The Backstory

No single ancient work tells the entire story of the Trojan War. Homer’s Iliad focuses on the war’s final year, and ends with the death of Achilles, while his Odyssey chronicles the post war wanderings of Odysseus. Homer says nothing about the end of the war or the Trojan horse, which the hero of his Odyssey is supposed to have conceived and orchestrated; the gap in his narrative is puzzling. Virgil’s Aeneid begins with a detailed account of the Trojan horse and the destruction of Troy, but does so from the perspective of the Trojan prince Aeneas, whose own odyssey, so to speak, leads him to Italy, where he becomes the progenitor of Rome.

A number of ancillary myths fill in the blanks left by the ancient works, and many of these have been woven into the shadow of Xeno’s eye. Allusions to Iphigenia and the Laocoon Priests, for example, arise in the first few pages. The book, however, doesn’t refer to the mythical origins of the war, because it’s a deconstruction of the main and ancillary myths.  The following is the mythical backstory of the Trojan war:

Thetis, the eventual mother of Achilles, was a minor sea goddess. Zeus, the patriarch of the Greek gods, lusted after her, but was wary of a prophecy that she would have a son who would be greater than his father.  He therefore arranged a marriage between Thetis and a mortal man named Peleus. To assuage Thetis’ displeasure at being married off to a mortal, Zeus hosted a magnificent wedding feast, inviting all of the gods and goddesses except Eris, the goddess of strife. Eris heard about it and came anyway, resentful as well as strife prone.She threw a golden apple onto the feast table; the inscription on the apple said “for the fairest.” Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera each claimed to be “the fairest,” and the rightful owner of the golden apple.The strife Zeus sought to avoid had come about because of how he sought to avoid it.

Zeus appointed the Trojan prince Paris to be the judge of who was “the fairest.” Each of the three goddesses involved offered bribes to influence his decision. Hera offered to make him a ruler over many cities, Athena offered him power in battle, and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife. Paris is said to have awarded the golden apple to Aphrodite because of the bribe she offered. The most beautiful woman in the world, at the time, was Helen, the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta. Thus, when Paris arrived in Sparta, he was welcomed as a guest, according to the Greek custom of Xenia, but he had a vaguely colorable claim on Helen, based on Aphrodite’s promise.

A few observations are worth mentioning. The mythical backstory of the Trojan war has it set in motion by the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses, rather than by the geopolitical and economic conflicts that typically lead to war. It wraps the war in a mantle of drama and inevitability, and absolves Menelaus from being depicted as a cuckold who couldn’t satisfy his wife. It also explains why, in the Iliad, the various gods take sides in the conflict. Aphrodite is partial to Paris and the Trojans, while Athena is partial to the Greeks. These gods are not exalted or supreme beings, but very human in their foibles; they’re horny, vain, jealous, and impatient. Even Zeus is limited by a prophecy. there’s a scene in the Iliad where Aries, the god of war, intercedes on the Trojan side, and Diomedes, captain of the Athenian contingent, wounds him with a spear, forcing him to leave the battlefield. The Greek gods are personifications of forces beyond human control, and they’re to be assuaged rather than worshipped. You make sacrifice to Zeus so he doesn’t hurl a thunderbolt at you, another sacrifice to Poseidon so he doesn’t send a storm to sink your ship, and another sacrifice to Aphrodite so you’ll be lucky in love and/or marriage.

It should also be noted that elements in this ancillary myth appear in the myths and fairy tales of other cultures and other times. The strife bearing female spirit, who arrives at a celebration uninvited, is found in the modern day Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. The apple as the cause of catastrophe is found in the story of Adam and Eve, and a poisoned apple is what puts Snow White into dormancy as she’s about to mature into the sexual alpha female and displace the vain Queen in that role.

One response to “The Backstory

  1. Interesting blog–can’t beat myths for depth and richness. Also intriguing to have a soldier inside the horse as a protagonist. A friendly piece of feedback on your blog design is that I do find it difficult on the eyes to read over the busy background.

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