Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Trojan War Myth, Demystified.

This post originally was scheduled to appear last Saturday, but I switched with Stan so that he could post his eloquent and much appreciated piece on Nelson Mandela.  Michael Stanley will be back here next Thursday.

How many of you have heard of the Trojan War?  I bet there’s not one of you who hasn’t. It’s the world’s best known epic tale of romance, action, and intrigue, and thanks to Homer’s telling in the Illiad and the Odyssey, a source for countless storylines down through the ages…including the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou.

But how many of you know the actual story of the War? Other than of course the bit about the (possibly) kidnapped Helen’s face launching a thousand ships and The Horse.  Aha, the ranks are thinning quickly.

Well, here’s my adapted telling of the tale based upon a version I came across while reading The Everything Classical Mythology Book, by Lesley Bolton.

The most well-known character in the myth is, of course, Helen of Troy, though she really wasn’t from Troy.  That’s just where she ended up spending ten years waiting to be “rescued.”  Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world and the daughter of the union of Zeus and Leda (not Leto, whose children with couldn’t-keep-it-in-his-pants-Zeus were the twins Apollo and Artemis).

Helen by Evelyn De Morgan

However the aggravation of raising such a beautiful daughter (something I know first hand) didn’t fall to her natural mother and father (assuming there’s anything natural about a Greek god turning himself into a swan to seduce a mortal), but to her foster father, King Tyndareus of Sparta.  

King Ty, as I like to call him, worked out a way of keeping all the suitors for his daughter’s hand (and a lot more) at bay by making all swear that in order to participate in the competition, they had to agree to abide by Helen’s choice of husband and defend her against anyone who might try to kidnap her.  The winner was Menelaus of Sparta and they were wed.

Menelaus by Giacomo Brogi

Then along came Paris of Troy, who stopped in to say “Hi” to the groom and, when the opportunity presented itself in the form of a quick trip out of town for Menelaus, to repay his host’s hospitality by stealing away his bride. 

Paris and Helen by Jacques Louis-David

But the kidnapping wasn’t a spontaneous whim.  Paris felt he had a right to claim Helen.  You see, Paris had been the judge in a beauty contest among the gods Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera to settle a dispute as to which of the three was the fairest.  In keeping with the sort of judging still seen in many parts of the world today, Paris made a side deal with Aphrodite that he’d choose her in return for her promising him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. But before he could claim her, she’d married. 

No matter, to Paris a deal was a deal and he’d come to Sparta to collect his prize. He spirited Helen away and, after spending their first night together on Kranae, a tiny island just off the port city of Gytheio on Greece’s Southern Peloponnese, it was off to Troy.  

Abduction of Helen, Francesco Primaticcio

Church on Kranae
[As a side note, that one-night diversion has created a thriving cottage industry on modern day Kranae, for today couples exchange marriage vows at a church on that spot, no doubt hoping for better luck than came to Paris and Helen.]

Not surprisingly, Menelaus didn’t take kindly to Paris’ thank you, and when Menelaus’ trip to Troy with Odysseus (aka Ulysses) to demand of King Priam of Troy her immediate return proved futile, Menelaus returned home to Sparta, massed Helen’s former suitors who’d pledged to defend her against kidnappers, and with his brother Agamemnon in command, dispatched an army of a thousand ships to reclaim her. 

But the Olympian biggie gods were involved in this mess up to their tiarasses.  Some had aligned with Greece (e.g., Poseidon because he was pissed at the Trojans for not having paid his bill for construction work, and Athena and Hera because of Paris’ involvement in fixing their beauty contest).  Others sided with Troy (e.g., Aphrodite who’d created the mess in the first place, and Apollo joined in it with his twin sister, Artemis.)

Anytime the gods got involved in something there were problems.  And in this instance, just to get things started, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter to the god Artemis (a backer of Troy) for the winds to blow and launch his thousand ships. 

The Greek plan was simple, conquer the numerous towns surrounding Troy and thereby squeeze it into submission.  A simple plan turned into nine years of war with still no end in sight. Hmm, sound familiar? 

In the tenth year everything went to hell in a hand-basket for the Greeks.
First, the Greeks’ greatest warrior, Achilles (slayer of the Trojans’ greatest, Hector) died when pierced in the heel (surely you knew that) by an arrow cast into the air by Paris from behind his fortress walls and guided to its mark by Apollo.  

