Understanding a Mythical War of History: Everything You Need to Know About the Trojan War
For thousands of years, the mythical Greek tale of the Trojan War has delighted and haunted readers with its epic characters and unbelievable twists and turns. The topic of Hollywood movies, such as the 1997 film Trojan War, the story has its most notable roots in the Greek poem by Homer known as the Illiad. In the poem, Homer recounts four days in the 10-year fight for Troy after the Greek goddesses Athena, Aphrodite and Hera had a quarrel.
That quarrel would turn into a 10-year war that no one could have predicted. Gods and goddesses fighting. Rivals and foes and marriages–all that could change at any moment. And trickery that makes the reader wonder if they should choose sides or wish they could inform the unknowing party.
You’ll find each of these strains as you dive into the beginning and escalation of the Trojan War–and all of this excitement, daring and more is waiting for you in this complete guide to breaking apart this mythical tale and understanding it for posterity.
If you’re ready to jump into this epic story that has informed thousands of works across genres in the years after its B.C. setting, then read on to get all of the quick and fascinating facts you need to know. With this guide by your side, you won’t be able to forget the major characters, the motivations for the Trojan War and the consequences that come from launching a siege. While part of a lasting and emotional tradition in Greek mythology, the tale of the Trojan War has lessons for modern-day history and living that one learn simply by turning the pages.
Are you ready to learn? Let’s get started:
Before the Trojan War
In order to understand the complications of the Trojan War, we have to start at the quarrel that preceded it among these main goddesses and gods that often rule Greek mythology.
Below you’ll find a list of key charters in the escalation of the Trojan War. Spend a few minutes with each of these key characters. There are many, so it’s easy to lose track. Try to commit them to memory before moving on to the unfolding story of the Trojan War.
By doing that, you’ll better be able to internalize the story and understand it. Best of all, however, if you ever forget who someone is, simply scroll back up to this section and refresh your memory.
Here are the major players of the Trojan War story that you’ll want to know by heart:
- Aphrodite: The Greek goddess of beauty, love and pleasure
- Athena: The Greek goddess of war and wisdom
- Hera: The Greek goddess of marriage, religion and all women. Hera also was both the wife and the sister of Zeus
- Zeus: The Greek god of thunder and sky who also ruled as the king of all gods from his home on Mount Olympus. Zeus also was both the brother and husband of Hera.
- Eris: The Greek goddess of discord
- Paris: The son of Queen Hecuba of Troy and King Priam, Paris elopes with the Queen of Sparta, Helen — and this is one of the reason’s the Trojan War begins
- Hector:Leader of the Trojan Army and brother of Paris
- Helen: One of the most beautiful women in the world and the daughter of Zeus.
- Menelaus: The king of Sparta
- Agamemnon: Brother of Helen’s husband, Menelaus and also the king of Mycenae
- Achaeans: Another name for the Greek people group who lived during the Mycenaean Greek period, or the last phase of the Bronze Age (1600-1000 B.C.)
- Trojans: The inhabitants of the city of Troy
- Achilles: infamous Greek Hero, son of Thetis
- Themis: The goddess of divine justice
The Quarrel Before the Fight
Every battle begins much smaller — with a little fight. Left unattended, that fight can grow into an epic battle with more and more players involved. Pretty soon, the fight is out of control because a full on war has been waged. If there is any testing of this theory that can be heeded, it is in the Greek myth of the Trojan War.
Did you know that the Trojan War began with a quarrel among three beautiful goddesses whom the gods pitted against one another? Have you ever been in that situation? When you feel like you are being compared to someone else and you don’t feel good enough? This is the case with the three beautiful goddesses Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. They were fine with each other before the Trojan War — but the king of the gods Zeus was out to cause some trouble due to his own selfishness, and that see these three charters down a bad path.
Read on to get their full story and to decide for yourself whether how you would have done things differently.
