The Trojan War


by JJ 11/02/15

 The Iliad covers a few weeks in the final year of the war, Homer mentions or alludes to many of the Greek legends about the war. The cause of the war, the gathering of the troops, and related concerns are worked into the poem and future events, such as Achilles' death and the sack of Troy are alluded to, so that at the end of the poem more or less the tale of the Trojan War has been told. This module provides a liner summary of the important events so that a first time reader of the Iliad has an overview of what to expect, just as the program provided at an opera usually contains a plot summary for those unfamiliar with the work.

                                  The background story of the war has two branches, both beginning with Zeus.

First: Thetis

Zeus was in love with Thetis, a sea nymph, but received a prophecy that Thetis's son would become greater than his father, just like Zeus had dethroned his father to lead the succeeding pantheon of gods. In order to avoid such an outcome Zeus arranged for her to marry a human, Peleus.  Peleus was very much in favor of such an arrangement, however, Thetis refused him.

Proteus, an early sea-god, advised Peleus to find the sea nymph when she was asleep and bind her tightly to keep her from changing forms to escape. He did so, but she managed to shift shapes, becoming flame, water, a raging lioness, and a serpent. Peleus held fast and eventually the nymph was subdued and  consented to marry him.

thetis Thetis changing into a lioness as she is held by Peleus,
 Attic red-figured
kylix by Douris, c. 490 BC from Vulci

The wedding of Thetis and Peleus was celebrated on Mount Pelion, outside the cave of the centaur Chiron, and attended by the deities.  At the wedding feast Apollo played the lyre and the Muses sang.  Chiron gave Peleus an ashen spear that had been polished by Athena and had a blade forged by Hephaestus and  Poseidon gave  immortal horses. Eris, the goddess of discord, had not been invited, however.  So for spite she threw a golden apple into the midst of the goddesses that was to be awarded only "to the fairest."


The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis
Dionysus seems to be welcoming the guests, all bearing gifts.


Museum: London, British Museum
Size: 71cm (dinos and stand)
Subject/s: Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, attended by the gods, some on foot, others in chariots, encircles the shoulder.
Below, and on the stand, are animal friezes.  
Date: early 6th c.


This leads to the first rigged beauty pageant. Three goddesses laid claim to the apple: Aphrodite, Hera and Athena.  Zeus, as the chief  Olympian, should have mediated the dispute, but knowing better, he had Hermes lead the three goddesses to Paris, the shepherd prince of Troy, to decide the issue. The three goddesses appeared before the young prince, each secretly offering him gifts for being chosen winner. He chose Aphrodite, swayed by her promise to bestow upon him, the most beautiful woman in the world. A mixed blessing, to say the least.


The Judgement of Paris     Red figured vase, 440BC                                                                                                                        Antikenmuseen, Berlin

Hermes leads the three goddesses Aphrodite, Athena and Hera to Paris for his judgement in the contest for the golden apple. The Trojan prince sits in a pillared doorway, holding a royal staff and lyre. Before him stands Hermes, holding a herald's wand traveler's cloak) and winged cap. Of the three goddesses, Aphrodite is veiled, and holds a winged Eros  and myrtle wreath in her hands; Athena wears the aegis cloak, and holds a spear and helm; Hera is crowned and bears a miniature lion and royal lotus-tipped staff.




The marriage of Thetis and Peleus will produce a son, Achilles. Thetis tried to make Achilles invulnerable by dipping the infant in the waters of the river Styx.  But  the heel by which she held him was not touched by the Styx's waters and failed to be entirely protect him.  Later, Peleus gave the boy to the centaur Chiron to raise. Prophecy said that the son of Thetis would have either a long but dull life, or a glorious but brief life.  The second prophecy proves to be accurate.

Second: Helen

Zeus, taking the form of a swan, was chased by an eagle and sought refuge with Leda. The swan gained her affection and the two mated. Leda then produced two blue eggs: one containing Castor and Pollux; the other one with Helen and Clytemnestra.  Leda also had intercourse with both Zeus and her husband Tyndareus the same night. So, Castor was the mortal son of Tyndareus, the king of Sparta, and Pollux the divine son of Zeus, while  Helen was the divine daughter and Clytemnestra was mortal.

When it was time for Helen, the most beautiful girl in the world, to marry as many as forty kings and princes from around the Greek world came to seek her hand. Tyndareus was afraid to select a husband for his daughter or to send any of the suitors away for fear of offending them and giving grounds for a major quarrel.  Odysseus was one of the suitors, but felt he had no chance to win, so he promised to solve the problem if Tyndareus in turn would support him in his courting of Penelope the daughter of Icarius. Tyndareus  agreed, and Odysseus proposed that before the decision was made all the suitors should swear a most solemn oath to defend the chosen husband against whoever should attempt to disrupt the marriage. After the suitors had sworn to retaliate against any intruder, Menelaus was chosen to be Helen's husband by drawing straws or, another version has it, by winning a foot race.   Helen and Menelaus became rulers of Sparta after Tyndareus and Leda abdicated.  Menelaus and Helen rule in Sparta for several years until a special guest arrives in Sparta: Paris, part of a Trojan delegation to Sparta.


helen and paris 
Helen is weaving, Paris approaches and Eros is above in a chariot. Their eyes meet.....

 Paris discovered Helen the woman promised by Aphrodite. Helen, shot by an golden arrow from Eros eloped with Paris to Troy.  At that time, Menelaus was in  Crete attending a funeral and when he returned home and discovered his wife's infidelity he was peeved, to say the least. He went to his brother, Agamemnon, King of  Mycenae, to ask for help in getting Helen back from Troy. Agamemnon, who had sworn the oath,  then sent emissaries to several Achaean kings and princes to help retrieve Helen. The Achaean kings and princes had all been suitors and made that same pact to aid the winner if anyone came between the husband and wife.

Many of these kings and princes tried to renege on their promise to avoid the ensuing war.  Odysseus feigned insanity by plowing his fields while sowing  salt, but his plan was foiled when Palamedes, Agamemnon's emissary, put Odysseus' son Telemachus in the path of the plow, forcing Odysseus to reveal his sanity. Thetis concealed Achilles, disguised as a girl, at the court of Lycomedes. When Odysseus, who was sent there, found that one of the girls at court was not a girl, he raised an alarm that they were under attack and Achilles instinctively ran for his weapons and armor, thereby revealing himself.

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