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Greek Legend: the Iliad

Background: The Historical Basis of the Trojan War


The blind poet Homer is thought to be the author of the Iliad. For centuries many scholars
believed that the Trojan War and its participants were entirely the creation of his imagination;
but in the late 19th century, an archaeologist declared that he had discovered the remnants of
Troy. The ruins that he uncovered sit a few dozen miles off of the Aegean coast in northwestern
Turkey, a site that fits the geographical descriptions of Homer’s Troy. One layer of the site,
roughly matching the point in history when the fall of Troy would have taken place, shows
evidence of fire and destruction consistent with a sack. Many scholars now believe that there
was a Trojan War, although there is no way to determine just how much of the Iliad is factual
and how much Homer added to create a great story.
Background: The Mythical Cause of the Trojan War
According to myth, the Trojan War was caused by a beauty competition among the three top
goddesses, Athena, Aphrodite and Hera. The goddesses wished to have an impartial person
judge who was most beautiful. They chose Paris, the son of the king of Troy who was thought to
be very wise. Despite their claim to want a impartial judge, the goddesses decided not to play
fair and bribed Paris with various offerings. Athena offered great wisdom and skill in battle. Hera
offered him a high kingship above men. Aphrodite offered the love of the most beautiful woman
on earth. Paris could not resist Aphrodite’s offer and declared her the most beautiful goddess.
Unfortunately, there was a problem. The most beautiful woman on earth, Helen, was already
married to Menelaus, the Greek king of Sparta. This did not stop Paris who went to Sparta and
kidnapped her. The Trojan War was essentially started by this kidnapping because the Greeks
sailed to Troy to retrieve Helen and to avenge this attack on the honor of Greece.
Background: The Mythical Story of Achille’s Heel
Achilles, the Iliad’s main character, was the son of the sea-nymph Thetis and the mortal
King Peleus. Thetis tried to make her young son immortal by dipping him in the river Styx, but
where she held his heel remained dry and became his defenseless spot. When Achilles was
preparing to leave for the Trojan War, his mother told him he was prophesied to die in battle.
She advised him to stay home, but he ignored her advice.
Summary of the Iliad
Nine years after the start of the Trojan War, the Greek army sacks Chryse, a town allied
with Troy. The Greeks take everything of value from the town, with Agamemnon claiming the
greatest share as the leader of the army. During the battle, the Greeks capture a pair of
beautiful maidens, Chryseis and Brieis. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, takes
Chryseis as his prize, and Achilles, the Greeks’ greatest warrior, claims Briseis. Chryseis’s
father, a priest of the god Apollo, offers an enormous ransom in return for his daughter, but
Agamemnon refuses to give Chryseis back. The father then prays to Apollo, who sends a
plague upon the Greek camp.
After many Greeks die, Agamemnon consults a prophet to determine the cause of the
plague. When he learns that Chryseis is the cause, he reluctantly gives her up but then
demands Briseis from Achilles. Furious at this insult, Achilles returns to his tent and refuses to
fight in the war any longer. He vengefully yearns to see the Greeks destroyed and asks his
mother to get Zeus to make this happen. The Trojan and Greek sides have declared a cease-
fire with each other, but the Trojans breaks the treaty and ask Zeus to come to their aid.
To help the Trojans, as promised, Zeus sends a false dream to Agamemnon in which a
figure in the form of Hector (the mightiest Trojan warrior) persuades Agamemnon that the
Greeks can take Troy if he launches a full-scale assault on the city’s walls. The next day,
Agamemnon gathers his troops for attack, but, to test their courage, he lies and tells them that
he has decided to give up the war and return to Greece. To his dismay, they eagerly run to their
ships. When Hera sees the Greeks fleeing, she alerts Athena, who inspires Odysseus, the most
persuasive of the Greeks, to call the men back. He shouts words of encouragement and insult to
raise their pride and restore their confidence. They promise that they will not abandon their
struggle until Troy falls.
The Trojan army marches from the city gates and advances to meet the Greeks. Paris, the
Trojan prince who caused the war by stealing the Helen from her husband Menelaus,
challenges the Greeks to single combat with any of their warriors. When Menelaus steps
forward, however, Paris loses heart and shrinks back into the Trojan ranks. Hector, Paris’s
brother and the leader of the Trojan forces, criticizes Paris for his cowardice. Stung by Hector’s
insult, Paris finally agrees to a duel with Menelaus, declaring that the contest will establish
peace between Trojans and Greeks by deciding once and for all which man shall have Helen as
his wife. Hector presents the terms to Menelaus, who accepts. Both armies look forward to
ending the war at last.
Paris and Menelaus begin their duel. Neither is able to fell the other with his spear.
