What if Helen of Troy was Jewish? Is it possible that Greek myth’s most legendary beauty was an MOT? That proposition is a bit far-fetched, but ancient sources record that the Spartans and Jews may have been related. Is that tale even true, though, or is it a product of later political impositions?
According to 1 Maccabees, Jonathan wrote a kind letter to the Spartans in which he calls them the “brothers” of his people and references a past letter to a previous High Priest, Onias, from “Arius, who was king among you, stating that you are our brothers, as the appended copy shows” (1 Macc. 12:7). The letter goes on to reemphasize the continuous alliance and shared kinship between the two peoples. In 2 Maccabees, the author says that the High Priest Jason fled to the Spartans “in hope of finding protection because of their kinship” (2 Macc. 5:9). Additional references hint at a very close relationship in antiquity, or at least a purportedly close one, between Jews and Spartans.
Is this relationship a true one? Was Sparta so close to Judea that its people called themselves “brothers”? If so, does that mean that Sparta was comprised of people of Israelite descent? In his Studies in Hellenistic Judaism, Louis Feldman says that the appeal to Spartan brotherhood was a means of impressing the Romans, with whom the Maccabees were also closely allied (Feldman 197). According to Feldman, the Spartans were very highly thought of by the Romans at that period in time, so seeking a positive relationship with them would impress the Jews’ prospective allies, the Romans. At the same time, though, this doesn’t account for the purported blood relationship between the two people.
Feldman thinks that the alleged blood ties were borne more of similarities between the Jews and Spartans than anything else (Feldman 196). Indeed, the scholarly research done on the subject makes it seem highly unlikely that the Jews and Spartans were blood kin. Perhaps the term “brother” in antiquity was used as a means of political brotherhood, rather than literal blood relations. Either way, if the Jews saw the Spartans as brothers (and the Spartans felt the same way), what would this mean for the way we perceive ancient Sparta?
What would it mean if Helen of Troy was Spartan and, thus, Israelite? Would it change the way Jewish women perceived themselves? It isn’t likely; indeed, Helen probably didn’t even exist. Even if she did, the relationship is tenuous at best, due to lack of historical information and distance through time. Either way, there is no reason we Jewish ladies should define ourselves in terms of another woman. We’re good enough by ourselves! For you guys out there, what would it mean if King Leonidas, the hero Gerard Butler portrayed in 300, was Jewish?
The answer to these questions is that, for the people of today, a Jewish-Spartan relationship likely wouldn’t matter. Ultimately, no matter whom we were related to in the past, the Jewish people have carved out their own identity, independent of ancient alliances. This self-determination is a hallmark of our people, one that has been — and will hold up — throughout the ages.