Many references are made in the Odyssey to the famous Trojan War. Indeed, were it not for the Trojan War, the Odyssey could not have been written. For it was Odysseus’ return from the war which inspired the story. How did this famous war start? The legendary explanation follows:
ORIGIN Once at a wedding all the gods had been invited to attend except the Goddess of Discord. In her rage she hit upon a means of revenge. She threw an apple among the guests. Upon the apple was the inscription, For the Fairest. Naturally, the goddesses present were vainly concerned over the award of the apple. Three contestants claimed it: Hera, wife of Zues; Athena, goddess of wisdom; and Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty.
Not wishing to make a decision himself, Zues sent the goddesses to Mount Ida, where Paris, Prince of Troy, was tending his flocks. Each goddess sought to win the decision. Hera promised Paris wealth and power. Athena pledged him fame in battle. But Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful woman for his wife. Forgetting his own beloved, Paris awarded the prize to Aphrodite.
With the help of Aphrodite, Paris sailed to Greece, where he was received graciously by Menelaus. The bride of Menelaus was Helen, whose beauty had attracted many suitors before her marriage to Menelaus. Again with Aphrodite’s help Paris carried off Helen to Troy. Menelaus immediately called upon all the other Greeks for help. They had all agreed to support whomever Helen had chosen as husband.
The Greeks came forward to his assistance. Some were reluctant to come. Odysseus, for example, loved his wife Penelope and son Telemachus so dearly that he pretended madness, so the others would leave him behind. But the chiefs who came for him were cunning, too. As he was plowing, they placed his infant son in front of the plow. Odysseus turned it aside, thus revealing his sanity.
Even the greatest hero of all, Achilles, did not come forth readily. His mother, Thetis, a goddess herself, realized the fate in store for Achilles if he went to war. She tried to hide him among the women, dressed as a young girl. But Odysseus, now won over to the cause, found him out by going to the women in the guise of a merchant. He mixed arms with the female jewelry he was selling. When Achilles handled the armor and not the jewels, Odysseus knew him at once and persuaded him to join the expedition.
Agamemnon was chosen leader of the Greeks. Other Greek heroes included Ajax, Diomed, and Nestor. The Trojans had many famous warriors on their side, too. Foremost was Hector, generous and noble. Others were Aeneas, Deiphobus, and Sarpedon. Aenea, according to legend, was to be the founder of Rome. For the story has it that after the Trojan War, he left and landed eventually in Italy, where he became a leader. The Roman writer Virgil’s epic tale, the Aeneid, is the story of his adventures.
After many adventures the heroes landed at Troy and fought bitterly for nine long years without victory. There was a legend that Troy would not be taken before two famous Greek leaders disagreed. The disagreement came in the tenth year. This disagreement is the subject of Homer’s Iliad, the companion epic to the Odyssey.
During the nine years the Greeks plundered many of the Trojans allies, though they had been unable to touch Troy itself. On one of their expeditions they had taken many captives among them a maiden named Chryseis. She fell to Agamemnon as part of the spoils. But her father, a priest of Apollo, prayed for vengeance. The god Apollo heard his prayer and sent a pestilence upon the Greeks.
In the midst of the plague Achilles accused Agamemnon of being the cause of their bad luck by his refusal to yield Chryseis. Agamemnon agreed at last to yield the girl, but he angrily demanded instead one of Achilles’ captives. Achilles submitted to his commander-in-chief, but declared his part in the war was over. He withdrew to his tents in a rage.
Fortune began to turn against the Greeks. Without Achilles the attackers found themselves handicapped. In a bitter two-day battle the gods and goddesses took sides, some with the Greeks, others with the Trojans. The Trojan Hector performed many feats of valor, as the fight grew more bitter.
Events turned from bad to worse for the Greeks. In desperation Patroclus, Achilles’ closest friend, appealed to Achilles. The great hero relented a bit, allowing Patroclus to wear his armor and lead his men into battle. In the thick of the fight Patroclus met Hector and was slain. Hector took the armor as spoils of the war.
The death of Achilles’ friend accomplished what all the pleadings of the Greeks had not done. Achilles agreed to return to the conflict, arrayed in a new suit of armor. His revenge was terrible, for he singled out Hector and slew him. To add shame, he dragged the body of Hector before the eyes of the Trojans. At last Priam, the old king of Troy, father of Hector, went to beg Hector’s body for decent burial. Moved by the sight of the old man, Achilles granted his request. So ends the Iliad. But other legends complete the story of the Trojan War.
Achilles in turn was slain by Paris, who was himself killed soon after. Odysseus and Ajax contested possession of the famous armor of Achilles. When the prize was awarded to Odysseus, Ajax killed himself. The Odyssey tells Odysseus’ meeting with Ajax’s unforgiving spirit.
THE WOODEN HORSE Troy was finally taken by a trick, not by force. Odysseus advised the Greeks to build a huge, hollow wooden horse. Inside he put a group of fighting men, armed to the teeth. The rest of the Greeks pretended to sail away. The Trojans rushed from the city, jubilant at the disappearance of the Greeks. One priest, Laocoon, urged the destruction of the horse. He cast his spear at the horse, and it sent forth hollow sound. The Trojans might have followed his advice, but just then a captive was brought in. the captive was a Greek, who had been left behind through the malice of Odysseus he said! He declared that the horse was an offering to Athena, that it had been made too big to be carried inside the city. If the Trojans were able to get it inside, he said, then they’d surely triumph over the Greeks.
The Trojans wavered. To make their deception complete, two huge sea serpents, sent by god, slithered over the sands and devoured Laocoon with his sons. The Trojans hesitated no longer, thinking Laocoon’s fate an omen. They managed to get the horse into the city, and spent the evening in celebration. In the middle of the night the Greeks poured forth from the Horse and opened the city’s gates. The rest of the Greek army poured into the city. Troy was completely destroyed.
A few of the Trojans were made captive. The rest were slain. Then the Greeks prepared to go home after ten years. Menelaus returned with Helen. We meet the two, apparently completely happy, on page 115 of the Odyssey. Agamemnon took the captive Trojan maiden Cassandra with him, and set out. His fate is described by his spirit on page 71. Odysseus left with his ten ships, but was destined to reach home without a ship, without a comrade. The story of his adventure is the magnificent story of the Odyssey.