The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships…and Helen of Troy

by E.J. Lawrence

Last month, I promised to cover Helen of Troy eventually. Since this month’s theme is “We Thought We Knew Her,” I thought it would be a good opportunity to do just that.

I certainly had an “I thought I knew her” moment with Helen of Troy when I read Homer’s Iliad for the first time. The plot of The Iliad was one my teachers had explained before, but somehow I got through school without ever having to read it. So it was an adult discovery, and boy, was I ever shocked!

Especially about Helen.

You see, I’d always heard the story of the Trojan War. The beauty contest between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. How Paris chose Aphrodite because…well…love (*ahem* lust). How Aphrodite arranged for Paris to meet Helen. How Paris and Helen went back to his house in Troy…but Helen was already married, and her husband came after her. She was “the face that launched a thousand ships.” And, gosh, kind of a tart for leaving her husband.

And then I read The Iliad. While there were many things that surprised me in that text, I would like to focus on three misconceptions I had about Helen that were reversed in reading this text. Please keep in mind that Homer’s version of the story isn’t the only one, and thus these statements may be true in other versions. Still, Homer’s is a more holistic version, including perspectives from many of the main players in this drama which is why I find it a more “true-to-meaning” version.

Abduction of Helen of Troy (John Cheere, c. 1700s)

Misconception #1: Helen went with Paris willingly

In truth…

Helen was tricked into leaving Menelaus, and Homer makes it clear she’s unhappy and torn in Troy. She blames herself for the war, but it doesn’t mean she’s worthy of blame.

She tells Priam, her new father-in-law:

“Would that evil death had been my pleasure when I followed thy son hither, and left my bridal chamber and my kinfolk and my daughter, well-beloved, and the lovely companions of my girlhood. But that was not to be; wherefore I pine away with weeping” (Book III.171).

He replies that she is not to blame for the war, but that doesn’t mean Helen becomes any happier. Though Priam is sincere, she doesn’t really seem to believe him.

In Colluthus’ The Rape of Helen, Paris is disguised as Eros, the god of love (most know him as Cupid, his Romanized name). Helen follows Eros, who reveals himself to Helen as the prince of Troy and “judge of goddesses” (because he’s super humble). Helen agrees to go, saying that she does “not fear Menelaus when Troy shall have known me” (305).

This does seem to suggest that she goes willingly, doesn’t it?…

Perhaps. Until one notices the name of the poem, The Rape of Helen. The word “rape” in its earliest usage could mean an unwanted sexual advance, but it actually meant more than that. Its more common meaning was to be taken by force, i.e. kidnapped. This shows that, if it were not for the interference of the gods (and Paris), Helen would not have gone of her own free will.

In Homer, Helen blames herself for the war, but Priam is there to remind her that “thou art nowise to blame in my eyes; it is the gods, methinks, that are to blame, who roused against me the tearful war of the Achaeans” (Book III).

Whether by Paris or the gods (or both), Helen was kidnapped and is not in Troy voluntarily.

Helen of Troy (Gaston Brussiere, 1895)

Misconception #2: Helen’s face “launched a thousand ships.”

A truer way to say this may be…

Menelaus launched a thousand ships.

A lot is made of Helen’s beauty and the fact that the war was fought over her (which I’ll address below), but the fact is that many of the men fighting under Menelaus thought the war was pointless and didn’t even want to go. In The Iliad, for instance, Achilles doesn’t want to be there. He actually spends half of the book sitting in his tent refusing to fight because Agamemnon stole his slave girl (did I mention these guys were *super* petulant?). When he does fight, it’s only because Hector killed his BFF Patroclus; definitely not because he cared about getting Helen back.

Even without Homer, though, the other myths about Achilles tell us that he hid among a harem of women just to avoid being dragged into Menelaus’ war in the first place.

Odysseus pretended to be insane to get out of fighting.

For the Trojan side, Hector calls his own brother “evil” and a player (to use the modern term), and he pities Helen. In Book VI, he tells, Paris, “Thy people are perishing about the town and the steep wall in battle, and it is because of thee that the battle-cry and the war are ablaze about this city” (bolding mine), but he is always kind to Helen, and she even remarks that he and Priam alone have shown her such kindness.

Thus, it seems those closest to Paris and Menelaus know Helen is an excuse for the ships, not a reason.