Menelaus breaks his sword over Paris’s helmet. He then grabs Paris by the helmet and begins
dragging him through the dirt, but Aphrodite snaps the strap of the helmet so that it breaks off in
Menelaus’ hands. Frustrated, Menelaus retrieves his spear and is about to drive it home into
Paris when Aphrodite whisks Paris away to his room in the palace. Back on the battlefield, both
the Trojans and the Greeks search for Paris, who seems to have magically disappeared.
Agamemnon insists that Menelaus has won the duel, and he demands Helen back.
Meanwhile, the gods engage in their own duels. Zeus argues that Menelaus has lost the
duel and that the war should end as the mortals had agreed. Hera, who has invested much in
the Greek cause, wants nothing less than the destruction of Troy. Zeus gives in, and Athena
goes to the battlefield to rekindle the fighting. Disguised as a Trojan soldier, Athena convinces
another soldier to take aim at Menelaus. He fires, but Athena, (who just wants to give the
Greeks an excuse to fight) deflects the arrow so that it only wounds Menelaus.
In the days ahead, with Zeus supporting the Trojans and Achilles refusing to fight, the
Greeks suffer great losses. The Trojans push the Greeks back, forcing them to hide behind the
walls that protect their ships. Several Greek commanders become wounded, and the Trojans
break through the Greek walls. They advance all the way up to the boundary of the Greek camp,
and Hector sets fire to one of the ships. Defeat seems certain because without the ships, the
army will be stranded at Troy and almost certainly destroyed.
That night, the Greek troops sit brokenhearted in their camp. Standing before them,
Agamemnon weeps and declares the war a failure. He proposes returning to Greece in
disgrace. Diomedes rises and insists that he fight even if everyone else leaves. He cheers up
the soldiers by reminding them that Troy is fated to fall. Nestor urges determination as well and
suggests reunion with Achilles. Seeing the wisdom of this idea, Agamemnon decides to offer
Achilles a great stockpile of gifts on the condition that he return to the fight.
Concerned for his comrades but still too proud to help them himself, Achilles agrees to a
plan that will allow his close friend Patroclus to take his place in battle, wearing his armor.
Patroclus is a fine warrior, and his presence on the battlefield helps the Greeks push the Trojans
away from the ships and back to the city walls. However, the counterattack soon falters when
Apollo knocks Patroclus’ armor to the ground, and Hector (the mightiest Trojan warrior) slays
him. Fighting then breaks out as both sides try to lay claim to the body and armor. Hector ends
up with the armor, but the Greeks manage to bring the body back to their camp. When Achilles
discovers that Hector has killed Patroclus, he feels such grief and rage that he agrees to
reconcile with Agamemnon and rejoin the battle. Achilles’ mother goes to Mount Olympus and
persuades the Hephaestus to forge Achilles a new suit of armor, which she presents to him the
next morning. Achilles then rides out to battle at the head of the Greek army.
Meanwhile, Hector, not expecting Achilles to rejoin the battle, has ordered his men to camp
outside the walls of Troy. When the Trojan army sees Achilles, it flees in terror back behind the
city walls. Achilles cuts down every Trojan he sees. Strengthened by his rage, he even fights the
god of the river Xanthus, who is angered that Achilles has caused so many corpses to fall into
his streams. Finally, Achilles confronts Hector outside the walls of Troy. Ashamed at the poor
advice that he gave his comrades, Hector refuses to flee inside the city with them. Achilles
chases him around the city’s wall three times, but the goddess Athena finally tricks Hector into
turning around and fighting Achilles. In a dramatic duel, Achilles kills Hector. He then lashes the
body to the back of his chariot and drags it across the battlefield to the Greek camp. Upon
Achilles’ arrival, the triumphant Greeks celebrate Patroclus’ funeral with a long series of athletic
games in his honor. Each day for the next nine days, Achilles drags Hector’s body in circles
around Patroclus’ body.
At last, the gods agree that Hector deserves a proper burial. Zeus sends the god Hermes to
escort King Priam, Hector’s father and the ruler of Troy, into the Greek camp. Priam tearfully
pleads with Achilles to take pity on a father grieving over his son’s death and to return Hector’s
body. Deeply moved, Achilles finally agrees and returns Hector’s corpse to the Trojans. Both
sides agree to a temporary truce, and Hector receives a hero’s funeral.
The End of the War
The Trojan War has not yet ended at the close of the Iliad. Homer’s audience would have
been familiar with the struggle’s conclusion. Here are a few of the events they would have
known that happen after the Iliad ends.
