Helen of Troy by Evelyn De Morgan (1898)
According to sources including Cicero, Euripides, Homer and Virgil, Helen of Troy – of Argos, of Sparta – was the most beautiful woman in the entire world. Daughter of Zeus, the god of all gods, she was married to the king of Sparta. However, in exchange for a golden apple from the Garden of the Hesperides, the goddess Aphrodite promised Helen to a nobleman called Paris.
Depending on the source, when Paris arrived to claim her, Helen either fell madly in love with him and was happy to elope, or she was abducted and taken to Troy.
The Love of Helen and Paris by Jacques-Louis David (1788)
Helen’s husband was furious, and he called upon every man who was in love with Helen (which was many, for of course she was so beautiful), to save her and bring her home.
Thus began the Trojan War. During the war, Paris was wounded, and although Helen begged his first wife, a nymph, to save him, she would not: after all, Paris had left her for Helen. Paris died, the nymph threw herself on his funeral pyre – and Helen returned to her husband, the king of Sparta, Paris’s brother Menelaus. With him, she lived in peace.
Who was Helen? More than a beautiful face, surely. Ellen Tagtmeier argues:
Helen can be read not just as a lovely face, but instead in a number of ways: as a victim of an unfair world and husband…, as a temptress playing with both Menelaus and Paris…, as a pawn of the gods…, or even as character seeking their own form of glory and fame, a sort of female Achilles… (source)
One thing is clear: Helen’s was ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ (a quote from Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe). Imagine being so loved.
If you are interested in the stories of Greece, you may enjoy my novel Aphrodite’s Tears, set on a Greek island and rich in mythology:
Aphrodite’s Tears: available to buy now