Pandora’s stories: The Trojan War

Passing the lookout point, and the windswept wild fig tree, along the cart-track they ran leaving the wall behind, and came to two lovely springs where the waters rise to feed the eddying Scamander. One flows warm, and steam rises above it as smoke from a fire, while even in summer the other is ice-water, cold as freezing snow or hail. Nearby are the fine wide troughs of stone where the wives and daughters of the Trojans once washed their gleaming clothes in times of peace, before the Achaeans came. By the troughs they ran, one fleeing, the other pursuing, a fine runner in front but a better one chasing him; and this was no race for the prize of a bull’s hide or a sacrificial ox, a prize such as they give for running, they ran instead for the life of horse-taming Hector.

You may wonder how things had come to this. Achilles did not really want to go to Troy, and Hector did not really want to fight the Greeks. Homer tells us only parts of the story.

Zeus had heard a prophecy that the son of Thetis, a beautiful sea-nymph, would become more powerful than his father. Zeus therefore arranged for the mortal Peleus to marry Thetis, so that any sons would be unlikely to threaten the gods. All the immortals were invited to the wedding except Eris (Strife), who got her own back by throwing onto the floor a golden apple inscribed ‘to the fairest’. Hera, Athena and Aphrodite argued about which of them should have it. None of the gods was willing to intervene, so Zeus ordered Hermes to take the three goddesses to Paris, a prince of Troy, and ask him to decide. At first Paris was unable to decide, so the goddesses tried persuasion: Hera offered him power, Athena offered wisdom, and Aphrodite offered the world’s most beautiful woman, Helen of Sparta, even though she was married to the Spartan king Menelaus. Paris gave the apple to Aphrodite. Soon Peleus and Thetis had a son, Achilles.

Helen, under the spell of Aphrodite, fell in love with Paris when he visited Sparta whilst Menelaus was away. They eloped, but their journey to Troy was interrupted by storms which drove them to Egypt; from there they sailed to Sidon and eventually onwards to Troy. When Menelaus returned to Sparta he appealed to his brother Agamemnon to help him go and reclaim Helen. Agamemnon agreed, and began to assemble an army from many of the Greek kingdoms.

Odysseus and Achilles, two of the Greeks who were most influential in the war, were both reluctant to go. Odysseus and his wife Penelope had just had a son, Telemachus, so to avoid joining the army Odysseus pretended to be mad by sowing his fields with salt. He was outwitted when his baby son was put in front of the plough; Odysseus turned to avoid him and gave away his sanity. Achilles had been hidden by Thetis on the island of Skyros, dressed as a girl, so that he might not be tempted by the expedition. He also tells us in Homer’s Iliad that he had no quarrel with the Trojans. But he was discovered by Odysseus, Ajax and his tutor who persuaded him to go with them.

After ten years of fighting, during which leading warriors on both sides – Hector, Achilles and others – were killed without an outright victory, Odysseus had a brainwave: the Trojan Horse. The Greeks pretended to have sailed away, and left a huge wooden horse as a ‘thank-offering’ for their return home. In fact, it was filled with soldiers. The Trojans debated before taking the horse into their city. At night the Greeks emerged, and let in the rest of their army. Troy was burned to the ground.

On their way home the victorious Greeks were wrecked by a storm which the gods sent as punishment for their acts of sacrilege in Troy. Odysseus’ return home took ten years (in addition to the ten he had spent at Troy), and included many adventures, but that is another story.

Achilles and Patroclus

Achilles and Patroclus

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