All posts tagged Troy

Aphrodite and Anchises

Published June 2, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

(The lead-in to this myth can be found here.)

It didn’t take Hermes long to find the right mortal for their purposes.  The descendants of Dardanos were well-known for their beauty, and the difference in fortune between the ruling and non-ruling branches of the family were considerable.  But even the least powerful branch of the family was still of noble birth, and their descent from Zeus himself made them paragons among mortals.  When he reported his selection back to the others, he found his father to be particularly pleased by the choice, though of course he wouldn’t explain why.

Consequently, the plan was soon put into action.  Hermes approached Aphrodite, who gave him a narrow-eyed look of disgust.

“Go away,” she told him.  “I’m not letting you touch me again.”

Hermes repressed a grimace.  Why was she so opposed to him, anyway?  The mortal girls all found him irresistible — well, almost all of them did, anyway.  “I’m here on business,” he assured her.  “Father wants you to see something down in the mortal realm.”

“Really?”  Aphrodite stood up, adjusting the gown that clung to her curvaceous frame, revealing everything it covered.  “Why?”

“He didn’t say,” Hermes replied, with a grin.  “You can ask him if you want?” he added, knowing very well what her response would be.

She sighed.  “Better to get it over with.  Just show me whatever it is already.”

Hermes nodded, and began leading her down below to the mortal realm, to Dardania, not far from mighty Troy.  They came to a stop near the home of Anchises, who was just returning to his domicile, having been in negotiations with a potential husband for his daughter, who had just entered the marriageable age.  Anchises, a cousin of King Priam in Troy, was a handsome man of middle years, still dark-haired, but despite his rank he also had the dark skin of someone who spent far too much time out in the hot Anatolian sun, as he often had to tend to his herds himself, lacking the funds to hire someone trustworthy enough to do it for him, and lacking a son who could take on the responsibilities.

“What does Father want me to see here?” Aphrodite asked, looking around in confusion.  There was nothing around that called for the attention of the goddess of love, after all.

When Aphrodite’s gaze was fixed on Anchises, Zeus put their plan into action.  He had been watching his children from Mt. Olympos, and now he threw the arrows he had taken from Eros, just in the manner he normally threw thunderbolts.  They flew truly, and struck Aphrodite in the back, sending her reeling forwards, both from the impact and from the sudden and overflowing love she now felt for Anchises.  (If you’d like to consider this the origin of the term ‘thunderstruck,’ I shan’t stop you.)

Hermes watched, laughing quietly to himself, as Aphrodite preened herself carefully, then approached the home of Anchises.

The mortal man was amazed when he opened his door and found himself confronted by the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.  She introduced herself as a princess from a far-off land, brought to his door by Hermes to be his wife.

It didn’t make any sense to Anchises, but he wasn’t about to complain about it, either!  He had been a widower for a number of years now, and was quite eager to take this beautiful young woman as a new wife.  In fact, he couldn’t quite bring himself to wait for a formal wedding feast, and decided that a few promises in the bedchamber would suffice.  (There was little more involved to a marriage, in truth, than those promises.  The feast was more to let others know about it.  And Anchises couldn’t really afford to give a feast anyway.)

By the next morning, some of the effects of the arrows had already worn off of Aphrodite — they were her own power, after all — but she still couldn’t fight off the feeling of affectionate desire for Anchises.  (She had already been attracted to him even before the arrows hit her, really.)  She continued on living there as his wife for many months, long enough to become aware that she was pregnant, and to see that her step-daughter’s new marriage was not a happy one.

It bothered her to see the girl so unhappy, because Aphrodite knew it was her own fault:  because she was thus being remiss in her duties, there was no one to make mortals fall in love.  In the usual course of events, she would have sent her son Eros to ensure that every maiden fell in love with her husband on their wedding night, to prevent tragedies, and to make the maidens happy with their new, less fortunate lot in life.  But Eros was a lazy little brat, and wouldn’t work unless his mother made him, so all the maidens who had gotten married since Aphrodite had begun her dalliance with Anchises hadn’t been made to fall in love with their husbands.

