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A father’s hands
Stained with dark streams flowing
From blood of a girl. . . .
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In her portrayal of the Trojan War, Hamilton borrows from Homer’s Iliad, Apollodorus, Greek tragedies, and Virgil's Aeneid. The war has its roots in the wedding of King Peleus and the sea- nymph Thetis. When the gods decide not to invite Eris, she is angered and introduces Discord to the banquet hall in the form of a golden apple inscribed with the words “For the Fairest.” The vain goddesses argue over who deserves the apple, and the field is narrowed down to Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite. Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy, is selected to judge. All three try to bribe Paris: Hera offers power, Athena offers success in battle, and Aphrodite offers the most beautiful woman in the world—Paris chooses Aphrodite.
Unfortunately, the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, is already married to King Menelaus of Sparta. Visiting Menelaus, Paris, with Aphrodite’s help, betrays his host’s hospitality and kidnaps Helen back to Troy. All the Greek kings have at one time courted Helen, so her mother has made them all swear to always support whomever she might choose. When Helen is abducted, the only men who resist conscription are Odysseus, who does not want to leave his home and family, and Achilles, whose mother knows he is fated to die at Troy and holds him back. In the end, however, they join the rest of the Greeks and sail united against Troy. En route, the fleet angers Artemis, who stops the winds from blowing. To appease her, the chief of the Greeks, Agamemnon, is forced to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia.
The battle goes back and forth for nine years. The Trojans, led by Priam’s son, Hector, finally gain an advantage when Agamemnon kidnaps the daughter of the Trojan priest of Apollo. Achilles has warned against this, and he is justified when Apollo’s fiery arrows nearly destroy the Greek army. Calchas, a Greek prophet, convinces Agamemnon to free the girl, but Agamemnon demands a replacement in the form of Achilles’ prize female captive, Briseis. Furious, Achilles withdraws his troops from battle. Without Achilles, the Greeks seem doomed. The gods have been evenly split thus far: Aphrodite, Ares, Apollo and Artemis on the side of the Trojans; Hera, Athena, and Poseidon take the Greek side. But Thetis persuades the hitherto neutral Zeus to help the Trojans. Menelaus defeats Paris in combat, however. Aphrodite saves Paris’s life, and the armies agree to a truce. But Hera is bent on war, so she makes a Trojan named Pandarus break the truce. When the battle starts again, the great Greek warrior Diomedes nearly kills the Trojan Aeneas, whom Apollo saves. Diomedes even wounds Ares himself.
The Greeks hold their own until Zeus remembers his promise to Thetis and comes down to the battlefield. The Trojans drive the Greeks back toward their ships. That night, Agamemnon agrees to return Briseis, but when Odysseus goes to ask Achilles to accept the apology, he receives a flat refusal. The next day the Greeks lose again without Achilles and are driven even closer to their ships. But then Hera decides to seduce Zeus and give the Greeks an advantage. While the two divinities are indisposed, the great Greek warrior Ajax nearly kills Hector. Discovering the deception, Zeus angrily commands Poseidon to abandon the Greeks, and the Trojans press forward. As the Greeks near defeat, Achilles’s best friend, Patroclus, can restrain himself no longer. He convinces Achilles to lend him his armor, thinking that even if Achilles refuses to fight, he himself can help the Greeks by pretending to be Achilles and thus frightening the Trojans. Leading Achilles’ men, the Myrmidons, into battle, Patroclus fights valiantly but is killed by Hector’s spear. Achilles grieves terribly and decides to return to battle to avenge this death. Thetis, seeing she can no longer hold her son back, gives him armor made by Hephaestus himself.
The Trojans soon retreat inside their impenetrable walls through the huge Scaean gates. Only Hector remains outside, clad in Achilles’ own armor taken from Patroclus’s corpse. Hector and Achilles, the two greatest warriors of the Trojan War, finally face one another. When Hector sees that Athena stands by Achilles’ side while Apollo has left his own, he runs away from Achilles. They circle around and around the city of Troy until Athena disguises herself as Hector’s brother and makes him stop. Achilles catches up with Hector, who realizes the deception. They fight, and Achilles, aided by Athena, kills Hector with his spear. Achilles is still so filled with rage over Patroclus’s death that he drags Hector’s body over the ground, mutilating it. He takes it back to the Greek camp and leaves it beside Patroclus’s funeral pyre for dogs to devour. Such disrespect for a great warrior greatly displeases the gods, who convince Priam to visit Achilles and retrieve Hector’s body. Priam speaks to Achilles, who sees the error of his ways. The Iliad ends with Hector’s funeral.
We stand at the same point of pain.
We too are slaves.
Our children are crying, calling to us with tears,
“Mother, I am all alone. . . ."