The Death of Achilles and Ajax
In the final books of the Iliad, Achilles refers frequently to his forthcoming death, about
which his mother has warned him. After the end of the poem, at Hector’s funeral feast, Achilles
sights the beautiful Polyxena, the daughter of Priam and hence a princess of Troy. Taken with
her beauty, Achilles falls in love with her. Hoping to marry her, he agrees to use his influence
with the Greek army to bring about an end to the war. However, when he travels to the temple of
Apollo to arrange for the peace, Paris shoots him in the heel—the only defenseless part of his
body—with a poisoned arrow, and he dies. After Achilles’ death, two of the greatest Greek
heroes, Ajax and Odysseus, recover his body. Achilles’ mother instructs the Greeks to give
Achilles’ magnificent armor, forged by the god Hephaestus, to the most worthy hero. Both Ajax
and Odysseus want the armor; when it is awarded to Odysseus, Ajax commits suicide out of
humiliation.
The Fall of Troy
The Greek commanders are nearly ready to give up; nothing can penetrate the massive
walls of Troy. However, before they lose heart, Odysseus comes up with a plan that will allow
them to bypass the walls of the city completely. The Greeks build a massive, hollow, wooden
horse, large enough to hold a group of warriors inside. Odysseus and a group of soldiers hide in
the horse, while the rest of the Greeks burn their camps and sail away from Troy, waiting in their
ships behind a nearby island.
The next morning, the Trojans discover the gigantic, mysterious horse and a lone Greek
soldier named Sinon, whom they take prisoner. As instructed by Odysseus, Sinon tells them that
the Greeks have angered Athena and left Sinon as a sacrifice to the goddess and constructed
the horse as a gift to soothe her temper. Sinon explains that the Greeks left the horse at the
gates in hopes that the Trojans would destroy it and thereby earn the wrath of Athena.
Believing Sinon’s story, the Trojans wheel the massive horse into the city as a tribute to
Athena. That night, Odysseus and his men slip out of the horse, kill the Trojan guards, and fling
open the gates of Troy to the Greek army, which has meanwhile approached the city again.
Having at last penetrated the wall, the Greeks kill the citizens of Troy, steal the city’s riches, and
burn the buildings to the ground. All of the Trojan men are killed except for a small group led by
Aeneas, who escapes. Helen, whose loyalties have shifted back to the Greeks since Paris’s
death, returns to Menelaus, and the Greeks at last set sail for home.
Greek Folk Tale: King Midas
King Midas was a very kind man who ruled his kingdom fairly, but he was not one to think
very deeply about what he said. One day, while walking in his garden, he saw an elderly satyr
(part man and part goat) asleep in the flowers. Taking pity on the old fellow, King Midas let him
go without punishment. Now Silenus, the right-hand satyr to the god Dionysus, was grateful to
the king for treating him with dignity, and so was Dionysus. The god was so pleased, in fact, that
he offered to grant whatever Midas should wish for.
Midas didn't have to think twice. He asked that everything he touch be turned to gold so
that he could constantly replenish the royal treasury. Arching a eyebrow, Dionysus asked Midas
if he was sure that this was what he truly wanted. Midas gave his assurance, so Dionysus
waved his pinebranch scepter to grant the wish.
Midas rushed back home to try it out this new power. Hesitantly at first, he laid a trembling
fingertip upon a bowl of fruit and then a stool and then a wooly lamb. When each of these had
been changed into purest gold, the king began to dance around with joy. "Just look at this!" he
exclaimed, turning his chariot into a glittering mass of priceless-though-worthless transportation.
In his excitement he reached for his young daughter’s hand to lead her into the garden for a
lesson in making dewy nature gleam with a monotonous but more valuable sheen. Encountering
unexpected resistance, he swung about to see why his daughter was being so slow. He was
dismayed when he saw a life-size golden statue where before his child had been.
Midas realized why Dionysus had questioned his choice. He couldn't touch any useful object
without it losing in utility what it gained in monetary value. He couldn’t eat because with his
touch his food grew rigid and his drink hardened into golden ice. He began to regret this gift and
to loathe gold. He prayed to Dionysus, begging to be delivered from starvation. Dionysus heard
and consented; he told Midas to wash in the river Pactolus. He did so; and when he touched
the waters, the riverbed became laced with gold.
Midas, now hating wealth and splendor, moved to the country and became a worshipper of
Pan, the god of the fields. One day, Pan had the nerve to compare his music with that of Apollo
and to challenge Apollo to a contest of skill. Tmolus, the mountain-god, was chosen as umpire.
Pan blew on his pipes and and was greatly satisfied with his performance as was his faithful
follower, Midas, who happened to be present. Then Apollo struck the strings of his lyre. Tmolus
at once awarded the victory to Apollo, and all but Midas agreed with the judgment. The angered
Apollo decided Midas’ ears must be impaired, so he turns then into donkey ears.
