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The face that launched a thousand ships

The face that launched a thousand ships belonged to a woman from antiquity. We’ll look at who that phrase is referring to, where the phrase came from and what it means. We’ll also examine a few examples of the term’s use in sentences.

The face that launched a thousand ships refers to Helen of Troy, describing the fact that a massive war was mounted on her behalf. Helen of Troy might also be called Helen of Sparta, as she was the wife of King Menelaus of Mycenaean Sparta. Paris, Prince of Troy, stole her. As a result Menelaus led a war against Troy, resulting in Paris’ death and the rescue of Helen. Whether Helen wanted to be rescued is a matter for debate. Where history ends and mythology begins in this story is uncertain. It is widely believed that the Trojan war actually occurred, but the existence of Helen of Troy is less certain. In any case, the romance of a stolen and retrieved bride has endured for centuries, as the term the face that launched a thousand ships was not coined until the turn of the seventeenth century. Christopher Marlowe referred to Helen of Troy this way in his The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus: “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” Today, the face that launched a thousand ships is still most often used to describe the unsurpassed beauty of Helen of Troy, though it may be used to describe the beauty of any woman. The term is also often parodied.


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Examples

Helen of Troy may have been the face that launched a thousand ships, but Susan of Atlanta is the voice that launched a million road trips. (The Naples Daily News)

Much like the Velvet Underground was the band that launched a thousand bands and Helen’s face was the face that launched a thousand ships, Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse is credited with making California cuisine a “thing” and has influenced a thousand restaurants. (The Press Democrat)

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