“How much do you want Hippodameia to be happy?” Aphrodite asked Anchises one day.

“Of course I want my daughter to be happy,” he replied.  “What sort of question is that?”

“I didn’t ask if you wanted her to be happy,” she corrected her mortal husband.  “I asked how much you wanted her to be happy.  Would you be willing to risk — or even lose — your own happiness for hers?”

“What are you saying?” Anchises asked.  He had some inkling of what she was asking, but he couldn’t imagine how his pregnant bride could be capable of such things.

“I can make Hippodameia fall in love with Alcathoos,” Aphrodite told him, “but if I do so…you and I will no longer be able to live together as husband and wife.”  She could never allow Eros to see her living as a wife to a mortal man!

Anchises sighed, wondering if delusions could be a side-effect of pregnancy.  “How could you possibly do that, my dear?”

For a few moments, Aphrodite hesitated.  She knew he would never even believe her unless she told him the truth, but as soon as she did tell him…she risked the most utter humiliation.  But Anchises’ face was beginning to take on that terrible smile:  the smile of a man about to patronize a woman not because she’s wrong, but because he thinks she can’t be right.  That sort of smile had never bothered her before, but before it had not been aimed at her.  (Mortal women being patronized didn’t bother her in the slightest.  Unlike two of her sisters…)

So Aphrodite shed her disguise, and appeared before Anchises in all her divine splendor.  “I am not the mortal girl you took me for,” she told him, “but the goddess Aphrodite.”  The disbelief in Anchises’ eyes soon gave way to desire…and to pride.  “If you ever tell anyone my true identity, my father will make you suffer for it!” she promised him.  Her dignity was worth far more than her love for any mortal man!

“Of course I’ll never tell anyone,” Anchises promised her.  “I just…this is a little overwhelming…”

“I’m sure it is.  But now you see the dilemma before you?  I cannot use my power to make your daughter fall in love without abandoning you as a wife,” she told him.  “Which will it be?  Will you continue to make yourself happy in my bed, or will you make your daughter happy?”

“I…I…there must be another way!” Anchises insisted.  “Why can’t you make her fall in love without leaving me?”

“It simply doesn’t work that way,” Aphrodite sighed.  “Now which will it be?”

Anchises had to look away from his divine bride.  He didn’t want his daughter to be unhappy, but he couldn’t stand the idea of losing the wife he had fallen so completely in love with.  “Let me talk to Hippodameia,” he said.  “Maybe I can convince her to find happiness without needing your intervention.”

Aphrodite nodded, resuming her mortal disguise.  “Try your hardest,” she told him.  “You do have some time, in any case.  I can’t return to Olympos while I’m carrying a mortal child.”  Her father and brothers certainly had it easy!  They were only committed for a single night to make a child, yet she had to carry hers around for nine months, risking humiliation the entire time!

Anchises had many long talks with Hippodameia and Alcathoos, trying to encourage them to find love with each other.  By the time Aphrodite gave birth, he thought he had succeeded, and as he first held his infant son in his arms, Anchises thought he would have this perfect life forever.

But by the time of the naming ceremony, ten days later, Anchises’ happiness came crashing down about his ears.  The ceremony had just finished when Hippodameia arrived, looking distraught.

“You don’t have to be so upset,” her father told her.  “I’m not upset that you missed the ceremony.  And I’m sure young Aineias here doesn’t know the difference,” he added, gesturing to the sleeping infant with a laugh.

But Hippodameia’s unhappy state had nothing to do with the naming ceremony.  She burst into tears and wailed that her husband was the most awful man in the world, and that she would be the most wretched creature to live if she was forced to remain with him.  He had told her she was no good, she reported, and threatened to strike her if she didn’t behave herself, and on and on her list of complaints went.

In the end, Anchises, holding his crying daughter in his arms, turned to his divine bride, tears coming to his own eyes as he did so.  “There must be something you can do…” he said to her.

“There is,” Aphrodite assured him, “but you know the cost.”

Anchises looked down at his daughter, and sighed sadly.  “Yes, I know the cost,” he replied, “and if that is how it must be, then…I will pay it.”

