The Face That Launched A Thousand Ships
Updated: May 10, 2021
Helen of Troy:
a tale of tragedy or selfish sacrifice?
In feminist lore, Helen of Troy epitomizes feminine beauty and objectification. To some, she's seen as a victim of abduction and rape; to others, an example of female strength and independence against male oppressors. Homer's Iliad details Helen's role in the Trojan War––I mean, she was the sole cause of the war according to legend––through the eyes of the Greeks and Trojans alike. While Helen appears only six times in the epic, with many of them occurring within the same book, she remains a central figure in the book through the minds of the many men.
Archaeologically speaking, it's nearly impossible to determine whether Helen actually
existed. The search for Troy itself has been a long one, and scholars continue to dispute its existence entirely. Many, however, believe the archaeological site of Hisarlik to be ancient Troy. Featuring many similarities to Homer's tale––a weak spot in their strong fortifications that was previously patched over and thus vulnerable to siege (compare to Book 6 of the Iliad, lines 453-456) and downward slopes of the top walls, something relatively unseen during Hisarlik's time frame (compare to Book 16 of the Iliad, lines 732-736)––the city could likely be the inspiration for Homer's narrative. After Heinrich Schliemman, a lead archaeologist who excavated and 'found' Troy, discovered a plethora of silver and gold items in the city, he named the treasure "Priam's Treasure" and believed the jewels to be "the jewels of Helen."
Other Ancient authors also loved telling the tale of Helen of Troy. Euripides wrote an entire play about her, entitled Helen, and fully dramatizes her elopement with Paris after Menelaus is presumed dead. Ovid wrote two letters between Helen and Paris in his Heroides, depicting the budding love between the two. Paris describes his desires:
What the mother of Love, who persuaded me to this journey, has fixed upon, I deeply hope may be, and that she has not promised you to me in vain; for at divine behest –– lest you sin unawares –– I sail hither, and no slight godhead favours my undertaking (Ovid 1931: 16.14-16).
In blaming the divine beings for his intentions to abduct Helen, Paris removes himself from any blame in his own mind. His lust has taken over, and an aghast Helen responds––"You have dared, stranger, to violate the sacred pledge of hospitality, and to tamper with the faith of a lawful wife!" (Ovid 1931: 17.1-5)––attempting to remove herself from the situation entirely and blaming Paris for his assumptions. Yet she later says that she "longed to become [his] bride at Troy" (Ovid 1931: 17.110). Helen then decides to follow her presumed love, leading to the events we know as the Trojan War.
Herodotus, however, states a different story of Helen's abduction, claiming that she spent her time in Egypt during the war. He believed that she was intimately involved with King Proteus of Egypt and that the "temple of the 'foreign Aphrodite'" (Herodotus 2008: 2.112) was actually dedicated to Helen. After Alexander (another name for Paris) took her from Sparta, Helen was freed by Proteus once they arrived in Egypt. He held her and the other goods Paris stole for Menelaus to eventually come claim, but fell in love with her in the process.
From ancient times through the modern age, Helen of Troy has continued to fascinate audiences and remains a source of intrigue and contention among many. Countless movies, novels, plays, and other works of art have been created to detail her story––or at least what the artists assume to be her story. Many modern poets have gained inspiration from Helen's story, producing texts that question the modern notions of femininity, race, and personhood.
Helen of Troy
by Nikita Gill
Here, Nikita Gill relates Helen to female empowerment and strength. Emphasizing her role as a half goddess (daughter of Zeus), Gill preserves the divine associations prominent in Ancient Greek culture. The topic of freedom––something a bit convoluted and almost impossible in the Homeric tale––is central in "Helen of Troy." Gill's Helen claims that Menelaus's hold over Helen was a "prison," and her elopement with Paris was the escape she so desired.
