The Curse of Beauty: How Helen of Troy Was Blamed for Sparking the Trojan War

By: Michelle Konstantinovsky  | 

Helen of Troy
"The Abduction of Helen" by Luca Giordano (1632-1705) from the Musee des Beaux-Arts, Caen, depicts the abduction of Helen, wife of king Menelaus of Sparta, by the Trojan prince Paris, which led to the Trojan War. Art Images/Getty Images

When a figure is known for having "the face that launched a thousand ships," they're bound to pique plenty of interest and curiosity. While many people may be familiar with this Christopher Marlowe line from "Doctor Faustus," they may not be as familiar with his inspiration: Helen of Troy. Otherwise known as Helene or Helen of Sparta, the mythological figure is a character in Homer's epic poem, "The Iliad," who is described as the most beautiful woman of Greece. She's also been blamed for inadvertently sparking the Trojan War (which some might say is unfair considering the fault really lies with the men fighting over her). But there's much more to Helen than many realize, and her story is one more piece of the fascinating, interconnected puzzle of Greek mythology.

Like many players in Greek mythology, Helen's family life is a little complicated. "The most important part of Helen's bio — aside from the fact that she was the immediate reason for the Trojan War being fought — is that she's the daughter of the chief god Zeus," says Richard P. Martin, Antony and Isabelle Raubitschek professor in classics at California's Stanford University, in an email interview. "Her mother was a mortal, Leda, who was married to Tyndareus of Sparta." According to Martin, Zeus — a master of disguise — took on the form of a swan to seduce Leda and she produced two eggs, resulting in four offspring: the girls Helen and Clytemnestra, and the boys Castor and Polydeuces (better known by their Latin names Castor and Pollux — the "Gemini" or twins). "Helen and her sister grew up to marry two brothers, Menelaus and Agamemnon, respectively," Martin says.

Helen's history as an important mythological figure runs deep. "Helen was worshipped as a goddess in Sparta in historical times," Martin says. "She was especially associated with springs of water and trees. Rituals carried out by girls nearing the age of marriage were dedicated to her."

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Helen and The Trojan War

So why is Helen implicated in the start of the Trojan War, the legendary Bronze Age conflict between the early Greeks and the people of Troy? Experts still debate which portions of the war were based in reality and which were fabricated by creatives like Homer and Virgil. So how does Helen fit into the most popular version of the story?

Helen of Troy
A bust of Helen of Troy by an unknown sculptor at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, England.
Dunk/Flickr (CC By 2.0)

"Helen was the most beautiful woman in Greece and had many suitors," Martin says. "Her father made them all swear that they would come to the aid of whichever suitor won Helen's hand in marriage, should anything happen to her. He chose Menelaus to be her husband. The pair lived in Sparta and had a daughter, Hermione."

According to Martin, while Helen and Menelaus started their domestic life together, a young prince from Troy on the other side of Aegean Sea named Paris was asked to judge a beauty contest among the goddesses: Hera (Zeus's wife), Athena and Aphrodite.

"Each promised success in her own special field," Martin says. "Hera offered rule as a king, Athena offered wisdom, and Aphrodite dangled Helen as a bribe — and of course Paris proceeded to judge the sex goddess to be the fairest."

Martin says that when Paris went to visit Menelaus, he seduced Helen and sailed back with her to Troy, prompting the leading warriors of Greece (who, had until recently, been the ones vying for Helen's attention) to join Agamemnon and Menelaus in taking her back from Paris. "But he would not let her go, and so a ten-year siege of Troy by the Greeks began, ending only with the ruse of the Trojan Horse that enabled the Greek fighters to secretly enter the citadel and set it aflame," Martin says. "Menelaus finally got his wife back when the Greeks conquered the city."

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The "Face That Launched a Thousand Ships"

As far as that famous line about her face, Martin explains how Helen came to be defined by a 17th century literary description. It refers to the Greek fleet that went in pursuit of Helen, and it comes from a line in a play called "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus," published in 1604 by a contemporary of Shakespeare named Christopher Marlowe," he says. "The main character, Faustus, wants power at all costs and makes a deal with an associate of the devil, that he will sell his soul provided he is given the service of evil spirits for 24 hours. So he gets the ability to summon spirits of the long-dead, the most impressive being Helen of Troy, whom he takes as a lover."

For further context, here are the lines with which Faustus greets Helen:

Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium —
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. —
[kisses her]
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies! —
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.

But while Helen is often known for her role in Greek mythology, she has universal appeal. "The story of Helen has deep connections with a folktale plot that is found all over the world, starting in ancient Egypt — the 'beautiful wife abducted,'" Martin says. "There is a terrific recent book on all the many versions, written by Lowell Edmunds: "Stealing Helen: The Myth of the Abducted Wife in Comparative Perspective."

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