“The Faust legend is generally known for one of two things: it is the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil; and the story of a man who commits gross moral turpitude with Helen of Troy.” [Maguire]
It’s possible that some time in the future I will be working on an update of an old article on About.com about Helen. Helen needs no further attributes, but she is also called Helen of Troy and Helen of Greece, signifying her position in both sides of the Trojan War. More relevantly, she is also known as “the face that launched a thousand ships.” The article I would be updating is on that last description.
The expression signifies a non-exaggerated estimate of the number of ships (another note should be forthcoming on this — provided I am actually doing the update) that set sail to battle the Trojans and allies in the Trojan War; it refers to the face of the woman who set all that in motion, Helen; but it comes from a description made millennia later. Homer (or whoever it was who wrote those most important Greek epics, the Iliad and Odyssey), probably lived a few centuries after the abduction of Helen (assuming it happened).
The English poetic description about the ship launching comes from the Renaissance. Christopher Marlowe is credited with the line in his 16th century English play about a Doctor Faustus. Two centuries later, the German Goethe also wrote about Doctor Faustus. In her book on Helen, [Helen of Troy: From Homer to Hollywood, by Laurie Maguire; ISBN: 978-1-4051-2635-9; 280 pages. April 2009, Wiley-Blackwell] Laurie Maguire traces this long, involved thread in a chapter on the subject: Helen and the Faust Tradition.
Johann or Georg or Jörg (“George”) Faust had died in 1539. He had been an astrologer, natural philosopher, necromancer, and physician. The activities of this Doctor Faustus were mixed with other stories about suspicious magicians and what not, leading to a description [Maguire says “by Luther”, I assume this means Martin Luther] of the doctor’s death as the “devil’s reward.” By 1587, a sensational book in German provided details to back up this description. Translated into English the next year, Christopher Marlowe read “The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus”.
Marlowe turned the colorful story into a renowned play that contained these lines about the Spartan beauty:
FAUSTUS. Was this the face that launch’d 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 Wertenberg 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.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!
The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, by Christoper Marlowe
Painter of the Frankfort Acorn, and Phintias
Attic Red-Figure Lekythos, about 420 – 400 B.C., Terracotta
18.4 × 10.6 cm (7 1/4 × 4 3/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
“[T]he artist depicted the moment when Paris, the Trojan prince, meets Helen, the wife of his host Menelaos, the king of Sparta. Helen will run off with Paris, sparking the Trojan War. Paris and Helen meet in the palace at Sparta, whose lavish setting is indicated by the elaborate doors with raised relief knockers. Helen’s companions frame the scene; one seems rather amazed to see a tiny version of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, blessing the union as she flies through the air in a chariot drawn by rotes.”