Throughout all mythology Helen of Troy stands to be one of the many mythological divinities repeatedly described as beautiful. The Trojan War is said to have been a direct result of this beauty described by some as, “The face that launched a thousand ships.”
We are first introduced to Helen as she is born the daughter of gods Leda and Zeus. As years pass and her beauty develops, men take an interest, and she is courted by many of the most eligible noblemen of Greece. In an effort to manage their interests, Odysseus suggests that Helen be allowed to choose her husband based on her own standards, and commands the remaining suitors to vow they will protect and defend the chosen one, Menelaus, without spite, by any means necessary. Paris, another suitor eager to win over Helen’s heart, persuades and abducts her to Troy. When word reaches the other possible suitors waiting back in Sparta, they uphold their former vow, making an armed expedition to Troy, beginning the ten year battle known today as the “Trojan War.” However, alternate traditions tend to suggest that Helen was first taken to King Proteus of Egypt as her phantom body descended with Paris to Troy. After the wars long fought conclusion, Helen was reunited with Menelaus upon his return to Egypt.
This portrayal is supported by Euripides as he quotes Helen saying: “… and yet I was not the cause of the Trojan War/ a prize for Greek spears, but my name was” (Helen, 239, 43-44). Euripides also tends to suggest that the Trojan War was not a result of Helen’s abduction, but rather a process ignited by Zeus to cleanse the world of a population overflow: “Then Zeus/ devised other evils to add to these./ For he brought war to the land of the Greeks/ and to the unfortunate Trojans to lighten/ Mother Earth’s load from an abundance of human beings” (Helen, 239, 36-40).
In contrast with Euripides portrayal, Homer suggests that the Trojan War was not a method of cleansing the earth, but rather a direct result of her beauty, possible infidelity to Menelaus, and men’s constant lust. In book three and four of the Iliad, Homer describes the process of the Trojan War and how it began through Menelaus’ paranoid anger, and Paris’ want and protection of Helen: “… and set me in the middle with Menelaus the warlike/to fight together for the sake of Helen and all her possessions. / That one of us who wins and is proved stronger, let him/ take the possessions fairly and the woman, and lead her homeward” (The Iliad, 102, 69-72). In constant battle with Paris over Helen’s love, Menelaus proceeds to Troy in an effort to win her back.
Although traditions may change and the interpretations of which may differ, one thing is for certain, Helen’s image still stands to be, “The face that launched a thousand ships.”
Return to CLA 1-216-97 home page
Last updated October 23, 2005