Your Kingdom for a Horse

04 24 burning of troyA couple of days ago, I talked about Rome and mentioned briefly that one of its supposed founders, Aeneas, had fled from Troy following the Trojan War. Well, today is the traditional date given for the fall of that city, in the year 1184 BC. The Trojan War is a massively important event in the mythology of the ancient Greeks. It involves so many gods from the Greek pantheon and so many beings that are half human and half divine that for hundreds years nobody really believed that it had happened in the first place. Now, we think that it does contain at least a grain of truth. I’m not going to tell you any events of the war in great detail, because there are too many names, too many different versions and it would get confusing.

So, the Trojan war supposedly happened because Zeus thought there were far too many people in the world. Particularly, far too many of his demi-god children. Zeus had become king of the gods by overthrowing his father Cronus, who had become king by overthrowing his father Uranus. He did not want the same thing to happen to him. There was also a prophecy that one of his lovers, a sea-nymph called Thetis, would give birth to a divine child that would overthrow him. To stop this from happening he had her married off to a human, a king called Peleus. It was at their wedding that the trouble really started.

04 24 wedding of peleus and thetis

All the gods and goddesses had been invited except for Eris, the goddess of discord. Keeping discord out of a wedding is, of course, desirable but not always possible. She turned up and was stopped at the door, but she still managed to throw in her wedding gift, the Apple of Discord. It carried an inscription which said it was a gift ‘to the fairest’. Of course, then there was a huge row about which of them was the most beautiful. Having narrowed it down to Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, they asked a human too choose. They chose Paris, who was visiting from Troy. Athena offered him wisdom, Hera offered him power and Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. He chose Aphrodite and she offered him Helen. Unfortunately, there was a problem. Helen was already married to King Menelaus. But Aphrodite was angry with Menelaus because he had promised, when he married Helen, to sacrifice a hundred oxen to the goddess, but then forgotten about it.

Of course the gods get what they want, so Helen fell in love with Paris and, after some adventures, he took her back to Troy. Loads of men in Greece loved Helen, many had wanted to marry her, but when Menelaus was chosen, they swore to protect her. So that was when 1,200 Greek ships set sail for Troy to get her back. Some tried to break their promise. The king of Cyprus had promise fifty ships, but sent only one real ship and forty-nine made out of clay. Odysseus, who had just got married himself, tried to convince everyone, unsuccessfully, that he was mad by sowing his fields with salt. Then there was Achilles, he was the son of Thetis and Pelius. His mother disguised him as a girl so he wouldn’t have to go. But Achilles was quite the warrior. He wasn’t very good at being the sort of girl that was expected of him and soon gave himself away.

04 24 achilles

Achilles’ mother knew about the prophecy that had bothered Zeus and she tried very hard to make him divine. In one story, she smeared him with ambrosia and held him over a fire to try and burn away the parts of him that were human. Her husband caught her and stopped her. Apparently she had already killed several of her sons this way. In another, she dipped him in the river Styx to make him invulnerable, but he still had one weak point where she held him by the heel. His Achilles Heel.

The Greeks besieged the city of Troy for ten years. Loads of Heroes died, sometimes they were killed by their own side. Everyone got very fed up and then Odysseus had his idea about the horse. The horse was the symbol of Troy so they quite liked them. The Greeks built a giant horse, then they burned their camps and pretended to go home, leaving the horse and a single soldier called Sinon to explain that was a gift for Athena. A couple of people were quite suspicious of the horse. There was a man called Laocoön who said that he didn’t trust any Greeks, even if they did bring presents. He tried to stab the horse with a spear but the god Poseidon sent a sea serpent to strangle him. Then there was Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy. She had been blessed with the gift of prophecy and tried to tell everyone that the horse would bring about the downfall of the city. Unfortunately she was also cursed. Her curse was that no one would ever believe her. Both these things were very unfortunate for the Trojans, as there were actually thirty soldiers, incuding Odysseus hiding inside the horse.

04 24 trojan horse

They dragged the horse into the city, gave it a big party and then went to bed. That was when Odysseus and his soldiers climbed out and let the rest of the Greek Army, who hadn’t gone home at all, into the city and they completely destroyed it. They captured Helen and took her home. She and Menelaus didn’t really live happily ever after. In fact, he was pretty sorry about the whole thing. During the attack on Troy, the Greeks had behaved appalingly, they burned loads of temples and the Gods were very upset. They wreaked their revenge and hardly any of the Greeks involved in the Trojan War ever made it home. Or if they did, it took them a really, really long time. Some were killed, some founded other colonies elsewhere. Many european rulers have claimed descent from the survivors of the Trojan War. Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, the Habsburgs, even our own Royal Family.

But, by the 1870s, pretty much everyone thought that the whole thing was complete made up nonsense and there was never even any such place. But then, a man called Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ruins of a Bronze age city exactly where Troy was supposed to be. Since then, several cities have been identified on the same site. Troy has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. But at some point, possibly in the thirteenth century BC, it certainly looks as though it was destroyed by a war.

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