Midas was horrified and attempted to hide his misfortune under an ample turban. Still, his
hairdresser knew the secret. Though told not to mention it, he felt compelled to voice his
knowledge. The hairdresser went out into the meadow, dug a hole in the ground, whispered the
story into it, and covered the hole up. A thick bed of reeds sprang up in the meadow and began
whispering the story, saying "King Midas has a donkey's ears." Some of his people heard and
began to gossip about it. Midas found out who had told and was going to kill him, but he
decided not to since the hairdresser had not meant to do him harm. Apollo then came and gave
him normal ears again, as he had shown that he had gained wisdom from his experiences.

Comparison and Contrast of Midas Stories


Despite major differences in the two versions, the key events in are the same: Midas
provides the satyr Silenus with hospitality which causes the god Dionysus to offers him a reward
of his choice. Midas selects the ability to turn everything he touches to gold. The gift becomes a
nightmare. His child is changed to gold, and he realizes he can no longer eat or drink because
liquid and food become gold upon his touch. He requests deliverance and receives it.
King Midas (above version)
This version of the story of Midas can be classified as a folk tale because the focus is on
revealing something about human nature rather than explaining how humans should behave to
please the gods or how the system of rewards and punishments works. The religious myths
most often have an obvious message as in the case of the book version which shows that the
arrogant, power-hungry, greedy king is taught how to behave to please the gods.
The above version of the story is more complicated. Midas is a good man who is kind and
fair. He is not arrogant and does not desire to be envied or to be the most wealthy and powerful
king on earth. He wants the touch so that he has enough wealth to rule his kingdom without
worry. Unfortunately, he has a very human flaw, a flaw that the Ancient Greeks considered very
dangerous. Dionysus tries to get him to rethink his choice, but he rashly sticks to his selection.
This decision costs him greatly. He suffers and loses his daughter and his splendid home. Later,
his rashness causes him to make another mistake, this time angering a major god. He chooses
Pan as the most skilled musician over the powerful god Apollo. If he had thought this through,
he would have realized how it would cost him to injure the ego of an Olympian god.
The next time he makes a decision, he thinks before he acts. At first, he wants to gain
revenge by killing the hairdresser. However, he doesn’t commit this act because he takes the
time to analyze the situation. He sees that the hairdresser did not mean for others to find out his
secret and doesn’t deserve to pay the ultimate price for his error in judgment. Because he has
overcome this character flaw, Apollo gives him back his human ears. It’s important to note that
Midas did not have to declare Apollo the better musician to get back his ears. That would have
put the focus on the relationship between humans and the gods and been more typical of the
ending of a pure myth.
It’s also important to note that the story doesn’t end with Midas’ life being restored to what it
was before the gift. He doesn’t return home, and his child is still dead. This version shows that
humans risk danger by acting rashly. Such behavior can cause them problems with other
humans and the gods. He has gained wisdom and overcome the flaw in his nature, but he has
had to suffer hardships through difficult and costly experiences to do so.

King Midas and the Golden Touch (text version – p. 560)


This version of the story of Midas can be classified as both a scientific and religious myth.
The story provides an explanation for why the sands of the river Pactolus bear gold. As a
religuous myth, it teaches humans how to behave to please the gods: they should be satisfied
with what they have and not become greedy or power hungry. The message is very clear
because it is basically stated in the last paragraph when Midas says he has learned his lesson
to be content with what he has.
The Midas we meet at the beginning of the story is not an evil man but clearly not a good
man. He is a king with a beautiful garden, a splendid palace, a loving wife, and an adoring child.
Still, he is not content. He wants to be the richest and most powerful king in the world. He wants
to be envied by all people. His arrogance is shown in his initial treatment of the satyr Silenus.
Even when the gardener’s boy tells him that this satyr belongs to the god Dionysus, he isn’t
worried about offending Dionysus by not treating Silenus with respect. He wants to send word
to Dionysus of the satyr’s offense in trespassing on his property so that Dionysus will punish
him. Had he done so, Dionysus would have probably been unhappy with Midas. He only avoids
making this mistake because Sinenus offers to entertain him with strange and wonderful tales.
In other words, he sees how it will benefit him to not tell Dionysus of the satyr’s offense.
Even though he takes 24 hours to decide on the gift, he still makes a foolish request. He
immediately begins to doubt his gift when he sees his golden garden has lost its beauty and
fragrance. He realizes the touch will lead to starvation. He tried to avoid contact with his
daughter, but the affectionate child hugs him and becomes a statue. When he goes to
Dionysus’ temple, he confesses his greed and promises to do anything to get his child back.
Because he has learned his lesson, Midas is given instructions for how to be freed of the curse.
He follows the instructions and returns home joyfully to his restored daughter and garden. He
announces that he has learned his lesson of being content with his life.