Helen on the Walls of Troy (Frederic Leighton, 1865) *I love how evident Helen’s pain is in this painting*

Misconception #3: The Ten-Year Trojan War was Fought over Helen


Helen was incidental in the war.

In the poem, people often say, “we’re doing this for Helen” or “this war is for Helen,” but as the old saying goes, there are always two reasons for war: the stated reason, and the actual reason. The stated reason is Helen. The actual reason is…stupidity.

In many ways, The Iliad is an anti-war text. It certainly doesn’t shy away from showing the evils of war, as well as the impact war has on the innocent. Take, for instance, one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the poem (**SPOILER ALERT**): While Hector is being slaughtered by Achilles and his body is being desecrated, Hector’s wife is upstairs in the palace, drawing him a bath (Book XXII). The contrast of Hector–arguably the most admirable warrior in the entire text–being killed in an “unfair” manner while his wife prepares for his return from battle sends a clear message that war destroys lives and families.

The other thing to consider is how much of a moron Paris is. He’s the one who starts the whole mess by selecting Aphrodite in the first place. What Hera and Athena promise him are far more lasting investments. What Aphrodite offers is a temporary investment–Helen won’t remain beautiful forever. Even the start of the war has nothing to do with Helen, not really. Rather, it’s about Paris’ sexual gratification because Helen is never anything more than an object to Paris.

Then, once Paris gets Helen, it becomes about Menelaus’ pride. Helen almost becomes collateral damage, which is the true tragedy of the story.

One might think this is a “modern interpretation.” That perhaps the ancient readers would be able to accept Helen as the “plot device” for starting the war and her fading into the background is just a part of it.

But if that were the case, I would not be writing this post and certainly not for this blog, which aims to show the prevalence of women in ancient literature.

Because even Homer himself acknowledges on multiple occasions that it is not for the sake of Helen the person, but Helen as object that they fight. This, according to Homer, is pointless and unfair, not only Helen and the Trojan women, but to the warriors forced to fight (and die). And since she’s an object, she becomes a point of lust (for Paris) and pride (for Menelaus), and for that, many, many good warriors lose their lives–not for her sake; but for the sake of Paris and Menelaus. Who are both pretty awful. (Paris is probably more awful than Menelaus, but that’s a much longer discussion…)

Hector calls out his own brother for starting the war by being selfish: “But Hector saw [Paris], and chid him with words of shame: ‘Evil Paris, most fair to look upon, thou that art mad after women, thou beguiler, would that thou hadst ne’er been born and hadst died unwed’” (Book III).

He goes on to tell his brother that Menelaus is a better warrior, and almost insinuates that he hopes Menelaus takes him in the fight because he’s a better man than Paris ever will be.


It’s not only Hector who sees through to the real reason for the war, but also his father when he reminds Helen the gods are the ones who started this war. Priam avoids directly blaming his son who chose Helen, but he acknowledges the gods have stirred up this war–which does, in fact, make sense, given that it was Eris, the goddess of discord, who started the whole apple beauty contest thing.


Helen of Troy (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863)

So is Helen the femme fatale I’d always been told she was? After all, I remember learning about the femme fatale archetype, and Helen being listed as a “good example” of such a woman–a woman who seduces men to their deaths.

Yet, when digging into the story, I just cannot come to that conclusion. Helen did not lead men to their deaths. Aphrodite did. Athena did. Paris did. Menelaus did. But Helen? Helen, like most people in these Ancient Greek dramas, was merely a pawn of the gods to use in their war. The Iliad is a good representation, not just for Ancient Greece, but also the modern-day world, of how wars often begin. Not over beautiful women…but over greed and pride.

But Helen is also a reminder that, when people are treated as objects, they do not become objects. Though to Paris, Helen was a commodity to which he thought he had a “right” (since Aphrodite “gave” her to him), Helen was a person who took on pain and blame, feeling that the world was on fire because she set it.

That, of course, was not the reality. But it was her perception that no one, no matter how any times they told her it wasn’t her fault, could change. In the story of Helen and the Trojan War, everyone loses–The Trojans, the Greeks, the heroes and the kings on both sides, the wives on both sides. No one escapes this war without injury.

But perhaps Helen loses most because she feels the weight of the responsibility. She understands the yoke to which Paris has tied her, even though he does not. Though one might take some comfort in knowing that Paris dies in the war he created because his first wife–whom he cast off for Helen–refuses to heal him, no amount of pain caused to Paris can take away the pain he caused Helen. As Lady Macbeth would say, “What’s done cannot be undone” (Shakespeare V.1)…so perhaps it’s best to consider the consequences before doing something that cannot be undone.

