In Greek mythology, the king of Sparta and the younger son of Atreus. When his wife, Helen, was abducted by Paris, he asked the other Greek kings to join him in an expedition against Troy, thus beginning the Trojan War. He served under his brother Agamemnon. At the war's end he recovered Helen and brought her back to Sparta instead of killing her as he had intended. Having forgotten to appease the gods of defeated Troy, he endured a hard voyage home, and many of his ships were lost.
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As a result, Atreus’ sons went into exile. They first stayed with King Polyphides of Sicyon, and later with King Oeneus of Calydon. But when they thought the time was ripe to dethrone Mycenae's hostile ruler, they returned. Assisted by King Tyndareus of Sparta, they drove Thyestes away, and Menelaus took the throne for himself.
When it was time for Helen, Tyndareus's daughter, to marry, many Greek kings and princes came to seek her hand, or sent emissaries to do so on their behalf. Among the contenders were Odysseus, Menestheus, Ajax the Great, Patroclus, and Idomeneus, but Menelaus was the favorite, though, according to some sources, he did not come in person but was represented by his brother Agamemnon. All but Odysseus brought many rich gifts with them.
Tyndareus would accept none of the gifts, nor would he send any of the suitors away for fear of offending them and giving grounds for a quarrel. Odysseus promised to solve the problem in a satisfactory manner if Tyndareus would support him in his courting of Penelope, the daughter of Icarius. Tyndareus readily agreed, and Odysseus proposed that, before the decision was made, all the suitors should swear a most solemn oath to defend the chosen husband in any quarrel. Then it was decreed that straws were to be drawn for Helen's hand. The suitor who won was Menelaus. This stratagem succeeded, the rest of the Greek kings swearing their oaths, and Helen and Menelaus were married. Following Tyndareus's death, Menelaus became king of Sparta because the only male heirs, Castor and Polydeuces, had died when they had ascended Mount Olympus.Together, Menelaus and Helen had only one daughter, Hermione.
Menelaus called upon all the other of Helen’s suitors, (almost all of the Greek kings had been suitors for Helen’s hand), to fulfill their oaths, thus beginning the Trojan War. Virtually all of Greece took part, either attacking Troy with Menelaus or defending it from them.
In the Iliad, Menelaus fights bravely and well, even when wounded, and distinguishes himself particularly by recovering the body of Patroclus after he is killed by Hector. Although Menelaus is depicted as a reasonably wise and just leader, he has a tendency to rattle off fatuous bromides in the most inappropriate circumstances.
After Paris was killed by Philoctetes, Helen was married to Paris' brother Deiphobus. This angered another of Paris’ brothers, Helenus, who had also wished to marry her. Helenus, who was the leader of the Trojan army after the death of Hector (another brother), then retreated to Mount Ida. He later gave Odysseus suggestions of how Troy could be defeated. It is not clear if this was given willingly or under duress.
One story tells that, when the Argives were razing Troy, Menelaus searched the city in order to find Helen with the intention of killing her to atone for all the pain she had caused. But, when he found her in the ruins, and saw again her breathless beauty and perfect breasts, he dropped his sword and took her up in his arms. Helen is then said to have betrayed Deiphobus (her third husband) to Menelaus (her first). Menelaus killed Deiphobus and mutilated his body, removing all of his body parts one by one and spending special time on his eyes (the eyes having witnessed the naked Helen).
According to the Odyssey, Menelaus' homebound fleet was blown by storms to Crete and Egypt, where they were unable to sail away because the wind was calm. Menelaus had to capture Proteus, a shape-shifting sea god, until Proteus told him what sacrifices he would have to make to the gods to guarantee safe passage. Proteus also told Menelaus that he was destined for Elysium after his death. This was based solely on the fact that he had married Helen, hence becoming a son-in-law to Zeus - and Elysium being a place reserved for the progeny of Zeus.
Menelaus returned to Sparta with Helen, settling in Lacedaemon, where they were later buried together in a modest shrine, although there are many alternative stories of Helen’s life after the fall of Troy. One of these says that, after Menelaus' death, his illegitimate son Megapenthes sent Helen into exile, whence she went eventually to Rhodes.