David Lance Goines

August 4, 1987

Rather than the subjective, whimsical evaluations that so often lead to dud Symbols of American Womanhood, (1) the modern beauty pageant should take a hint from the Ancient Greeks and that straightforward measure of feminine pulchritude represented by Helen of Troy, daughter of Zeus and Leda, whose face ". . . launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium." (2) Here we have a useful, dispassionate, scientific measure of beauty: a "helen." One helen is sufficient good looks to launch one thousand ships, and to cause the destruction by fire of an entire city. The objective standards of Ship Launching and Arson may now be used to analyze feminine beauty.


Just what is meant by "launched a thousand ships?" What kind of ships are we talking about here? How can we compare modern ships to ancient?

The ships that carried the Wrath of Achilles to Troy had single banks of oars arranged symmetrically on either side, manned by up to fifty rowers. Such a vessel was called in Greek a penteconter and might have been 100 feet in length and about one-tenth that in the beam, having a displacement (3) of about 20 tons. (4)

One thousand such ships makes 20,000 tons. By this measure, the woman who breaks a bottle of champagne over the prow of a ship of 20,000 tons displacement and so launches it, becomes the equal to Menelaus' wandering spouse. At least so far as maritime affairs are concerned.

If an average-size woman were to do no more than launch herself--by getting into the bathtub, say-- she would automatically get credit for about .3 hundredths of a ship launching. Larger women would do a little better.

If ships launched were the sole measure of beauty, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mamie Eisenhower would emerge, without peer, as the most desirable of women. Marilyn Monroe would not even be in the running. The pyromaniacal inclinations of the toothsome Mamie and Eleanor were, however, imperceptible. They didn't even smoke.


Arson as a measure of allure merits separate consideration. The capital of the tiny Trojan realm was the three villages of Dardania, Troy and Ilium merged into a single fortress on the mound of Hissarlik. The "topless towers of Ilium" may well have been a fair-sized walled city of perhaps as many as 12 acres, though it is more likely that it was a fortified palace not much larger than a ballroom.

That the Troy of c. 1200 BC had a substantial population can be inferred from the offspring of the king alone. Priam was a mighty man who, in addition to the handsome Paris, sired on his two wives Arisba and Hecuba (5) forty-nine sons and twelve daughters.

By comparison, in 1871 Mrs O'Leary's home town was a city of some 300,000 souls and the land area devastated by her careless cow was 3-1/3 square miles: 17,450 buildings were destroyed, 100,000 people were rendered homeless and 250 lives were lost. A simple appraisal of torched acreage shows Mrs O'Leary to be 44 times more beautiful than Helen.

In terms of speed, the Greeks needed ten years to defeat the Trojans and destroy their city; Chicago burned in only 27 hours. By this measure Mrs O'Leary is 3,244 times more beautiful than Helen.

There is no record, however, of Mrs O'Leary causing any ships to be launched, though surely she must have bathed from time to time. By the measure of .3 hundredths of a ship per ablution, a wash every Saturday night would give her the equivalent of one ship launching every six and a half years. To equal the lubricous Helen, Mrs O'Leary would need to bathe once a week for six thousand five hundred years.


Although Mrs O'Leary edges out the fair Helen in the arson category, Helen's ship launchings add up faster than Mrs O'Leary's baths. When Paris carried off his prize, Helen was married to Menelaus. Menelaus was the brother of the powerful king Agamemnon, who went around to the princes of the country drumming up a war of revenge against the Trojans. He himself furnished 100 ships, and was chosen commander-in-chief of the combined forces.

The assembled fleet at the port of Aulis in Boeotia awaited only a favorable wind. But Agamemnon had offended the goddess Artemis by slaying a hind sacred to her and by boasting himself a better hunter. As punishment, a total absence of wind prevented the fleet from departing, and the army was visited by plague. The seer Calchas announced that the anger of the goddess could only be appeased by the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigeneia.

This accomplished, the fleet set sail, though not without some hard feelings on the part of Clytaemnestra, Iphigeneia's mother. All this took about a year. This time factor makes Helen 6,500 times more beautiful than Mrs O'Leary.


Comparing the values (Mrs O'Leary's arson factor of 3,288 against Helen's ship launching factor of 6,500) gives us Helen of Troy, selected by the goddess Aphrodite as the most beautiful woman in the world and still the champ, by a factor of just about two to one. Even after all these years, Helen remains twice as beautiful as her closest contender.