Aphrodite smiled, and leaned in to give him a kiss on the cheek.  Then she picked up her son, and walked to the door.  “I will return Aineias to you in a few years’ time,” she told him, then she left the house they had shared, never to return.

Shedding her mortal disguise, Aphrodite called to her son Eros, and told him that he had been slacking terribly in his duties, giving him such a stern lecture as he had never heard before — a tongue-lashing worthy of Hera, in fact.  Setting Eros off to do his duty — starting with making Hippodameia and Alcathoos fall so madly in love with each other that they would never again be unhappy — Aphrodite returned to Mt. Olympos with her infant son.

No matter how she raised him on ambrosia, however, Aphrodite soon realized that Aineias was hopelessly mortal.  He would age and die just like his father.  It was a bitter realization, but she knew she wasn’t alone in such unpleasantness:  Eos and Thetis were both the mothers of mortal children, too, and would suffer the same tragic fate as Aphrodite, watching their sons wither and die.

Within a few years, Aphrodite returned Aineias to Anchises, letting him be raised by his sister Hippodameia, as well as by nymphs that Aphrodite sent by periodically to see to it that the boy had the best life possible.  And she often sat on the slopes of Mt. Ida, watching her son grow.  (Whenever she did so, of course, her other son again slacked off on his duties.  For that reason, many men found that their wives never did fall in love with them.  Some of those men, like Agamemnon, came to regret the idle nature of Eros…)

Zeus, too, was keeping an eye on things in the region of Troy.  For despite that it had been his idea to punish Aphrodite in this manner, he didn’t want people to know that Aphrodite had taken a mortal husband.  True, young Aineias knew that his mother was the goddess Aphrodite, but it was only right that the boy know his own begetting.  It was the rest of the people around holy Ilios who needed to be kept ignorant.

And for many years they remained ignorant.  But then one year Anchises was at a feast in Troy, listening to everyone else boast about the fine lineages of their wives, of how well they weaved, of how well they ran the household, and — of course — how beautiful they were and how talented in the bed chamber.

The boasts of his fellows ate at Anchises, and he turned to wine to suppress his own desires to brag about the mother of his son.  But the more inebriated he became, the harder it was to silence his tongue.

So when one of the other men chuckled at the mysterious and absent mother of Aineias, Anchises could keep silent no longer, and he told them the whole tale of how he had been approached by Aphrodite herself, and how he had lived those months with a goddess in his bed.

He had hardly finished speaking when a bolt of lightning flew down from the sky and struck him down.

Zeus had intended to kill him with that thunderbolt, but Aphrodite had tugged at his arm and disrupted his aim:  instead of being killed, Anchises was lamed, never again able to stand unaided.

King Priam’s young son Helenos — gifted with divine sight — informed them that this thunderbolt was not a punishment for a lie, but a punishment for telling a forbidden truth.

From that day on, Anchises was pitied for his lameness, but envied for having bedded a goddess, and everyone in the entire Troad soon knew that young Aineias was the son of Aphrodite.  Gossip began to spread that surely he would be married to one of Priam’s daughters — as indeed he eventually was — and that he would be preferred above all of Priam’s many sons to be the next king.

The question is, when (if?) I get to the Trojan War, am I going to go with the early Greek version, in which Aineias and his sons rule over a rebuilt Troy, the later Greek/early Roman version in which Aineias/Aeneas goes to Italy with Trojan refugees and his sons by a local wife are the ancestors of the Romans, or the Julian/Vergilian version in which Aeneas goes to Italy and his purely Trojan son becomes the ancestor of the Julian emperors?

The latter is the best known (thanks to the Aeneid) so I’m inclined to go with one of the others.  Probably the first one, since it’s the one in the Iliad.  (Well, okay, technically it’s just implied, and only in one line, but still!)

H is for Hrimthurs

Published April 9, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros


When the Aesir had only first claimed their dominion over the Vanir, the Jotunn and all the other beings, they had no home in which to live.  They needed a place they could fortify against their enemies, and so they contracted a master builder, who would create the magnificent walls of Asgard for them.

