And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss: …
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena!"
—Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
She had the beauty of a goddess, did Helen of Sparta, but it was empty—hollow—like the gilding on a wooden chair long since decayed, only a shell. It was an inhuman beauty on a human woman; she lacked the substance to fill it, and it left her with as much animation as that fragile breath of gold. A goddess would have taken that face and form and made them desirable, or commanding, or both—she could have filled them, while Helen had her human limitations. She was her husband's prize but not his beloved, a shocking and beautiful possession.
Aphrodite, filled with careless mischief that bled into malice, winged on by her triumph over Hera and Athena, knew this better perhaps than any mortal could, this daughter of the ocean foam or of Zeus, goddess of beauty and desire—she saw and understood that Helen, in possessing the one to such excess, could not inspire the other. And so she set that fire of want in Paris of Troy's heart and watched, knowing he would have his reward.
No man had ever spoken of passion to Helen, and all that she knew of such words she had overheard, or learned from songs; the glory of being called beautiful in tones not of cool reason but burning emotion overwhelmed her entirely.
Greece was a land where she had been a thing—in Troy, she had hoped, it would be different.
It was not.
In Troy she was a catalyst, a beginning, the cause for war and destruction, and as time passed and Aphrodite's magic faded from Paris he came to see Helen as others did. And she, blindly confused at first and then with anger that grew with comprehension, railed against the gods who had brought her to this—who had allowed her to be born as she was, with a beauty she could not be—who had used her, used her as harshly as humans ever had, as a thing.
Paris was not what she had expected him to be—had thought he was—and her infatuation faded; but as the war continued, grinding all the men and joy of a generation down into the dust for the gods to trample, she fell in love.
Hector brother of Paris, son of Priam, spoke to Helen as to any other human—showed her the real kindness he did to all of his people—laid no blame on her for the horrors she had brought to him. And that honest decency caught her and held her, and burned like fire in her veins. He was among the best of men, was Hector husband of Andromache, father of Astynax, beloved.
Andromache gave herself up to grief and rage when Achilles killed him, but Helen fell into herself. When the walls of Troy were breached and the towers burned, fire leaping into the skies, the pyre of her dreams—when Troy fell, Helen went numbly, cold and frozen, back to Sparta. She had children there, and their love was in its way as true and pure as Hector's had been in his. That, finally, eased away the ice from all that burning.
(Centuries later, Marlowe wrote of her as one like a goddess herself, with the power and the presence that her beauty had needed. She would have laughed to hear that, had she been able to cease her weeping at the words for long enough.)
Now, here, in the afterworld, where all go in their times, and our appearances are shaped by our minds, here is Helen. That terrible dehumanizing Beauty is gone: hers is a lovely face, but not one to launch a fleet or burn a city. Here, at last, she finds peace.