At the turn of the poem, Helen cites all the men who abused her and took her freedom––Theseus, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Achilles, Paris. Helen was never able to hold her own autonomy; rather, she was tied down to the many men who claimed her as their own. The idea that Helen was treated as property evokes the men in the Iliad. In Book three, Paris and Menelaus duel for control over Helen, and she is made aware of the battle only through divine intervention. The utter lack of concern for Helen's own opinion and desires reduces her to a mere object in the eyes of men. As the most desired woman in all of Greece, Helen's own beauty is the source of her downfall.
While Gill's Helen claims that the war over her was justified, throughout the Iliad, Homer's Helen displays signs of guilt for her role in the war. When Iris summons Helen in Book III, Helen is seen "designing into the blood-red fabric the trials that the Trojans and Greeks had suffered for her beauty" (Homer 3.128-130). Even in her typical wifely duties, Helen is overwhelmed by her own shame and cannot seem to escape it. She later calls herself a "scheming cold-blooded bitch" (Homer 6.362) in a conversation with Hector, the brother of Paris. The Trojan people blame her for the war, and this takes a toll on Helen herself. While not cited repeatedly in the epic, Helen's role as the source of Troy's downfall never leaves the back of the reader's mind, imprinting itself on all aspects of the bloody and brutal war.
Nikita Gill's poem attempts to install Helen with a sense of autonomy in relation to her beauty rather than in spite of it. Rather than placing the blame on herself, as both the Greeks and Trojans attempt to do in the Iliad, Gill's Helen reminds the reader that the objectification of a divine being can and will only lead to harm unto the oppressor. This modernization of the story reflects the current ideals of female strength and empowerment, defying male oppressors in search of female autonomy and freedom.
Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing
by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood's poem "Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing" is a modern take on Helen's story, imagining her in a 20th century setting. The cynical and disgusted tone seems to evoke Helen's own internalized frustrations with the blatant misogyny constantly surrounding her. Even fellow females attempt to suppress Helen's beauty and charms; Atwood's poem condescends these women, noting the contradictions of society in its treatment of the female sex. She juxtaposes the pressure to follow societal standards ("Quit dancing. / Get some self-respect / and a day job.") with the ill effects it has on the individual woman ("And minimum wage, / and varicose veins).
The world fears confident, beautiful, and powerful women, a trend continued from the ancient times into the modern day. Helen is 'selling' her body in Atwood's poem, possibly prostituting or otherwise sexualizing herself for profit. Helen's sexuality in ancient Greece was the cause for much of her problems––she was exploited for her looks by the desire of men. Atwood depicts Helen as having a choice in the matter, claiming that her decisions were hers alone, rather than that of Paris or the gods as the Iliad suggests.
While the only identification that the poem is about Helen remains in the title, the imagery tells the same tale––that of objectification and beautification. In both works, Helen is viewed by men as simply a source of desire and destruction. However, Atwood argues that Helen has full control over her actions and chooses her own path, using her sexualization to her advantage. She recognizes the hatred or "bleary hopeless love" within her worshippers; Helen truly is the epitome of the saying 'girls want to be her and boys want to be with her.'
The line "I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge / to step on ants" provides important characterization for Atwood's Helen, associating her with devastating natural forces and destructive human activities––both the divine and mortal sides of her crave pain and suffering.
The final stanza finally brings the readers back to Troy itself, tying in the title of the poem to the material itself. It's somewhat ironic to compare the music Atwood's Helen dances to with the feeling of a post-looted city. Here, Helen seems to revel in the destruction she caused. The destruction, rape, and killing seem like necessities; the only way for women to advance in society is through the suppression of patriarchal standards at the danger of others. Helen has to sell herself to gain status. In both Margaret Atwood's depiction and the Ancient Greek epic, Helen's sexuality is the only sure path towards success and power.
Helen of War
by Nikita Gill
In an unpublished (and removed from her instagram) poem, Nikita Gill speculates on Helen's conscience and guilt. Rather than taking the first person as Helen of Troy, Gill directly asks Helen questions in the third person, distancing the reader from the woman. Gill places possible blame on Helen herself as a guilty bystander with the power to prevent the catastrophes occurring around her. "Helen of War" exemplifies the question that plagues scholars examining Helen's role in the Trojan War: was she simply an unfortunate abductee, stuck watching a city fall over her own capture, or a victimizing victim seeking freedom from her oppressors, even at the sake of an entire city?