Not every woman is hot enough to burn down a city. But taking up smoking, or cooking the evening meal will add up. Combined with regular bathing, every woman can be remembered as more beautiful. The table below will be of assistance:

Attohelen (ah) 10-18 helens: Light up a Lucky While Strolling past a Shipyard
Femtohelen (fh) 10-15 helens: Burn a Dinner Candle & Spit a Toothpick into a Water Glass
Picohelen (ph) 10-12 helens: Barbecue a Couple of Steaks & Toss an Inner Tube Into the Pool
Nanohelen (nh) 10-9 helens: Send the Old Man on a Canoe Trip & Build a Good Roaring Blaze in the Fireplace
Microhelen (Áh) 10-6 helens: Christen a Motor Boat & Start a Grass Fire
Millihelen (mh) 10-3 helens: Launch One Homeric Warship & Burn Down a House
Centihelen (ch) 10-2 helens: Incinerate a City Block & Launch Christopher Columbus' Entire Fleet: The "Niña" (40 tons), the "Pinta" (50 tons) and the "Santa Maria" (100 tons)
Decihelen (dh) 10-1 helens: Torch the Central Business District of Oakland, California, & Launch the Clipper Ship "Flying Cloud" (1783 tons)
Helen (h): Raze One City & Launch the WWI US Battleship "Delaware" (20,000 tons)
Dekahelen (dah) 10 helens: Oversee the Incendiary Bombing of Ten Cities and Launch the Aircraft Carriers "Theodore Roosevelt" (91,487 tons) and "Dwight D. Eisenhower (91,487 tons)
Hectohelen (hh) 102 helens: Instigate a Major Modern Conflict & Launch the Oil Platform "Stratfjord B" (with ballast, 899,360 tons), the Supertanker "Seawise Giant" (624,038 dead- weight tonnage); the Oil/Ore Carrier "World Gala" (282,460 dwt tonnage) and the Bulk-Ore Tanker "Hoei Maru" (208,000 dwt tonnage)
Kilohelen (kh) 103 helens: Launch the Equivalent of One Million Greek Warships & Spark a Nuclear Confrontation
Megahelen (Mh) 106 helens: Launch the Equivalent of One Billion Greek Warships & Blow Up the World
Gigahelen (Gh) 109 helens: Launch the Equivalent of One Trillion Greek Warships & Destroy the Solar System
Terahelen (Th) 1012 helens: Launch the Equivalent of One Thousand Trillion Greek Warships and Make Serious Inroads on the Welfare of the Galaxy

It is to be hoped that beauty exceeding the Hectohelen class evades even the most ambitious.

Now, doesn't this make the selection of a homecoming queen, Miss Fresno, Miss California, Miss USA, Miss World and, capping them all, Miss Universe, just a little more orderly? More exciting, too.

NB: When computing negahelens, or sufficient ugliness to sink a thousand ships and extinguish an urban conflagration, merely convert.

Stanley Schmidt
380 Lexington Avenue
New York NY 10168

February 13, 1992

Dear Mr Schmidt,

What a delight to receive your kind letter of intention to publish my little humor piece. I am deeply indebted to Mr Silverberg for sending to it you, and will lose no time in taking him and Mrs Silverberg out for a swell feed.

Checking my computerized manuscript copy, I find to my horror that somehow "Menelaus' wandering spouse" got changed to "Agamemnon's wandering spouse," which is, of course incorrect. Whew! Thanks for catching that.

As to the pleonasm "square acres," you are also entirely correct.

I look forward to receiving the contract, and am,

Yours very truly,

David Lance Goines

(1) e.g. Vanessa Williams, Bess Myerson, Phyllis George, inter alia

(2) Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, scene xiv

(3) Warships are measured by displacement only. Merchant vessels are measured by displacement, gross tonnage and deadweight tonnage (dwt). Gross tonnage is a volume measurement; each cargo gross ton represents 100 cubic feet of enclosed space. Deadweight tonnage is the carrying capacity of a ship in long tons (2,240 pounds).

(4) J.G. Landels, Engineering in the Ancient World, University of California Press, 1981

(5) Mother of nineteen of Priam's sons, including Paris, Hector and Polydorus, and the doomed prophetess Cassandra.