Helen of Troy in The Iliad: Description, Story & Facts

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

She was the most beautiful person that ever lived, the reason behind the Trojan War, the daughter of Zeus and the wife of many. But who was Helen really?

The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships

Do you wish you were beautiful? What about the most beautiful person ever? In Homer's The Iliad, Helen had beauty, perhaps more beauty than any mortal of all time, but it never really brought her any happiness. She was accused of being 'the face that launched a thousand ships' for her role in the start of the Trojan War. But who was Helen, and what is her story? In this lesson, we'll describe Helen of Troy and explore Homer's description of her in The Iliad

Helen of Troy was the most beautiful woman who ever lived
Helen of Troy was the most beautiful woman who ever lived

The Story of Helen

Helen was born in Sparta, the daughter of Leda (of the poem 'Leda and the Swan', which tells of Helen's conception) and Zeus, king of the gods. Helen was regarded as the most beautiful woman in the world, and thus many men sought her in marriage. There was such contention that the suitors all came up with a plan. Whomever Helen's mother's husband Tyndareus chose, the others all agreed to support him. Menelaus of Sparta was chosen to be Helen's husband, and the two were married. They had one daughter, Hermione.

Helen's twin sister, Clytemnestra married Menelaus's brother, Agamemnon of Argos, who was one of the most powerful Greek men and a major player in The Iliad.

Trouble with Paris

Paris, who was the son of King Priam of Troy, was given a test by Zeus. Known as a fair judge, Zeus gave Paris the task of picking which goddess was the most beautiful. In the running were Hera (queen of the gods), Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), and Aphrodite (goddess of love). Each promised something to Paris so he would pick her. Hera promised Paris he would be a great king, Athena promised him success in war, and Aphrodite promised to make the most beautiful woman in the world his wife.

Paris chose Aphrodite, and soon after was sent on a mission to Sparta. There he met Helen. The goddess Aphrodite made Helen fall in love with the handsome Paris. Helen left with Paris, and furious, Menelaus called upon all the former suitors to defend his claim to Helen. The Greeks responded en mass, including heroes such as Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus. They gathered their ships and sailed to make war upon Troy. The Trojan War, which would last ten years and kill many thousands, had begun.

Helen left Sparta with Paris and sailed for Troy
Helen left Sparta with Paris and sailed for Troy

Helen in Troy

Helen had a tenuous relationship with the citizens of Troy, many of whom blamed her for the Trojan War. She said that only King Priam and Hector, his eldest son, were ever nice to her. She says to Hector, 'I have never heard a harsh saying from you, nor an insult', but later says that the others ' one of my lord's brothers or sisters, a fair-robed wife of some brother, would say a harsh word to me in the palace'.

When Hector is killed by Achilles, Helen mourns him, saying 'for no longer have I anyone beside in broad Troy that is gentle to me or kind; but all men shudder at me'

Obviously, Helen is not entirely happy in Troy, and there is indication that she regrets leaving Sparta, starting the war, and even her marriage to Paris. Though she loves him, she believes that Paris is weak, and she wishes she never left with him. She speaks to the goddess Aphrodite, asking her why she has meddled in her life. She also says to Hector 'I wish I'd been wife to a better man'.

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