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The Seer Helenus in Greek Mythology

Updated on April 15, 2016

The Trojan War is one of the most famous events to appear in Greek Mythology, with various writers in antiquity telling of the war between the Greek forces and the defenders of Troy.

Today, the names of the attackers are generally better known than the defenders, but amongst the defenders were Hector, Aeneas and Helenus.

Helenus Prince of Troy

Helenus was a prince of Troy, a son of King Priam of Troy and Hecabe, and therefore full brother to the likes of Hector, Paris and Cassandra; indeed Cassandra was his twin.

Amongst the sons of Priam, Hector was known as a great warrior, Paris was known for his judgement, and Helenus was known for his ability to predict the future.

Helenus' Sister Cassandra

Cassandra - Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) -PD-art-100
Cassandra - Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) -PD-art-100 | Source

Helenus Gets his Gift

Various stories are told about how Helenus received the gift of prophecy. The most famous version simply tells of Helenus being taught the ability to see the future by his sister Cassandra, who herself had been given the gift by Apollo. Cassandra’s prophecies were doomed never to be believed, but the words of Helenus were always listened to.

Occasionally it is told of Helenus receiving the gift when, like Cassandra, his ears were licked out by snakes, whilst he slept in the temple of Apollo.

A third tale of Helenus being taught to be seer sees the son of Priam undertaking a change of name; for in this version Helenus was actually born Scamandrius. Helenus would subsequently be renamed by a Thracian seer who taught him all he knew, although the student would exceed the skills of the tutor.

Helenus Defender of Troy

Helenus was not just a foreseer of the future though, but he was often sought out as the wisest of counsels, and during the Trojan War, Hector certainly took the advice of Helenus.

Additionally though, Helenus was also in the front line of defenders of Troy, exiting the city on numerous occasions to beat back the Achaean forces, fighting side by side with Hector and another brother, Deiphonus. Indeed, Helenus is injured fighting against a Greek hero, Menelaus.

Helenus Away from Troy

Famously though, Helenus is found not in Troy, but amongst the attacking Greek forces.

Some writers told of how Helenus had decided to leave Troy after he hand been angered by the desire of his brother Paris to desecrate the body of Achilles; others told of Helenus’ disgruntlement about losing out to Deiphobus when it came to marrying Helen after the death of Paris; and others simply told of how Helenus left when he foresaw Troy lying in ruins.

In any event, Helenus left Troy and made his home upon Mount Ida, 20 miles to the southeast of the city.

On Mount Ida though, Helenus was discovered by the Achaean heroes Odysseus and Diomedes, and the pair made the Trojan seer their captive, and returned with him to the Greek camp.

The Trojan Horse

The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy from Two Sketches Depicting the Trojan Horse, oil on canvas by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, c. 1760; in the National Gallery, London.
The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy from Two Sketches Depicting the Trojan Horse, oil on canvas by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, c. 1760; in the National Gallery, London.

Helenus Helps the Greeks

Helenus had already previously foretold of the downfall of Troy, when Paris had returned to the city with Helen in tow. Now the Achaeans put his gifts to good use, by getting the seer, either through force or by cajoling, to tell of how the destruction might be achieved.

Helenus added requirements to the predictions already undertaken by Calchas, the Greek seer.

To succeed the Greeks would need to collect the god crafted bone of ivory of Pelops (the son of Tantalus); Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, would be required to fight at Troy, just as his father had; Philoctetes would also need to fight, his bow and arrows having also been required by a Calchas prophecy; and finally the wooden Palladium would have to be removed from Troy. All of these additional requirements would ultimately be achieved by the Greeks.

In some versions of the story of the downfall of Troy, it was also Helenus who also came up with the ruse of the Wooden Horse, as opposed to the story where it was the invention of the goddess Athena.

The Wooden Horse ultimately led to the destruction of Troy, and Helenus could be regarded as a traitor for the assistance he gave in the destruction of his father’s city.

Helenus in the Retinue of Neoptolemus

Andromache and Pyrrhus -  	 Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833) - PD-art-100
Andromache and Pyrrhus - Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833) - PD-art-100 | Source

Helenus Profts from the Downfall of Troy

Helenus was ultimately one of the few males who survived the downfall of Troy, and the story of the Trojan prince does continue after the end of the war.

Helenus had to watch on as the Greeks took the spoils of war, and the females from the royal household of Troy were given over to the various surviving Greek heroes. To this end he saw his twin sister Cassandra become the concubine of Agamemnon, whilst his sister-in-law, Andromache, became part of the retinue of Neoptolemus.

Despite being free to do as he wished, and in some versions, having been richly rewarded by the Achaeans, Helenus would accompany Neoptolemus and his retinue to Epirus; In Epirus, Neoptolemus created a new domain for himself and became father to Molossus, Pergamus and Pielus with Andromache.

Neoptolemus would honour Helenus by giving his own mother, Deidamia, to the seer as his new wife, and the Trojan seer was also put in charge of the new kingdom, whenever Neoptolemus travelled. During one of Neoptolemus’ absences though, the son of Achilles, was killed by Orestes, the son of Agamemnon.

Without a king, Epirus was then divided between Molossus and Helenus, and so a Trojan prince, and son of King Priam, had become a king of Grecian kingdom.

The Story of Helenus Draws to a Close

Helenus’ kingdom was based around Buthrotum, the ruins of which can be found in Vlore County, Albania. There he would make Andromache, his former sister-in-law, his new wife, and Helenus would become father to Cestrinus, a man who subsequently gave his name to the Cerstrine area of Greece.

Helenus was visited in his new kingdom by Aeneas, during the Trojan hero’s travels. The seer would provide his old comrades with details about the founding of Rome, and the dangers that must be faced before Aeneas could rest. Helenus would also provide Aeneas with gold and jewels to aide him in his quest.

Little subsequently is told of Helenus, and it was Molossus, rather than Cestrinus who succeeded to the throne of Buthrotum, although in antiquity it was said that Helenus was buried in Argos.

Comments

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  • Rochelle Frank profile image

    Rochelle Frank 2 years ago from California Gold Country

    So, apparently Cassandra is pulling her hair out because no one believed her? :)

    If snakes licked my ears, I would have left before receiving the gift. Ancient stories are endlessly fascinating.

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