"like Helen of Troy"

An Ancient Greek vase depicting Menelaus intending to kill Helen, but dropping his sword in awe of her great beauty
Public DomainAn Ancient Greek vase depicting Menelaus intending to kill Helen, but dropping his sword in awe of her great beauty - Credit: Campana Collection, 1861
In Greek mythology, Helen is the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Her lover, Paris, a prince of the ancient city of Troy, took Helen from her husband, sparking the Trojan War. She was reputedly the most beautiful woman in the world and is commonly described to have had the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’ (the Greek fleet sent to get her back from Troy). Helen seems to have gone willingly to Troy, but there became lonely and despised by the Trojans for being the cause of the war. After Paris and his brother Hector were killed, she briefly became the lover of their younger brother, Deiphobus, but then when the Greeks defeated Troy using the Trojan Horse she left him to his fate. Upon finding her in the city, Menelaus was about to kill her, but she dropped her robe from her shoulders and astounded him with her beauty – instead, he took her back with him to Sparta where she died shortly afterwards.

It is unclear whether the Trojan War was a real or simply mythical event. It is one of the most important events of Greek mythology, narrated in the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, and in many other works. The Ancient Greeks believed it to have taken place in the 12th or 13th century BC, but later scholarship refuted it as sheer myth. In 1870, however, a site in modern-day Turkey was uncovered which is believed to have been the city of Troy (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site). It offers no clues, however, as to whether the Trojan War and Helen of Troy were real or simply legend.

Troy has remained a popular aspect of culture, featuring in many novels, works of art and film including Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and the 2004 film Troy.

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