Though history has tried to make her an archetype, a pawn, a McGuffin in the tale of the Trojan War, Homer in both The Iliad and The Odyssey gives us a fuller picture of her story and her pain. Which is why it’s so important to read the original sources rather than rely on someone else’s summary–for in summary, Helen can be flat. A femme fatale. A reason so many died.

But in reading Homer, Helen ceased being an object to me and became a person. And isn’t that the purpose of literature?






“With Pitiless Heart and a Woman’s Weapons: The Carnage of Camilla”

by E.J. Lawrence

Okay, honesty time…because I guess it would come out sooner or later: I’ve never been all that impressed with the archetype of the warrior in literature. So what if our fearless hero can out-muscle the bad guy? Yawn. Boring. I’m far more likely to be impressed by the hero who outsmarts the bad guy. Odysseus outsmarting the cyclops is way more intriguing than Odysseus going full postal on the suitors who tried to get with his wife. Sure, it took some brawn to get past that one-eyed monster…but far less brawn than if he’d just tried to muscle his way out of the situation.

So when K.P. suggested we do a month on female warriors, I really had to think about who I would pick, given that I normally don’t pay much attention to the archetype. I thought I could kind of cheat and go with Athena–the goddess of war and wisdom–but then, that’s not really in the spirit of the theme. Then I thought perhaps I could go with Joan of Arc, whom I’ve always admired…but it’s a little cliché. Besides, my past few posts have been historical, and I’ve been itching to do a literary character.

012Then I remembered Camilla. Who possibly fits the spirit of the theme better than Camilla?

If you aren’t familiar with Virgil’s Aeneid, I 100% recommend it. If not for Book XI’s Camilla, at least for Book IV’s Dido. But for today, I’ll just keep the lens on Camilla.

The poem itself focuses on Aeneas’ flight from Troy, after it fell to the Greeks. The purpose of the Aeneid is to connect the fall of Troy to the founding of Rome, and ultimately, to the Roman empire. It’s essentially an empire origin story, starring its mythical hero Aeneas. When Aeneas arrives in Latium (after a long sea journey), he finds the king welcoming. The king even offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to the new arrivals. However…the queen wants her daughter to marry Turnus, a local, and she conspires with Turnus to start a war against Aeneas and the Trojans.

Long story short, she succeeds, and during the battle, Turnus kills the son of Aeneas’ closest ally, whom Aeneas had sworn to protect. Naturally, this makes things worse, and the Trojans unleash their full fury on the Latins.

Turnus…for lack of a better term…turns to a group he believes can help…turn the war in his favor: the Amazons. The women come to his aid, riding upon magnificent steeds, and their coming is described in appropriate warlike terms. Then, as Camilla dismounts her horse–the others following–she tells Turnus:

“If sense of honor, if a soul secure
Of inborn worth, that can all tests endure,
Can promise aught, or on itself rely
Greatly to dare, to conquer or to die;
Then, I alone, sustain’d by these, will meet
The Tyrrhene troops, and promise their defeat.
Ours be the danger, ours the sole renown:
You, gen’ral, stay behind, and guard the town.”1

I’m really not usually awed by “tough talk,” but this speech sends chills up my spine every time. “Hey, Turnus, if we’re talking about honor or that je ne sais quoi a true hero is born with, then I guess that makes this my fight. And since it’s my fight, I (and my fellow Amazons) get all the glory for it. And since we don’t need you, just, you know, stick around here and make sure the town doesn’t spontaneously combust or something.”

At least, that’s how I imagine her tone in my head.

And Turnus, rather than getting irritated, seems kind of giddy at having her there. He thanks her for coming and calls her “grace of Italy”2 before adding that he, and his entire army, are at her command.3

If Turnus, our prideful antagonist, is impressed by Camilla and her entourage…then I suppose I should be, too.

Of course, all is not well up on Mount Olympus, as Diana knows her champion’s fate is to die in battle…and even though they’re gods, they can’t change fate. Phoebe, Diana’s nymph, wishes that whoever kills Camilla in battle with “not pass unpunish’d from this

Diana and her Nypmhs on the Point of Leaving (Jan Brueghel the Elder)



And with that, the Latin and Trojan forces go to war.

