The Suitors of Helen the Beautiful

BKT V.1 28-30 (P. 9739 R)


It is well known that Helena was beautiful. However, she was courted by so many suitors that lists had to be drawn up in antiquity. One of them has been preserved on this papyrus, which is now on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin.

The papyrus is a fragment from what was originally a very extensive scroll. It most likely originates from the Fayum, an oasis in the southwest of Cairo, which was already known in antiquity. The papyrus scroll was acquired by Ludwig Borchardt. It probably dates from the second century AD, but it could even be older than that.

The upper parts of five columns have survived on this fragmentary papyrus. The script is a book script, i.e. it was written neatly and clearly. The text contains remnants of Hesiod’s catalogue of women, of which only fragments have survived otherwise. We therefore do not have a complete text of this work. Hesiod was a Greek poet born around 700 BC, and his catalogue of women deals with well-known women of Greek mythology. The surviving fragment deals with Helen and her suitors.

This list of suitors includes one Lycomedes of Crete, the Amythaonides (the brothers Alkmaion and Amphiloches), Thoas, Podarkes and Protesilaos, Menestheus and Elephenor. In addition, the mighty Greek fighter Aias, who could only be surpassed by Achilles, was among them. As well as Odysseus, again another great hero in the Trojan War, who invented the Trojan horse. Homer’s Odyssey focuses on his perilous journey home, which lasted ten years. Menelaus, who was later to marry Helen, was also part of this enumeration. It was he who had Agamemnon call the Greeks together after Helen was kidnapped by Paris. There is also mention of Achilles, the most important hero in the Trojan War, who did not appear because of his youth and his current stay with Chiron – a centaur who lived on Mount Pelion and trained many of the great heroes.

Although this is already a large number of suitors, the list is not complete because it is not possible to identify all the people due to the missing parts of the text. The text also deals with an oath that Odysseus advised. He made all the suitors promise to protect Helen by all means and not to kill each other.

In the end, Menelaus was victorious with the support of his brother Agamemnon (both are also sometimes called „Atrides“ in the text because of their father Atreus). In fact, it was not only his riches that were convincing, but also his appearance, as Helena was allowed to choose freely. The oath included Helena’s free choice so that in the end no one could blame her father Tyndareius. Thus Menelaus returned to Sparta with Helen as queen, where they then had a daughter named Hermione. Shortly afterwards Helen was kidnapped by Paris, whereupon the Greek fleet gathered to rescue her. However, this was held up for several months from winter to spring, as Agamemnon prided himself on being a better hunter than the goddess of the hunt Artemis, who sent strong winds. These events (although only Helena’s side is told here) heralded the Trojan War.

This small fragment thus contains an insight into the great ancient Greek literature and mythology.

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