Summary and Analysis: Greek Mythology
The Trojan War — The Preliminaries, The Course of the War, The Fall of Troy, and The Returns
King Priam ruled in the wealthy, fortified city of Troy. He was not only prosperous, but he had fifty or more children, and it seemed as if good fortune would bless him and his children for a long time to come. However, his wife, Hecuba, had a nightmare in which she gave birth to a deadly firebrand. The seers interpreted this to mean that her unborn child would destroy Troy and its inhabitants. When the infant was born it was exposed on Mount Ida, but a she-bear nursed it and it survived, growing up as a shepherd called Alexander, or Paris. Paris took the nymph Oenone as a lover.
At the wedding of Peleus and Thetis the gods were enjoying themselves when Eris, or Strife, threw a golden apple into their midst with the words, "For the fairest," attached. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all claimed the apple and asked Zeus to judge between them, but he wisely refused, directing the three goddesses to a shepherd on Mount Ida who could decide the loveliest. The goddesses approached Paris and each offered Paris a bribe for selecting her. Hera promised to make him a king who would rule Asia and have great wealth. Athena offered to give him wisdom and an invincible valor in warfare. But Aphrodite won the apple by promising Paris the most beautiful woman in the world — the spectacular Helen. His choice was imprudent to say the least, since he made implacable enemies of Hera and Athena, both of whom vowed to destroy him and Troy.
On learning that he would possess Helen, Paris first went to Troy and established himself as a true prince, the legitimate son of Priam and Hecuba. He now had no further use for Oenone and abandoned her. Then he sailed for Sparta, where he seduced Helen during her husband's absence and took her back to Troy with him.
Meanwhile Paris' sister Cassandra was faced with trouble. Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy while trying to make love to her, but she had taken a vow of chastity and resisted him. In anger Apollo turned his gift into a curse by making it so that no one would believe her. When Paris returned with Helen and stood before Priam to get his father's acceptance Cassandra came into the room, visualized all that would occur because of Paris and his lust, gave shrieks of despair, and railed at her immoral brother. Thinking Cassandra mad, Priam had his daughter locked in a palace cell.
When Menelaus returned to Sparta and found his wife Helen gone, he summoned the Greek leaders to go with him to conquer Troy and recover Helen. These leaders were pledged to aid Menelaus, for as they had courted Helen too they had taken an oath to avenge any dishonor that fell upon her future husband because of her. Thus Paris precipitated the Trojan War, which would fulfill the prophetic dream his mother had of giving birth to a firebrand that would destroy Troy.
The Greek chieftains assembled at Aulis under the leadership of Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus. Most of the warriors were glad to go, eager to burn and sack Troy. But two heroes were reluctant. An oracle told Odysseus that he would be twenty years from home if he went, so he feigned madness when the Greek leaders came for him. Palamedes exposed the ruse, and Odysseus had to go. Since Troy could not be taken without the help of Achilles, the Greeks went to Scyros to fetch him. Achilles was practically invulnerable as a fighter, for his mother, the nymph Thetis, had dipped him in the River Styx at birth, rendering him immortal everywhere but in his heel, where she had held him. Tutored by Chiron, he became an incredibly swift and fearsome warrior. Knowing he would have a short but glorious life if he went to Troy, Thetis disguised her valiant son in women's clothing at the Scyrian court. However, Odysseus discovered Achilles by a trick, and he too consented to go.
At first the Greeks sailed to Mysia, and believing it to be Troy they made war. The Mysian king, Telephus, was wounded in the battle by Achilles. Learning of their error, the Greeks sailed back to Aulis. Since an oracle had said that Troy could not be taken without Telephus' advice, Achilles was obliged to heal his victim. The renegade Trojan prophet, Calchas, had sided with the Greeks, and when unfavorable winds prevented the Greeks from sailing, Calchas declared that the goddess Artemis wanted the sacrifice of a virgin. Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia was chosen and sent for under the pretext that she would marry Achilles. Yet she willingly allowed herself to be sacrificed for the Greek cause. Some say, though, that Artemis put a deer in her place and carried her off to the land of the Taurians. In any case the Greek expedition was able to reach Troy.