Here’s what happened:
The three goddesses Aphrodite, Athena and Hera began to quarrel soon after yet another goddess named Eris, the Greek goddess of fighting and discord, presented them with a golden apple. Eris was jealous because the three beautiful goddesses Athena, Aphrodite and Hera were invited to a wedding, and Eris was not. The golden apple was known as “The Apple of Discord” to Eris and was supposed to be given to the most beautiful and fairest among Aphrodite, Athena and Hera.
The king of all the gods — known as Zeus — had an agenda. He wanted to create quarrel that would lead to a war because he felt that there were too many people on the Earth. He told Aphrodite, Athena and Hera that they should travel to see Paris, the son of Queen Hecuba.
Paris declares that Aphrodite is the “fairest” of all of the trio of goddesses, and this makes them all angry. Each of them women had tried to bribe Paris by offering superpowers to him in exchange for the title and the golden apple. Paris believes that Aphrodite should receive Eris’ golden apple. But to actually get the coveted golden apple in hand, Aphrodite must make a deal: She makes Helen, who happens to be the most beautiful woman in all of Greece and the current wife of the king of Sparta, named Menelaus, fall in love with Paris. And this is where the real trouble begins.
The Launch of the Trojan War: A Brief Overview
Paris tries to take Helen to Troy. There, the brother of Helen’s husband — named Agamemnon, gathers a troop of Achaean warriors and leads them to Troy to siege the city in revolt of Paris’ insult to taking his brother’s wife. This war becomes a 10-year war that leads to the deaths of many Greek heroes, including the vicious and brutal slaughter of many Trojans.
The war finally ended when the Achaean troops built a massive wooden horse, known as “The Trojan Horse” and hid a special force of warriors inside of it.
Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy, warns the Trojans that they should not pull the Trojan horse into the city. She felt that something was not quite right, and she did not want her fellow citizens to take so great a risk when there had been such bloodshed for so many years already.
But the Trojans mostly thought that the Trojan horse was Okay. The Achaeans pretended they were sailing away from Troy. As they did, the Trojan warriors pulled the huge Trojan horse into the city as a victorious and celebratory move. They believed that they had won, and that the Greek Achaeans were leaving. The Trojan horse became their victory symbol — and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
However, all was not well. When night fell, the Achaean troops opened up the belly of the horse, and, led by Odysseus, they crawled out. They opened the gates of Troy to let the rest of the hiding Achaean troops in who were outside of the city after sailing back in the night. The Achaeans then destroyed the city of Troy definitively, ending the 10-year Trojan War.
The Greek heroes who were still alive made their way back home, if they could. This is the tale that Odysseus tells in Homer’s “Odyssey.” Helen returns home to be with her first husband Menelaus.
The outfall of the Trojan War was terrible according to this Greek myth and had many consequences for all involved in this mythical tale. Those who were not killed in the years of the war — such as women and children — were sold into slavery. And, in a nearly equally sad story, most of the Achaean warriors who seized Troy for the long, 10-year period never returned to their homes.
Was the Trojan War a Real-Life Event?
What’s critical to keep in mind as you read about the characters and the path of The Trojan War is that it is a Greek myth. There is no historical evidence that there was a war in Troy. However, most scholars and archaeologists — most notably Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann — believe that the city of Troy was an actual, real city.
During the time of the mythical tale, ancient Greeks believed that the Trojan War occurred in the 13th or 12th century B.C. and was a real, historical event. However, by the mid-19th century, the war was widely viewed as fantasy.
Today, most scholars believe the Trojan War did not occur as an event of history but instead is rooted in Greek myth and fantasy.
What Are the Additional Texts I Can Read to Learn About the Mythical Trojan War?
If you want to read about all of the movements of the Trojan War, you won’t be able to do so in a single text. You’ll need to lean on the myths and tales of several renowned works by revered, ancient authors. Among the works you’ll need to read are the following:
- The Illiad by Homer
- The Odyssey by Homer
- The Cyclic Epics (Cypria, Aethiopis, Little Illiad, Lliou Persis, Nostoi, Telegony) by Proclus
- Works by Athens
- Works by Aeschylus
- Works by Sophocles
- Works by Euripides
- Works by Virgil
I’ve Got the Summary of the Trojan War, But Why Did All of This Happen?