With all that build-up, it might seem that Camilla would meet her match on the battlefield, right? That perhaps our fearless hero Aeneas might prove to be stronger than she. That as she faces him, her downfall is his sword because…well, because he’s the dauntless hero, and she’s fighting for the side we’re kind of rooting against. So that’s what happens to Camilla…isn’t it?

Nope. Actually, Camilla’s actions on the battlefield are every bit as good as her reputation. She’s a force of pure brutal energy, slaughtering Trojans left and right. She is “resistless” and “pleas’d with blood.”5 We are the regaled with a list of her kills–all gruesome, but all fair. She even kills two men at once by throwing her spear so hard it runs through one guy and pierces the second.6 And then she goes around taunting all of the men she’s killed, asking if a woman warrior was just too strong for them.6

So one might ask, if Camilla is so good at being a warrior–so good that the general of the Latin army is willing to hang back and let her take the lead; so good that she and her entourage are slaughtering the Trojans in droves; so good that she can kill two men at once while taunting the ones she’s already killed–who on earth could possibly take down the indomitable Camilla?

Some nobody Trojan named Aruns.

What happens is this: Jove is surveying this “unequal fight”7–it just isn’t fair. Camilla’s side is clearly much stronger than the Trojans. He needs to do something about this. So, as the Trojans start to retreat, he puts a fire into Tarchon, a Trojan leader, and Tarchon delivers an impassioned speech, reminding the Trojans that they’re losing to a bunch of weak women, and they need to turn around and fight.7

Camilla DeathAruns, another Trojan, decides that he will be the one to put an end to this massacre. He sneaks up behind her and throws his javelin. It strikes home and comes through the other side of her chest.8 Immediately, he turns in shame and runs because, to the ancient warrior, nothing was worse than killing an opponent from behind. It was seen as pure cowardice. In this case, the ends do not justify the means.

What I find most fascinating about this section is that, while typically I laud a character who can outsmart his or her opponent, in this case, Aruns doesn’t outsmart Camilla–he cheats. It’s not a delicate skirting of the rules, but a shredding them up altogether.

And the poem recognizes this. Even though it’s the Aeneid, and our dauntless hero Aeneas fights for the Trojans, the poem does not recognize any admirable thing about the Trojan Aruns stabbing Camilla from behind. Camilla is presented as strong, bloodthirsty, courageous, and fair–all of her kills were met front-to-front on the battlefield. So it is somewhat ironic that her defeat comes through what amounts to treachery.

Aruns, called now by the name “traitor,” does not go unpunished. Opis, one of Diana’s sentries, sees him running away, and she says:

“Thy backward steps, vain boaster, are too late;

Turn like a man, at length, and meet thy fate

Charg’d with my message, to Camilla go,

And say I sent thee to the shades below,

An honor undeserv’d from Cynthia’s bow”9

Diana from Behind (Andrea Schiavone)

Thus Aruns meets the same fate as Camilla–Opis shoots an arrow through his heart.

Camilla’s cause, however, does not end with her death. As the Latin men run back to their town, the Latin women who witnessed the treachery from their place on the wall, were filled with such a rage that they grab rustic poles and “imitated darts”10 and basically begin hurling down at the Trojans whatever is in reach.

Let me repeat that slowly–while the men run back to the town and close the gate behind them, the women stand on the wall and throw things at the Trojans to avenge Camilla’s death.

That’s a pretty cool image, if you ask me. A fierce female warrior who could only be taken down by one of the worst ancient war crimes is avenged by a group of women watching from a wall. All in a poem written in Latin some 2,000 years ago. About an event that happened some 3,000 years ago.

So even though I’m not typically attracted to the warrior archetype, I have to admit an admiration for Camilla. I also have to hand it to Virgil, who writes a story about war that asks the reader to sympathize with both sides…and does not excuse a war crime, even when committed by the protagonist’s side.

Camilla’s legacy is that she strode into battle with confidence and inspired that same confidence in others, even in death.


*Citation Note: My version does not have line numbers, and I could not find a good online translation that included them either. Therefore, I am using the reference point numbers from this web link:

All quotes are from the Dryden translation.