An oracle had said that the first to leap ashore on Trojan territory would be the first to die. Protesilaus took this burden on himself and was greatly honored for it after being slain in a skirmish with Hector, the Trojan prince. A mighty warrior, Hector was the mainstay of Troy in the ten years of fighting that followed. Yet Hector bore the knowledge that both he and his city were doomed. If his brother Troilus had lived to be twenty Troy might have been spared, but Achilles slew the boy in his teens. Troy had one other defender of note, Aeneas, an ally from a neighboring land. The Greek army, however, was full of heroes. In addition to Agamemnon, Menelaus, Nestor, Odysseus, and Achilles, there were Diomedes and the two Ajaxes.
The gods took part in the war as well, affecting the outcome of various battles. Apollo, Artemis, Ares, and Aphrodite sided with the Trojans, while Hera, Athena, Poseidon, Hermes, and Hephaestus aided the Greeks. Zeus might interfere on occasion, but he maintained neutrality for the most part, being fully aware of what would happen.
After nine years of fighting the Greeks had managed to lay waste many kingdoms allied to Troy in Asia Minor, but they had not made much headway against Troy itself. There was friction in the Greek camp. Odysseus still bore a grudge against Palamedes, the man who had ruthlessly shown his madness to be a hoax. When Palamedes denounced Odysseus for an unsuccessful foraging expedition, Odysseus framed Palamedes, making him appear a traitor. Palamedes was stoned to death as a result.
But then a more disastrous quarrel broke out, this time between Agamemnon and Achilles. Agamemnon had taken the daughter of a priest of Apollo as a trophy of war, and when her father came to ransom her Agamemnon sent him off without her. The priest called upon Apollo to avenge him, so Apollo sent a plague to the Greeks that killed many. Achilles called a council and demanded that Agamemnon give back the girl, Chryseis. Agamemnon angrily agreed, but he insisted on taking Achilles' own prize, the maid Briseis, in her place. It would have come to murder had not Athena intervened. Achilles then gave up Briseis, but in his wounded pride he decided to withdraw from the war. Since the Greek victories up to that point had been due to Achilles' prowess, this was a calamity for the Greeks. Achilles told his mother Thetis to petition Zeus for Trojan victories, which she did.
Quick to see that Achilles and his band of Myrmidons had retired from the fighting, the Trojans made a spirited attack. Agamemnon then granted a truce in which it was agreed that Paris and Menelaus should fight in single combat for Helen. But the duel was inconclusive, for Aphrodite, seeing that Paris was losing, wrapped him in a magic cloud and took him back to Troy. Menelaus searched for Paris in the Trojan ranks, and Agamemnon demanded that the Trojans surrender Helen. The Trojans were willing, which might have ended the war. But Hera wanted Troy devastated, so she dispatched Athena to break the truce. Athena then persuaded the Trojan archer Pandarus to fire an arrow at Menelaus. The shot grazed Menelaus, and the fighting resumed in an angry turmoil.
The greater Ajax and Diomedes fought in an inspired manner, killing Trojans by the score. Diomedes slew Pandarus and wounded Aeneas. Aphrodite came to rescue her son Aeneas, but Diomedes wounded her in the wrist, causing the goddess to flee. However, Apollo bore Aeneas from the field and Artemis cured him. Diomedes then encountered Hector, who was accompanied by the bloody Ares, god of battle. Diomedes was intimidated and the Greeks drew back, but Athena gave Diomedes the courage to attack Ares. Injured, Ares bellowed in pain and fled to Olympus.
Forced to retreat, Hector was advised to return to Troy and bid his mother Hecuba to offer her most beautiful robe with a plea for mercy to the hostile Athena. Yet this gesture failed to placate the goddess. After a poignant conversation with his wife Andromache and dandling his infant son Astyanax, Hector went back to the field and issued a challenge to duel to Achilles, who declined. Ajax took up the challenge, and in the fight Ajax slightly bested Hector. The two warriors parted after exchanging gifts.
Honoring his promise to Thetis, who had asked him to aid the Trojans, Zeus ordered the other gods from the battlefield. As a consequence the Greeks lost badly. Under Hector's pounding assault the Greeks were almost driven back to their ships by evening. Disheartened, Agamemnon considered abandoning the siege of Troy. But Nestor, who was old and wise, recommended that he make peace with Achilles by giving him back Briseis and a pile of wealth to boot. Achilles received the deputation from Agamemnon courteously, but refused the offer. His pride was at stake, and he would only fight if he or his Myrmidons were threatened. The situation seemed hopeless. Yet that night Odysseus and Diomedes made a raid on the Trojan camp, killing many, including King Rhesus, and stealing some horses.