Gill seems to believe in the latter, categorizing Helen as running "from rancid archaic responsibilities" forced upon her by the Ancient Greek society. Yet––Helen had the power to take action or at least protest against the war fought over her name; she could have strived to stop the death and destruction of an entire city rather than simply standing back and watching Troy fall. For, despite the divine intervention in much of the Trojan War, according to Homer, Helen refrained from using her demi-goddess status to aid in bringing peace. Helen was not simply the "face that launched a thousand ships"; rather, she was this "Helen of War" seeking destruction for her own benefit.
Even in the structure of the poem, Gill displays alternate ideas of perceiving Helen and her role in the Trojan War. The left-hand column seems more accusatory in nature, equating Helen's beauty and freedom with selfishness and destruction. This version of Helen depicts her as a guilty bystander watching as a city fell before her very feet; in running from her responsibilities, Helen allowed for the destruction of an entire civilization. The right-hand column, however, seems to recognize that Helen's freedom came at a price and that she fully knew the consequences of her actions. Rather than running from her wifely duties, Helen ran from an oppressive system that held her captive, seeking freedom from the archaic norms that tied her down. Helen thus played a more active role in the war itself, choosing her own freedom over the freedom of a city.
At least in the Iliad, Helen does appear to feel much of the guilt Gill describes in her poem. In her six appearances in the epic, Helen frequently displays moments of remorse, either in action or in speech. She tells Priam, "death should have been a sweeter evil to me than following your son here, leaving my home, my marriage, my friends, my precious daughter, that lovely time in my life" (Homer 3.182-185). At Hector's funeral pyre, Helen gives an impassioned speech, exclaiming "I should have died first" (Homer 24.818). Helen's own guilt plagues her conscience. The price of her freedom has more damaging implications than the cost of her staying in an unhappy marriage with Menelaus. These guilt-burdened remarks answer the questions Gill asks Helen in her poem, suggesting that Helen herself regrets her choices and the aftermath of them. In order for Helen's guilt to subside, she must take up this "Helen of War" figure and accept her own role in the battle for Troy.
Paris to Helen As They Sail To Troy
by Nikita Gill
Nikita Gill changes perspectives yet again, this time viewing Helen from Paris's eyes. Here you can feel Paris's absolute infatuation with Helen and understand why he felt the need to abduct her from Menelaus. He sees her as all women dream of being seen––as a beautiful goddess defiant of those trying to suppress her. The line "I feel privileged to be privy in the making of a Goddess" makes Paris seem easily swayed by Helen's choices; Helen has the power in the relationship. He also focuses on her freedom rather than her beauty, seeing her power as lying in her intellect and self-sovereignty.
However, Paris's words seem rather persuasive and tactical in nature, looking to assuage her fears and convince her that her eloping with him was the right choice. His references to her freedom seem ironically contradictory to her actual role in the story. While Helen may be free from Menelaus, she is not free from the patriarchal constraints of Ancient Greek society. Instead, she's stuck with Paris, forced to be his wife, his lover, and his underling, and the inadvertent cause of the destruction of an entire city.
not an elegy for Mike Brown
by Danez Smith
This poem is unlike any other poem involving Helen of Troy. Rather than a commentary on gender, "not an elegy for Mike Brown" is a commentary on the role race plays in our understanding of tragedy. Danez Smith presents a heartbreaking story of a Black boy's death and the lack of concern from the larger, White-dominated society. The juxtaposition between the life and death of a Black man and the abduction of a white woman––one seen as just another incident, the other an epic tragedy––reflects the stark difference between Black and White people in America.