In Greek mythology, we often find gods and goddesses overthrowing one another and turning on each other at many junctures. Whether it is the motivation of power, money, love or hate — the network of gods and goddess of the Green mythological world will give you the best picture of what it looks like to fail and succeed all at once.
We can’t tell the full story of the Trojan War without starting with the king of all the gods, known as Zeus. We introduced you to Zeus at the beginning of this guide, but it’s worth your time to learn a little more about him.
Zeus was not born the king of the gods. Instead, according to Greek myth, Zeus assumed this high-powered, all-mighty position by overthrowing his very own father, Cronus. But neither was Cronus born the king of all gods. Cronus had overthrown his father, Uranus.
Zeus married his sister, Hera. Marrying a sibling is not something that humans culturally do in typical settings, but in Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses married their siblings often. The problem in this marriage was that Zeus was not faithful to Hera. He had many children with multiple goddesses.
At the same time, Zeus believed that there were far too many humans populating the Earth — and so he devised a plan to get rid of some of them. His plan?
Zeus invented a new goddess — the goddess of divine justice named Themis. Themis was to deploy the plan of the Trojan War to decrease the number of people on the earth.
Soon, Zeus learns of his fate, however. One myth states that just like he overthrew his father, Cronus, and Cronus overthrew his father, Uranus — one of Zeus’ sons will soon overthrow him. Another myth states that the son of Thetis, a sea nymph that Zeus fell in love with, would overthrow Zeus. Thetis married an old human king, named Peleus, and all of the gods and goddesses were invited to the wedding except Eris, who is the goddess of discord.
On Zeus’ order, Eris stopped by the door of one of Zeus’ sons, Hermes and left at his doorstep a golden apple inscribed to “The fairest.”
It is at this point that Athena, Aphrodite and Hera find the golden apple and begin to fight over it. None of the other gods and goddesses would rule who among the trio were the fairest because they were worried about backlash from Athena, Aphrodite and Hera. And so Zeus ordered his son Hermes to take the women to Paris, who would then be tasked with deciding who among the goddesses was the fairest of them all.
Upon seeing Paris, the trio of goddesses began to try to bribe him so that they would be named the fairest of all goddesses.
Aphrodite offered Paris love — promising to make the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, fall in love with him.
Athena offered Paris the wisdom and skill of the most incredible warriors of the war so that he would always be victorious in battle.
Hera offered Paris the greatest political power possible, including his control over all of Asia.
After hearing all the goddesses’ bribes, Paris decided to choose Aphrodite as the “fairest of all,” which meant that soon, Helen would fall in love with him.
Throughout her lifetime, Helen had many suitors. However, her father never allowed her to marry one of them because he feared that one of her suitors would retaliate against him.
Now, one point you should be clear on in Helen’s family heritage. She had two mothers and two fathers. According to myth, she was one of the daughters of the King of Sparta Tyndareus and Leda. Leda had two sets of twin daughters. Leda, according to myth, had been seduced by Zeus and had born a set of twins for both Zeus and Tyndareus.
Odysseus talked to Tyndareus because Odysseus really wanted to marry a woman named Penelope. So he asked that Tyndareus to require all of the suitors pursuing Helen to promise they would lay their lives on the line in order to defend and protect marriage with her, no matter who Tyndareus chose to be the husband of his daughter, Helen. Eventally, Tyndareus chose a man named Menelaus because he was wealthy and powerful. But Menelaus had not gone to Tyndareus in person to ask to marry Helen. Instead, he sent his brother, Agamemon.
If Menelaus was successful in earning the hand of marriage with Helen, he promised to give Aphrodite an oxen sacrifice of 100 of these animals. However, when he was chosen to be Helen’s husband, he forgot to make the sacrifice—and Aphrodite became very angry.
With Helen as his queen, Menelaus became a successor in the Spartan throne of Tyndareus. Helen’s brothers became gods, and Agamemnon married Clytemnestra, Helen’s sister.