The next day the Greeks were forced back to the beach, and Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Diomedes were wounded. Hera resolved to turn the tide of battle. Using Aphrodite's magic girdle, she seduced Zeus into making love to her and forgetting about the war. While Zeus was engaged Poseidon entered the fray and made the Trojans retreat. Ajax hurled a boulder at Hector and felled him, whereupon the Trojans ran madly for the city. Zeus recovered from his infatuation, saw the rout, threatened to beat Hera, and ordered Poseidon from the field.
Apollo came to Hector's aid, breathing vigor into him. Once again the Trojans gained the upper hand. With Hector in the forefront the Trojans smashed down the protective barricades the Greeks had built to protect their ships. Greatly alarmed, Achilles' companion Patroclus tried to persuade his friend to fight, but still Achilles declined. Patroclus then borrowed Achilles' armor and entered the battle. Thinking that Achilles was now fighting, the Trojans panicked as Patroclus slaughtered them right and left. He made his way to the walls of Troy, but Apollo dazed him as he tried to scale them. Hector found Patroclus then and slew him, stripping him of his splendid armor.
When Achilles received news of Patroclus' death he threw himself on the ground in a frenzy of grief and had to be restrained. His mother, Thetis, brought him new armor fashioned by Hephaestus, but she warned him that if he killed Hector he himself would perish soon after. Nevertheless, Achilles was determined to slay Hector and a host of Trojans besides. The next morning he made a formal reconciliation with Agamemnon and began fighting immediately.
The clash of arms that day was terrible. While Hector and Aeneas killed many Greeks they could not stop Achilles in his furor of bloodletting. In fact, both Aeneas and Hector had to be rescued with divine help. Achilles filled the Scamander River so full of bodies in his dreadful onslaught that the waters over-flowed and nearly drowned him. The gods, too, engaged in battle among themselves, as Athena felled Ares, Hera boxed Artemis' ears, and Poseidon provoked Apollo.
Eventually Achilles encountered Hector outside the walls of Troy. Hector ran from his opponent in a lapse of courage, circling the city three times. But Athena duped him into making a stand, and Achilles' lance caught him in the throat. Although Hector had pleaded with Achilles to let his parents ransom his body as he died, Achilles denied him jeeringly. Then Achilles took Hector's corpse, tied it behind his chariot, and dragged it back to the Greek camp as Hector's wife watched from the walls of Troy.
Since Patroclus' ghost demanded burial, Achilles prepared a glorious funeral. He cut the throats of twelve Trojan nobles as a sacrifice on Patroclus' pyre, and funeral contests in athletics followed. For eleven days Achilles dragged Hector's body around the pyre, yet Apollo preserved the corpse from corruption. Then Zeus directed Thetis to bid Achilles accept the ransom offered by King Priam for Hector's body. Zeus also sent Hermes to Priam, and Hermes guided the old king with his ransom through the Greek lines to Achilles' camp. Achilles treated Priam with courtesy, for Priam reminded him of his own aged father, Peleus. Achilles took Hector's weight in gold and gave Priam the body, which Priam took back to Troy. During the next eleven days there was a truce as the Trojans mourned for the dead Hector, whom they cremated and buried.
Achilles managed to kill the Amazon Queen, Penthesileia, in the battles that followed. And when the Trojans brought in Ethiopian reinforcements under Prince Memnon, things went hard with the Greeks, for many were slain. But when Memnon killed Achilles' friend Antilochus, Achilles retaliated by killing Memnon in a duel. However, Achilles' life was drawing to a close, as he well knew. One day in battle Paris shot at Achilles, and the arrow, guided by Apollo, struck him in the right heel, the only place where he was vulnerable. The Greeks had a difficult time retrieving his corpse from the field. Only the efforts of Ajax and Odysseus saved Achilles' body from the Trojans. The hero was given a magnificent funeral.
There arose a dispute as to whether Ajax or Odysseus should receive Achilles' resplendent armor. The Greek commanders voted on it and awarded the armor to Odysseus. Dishonored and furious, Ajax resolved to kill a number of Greek leaders, including Odysseus. But Athena visited him with madness, and that night Ajax butchered a number of cattle under the delusion that they were the men who had slighted him. When Athena removed his frenzy Ajax saw his irremediable folly and committed suicide out of shame.