In this light, the response of the Greeks and Trojans after Helen's abduction seems not only unnecessary and excessive, but ultimately an abuse of power. Had Menelaus not been a king and Paris not been a prince, not a soul would have cared about Helen's disappearance. Countless women were raped, taken, and abused during ancient Greek times, and, as Smith examines, black children are killed in modern America and no one cares. In 2019 alone, over 6,000 Black men were murdered in America, compared to only 4,000 White men––a 30% higher death ratio out of a far smaller population, and that's certainly not including many of the deaths that aren't accounted for.
Smith's heart-felt plea for people to care about the murders of Black men seems so isolated compared to the thousand ships launched in response to Helen's abduction. While Helen's story is mainly, if not entirely, fictitious in nature, the idea remains the same: a White woman's abduction is vastly more important than a Black man's life. Why should we continue to care about a war fought over one woman when so many Black men and women are dying at the hands of the corrupt system that is America?
While we may never know Helen's true face or identity––or even if she existed––her role as a symbol for beauty, lust, and power will remain throughout eternity. Ruby Blondell, a Professor of Classics at the University of Washington, states, "Though often objectified, however, [Helen] is almost never a mere object. She is an agent as well as a victim, a viewer as well as viewed, active as well as passive, a generator of signs as well as a sign herself" (Blendell 2010: 1-2). Helen is the image of love and hate, of war and peace. Her beauty gives her power but at the expense of her own freedom. She's a reminder to women that beauty isn't everything, and beauty can become a dangerous, destructive weapon, especially when objectified and weaponized by men. Helen will continue to inspire poets and artists to portray the tragedy and power of being a woman in a man's world.
Maybe one day we'll know who Helen was, but that's up to the gods to decide. And maybe, just maybe, the uncertainty of her existence is what really gives her power. As with Troy itself, the Homeric narrative gave this uncertainty its power; if we ever determined the real story behind Troy, it wouldlose its spark. Helen needs to be a figment of our imaginations. Every one of us gets to decide who she was and what role she played in the war, and our determinations reflect more on our own characters than on Helen herself.
*note that formatting is a bit off due to the format of the post*
Blondell, R. (2010) "'Bitch that I Am': Self-Blame and Self-Assertion in the Iliad." Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 140(No. 1). Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40652048 (Accessed 8 May 2021).
Gill, N. (2019) Great Goddesses: Life Lessons from Myths and Monsters. USA: Penguin Random House LLC.
Gill, N. (2019) "Paris to Helen As They Sail To Troy." Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/B5k4mGhJu2D/?igshid=jbzda5ivpdm1&epik=dj0yJnU9M3VRd3VNVEdwWDVZWGxzSEtuVkJUNGNhVExmdk9EdmkmcD0wJm49VU9BOUpmN04yeldqR24wbjZ3QTd4QSZ0PUFBQUFBR0NYQlNn (Accessed 8 May 2021).
Herodotus. (2008) The History of Herodotus. Translated from the Greek by G. C. Macaulay. EBook: Project Gutenberg EBook. Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2707/2707-h/2707-h.htm (Accessed 8 May 2021).
Homer. (1997) Iliad. Translated from the Greek by Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Ovid. (1931) Heroides and Amores. Translated from the Greek by G. Showerman. Loeb Classical Library Vol. 41. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd. Available at: https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidHeroides1.html (Accessed 8 May 2021).
Rossetti, D. (1863) Helen of Troy. University of California, San Diego. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/community.13708770 (Accessed 8 May 2021).
Smith, D. (2014) "not an elegy for Mike Brown." Available at: https://www.splitthisrock.org/poetry-database/poem/not-an-elegy-for-mike-brown (Accessed 8 May 2021).
*N.B. This blog post acts as my final paper for a Classics course at U.C. Berkeley: "Trojan War: History or Myth?" and is not part of my regular posting habits. Hopefully you've learned something and enjoyed bits of the poetry and myth! And thanks to Dr. Shelton for such an interesting and adaptable prompt that allows me to share some of my newfound knowledge about Troy with the world (or my blog viewers at least)*