But this builder was such a master that he demanded the most astonishing price:  he would only build their walls if they gave him the goddess Freyja for his wife, with a dowry of the sun and the moon!

Not one god was willing to accept that, least of all Freyja!

But they wanted to see Asgard built, and they knew that this was the craftsman who would do the best job.  They argued about it long into the night, and eventually decided that the best thing to do was to get him to build the walls, but make sure they wouldn’t have to pay him.  (Even Freyja agreed to that.)  So they said they would accept his terms, so long as he built it in but a few short seasons — instead of the years he had initially asked for — and without any man’s (or god’s) help.

The builder, steadfast in his desire to marry the beautiful Freyja at any cost, agreed, but requested that he at least be allowed the help of his faithful stallion.

The gods were reluctant to allow even that.  (Freyja didn’t want to marry that filthy, unwashed, smelly builder!)

“What can he accomplish with a simple horse?” Loki pointed out.  “You’re all fretting about nothing, like a pack of old women.”

Thor — being Thor — threatened to hit Loki in the face with his hammer for making fun of him, but the rest of the gods reluctantly agreed with him, and told the builder that he could use his horse to aid him in his task.

But the builder’s horse was Svaðilfari, the finest and grandest horse any man — or god — had ever seen.  Svaðilfari could pull many tons of rock without breaking a sweat, and did so without any sign of complaint or strain.  The horse’s feats were so mighty that the gods feared they would have to hand Freyja over to the builder after all!  Loki laughed that maybe she should marry the horse, since it was the horse who had actually built the walls, but no one else found that funny, especially Freyja.  (Though, in truth, she probably would have preferred the horse to its owner.)

As the deadline was nearly up, and the walls were complete except for the gates, the gods began to fret, and demanded that — since he was the one who had gotten them into that situation — Loki must do something to get them out of it.  Otherwise, Odin assured him, he’d let his irritable son do whatever he wanted to Loki, which was likely to involve a magic hammer and Loki’s skull.

Not really wanting to have his head pounded into powder, Loki sighed, and agreed to distract the horse so the builder couldn’t finish his task.

Loki knew better than to try tempting the stallion out of the stable with a few apples.  That wouldn’t work on even a fine mortal horse, and Svaðilfari was anything but mortal.

There was only one thing Loki could do to stop the walls from being completed, much as he was loath to do it.

The next day, the builder was hard at work, when suddenly Svaðilfari stopped pulling the final load of stone, broke free from his harness, and went tearing off into the nearby woods.

Irritated that he might be denied the woman he loved after he had worked so hard for her, the builder chased after his horse, and soon found out that what had distracted his stallion had proved just how alike they two were:  Svaðilfari had run off after a mare in heat, and the mare was doing her very best not to get caught.

Feeling sorry for his horse, the builder rigged up a little surprise for the mare, making sure the stallion would be able to catch her.  He was sure, after all, that it would be over and done with in time for him to get Asgard finished up as agreed.

But it didn’t.

The deadline passed by, and the gates of Asgard still hadn’t been built.

Even worse, the gods were all smirking at the builder, and Thor made a crass comment about men who run off after strange women.  It had all been a set-up!  The builder could see that now, and in his rage, he bellowed his hatred of the Aesir and the Vanir, and threatened to bring his people back and tear down those walls he had worked so hard to build.

For the builder was one of the Hrimthurs, a particularly powerful kind of Jotunn.

Once the gods knew that the builder was really a frost giant, they wasted no time on further niceties.

Thor pulled out Mjöllnir, and shattered the builder’s skull as easily as an ordinary man would crush an egg.  Because, Hrimthurs or not, he was just a builder; he wasn’t a warrior.

The gods were talking and laughing, thoroughly pleased with themselves for having exposed the villain and prevented his evil plot to marry Freyja, when Loki returned.  They laughed further that Loki was still disguised as a mare, and had the passionate Svaðilfari still trailing after him.  Loki rolled his horse eyes at them, but couldn’t retort, since horses can’t talk.  Besides, he knew he would have the last laugh soon enough; Svaðilfari was the finest sire of horse-kind.  (And, indeed, Odin never again laughed at Loki’s dalliance with a horse after the mare-Loki gave birth to the swift Sleipnir!)