Why Is All of This Important?
We’re getting there—and we’ll follow the path deeper into the start of the Trojan War by returning to Paris. He goes to Sparta to get Helen—because, as you’ll remember, Aphrodite has promised that she will fall in love with him. But before she is able to see him enter her palace, Cupid shoots an arrow at her. When she sees Paris, she immediately falls in love with him.
Her husband, Menelaus is nowhere to be found at the time. He is traveling to the Greek island of Crete, where he is to bury his uncle, named Crateus.
But as Paris and Helen are falling in love at the promise of Aphrodite and the arrow of Cupid, love will not be easy for the new couple. Hera is extremely angry because Paris did not choose her as the fairest of all the goddesses, and so she sends a terrible storm that causes Helen and Paris to dock in Egypt. There, the gods replaced Helen with clouds that looked like her—otherwise known as the cloud nymph Nephele. With Helen now a vision of clouds, Paris sailed to Troy alone.
The resulting history of this famed Greek myth comes at the hands of the Greek Achaeans. Agamemnon, who wants to make Paris pay for insulting Helen’s original husband — his brother — wages war against Troy.
Agamemnon asks other Greek heroes to accompany him in the quest to get Helen back. Among them are Ajax, Achilles, Nestor and Odysseus. They travel throughout the Greek world among a fleet of more than 1,000 ships, crossing vast stretches of ocean from the Aegean Sea all the way to Asia Minor—all in an effort to siege the city of Troy and to bring Helen back to her first husband.
The siege of Troy does not last just one day. It lasts 10 years total, peppered with battles that take on some of the most famous Greek heroes including Achilles and Hector, the prince of Troy.
The 10-year battle comes at great bloodshed and sorrow to all who are involved in this myth of epic proportions.
When the Achaeans entered Troy, they did so at night while the population was sleeping and unsuspecting.
As one ancient mythical text describes it:
“Blood ran in torrents, drenched was all the earth,
As Trojans and their alien helpers died.
Here were men lying quelled by bitter death
All up and down the city in their blood.”
The scene is as gruesome as it is unbearable and both the Achaeans and the Trojans fought viciously in order to win. At the end of this first night battle, it was the Achaeans who had slaughtered nearly an entire city and destroyed the temples of the gods.
What Have You Learned from the Mythical Trojan War?
If you’ve made it to the end of this guide, then you have at your fingertips our best guide for tracking and understanding the mythical journey of the complex characters involved in the Trojan War. Remember, the Trojan War was not an historical event. Rather, it was a fantasy and epic story from Greek mythology.
Today, most historians agree that there was a real-life city named Troy in this area. However, the battle of the gods and the appearance of a Trojan Horse is pure fantasy.
What can you learn from the tale of gods and goddess at war? Of love and trickery and the quest for power? What can you take away from a Greek myth so rooted in the fabric of our literature and our minds that it is hard to forget? Consider some of these questions as you ponder the impact of the Trojan War story you have read:
Have you ever wanted power so much that you felt the need to lie or disenfranchise another person?
Where did that lead you?
What does it mean to truly be a friend, a sibling, a partner?
What are the qualities of a good leader?
What are the qualities of a good friend?
What are the choices you have when you encounter a problem or a conflict?
Do you believe honesty is always the best option? When are the cases in which honesty isn’t the best choice?
Do you believe fights or conflicts can be worked out without violence? How would you approach a potential conflict with a friend or family member?
What will you do the next time someone tries to start a fight with you?
By considering these questions as you think over the implications of the Trojan War, you will arrive at your own personal philosophy to working out challenges, to handling conflict and to pursuing healthy relationships with people you come into contact with everyday. The answers to these questions are not always easy or clear-cut, but by allowing yourself to consider them and ponder them, you’ll be on your way to letting this epic Greek myth change you and form you.
And, at the end of the day, that is the true beauty and power in reading literature: It can shape you and help you to think in new, productive, imaginative ways about he way you want to live your life and the kind of legacy you want to leave right now — and in the future.
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