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Helle, Goddess of the Hellespont



The derivation of the name ‘Helle’, ‘Ὲλλη’ is somewhat ambiguous because it is so close in spelling to Helen and Hellen. If it is related to Helen it may mean bright but if it relates to Hellen it may mean fertile land.

The story of Helle is told by Hesiod because there is a reference in Castasterisms by Pseudo-Erastosthenes. He states Aries: the one who carried Phrixus and Helle across; it was immortal and was given to them by their mother Nephele. And it had a golden fleece, as Hesiod and Pherecydes said.. Homer does not seem to mention Helle.

The myth of Helle and Phryxus tells that blight was on the land of Athamus and the oracle was consulted. The report was that Phryxus and his sister Helle were to be sacrificed to bring the fields to productivity. So they were tied to a stake and left for the monster to come to devour them. But instead a golden, winged ram came. He cut their bonds and told them to get on his back. He took to flight with the two children hanging on for dear life. As they flew over the waterway between the black sea and the Aegean Sea Helle looked down and saw the beauty of the earth below. She was so taken with the view that she let go and fell into the sea. Phryxus held on until he got to Colchis where he was received as a hero. To thank Apollo for his delivery he sacrificed the Ram and hung the Golden Fleece in a garden to be garden to be guarded by a dragon.

This story is in Apollodorus, Library 1.9

Herodotus, The Histories 7.58 actually mentions the grave of Helle being near the Hellespont: “the army of the mainland travelled towards the east1 and the sunrise through the Chersonese, with the tomb of Athamas’ daughter Helle on its right and the town of Cardia on its left, marching through the middle of a city called Agora.”

But there might be a truer version to this story. The father of the two children was Athamus whose name means “rich harvest” Why would such a man have blight? He married Nephele, a nymph whose name means cloudy, so he would have rain for his garden. She had two children Phryxus, which means dry, and Helle, which means bright. So his garden had perfect weather for growing things. But still some things did not grow. So he took interest in Ino, the daughter of Cadmus. Now the sister of Ino, Autonoe had married Aristaeus, a shepherd who had discovered the secret of keeping bees and harvesting honey. His wife, Autonoe was the mother of Actaeon who had wooed Semele. In the process he had learned the secret of mead that he passed to his mother. Mead is a sweet drink that is made from honey. So Ino learned how to raise bees, collect the honey, and mix the honey with water and make mead. When Athamus married Ino he had a beautiful garden with fruits pollinated by the bees and honey and mead. Ino had two sons, Learchus, and Melicertes. The name Melicertes means true honey and the name Learchus seems to relate to ‘bending’ honey into mead. Atahmas truly had a rich harvest. Athamus was happy for a while but a bard came to his court and sang poems about the riches of the East.

Athamus knew he had golden wool from his sheep, golden honey from bees, golden mead, and golden grain from his garden. But he did not have the golden metal from the ground that shined so bright in the poems of the bard. Should he lead an army and steal the gold? Should he dig for it? Or should he try to share his wealth and trade for it? To solve this problem he married a third wife. She was Themisto whose name means ‘the best way’. Her children were Sphincius whose name means ‘binding oath’ and Orchomenus who name means ‘obedient servant’ Her contribution was that Athamus should trade with Colchis, on the eastern edge of the Black Sea in peace.

So who would go on the trading expedition? Nobody wanted to go because in those days travel was dangerous. Sea monsters seemed large. Winds and waves could topple you or blow you into shore. And strange people could attack you. Each of the wives tried to protect her children from this journey. They argued with each other. Athamus tried a sack race. Each pair of children was lined up with the closer leg tied into a sack. The race was on. The children of Nephele came in last and one of each of their shoes was kept as an oath that they would carry out the mission.

Athamus got together a winged sailing ship called the Ram. He loaded it with a crew, provisions, golden grain, golden fleece from his sheep, golden honey, and golden mead. All these were loaded in large sealed jars called amphora. The hold was lined with brush to cushion the amphora and a cover was tied on the hold. Then he gave leave for Phryxus and Helle to set sail. First they sailed to Lemnos where the fleece was woven into cloth. Then they sailed for the Black Sea. They stopped next at Sestos for water and trade. While in the market Helle fell in love with a young man from Abydos, on the other side of the straight. The Ram spent some time at Sestos as a result. Finally Helle was married and the Ram carried the happy couple across the straight. The ship was a bridge over the water for Helle. Perhaps they were the ancestors of Hero and Leander. Hero swam across the Hellespont for Leander but no one named the strait Herospont when he drowned. It sounds much better that the Hellespont was named the bridge of Helle because it carried her to her bridal home. If she drowned it meant she did not even make it across.

Phryxus sailed on to Colchis and was received as a hero especially because the cargo made the people very happy. The grain gave them bread to eat. The wool cloth made them warm. The honey made them sweet. And the mead made them happy at their festivals. Phryxus traded the grain, honey, mead, and woven wool cloth for gold. Because the mission started with golden fleece and ended with fleece traded for gold the Ram returned to King Athamus with a cargo referred to as the Golden Fleece. Phryxus had traded the entire cargo for gold as the King had wanted. But as a sacrifice to the success of the journey he made one of the fleeces into a pouch which he hung in a local grove to receive votives. This way people could continue to thank the gods. He stayed on in Colchis as an Ambassador and received many sailing ships from King Athamus to Colchis. There he married Chalciope, the daughter of king of Colchis, Aeetes. Helle, for her part, made a rest stop for the ships of Athamas at Abydos. She would go down to the wharf and greet the ships herself. Everybody was happy.

Images of Helle

  1. Female companion of Phryxus possibly Helle or possibly Chalkiope