With their two most valiant warriors dead the Greeks became anxious about ever taking Troy. Force of arms had been unsuccessful, so they turned to oracles increasingly. Calchas told them they needed the bow and arrows of Heracles to win the war. These items were in the hands of Prince Philoctetes, a warrior the Greeks had abandoned years before on the way to Troy at the island of Lemnos because of a loathsome wound that would not heal. Odysseus and Diomedes were dispatched to fetch the weapons. On Lemnos, Odysseus tricked Philoctetes into handing over the bow and arrows and prepared to leave, but Diomedes offered to take Philoctetes back to Troy with them, where he would be cured of his wound. Philoctetes swallowed his long bitterness, sailed for Troy, and killed Paris with the arrows of Heracles. Paris might have been spared if his former mistress, the nymph oenone, had agreed to heal him, but she refused and then hanged herself.
The death of Paris and possession of Heracles' weapons did not change the stalemate, so Calchas told the Greeks that only Helenus, the Trojan seer and prince, knew how Troy's downfall might be brought about. Odysseus captured Helenus on Mount Ida. Helenus bore a personal grudge against Troy, having fought for Helen after Paris died and having lost her, and he was willing to betray the city. First, the Greeks had to bring Pelops' bones back to Asia from Greece. Agamemnon accomplished this. Second, they had to bring Achilles' son Neoptolemus into the war, and a group of Greeks went to Scyros to get him. Third, the Greeks had to steal the Palladium, a sacred image of Athena, from the goddess's temple in Troy. Diomedes and Odysseus undertook the dangerous mission. Once in Troy Odysseus was recognized by Helen, who saw through his disguise but did not give him away. The two heroes seized the sacred image of Athena and escaped unharmed.
If Odysseus claimed credit for the notion of the huge wooden horse, Athena had given the idea to another. Nevertheless, Odysseus helped the plan succeed. A great horse of wood was constructed under Greek supervision, one with a hollow belly to hold several soldiers. One night this horse was brought to the Trojan plain and warriors climbed in under Odysseus' direction. The rest of the Greeks burned their camps and sailed off to wait behind the nearby island of Tenedos.
The next morning the Trojans found the Greeks gone and the huge, mysterious horse sitting before Troy. They also discovered a Greek named Sinon, whom they took captive. Odysseus had primed Sinon with plausible stories about the Greek departure, the wooden horse, and his own presence there. Sinon told Priam and the others that Athena had deserted the Greeks because of the theft of the Palladium. Without her help they were lost and had best depart. But to get home safely they had to have a human sacrifice, and Sinon was chosen, yet he got away and hid. The horse had been left to placate the angry goddess, and the Greeks were hoping the Trojans would desecrate it, earning Athena's hatred. These lies convinced Priam and many Trojans. However, Cassandra and a priest named Laocöon warned that the horse was full of soldiers. No one believed Cassandra anyhow. And when Laöcoon hurled a spear at the horse a hostile god sent two large snakes to strangle him and his sons. The Trojans needed no further proof: they drew the gigantic horse inside their city gates to honor Athena.
That night the soldiers crept from the horse, killed the sentries, and opened the gates to let the Greek army in. The Greeks set fires throughout the city, began massacring the inhabitants, and looted. The Trojan resistance was ineffectual. King Priam was killed by Neoptolemus. And by morning all but a few Trojans were dead. Of Trojan males only Aeneas, with his father and son, had escaped the slaughter. Hector's young son Astyanax was thrown from the walls of the city. The women who were left went into concubinage as spoils of war. And the princess Polyxena, whom Achilles had loved, was sacrificed brutally upon the tomb of the dead hero. Troy was devastated. Hera and Athena had their revenge upon Paris and his city.
Having accomplished their aim in sacking Troy, the Greeks now had to face the problem of getting back to their various kingdoms. This was a problem, for the gods had scores to settle with many Greeks. Soon after the Greeks set sail a fierce storm arose that blew much of the Greek fleet far off course.
Of those who went by ship Agamemnon was one of the few that escaped the storm and reached home easily. But immediately upon his return Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, slew him and his followers, including Cassandra, at the banquet table. Clytemnestra had never forgiven her husband for sacrificing Iphigenia.
Menelaus had resolved to kill Helen when he found her in Troy, but on seeing her naked breasts he lost his determination and took her again as his wife. After offending Athena, Menelaus and Helen were caught in the storm, lost most of their ships, and were blown to Crete and Egypt. Unable to return to Sparta because of adverse winds, Menelaus began trading. Eight years later he wrested the secret of getting home from the prophetic sea god Proteus, master of changes. And having propitiated Athena, Menelaus was able to sail to Sparta with Helen, returning a rich man. When the two of them died they went to the Isles of the Blessed, being favored relations of Zeus.
