen’s acquaintances in Egypt as proof that a) this is what really happened, b) Homer knew that it happened this way, and c) Homer omitted the bit about Helen never actually reaching Troy because it made for a more interesting story if the war was caused by a dispute over Helen instead of what it probably had really been about, namely the control of trade routes and excise taxes.
“I mean, come on,” says Herodotus. “Paris was Priam’s younger son. No way Hector or Priam would have risked their whole kingdom on account of his shenanigans. Obviously they didn’t have Helen to return, or else they would have just handed her over.”
NEXT: MY FAVORITE STORY IN ALL OF HERODOTUS!