Secret Library

The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships?

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle looks at a common line associated with Helen of Troy

Who said, ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ Most people know it was Doctor Faustus. Or rather, Christopher Marlowe, who gives Doctor Faustus these words in his play about the magician who sold his soul to the Devil (or rather to the Devil’s messenger, Mephistopheles):

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
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.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.

The reason Helen’s face ‘launched a thousand ships’, of course, is that, in Greek myth at least, Paris (prince of Troy) was so enamoured of her that he abducted Helen, who was married to the Spartan king Menelaus, thus prompting the Greeks (as they are commonly called at least, although Homer doesn’t call them such) to go to war with the Trojans. It all came down to Helen’s beauty. There were numerous riffs on this idea in classical literature, the most famous of which, of course, is Homer’s Iliad, often considered the founding text of Western literature. Another classical text which offers a slightly different take on the whole business was Euripides’ play Helen, which has the real ‘Helen of Troy’ (really a misnomer, of course, since she was technically, and legally, Helen of Sparta) whisked off to Egypt for the duration of the Trojan war, and the ‘Greeks’ and Trojans fighting over a phantom. (Euripides derived this idea from Herodotus, the historian.)

Helen of Troy, then, was a popular figure among classical writers, and universally renowned as the most beautiful woman in the world. Marlowe was certainly responsible for penning the line ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships’ – at least as far as we know, he came up with it – but should Marlowe get the credit for originating the idea behind the line? Who first called Helen’s beauty so great that it could launch ‘a thousand ships’?

In fact, the line (albeit with slightly different wording but the same essential ingredients) was not original to Marlowe (or Faustus). Indeed, Marlowe appears to have borrowed it, whether directly or at second- or third-hand, from Lucian, the satirist.

Lucian was a Syrian (or technically Assyrian) writer about whom he know virtually nothing. He was born in around AD 120 and died in 180, or thereabouts. His hometown was Samosata, on the bank of the Euphrates in what is now Turkey but was at the time part of the Roman province of Assyria, although he actually wrote in ancient Greek. He is known as ‘Lucian of Samosata’ – or, more frequently, Lucian – and he has a claim to being the inventor of two literary genres, including science fiction (as we’ve discussed in a previous Secret Library column). Among his writings are some comic spins on the Platonic dialogue, and wildly inventive satires on everything from human folly to the writings of other authors.

And in one of his dialogues, the collection known as Dialogues of the Dead, Lucian gives us a scene which startlingly prefigures Marlowe’s involving Faustus and the vision of Helen of Troy:

Menippus. Where are all the beauties, Hermes? Show me round; I am a new-comer.

Hermes. I am busy, Menippus. But look over there to your right, and you will see Hyacinth, Narcissus, Nireus, Achilles, Tyro, Helen, Leda, – all the beauties of old.

Menippus. I can only see bones, and bare skulls; most of them are exactly alike.

Hermes. Those bones, of which you seem to think so lightly, have been the theme of admiring poets.

Menippus. Well, but show me Helen; I shall never be able to make her out by myself.

Hermes. This skull is Helen.

Menippus. And for this a thousand ships carried warriors from every part of Greece; Greeks and barbarians were slain, and cities made desolate.

So although it was Marlowe who undoubtedly popularised the idea of Helen as the beautiful ‘face that launched a thousand ships’, especially among English speakers, the sentiment goes back to antiquity – not just that Helen was beautiful but that she was beautiful enough to launch ‘a thousand ships’ to war. More recently, a (slightly less than scientific) unit of beauty has been proposed, called the ‘milliHelen’ – the amount of beauty that is required to launch a single ship. The endlessly witty Lucian would undoubtedly approve.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

3 Comments

  1. I’m not convinced about Helen having reddish-blonde hair :-) .

  2. A predict an awful lot of trouble for anyone attempting to use the milliHelen…

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