The lesser Ajax, who had raped Cassandra in the temple of Athena while plundering Troy, was shipwrecked on his way home. Scrambling onto the rocks, he rejoiced at having escaped the vengeance of the gods. But Poseidon split the rock to which he clung and drowned him. Athena then exacted an annual tribute of two maidens from Ajax's fellow Locrians to be sent to Troy.
Bitterly resentful of the Greeks, Nauplius caused many of their ships to smash on the Euboean coast by lighting a deceptive beacon. Philoctetes, who still nursed a grudge against the Greeks for their shabby treatment of him, did not return to Greece but sailed to Italy, where he founded two cities.
The prophet Calchas made it to Colophon, where he met the seer Mopsus. He engaged Mopsus in a contest of prophecy, which he lost. Calchas then died.
Achilles' son Neoptolemus had established himself as a valiant fighter at Troy. Warned against ruling his home kingdom, he went instead to Epirus and became the Molossian king. Neoptolemus went to Delphi to demand retribution from Apollo, who had helped kill his father. When the priestess refused he robbed and burned the temple. Later he returned to Delphi, where he was killed in a dispute over sacrificial meat. The devotees of Apollo then erected a new temple over his grave.
Of all the Greeks only the wise Nestor sailed swiftly home and enjoyed the fruits of old age in peace, surrounded by stalwart sons. His virtues of prudence and piety had enabled him to live to see three generations of heroes.
The legend of the Trojan War comes from a number of sources besides Homer. The Iliad deals with the central part of the tale, from the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles to Hector's funeral. This is the heart of the story, but the legend as a whole has a unity of its own. Schliemann's excavations at Troy and subsequent investigations make it somewhat likely that a siege may have taken place in the Mycenaean period. But regardless of actual historical fact and despite discrepancies in various treatments of the legend this story has a reality and a coherence that seem remarkable.
The unity lies in the interweaving of the divine and the human. On a purely human level the tale makes sense. Thus, Paris, a lecherous prince, abducts Helen. The Greeks are bound by honor to seek revenge on both Paris and the city that harbors him. The war lasts ten years, and the same honor that brought the Greeks occasions internecine fights of great bitterness. Both sides fight valiantly, but fighting fails to bring Troy low. The Greeks turn to oracles, which produce nothing. Finally, they turn to their own wits and work out a stratagem that wins the war.
On the divine level the story makes equal sense. Hera and Athena hate Paris for preferring Aphrodite, and they hate the city that bred him. Being goddesses of power and bravery, they aid the Greeks in every possible way, even in giving them the plan that brings Troy down. But everything that happened was known beforehand. The war was fated before Paris was born. Some principle of Necessity wrote the whole scenario.
The human and the divine interact through dreams, oracles, and inspiration in battle. And often the gods themselves put in a personal appearance to aid their favorites. Dreams and oracles reveal the will of the gods, but inspired fighting shows the gods' favor. Of course that favor is rather precarious, yet by means of it a hero wins the only thing in life worth winning — fame, glory in posterity. The Greeks looked back wistfully to the period of the Trojan War and earlier as an age of true greatness.
One might think that a race which values courage in battle to the degree the Greeks did would be blind to the squalor of war. But this legend shows nothing of the kind. Ruthless slaughter, meanness and trickery, the degradation of death — these are set forth without mitigation in a realistic light. Hector and Achilles are basically tragic figures, for they know the terrible doom that must fall on them, but they act out their destinies in battle with valor.
An outstanding incident in this tale comes as Hector faces Achilles. Achilles has nothing to lose, while Hector bears the weight of Troy on his shoulders. Seeing that Achilles is full of divine power, Hector weakens and runs even though he is a man of great courage. Athena has to trick him into making a stand, and Achilles slays him. Dying, Hector begs his killer to allow his parents to ransom his body, and the last thing he hears is Achilles' gloating refusal. But Achilles has set his own doom in motion. This episode prefigures the fall of Troy in a heart-rending way. The foremost hero of Troy has been slain by the foremost hero of Greece, who must shortly die in turn. Human choice and divine inevitability are interwoven here in tragic terms. But the entire legend of the Trojan War bears that same tragic stamp.