The only thing you really need to know about the Trojan War is that it was fought over a woman. Scorned. And if hell hath no fury like that wrath, just imagine if the woman in question is a goddess (and aren’t they all?) – what a terrible tale of erupted destructive hatred it could tell.
Seriously, The Iliad isn’t about what you think it is: the battles and tactics, weapons and scrimmaged blood-smatterings of tribes and diatribes about war and conquest. But rather it’s about jealousy and greed, spite and boasting, the honor and shame of flesh and bloodied princes of men, petty in their smallness, and kingdoms won and lost by treachery and sins of pride. And it’s so elegantly written, transcendent in its bellowing aliveness, in its thrusting bulge of emotions, which is why it’s still so relevant and loved. I was surprised at how touching and personal it is – how obvious and flawed and recognizable the heroes and villains are. It’s an astounding story, a series of astonishing and inspiring prescriptives, full of caveats and heartbreaking truths on how to live, right, right up there in magnitude and breadth with The Bible.
I thought, laughably, that I was going to be able to sum it up in a blog post or two, but that ain’t gonna happen. I’m now of the mind that I’ll write a bunch about it, at different times and as other books and themes remind me to come back to this almost infinite wellspring of conflict and understanding. Where to start? Zeus became King of the Gods by overthrowing his father, Cronos, who had become king by overthrowing his father Uranus. He married his half-sister Hera. But the mightiest of the mighty was afraid that the world had become too populated, and he thought war was an efficient, Darwinian method of culling the herd, so-to-speak. So he held a banquet in celebration of the marriage between Peleus, King of Phthia, and Thetis, daughter of Proteus, an early prophetic sea-god, but didn’t invite Eris, the Goddess of Discord. In revenge she threw the Apple of Discord, inscribed “To the Fairest” through the closed gates, which started a vicious quarrel between Hera, Zeus’ aforementioned wife, Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and War, and Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty. You can imagine.
Hermes, Zeus’s messenger, brought the three to Paris to be the judge since there wasn’t a chance in hell Zeus was going to embark on that suicide mission. Paris was raised by shepherds and didn’t know he was actually King Priam’s son – he was sent away as an infant because it was prophesied that he would be the downfall of Troy. He eventually picked Aphrodite as the fairest, and she promised Queen Helen of Sparta, Menelaus’ wife, the daughter of Zeus and Leda, of swan fame, as his prize.
Paris then went on a “diplomatic mission” to Sparta to abduct Helen, but there are several conflicting stories and variations about this. Some say she was raped and went with Paris kicking and screaming; some say after being shot with an arrow from Cupid’s bow, Helen fell in love with him and went more-than-willingly. Whatever the case may be, a delegation from the Acheans led by Odysseus and Menelaus travelled to Troy but failed to persuade King Priam to force his son to hand Helen back. The only recourse left was war, because all of Helen’s previous suitors, who represented the lion’s share of Achaea’s wealth and military prowess, had pledged to Tyndareus, Helen’s father, to defend her marriage, whoever she chose, and Menelaus invoked the oath upon her abduction. Thus Christopher Marlowe’s lines from his tragedy Doctor Faustus: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium (Troy)?” still echo true and captivate, undiminished down through the centuries and synapses.
In the meantime Peleus and Thetis had a son, Achilles, who was dipped in the river Styx by his mother to make him invulnerable, which he was. Except for his heel, which she held him by to nip him in. It was prophesized that Troy wouldn’t fall without his help, and that he would die a young hero on the battlefield.
The historicity of Troy is not in dispute – there was no such place, at least not as described by Homer. Yes, a few socks-and-sandals ivory-tower archeologist types will dispute this, with their dusty pottery and government funded putterings as proof, but what is important is what it represented, figuratively – the Homeric ideal of order, culture, prosperity and peace – essentially the proud height of civilization up to then. Priam’s kingdom was peaceful and sophisticated, well-run, and enviably wealthy. Prince Hector, the dauphin, was happily married to Andromach, and their idyllic domesticity was completed with the birth of their son Astyanax. Hector is widely-acknowledged as the best all-around and most-admired man in The Iliad.
The three kingdoms that made up the Achean (Greek) side were Sparta, Mycenae, and Ithica, and they were belligerent and aggressive in their temperament and outlook. And bellicose in their envy and fear of Troy’s wealth. Thucydides, who I’ve mentioned before, opined on what has since become known as The Thucydides Trap, which states, essentially: When a new power threatens to overtake an existing power, war is almost always inevitable. This is a truism that has been proven correct over the years and centuries, with a few notable exceptions, and this first time formulated proved the rule. The Acheans prepared for and declared war on Troy, with a sign from (and the blessing of) Hera, Queen of the Gods, who wanted to take her revenge on Paris for shaming her, and destroy all Trojans, guilty by association in her inextinguishable and overarching anger.
Homer says that “No civilization, no matter how rich, no matter how refined, can long survive once it loses the power to meet force with equal or superior force.” Was Troy up to the challenge? Hector gathered the Trojan troops and prepared for the siege, but the problem with affluent societies, including and up to ours today, is that they become complacent and therapeutic. They can usually no longer muster the strength or the will to believe that men have evil intent, and that Achilles, who led the Acheans, was full of gargantuan genius and unflinching purpose, bent on total and merciless destruction. By his fiery temperament, suicidal bravery, and fierce talents, he was perfectly tuned to be the greatest warrior the world had ever known.