1 379

2 379

3 380

4 382

5 384

6 385

7 388

8 389

9 391

10 392

Wondrous Odyssey Weaver

by Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg

The ancient Greeks credited their goddess, Athena, with several inventions of civilization including the ship, the harness, and the loom. According to myth, the first mortal weaver became so proud of her skills that she challenged Athena to a weaving contest. Of course 330px-Velazquez-las_hilanderasthe goddess won, but rather than depriving young Arachne of life or talent, she merely turned her into a spider. Athena actually knew many a weaver, and in Homeric legend, she encountered several when she mentored the hero Odysseus on his long voyage home from the Trojan War.

Circe was a weaver who was also a witch. Odysseus men approached her house:

Presently they reached the gates of the goddess’s house, and as they stood there, they could hear Circe within, singing most beautifully as she worked at her loom, making a web so fine, so soft, and of such dazzling colours as no one but a goddess could weave (Odyssey book X).

Athena sent a potion to keep Odysseus immune to Circe’s charms, but his men were turned into pigs. Maybe they were already pigs, and Circe returned them to their true nature? In any event, Odysseus was not adverse to Circe’s hospitality—enjoying her bed by night and only weeping for his men at dawn. Once Circe noticed Odysseus’ grief, she took her wand and returned the pigs to humanity. Odysseus and his men enjoyed Circe’s food and drink for another twelve months, proving her a most merciful, generous, and resilient witch.

Like Circe, Calypso was a weaver:

There was a large fire burning on the hearth, and one could smell from far the fragrant reek of burning cedar and sandal wood. As for herself, she was busy at her loom, shooting her golden shuttle through the warp and singing beautifully (book V).

Despite missing Penelope, Odysseus stayed with Calypso for seven years, until Athena e4ae508b0322e4a50a54b60a23ada622convinced Zeus to fetch him home. Calypso trembled with rage: “You gods, she exclaimed, ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You are always jealous and hate seeing a goddess take a fancy to a mortal man, and live with him in open matrimony” (V).

Despite her anger, Calypso released Odysseus once she realized his sorrow:

His eyes [were] ever filled with tears, and dying of sheer home-sickness; for he had got tired of Calypso, and though he was forced to sleep with her in the cave by night, it was she, not he, that would have it so. As for the day time, he spent it on the rocks and on the sea-shore, weeping, crying aloud for his despair, and always looking out upon the sea” (V).

Calypso bade Odysseus leave her:

My poor fellow, you shall not stay here grieving and fretting your life out any longer. I am going to send you of my own free will; so go, cut some beams of wood, and make yourself a large raft with an upper deck that it may carry you safely over the sea. I will put bread, wine, and water on board to save you from starving. I will also give you clothes, and will send you a fair wind to take you home, if the gods in heaven so will it, for they know more about these things, and can settle them better than I can (V).

Even if Zeus was responsible for Odysseus’ departure, no hard feelings spoiled Calypso’sWeb most generous farewell.

Eventually, Odysseus returned to the spider-like Penelope who had saved his kingdom by moving her shuttle back and forth. She was as sharp witted as her husband, and knew that as soon as the suitors began to fill Odysseus’ hall, they wanted far more than her hand in marriage. The suitors complained to her son:

…there was that other trick she played us. She set up a great tambour frame in her room, and began to work on an enormous piece of fine needlework. ‘Sweet hearts,’ said she, ‘Odysseus is indeed dead, still do not press me to marry again immediately; wait, for I would not have skill in needlework perish unrecorded until I have completed a pall for the hero Laertes, to be in readiness against the time when death shall take him’ (XIX).

The suitors granted the favor and watched her “working on her great web all day long, but at night she would unpick the stitches again by torchlight…using the accomplishments Athena taught her” (XIX). Athena was so proud of Penelope that she cast a spell making the queen look as young as she had twenty years earlier when Odysseus first left for Troy. We don’t know if she did this to reward the hero or his wife, but it was a nice gesture.

Silk from spiders has always been one of the most resilient materials on earth; no wonder the women of the Odyssey were wondrous weavers. Their skill and patience equaled that of spiders, but their wisdom reflected another of Athena’s mascots.


Her Resilience

The bird in my house

Is not trapped—

Is not always a

Bad luck omen orpenelope_weaving

Magic crow on the

Witch’s shoulder –

Sometimes she is

My sister the owl

Medicine woman

Her Belly full of

Eggs and bones

Spreading her wings

Rising like Phoebus—

Rising like Phoenix

Like Shiva—

Nesting, nesting


Work Cited

Odyssey. Compiled c. 800 B.C.E. Trans. Samuel Butler. Internet Classics Archive. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1994. April 2017.Online.