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The war itself does not end with Hector’s funeral, and Virgil continues the account. Hector is replaced by Prince Memnon of Ethiopia, a great warrior, and the Trojans have the upper hand for a time. But Achilles soon kills Memnon as well, driving the Trojans back to the Scaean gates. There, however, Paris kills Achilles with Apollo’s help: Paris shoots an arrow and the god guides it to Achilles’ heel, his one vulnerable spot. (Thetis tried to make the infant Achilles invulnerable by dunking his body in the mystical River Styx but forgot to submerge the heel by which she held him.) The Greeks decide Achilles’ divine armor should be given to either Odysseus or Ajax, the two greatest Greek warriors remaining. When Odysseus is chosen, Ajax plots revenge, but Athena makes him go crazy. Ajax massacres some cattle, then comes to his senses and, mortified, kills himself.
The prophet Calchas then tells the Greeks that they must capture the Trojan prophet Helenus in order to win. They do so, and Helenus tells them that Troy can only be defeated by the bow and arrows of Hercules. Hercules gave these weapons to Philoctetes, who set out for Troy with the Greeks, who abandoned him along the way. Odysseus and a few others set out to apologize and get him back. Philoctetes returns and promptly kills Paris. The Greeks learn that the Trojans have a sacred image of Athena, the Palladium, that protects them. Odysseus and Diomedes sneak behind enemy lines and steal it. Yet Troy still has the protection of its gigantic walls, which prevent the Greeks from entering. Finally, Odysseus comes up with a plan to build a giant wooden horse and roll it up to the gates, pretending they have surrendered and gone home. One man, Sinon, stays behind, acting as if he is a traitor to the Greeks. He says that although the Greeks retreated, they left the horse as an offering to Athena. He says the Greeks assumed the Trojans would not take it inside the city because of its size, which would thus offend Athena and bring misfortune on the city. Trojans, feeling like they are getting the last laugh, triumphantly bring the horse into the city.
The horse is hollow, however, and Greek chieftains are hiding inside. At night, they creep out and open the city gates. The Greek army, hiding nearby, sweeps into the city and massacres the Trojans. Achilles’ son kills Priam. Of the major Trojans, only Aeneas escapes, his father on his shoulders and his son holding his hand. All the men are killed, the women and children separated and enslaved. In the war’s final act, the Greeks take Hector’s infant son, Astyanax, from his mother, Andromache, and throw him off the high Trojan walls. With this death, the legacy of Hector and Troy itself are finished.
The Trojan War is the most famous of all Greek conflicts, and the Iliad perhaps the most famous literary work from ancient Greece. As we might expect, this story touches on all the major themes of the myths: hospitality, love, obedience to the gods and to the moral code, and the immutability of fate. The importance of hospitality is evident in Paris’s weakness and wickedness in abusing Menelaus’s hospitality. The importance of the patriotic moral code is stressed by the catastrophic rift between Agamemnon and Achilles. Likewise, the power of love is shown in its ability to heal Achilles’ grief over Patroclus. Morality and obedience to the gods are present throughout, from Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia to Achilles’ return of Hector’s body. As in the other myths, the gods reward obedience and goodness and punish disobedience and wickedness. In the war, even the gods bow before fate, as Thetis accepts Achilles’ inevitable death and Zeus accepts the inevitable Greek victory.
Above all, the epic of the Trojan War depicts the dark complexity of Greek mythology. The strength of so many of the myths is their depth of character and complex morality. They are not simple fairy tales of good battling evil; they show conflicted characters, ambiguity, and the harshness of the world. Clear villains are conspicuously absent in the Iliad: there is no wicked king to provide a foil for a good, shining one. Achilles and Hector, the two main adversaries in the war, are both shown to be heroic. Thus, rather than having a standard protagonist-antagonist conflict, the Iliad dwells on the brutality and senseless death of war, the cruelty that abounds in the world, and the struggles the heroes have with themselves. Hector is heroic because he remorsefully refuses to stay with his family and instead chooses to face the battle he knows is his destiny.
Worse, the divine sphere provides no relief from the hopelessly bloody and cruel universe depicted in the Iliad. Though the gods do uphold a standard of morality, they are not omnipotent, beneficent, or kind. They fight among each other, trick and deceive each other, and reveal themselves as cowardly; even the normally irreproachable Artemis demands a horrific human sacrifice. Thus, the gods represent a higher standard of justice and honor, as when they refuse to allow Hector’s body to remain unburied, yet show the same bloodthirstiness and blind bias as the warriors on the battlefield.
As the pain and suffering in the world of the Iliad does not follow a clear dichotomy between good and evil, the source of conflict is complex and personal. The heroes struggle with hardships they find all around them, as well as—in Ajax’s case—the evil they find within themselves. In this regard, it is interesting that the key turning point of the story is Achilles’ return to battle. This is a moment of profound introspection for Achilles, who suffers the death of a best friend he could have saved. Achilles sees that Patroclus has died because he rushed to help his countrymen—something that Achilles, out of wounded pride, would not do. The main struggle Achilles faces, then, is not against a villainous foe but against his own shortcomings and their consequences. Unlike fairy tales that inevitably end with the death of the antagonist and the triumph of the hero, the Iliad ends with death of the Trojan hero Hector, a celebration of Hector’s courage, and a sober final statement on the tragedy and conflict at the heart of human existence.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Mythology!