The British poet and dramatist, Christopher Marlowe, has aptly described Helen of Troy as the 'face that launched a thousand ships'. Indeed, when the Trojan prince Paris and Helen escape, a huge Aegean force came together to wage a war against Troy. Apart from the mythological story of the 'Judgment of Paris', many historians consider that the love between Helen and Paris was the cause of the Trojan War. Due to her beauty, Helen was often a favorite subject of many artists for centuries. In the Greek language, the name Helen is written and pronounced as Helene and was probably derived from the Greek word Selene, that means the 'moon'.
Most written records about Helen are found in the famous Greek epics, the Iliad and Odyssey. From these records, it is believed that Helen was the daughter of the Greek god Zeus and Leda, who was the daughter of King Thestius, the ruler of Aetolia. According to some versions of the story, Helen was hatched from an egg given by the Greek goddess Nemesis.
Though Helen was the biological daughter of Zeus, she was always considered to be the daughter of the Spartan King Tyndareus. She was also the sister of Castor, Polydeuces, and Clytemnestra.
In her early life, she was abducted by two Athenian warriors, Theseus and Pirithous, who had pledged to marry the offspring of Zeus. For a short span of time, when her abductors were in search of Persephone (another daughter of Zeus married to Hades, the ruler of the underworld), she was left in the captivity of Aethra, the mother of Theseus. Later, when Hades captured Theseus and Pirithous, Helen's brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, rescued her. Many authors of ancient Greece, describe her as a very young girl, about 10 years old, in this particular story.
The marriage of Helen was a very important event for the Aegean people and the Greeks. The Aegean kings all across the region of the Mediterranean were either suitors, or sent emissaries with marriage proposals. This put her father in a very dangerous position. He feared that the rejected suitors would try to seek revenge. He feared that unnecessary feuds would develop amongst the rejected suitors, or, enmity would be created between the rejected suitors and the chosen husband of Helen. Tyndareus also feared that the rejected suitors would declare war against him. Odysseus, a friend of Tyndareus, who was also considered the cleverest among all the Greek and Aegean kings, came up with a brilliant idea. He made all the suitors take an oath that the rejected suitors of Helen would not wage a war against her future husband or her father, and would help in defending her marriage. The Greek army that waged the 10-year Trojan War was created due to this alliance.
Helen was eventually married to Menelaus, the brother of King Agamemnon. Many scholars claim that Menelaus was chosen by Tyndareus, as he was the most powerful and also the wealthiest of all the suitors. There was also claims that the marriage was of a political nature.
After her marriage, Helen had a daughter, Hermione. Menelaus became the King of Sparta upon the death of his father-in-law (Tyndareus), and his brothers-in-law (Castor and Polydeuces). After Trojan Prince Paris came to Sparta, Helen fell in love. According to some mythological accounts, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, sent cupid to make Helen fall in love with Paris, because the Goddess owed Paris a favor (Paris had named Aphrodite, the fairest of all during the 'Judgment of Paris', that was conducted to solve the feud between Greek goddesses Aphrodite, Hera and Athena). According to some stories, Helen fell in love with Paris, but some accounts claim that she was held captive by Paris.
Menelaus called upon the enormous Aegean force to bring back his wife and seek revenge. The Aegean kings who were bound by the alliance and the oath, defeated Troy after a 10-year battle. According to some accounts, Helen had left the mortal world by the end of the war. Some accounts claim that Menelaus wanted to kill his unfaithful wife but could not do so as he was struck by her beauty. A majority of sources claim that Helen returned to Sparta with Menelaus.
There are many different accounts and stories that have been written about the Helen. So legendary was her beauty, that she has been the subject of art for many. She shall, however, always remain the "face that launched a thousand ships".