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Described as "fair-haired" by Homer in the Iliad, Menelaus was the mythological king of Sparta. He was the son of Atreus and brother of Agamemnon, who had won the hand of Helen the most beautiful woman on Earth. It is said that all of Helen's suitors - including King Idomeneus of Crete, Ajax of Salamis, etc - had promised that they would support the winner should he ever have need of it. Thus started the Trojan War, when Helen was seduced by Trojan prince Paris and Menelaus asked his wife's former suitors to make good on their pledge.

In the Iliad Menelaus fights bravely and well, even when wounded, and distinguishes himself particularly by recovering the body of Patroclus after the latter is killed by Hector. Although he is depicted as a reasonably wise and just leader, he has a tendency to rattle off fatuous bromides in the most inappropriate circumstances.

During the war, Menelaus' weapon-carrier was Eteoneus. (Odyssey IV, 22, 31.)

After the Greeks won the Trojan War, Menelaus killed Paris' brother Deiphobus - whom Helen had married after Paris' death - and took his wife back to Sparta. According to some versions, Menelaus stayed in the court of King Polybus of Thebes for a time after the war.

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 catch Proteus, a shape-shifting sea god to find out what sacrifices to which gods he would have to make to guarantee safe passage. Proteus also told Menelaus that he was destined for Elysium (Heaven) after his death. Menelaus returned to Sparta with Helen.

After Menelaus' death, his illegitimate son Megapenthes sent Helen into exile.