A Man's Primer on Greek Mythology: The Trojan War

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Welcome back to our series on Greek mythology. In the previous posts we established the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses, the origin stories of humanity, and the heroes that inspired the Greeks. Today, all of that background knowledge will come together in the story of the Trojan War.

Was the Trojan War a Historical Event?

Scholars are uncertain about the historical details of the Trojan War. There is evidence that a city named Troy did exist and that it was ransacked and destroyed by the Greeks, but the proportions of the battle and some of the events described may have been elaborated by Greek authors.

It might help to think of the story we are about to explore to be like Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart. History records that William Wallace was brutally executed by the British after he fought for Scottish freedom on the battlefields of Stirling and Falkirk. Braveheart vividly portrays these facts; however, if we were to further compare the film to Scottish history we would quickly see that Mel Gibson took artistic liberties and embellished the tale of William Wallace. The Greeks likely did the same thing with the heroes and events of the Trojan War.

It is also interesting to note that no single ancient text provides the complete story of the Trojan War; instead, it has been pieced together from several sources, most notably from Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Another significant chunk of the story comes from the Roman poet Virgil’s The Aeneid as well as plays by Sophocles and Euripides. Some excellent sources that assemble the pieces include Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Thomas Bulfinch’s Bulfinch’s Mythology, and Robin Waterfield’s The Greek Myths.

Regardless of the tale’s level of accuracy or the number of contributing authors, the Trojan War is one of the most famous stories within Greek mythology, second only to Odysseus’ adventures returning home from it.

How the Olympians Accidentally Started the Trojan War

The story begins with a celebration on Olympus. Understandably, the goddess of discord, Eris, was not invited to the festivities. Bitter about her exclusion, Eris devised a party-crashing gift to spite the Olympians. She inscribed “for the fairest” on a golden apple and tossed it in the midst of the beautiful Olympian goddesses Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera. Of course each goddess felt that she was the fairest and rightfully deserved the apple. The dispute between the three goddesses became so violent that it was brought before Zeus for judgment. Zeus, knowing better than to get in the middle of an argument among women, particularly an argument about who was the most beautiful, told the goddesses that they should allow the dispute to be settled by a mortal man: Paris, the Prince of Troy.

The Judgment of Paris

Paris, who was shacked up with a nymph named Oenone, was surprised to have the goddesses appear and give him the honor of choosing the most beautiful. Lacking confidence in their own beauty and knowing the wayward hearts of mortal men, each goddess promised Paris an extravagant bribe. Athena offered Paris victory over the Greeks, who were enemies of the Trojans. Hera offered Paris dominion over all of Europe and Asia. But it was Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, who understood the lustful heart of Paris best: she offered him the most beautiful mortal woman in the world. Though each offer was tempting, Paris chose Aphrodite, thus angering both Athena and Hera.

Unfortunately, the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, was soon to be married. For years the champions of Greece had begged for the Spartan princess’ hand in marriage. Seeing the potential for disaster, her father shrewdly asked these Grecian heroes to swear an oath to honor and protect whomever he chose to wed his daughter. Once they had done so, Helen’s father named Menelaus as Helen’s lucky husband-to-be and the new king of Sparta.

Helen’s impending marriage was but a minor obstacle for a goddess to overcome, so Aphrodite led Paris to Sparta, where he was welcomed as a guest at the wedding feast despite being a Trojan. As we will see when we explore The Odyssey, the Greeks’ concept of hospitality extended well beyond our own. When Menelaus was called away to business in Crete, Paris betrayed his generous host, took Helen, and fled back to Troy.

It is unclear whether Helen was kidnapped or willingly left with Paris. Waterfield believes that Helen fell in love with him. In contrast, Bulfinch posits that Helen genuinely loved Menelaus but was forced to comply with the will of Aphrodite, thus making Helen an unwilling abductee. Homer’s account in The Odyssey synthesizes these viewpoints: Helen’s dialogue reveals that she genuinely loves Menelaus but also implies that she did at some point also fall for Paris. She goes on to express bewilderment at her own behavior and denounces her foolish, fleeting love for the Trojan.

Regardless of what lay in Helen’s heart, Paris’ actions were intolerably heinous to the Greeks. Aphrodite’s involvement had made Paris too bold: not only had he abducted the bride of the Spartan king, but he had also shown open contempt for the gracious, undeserved hospitality of his enemies. In essence, Paris had sauntered into Sparta and flipped Menelaus the middle finger. The only option left to the Greeks was war.

“The Face That Launched One Thousand Ships”

Menelaus, upon discovering that his wife was gone, was infuriated and called on the Greek champions to fulfill their oath. Menelaus’ brother, Agamemnon, assembled the Greek army. The two most notable warriors to be called were Odysseus and Achilles.

One thousand Greek warships set sail for Troy, thus earning Helen the distinction of being “the face that launched one thousand ships.” King Priam of Troy prepared for battle and appointed his sons, Paris and Hector, to serve as his generals. Despite the hefty heroic roster of the Greeks – Menelaus, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, Diomedes, and Ajax were all warriors of the highest caliber – they could not gain an advantage over the thick walls of Troy, the leadership of Hector, and a pestilence sent from Apollo.

The Gods Choose Sides

The war lingered for nine years in a stalemate. Eventually, Olympus took notice and intervened. Athena and Hera, still harboring a grudge against Paris, came to the Greeks’ aid along with Poseidon. Aphrodite sided with the Trojans, and Artemis and Apollo did as well. Zeus vowed to remain neutral, but in his heart he favored the Trojans. Now gods fought alongside men and the battle became bloodier than ever.

At the worst possible time, Achilles and Agamemnon found themselves at odds with each other. This was the moment Homer chose to begin his account of the story in The Illiad. I am partial to Robert Fagles translation of the epic’s opening lines:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Acheans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end. Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed, Agamemnon lord of men and Achilles.

Achilles discovered that Chryseis, a Trojan prisoner of war and prophetess of Apollo, was the cause of Apollo’s pestilence on the Greeks and ordered her to be released. Angered by Achilles’ action, Agamemnon countered by taking Achilles’ slave-girl, Briseis. This petty feud caused devastating losses for the Greeks. Achilles refused to fight until Agamemnon returned Briseis to him, and the Greeks could not win the war without their nearly-invulnerable hero.

Paris Versus Menelaus

It was at this time that the Trojans and the Greeks came to an agreement. In order to stem the loss of life, Menelaus and Paris would battle one-on-one for Helen. Menelaus, a vicious warrior, was more than a match for Paris, who was weak by comparison. In the midst of the fight, Menelaus’ sword broke in half, perhaps due to the interference of a god. This was a minor setback for Menelaus, however. The brutal Spartan king engaged Paris in hand-to-hand combat, seizing the weak Trojan by the helmet and dragging him around. Had Aphrodite not intervened and cut the strap holding Paris’ helmet, the young Trojan surely would have died at Menelaus’ hands. Free of the Spartan’s death-grip, Paris fled back to the safety of Troy with the help of a cloud provided by Aphrodite.

The honor of the Greeks was once again offended by the cowardice of Paris and blood-lust spread among the soldiers: “Terror and Destruction and Strife, whose fury never slackens, all friends of the murderous War-god, were there to urge men on to slaughter each other.” (Hamilton 266) With a little additional goading from Athena and Hera, the war was back on.

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