Then a fight broke out between Odysseus and Ajax of Salamis (non-kosher style for sure) over who’d get to wear Achilles armor (starting to sound more and more like that Brad Pitt 2004 version of the tale called Troy, does it not?), an honor ultimately bestowed on Odysseus that led Ajax into madness and ultimately taking his own life.  And then the Amazons weighed in to fight on the side of the Trojans.

But the Greeks did not give up.  Led by Odysseus they captured the King of Troy’s son, and through him learned what they needed to do if there were to be any hope of Troy falling.  The Greeks did as the prince had said, culminating in snatching away the sacred statue of Athena—the Palladium—which stood within Troy to protect the city from destruction.

But still Troy did not fall.  Then Odysseus came up with a plan, perhaps the most famous hustle in history: one requiring a gigantic wooden horse and some mighty gullible Trojans.

It was the blueprint for a classic scam that’s since played out countless times in print and film:  Present the mark with a fascinating unexpected gift.  Get a shill to tell a believable story compete with a hook that gets the mark to thinking it’s come up with a way to outsmart the hustler, and toss in a last minute twist that threatens to destroy the plan but fails because of an even greater surprise twist.

In this case, the Trojan Horse (more aptly the Greek or Spartan Horse, since they built it) appeared one morning outside the walls of Troy with the Greek army nowhere to be seen, leaving the Trojans confused over what to do with it: destroy the horse, or bring it within their city’s walls.   Then appeared a man in rags—the disguised Greek soldier Sinon—who claimed he’d escaped being sacrificed to Athena by the Greeks as an offering to appease her ire at their having stolen the Palladium from Troy. 

Then seemingly by chance he revealed a secret of the Greeks: that the great wooden horse before them was also meant to appease Athena by serving to replace the Palladium, but the sneaky Greeks had intentionally built it far too large to pass inside the walls of Troy out of fear that if brought inside it would bring victory to the besieged city.

Just as the Greeks’ plan seemed to be working, one Trojan stepped forward to challenge Sinon’s story (standard screenwriting fare these days), and hurled his spear at the wooden horse, no doubt hoping to elicit a cry from whomever it struck within. But just as he did, a giant sea monster reared up and devoured the cynic, distracting the crowd from the point of both his logic and spear.

The Trojans took the monster as a sign of Athena’s anger at the spear being tossed at an offering to her—rather than of an effort on her part (remember, she was on the side of the Greeks) to silence one threatening to expose the Greeks’ plan.

Surprise, surprise the Trojans figured out a way to bring the horse within their walls, and while rejoicing in their good fortune missed Sinon freeing the soldiers inside it and opening Troy’s gates for the rest of the Greek army to enter the city.

We all know what happened next. Or at least we think we do.  Helen was returned to her husband.  But not until after the Greeks had engaged in a bloodlust rage of battle so unsettling and sacrilegious to gods that had once backed the Greeks that they turned on them, bringing Odysseus ten more years of trials and tribulations before reaching home (after all, it was a two-book deal for Homer) and far worse fates for far more.

Homer 850 BCE

Yes, that’s a plot line we’ve seen before and will see again. And though there were no real winners in the Trojan War, there sure have been a lot of modern day literary and box office triumphs.

Many thanks again to Lesley Bolton for the inspiration I found for this post in her The Everything Classical Mythology Book.

Jeff—Saturday (But this week Thursday)


  1. And speaking of Ajax's salami, then there's Troilus and Cressida.

    1. Are you talking about some guy who had trouble with his Toyota? I once saw a character so mad at his, that he stood there and (ungrammatically) shake spear at it.

  2. "up to their tiarasses," indeed. Heh, cute. For a second there, I thought that John Erskine book cover was the cover for your next novel. Alas, alack. Maybe next you could give us a quick synopsis of Dante's Inferno. I hear it's a real barn burner. And leave it to AmA to fixate on the salami. That's what comes from all that globe-trotting and being broad minded. No, no, back down, I was NOT calling you a broad, I was admiring your mind... hmmm... best stop while I'm a behind.

    1. Please, Everett, don't raise the matter of my book covers with me. That subject is reserved for a very special ring of Hell. On the subject of salamis, if you're going to venture into battle with AmA on that score you better protect your prosciutto at all times.

  3. I must say your version is much more interesting and fun than when I first read these stories. You and your editorial comments, and your buddies made me laugh. I wonder if Homer was trying to tell us something.

    1. On behalf of my entire ensemble of buddies, we thank you, Lil. And yes on Homer's message to the ages: "He who never reads history will get to see it in made for TV movies anyway."

  4. Ditto to what Lil said. I haven't thought about the Trojan Horse, the Trojan War or Helen of Troy for many years. Thanks for this updated version.