They fight for a total of ten years, and the book takes place in the last year of the war. It begins with the Goddess singing the “rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Acheans countless losses” when “the two first broke and clashed,/Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.” What happened was simple: Chryses, the Trojan priest went to Agamemnon with “a priceless ransom” to win his daughter Chryseis, who was captured in battle, back, but Agamemnon refused to give her up. This angered Apollo who was Chryses’ guardian and protector, so he used his powers to help the Trojans who then, inspired, surged and started defeating the Acheans. Achilles and the rest of the troops pleaded with Agamemnon to give the girl back and stop the slaughter, which he finally did, grudgingly. But since Achilles was so vocal in his argument about Chryseis being just another girl and not worth fighting over, Agamemnon demanded that Achilles give him his war bride, Briseis, to make up for his loss of Chryseis. This enraged Achilles, and the book begins here.
What Achilles does next is understandable for any four year old – he literally goes crying to his mother, Thetis. He tells her he’s not going to fight for the Acheans anymore unless Agamemnon apologizes and gives him his war booty bride back. He weeps and she weeps, and he tells her to go to Zeus and plead with him to give the Trojans his favor so that they start defeating the Acheans. Once Agamemnon realizes the Acheans are going to lose the war, he’ll beg Achilles to come back to save them from defeat. It’s all pretty second-grade stuff, but that’s exactly the kind of behavior that happens throughout the next five or six hundred pages. Achilles only overcomes his pride and resumes the battle to avenge the death of his best friend Patroclus, not out of any sense of duty to his troops, his king, or his country. Everything, even in war, is personal.
So Thetis goes up to Mount Olympus to plead with Zeus, who owes her a favor because if I remember correctly she somehow saved his life once, to bring his wrath down upon the Acheans, because of how dishonorably and callously Agamemnon had shamed her son. Zeus is empathetic but is loathe to do anything to help the Trojans because his wife hates them, and he’s afraid of her. He tells Thetis: “Disaster. You will drive me into war with Hera. She will provoke me, she with her shrill abuse. Even now in the face of all the immortal gods she harries me perpetually.” So even Zeus, king of the gods, is a henpecked wreck in his own house.
But he eventually bowed his head, and it was done.
The battle continues, back and forth, but the troops are ground down to a grisly stalemate and a temporary truce is called. Menelaus and Paris agree to fight each other man-to-man to decide the outcome of the war, instead of sacrificing hundreds if not thousands more of their own men in senseless and exhausting slaughter. They engage in a fierce mano a mano, and Paris, gravely wounded, is spirited away at the last possible moment back to the safety of Troy by his protectress Aphrodite, thus ending the fight in a kind of forfeited draw. Calm descends, and it seems like the war is all but over.
But Athena, in ecstatic cahoots with the scheming and ever-resourceful and clever Hera, flies down to the Trojan camp and seeks out the skilled archer Pandarus. She appeals to his vanity and tempts him with eternal glory if he shoots and kills Agamemnon with one of his thunderous arrows. Pandarus takes aim and mortally wounds Agamemnon, but Athena flies to Agamemnon’s side and uses her powers to heal him. However, the truce has been broken, and so the Acheans pick up their weapons once again, and the battle resumes. Treachery, ego, deceit, perfidy, but also honor, courage, loyalty – this is what The Iliad is all about. Human truths that are curative, offering a guide to right living, just like The Bible. And they’re as valid and instructive today as they were two thousand years ago because people haven’t changed, and even though most us don’t want to hear or believe it, life is tragic, not therapeutic. Read the chapter “Helen Reviews the Champions” and if your heart doesn’t melt into pathetic pile of sobbing goo when you realize that she’s telling Priam that the brave men arrayed against them, bent on the absolute destruction of Troy, are her friends, and fathers and sons of friends, and former suitors, feral and awfully intent on the killing and carnage of all and everyone that they now both hold dear, then you don’t have one.
We all know the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors as told in Genesis 37: he was the favorite son of Jacob and Rachel and was sold into slavery for twenty pieces of silver by his jealous brothers, and then went on to become, essentially, pharaoh of Egypt. It’s the story of sibling rivalry and treachery, of courage and integrity in the face of overwhelming odds, and finally forgiveness and redemption. There’s a similar story of betrayal in The Iliad: Bellerophon is lusted after by King Proetus’ wife, Antea, and when he rebuffs her advances she goes and tells her husband that he is lustily pursuing her, and that she is afraid. Proetus sends Bellerophon to Antea’s father, Iobates, the King of Lycia, for punishment. Instead of just killing him, the King sends Bellerophon on a suicidal mission to kill the Chimera, a dangerous monster with the head of a lion and the tail of a serpent. Bellerophon tames Pegasus, the winged horse, and together they are able to slay the dreaded and feared beast. The King then orders him to fight the Amazons, a tribe of fearsome female warriors, whom he defeats, and then the Solymi tribesmen. He vanquishes them in turn, too.
Iobates realizes the tremendous character and outstanding talents of Bellerophon, and suspects the treachery of his daughter, Antea. He bestows upon Bellerophon half his kingdom, and gives him his daughter’s hand in marriage. It’s not clear whether it’s Antea or another daughter, but for pure poetic justice let’s assume it’s Antea’s sister. This is one of the earliest incarnations of probably the most important myth in Western Civilization – Saint George and the Dragon is the archetype – the classic hero’s journey of venturing, unwillingly or unwittingly into the unknown, overcoming your fears as embodied in some form of vileness or danger, slaying them, metaphorically speaking, and then being worthy of your own admiration. You marry the princess. We’ll presume you live happily ever after.
Photo: Nikolay Ge, Achilles Mourns the Death of Patroclus