Proud of their might, the gods went into the newly built halls of Asgard to feast and celebrate their defeat of the wicked Hrimthurs.

had to include this myth, because it’s the origin of one of my favorite little tidbits of Norse mythology, namely the fact that Loki is Sleipnir’s mother.

It also reminds me of a very similar tale from Norse myths, namely that of the dwarven smith Alvis, who had created masterful weapons for the gods.  His price had been the hand of Thor’s daughter in marriage, and all the gods had agreed to that price up front.  But when it came time to pay Alvis, Thor suddenly realized that he really didn’t want a dwarf for a son-in-law.  So he sits down with the dwarf, and starts grilling him, peppering him with questions.  Alvis assumes that he’s just trying to be a responsible father (responsibility in non-combat situations being something rather alien to Thor) and answers them all, determined to let his knowledge and eloquence prove that he’s an ideal husband, despite being a dwarf.

But that hadn’t been Thor’s plan.  He kept Alvis talking all night, waiting for the sun’s first light, because he knew that as a dwarf, Alvis would turn to stone as soon as the light of the sun hit him.  (That would have changed a lot in The Hobbit!)  So here’s poor Alvis, looking to win himself a bride after he’s worked really hard making divine weapons, and what happens?  He’s betrayed to death, without having done anything wrong.  It’s not as though the weapons were faulty — I’m not sure, off-hand, if they included Mjöllnir, but I’m pretty sure they did include Gungnir, Odin’s spear — and it’s not as though he had demanded Thor’s daughter at the last minute, after the work had been finished.  It was an agreed-upon price up front.  Thor just stabbed him in the back because he could, and because he could get away with it.

It’s the same thing with the Jotunn who built the walls of Asgard.  He’s doing what he promised, despite them doing everything they can to hobble him, and he’s doing it for a price they already agreed to.  But they find a way to stop him from succeeding, and when he accidentally reveals he’s a frost giant, they kill him.  (Even though Odin himself is half frost giant, and Loki is either all frost giant or half frost giant.  (I’ve seen it said both ways.))  So, basically, in both of these stories — in which as far as I can tell we’re supposed to be rooting for the Aesir — we have the Norse gods bilking and killing someone who’s done them some very solid, important work.  And we’re supposed to laugh and cheer at this?  Because I get the feeling that’s how the Vikings reacted to it.

But let me set that aside for a moment, and get to the comparison part.  There’s a tale that’s very familiar to me about a city with magnificent walls, where the builders were bilked of their payment.  One of my sources for the Norse story even made the comparison for me, despite that it made it in a completely bass-ackwards way.  So, let me give you a summary of the story first, before I discuss the comparison further.

The city — as you might guess, coming from me — is Troy.

The builder is Poseidon, with a side-order of Apollo.  (In some versions, Apollo was only looking after King Laomedon’s flocks, whereas in other versions he, too, was doing the building.  From a Greek perspective, the former makes more sense, but since he may have originated as a gateway-guardian god of Troy, the latter might well be the older version.  In one version they’re also joined by Aiakos, a mortal son of Zeus, but that’s more to make the building of the walls of Troy directly predict its downfall at the hands of Aiakos’ descendants.)

The price is unknown (to us), but agreed upon in advance.

And Laomedon refuses to pay.  He even threatens his divine workers when they want to be paid.

Apollo sends a plague to his otherwise beloved Troy, and Poseidon sends a sea monster to attack the very walls he just built.

That might have been the end of Troy, if it hadn’t been for Heracles, who decided to slay the the sea monster, in exchange for either Laomedon’s fine horses or for one of his daughters.  (Or possibly both.  This is Heracles we’re talking about here.  He didn’t believe in being “small time.”)

But Laomedon didn’t pay him, either.  So Troy still fell, but to Heracles instead of to a sea monster, and the only one of Laomedon’s sons who survived became King Priam, having been ransomed by his sister Hesione.  (That’s a Greek pseudo-etymology for the non-Greek name Priamos, btw, as having come from the word for “I buy.”  It’s baloney, but the kind of thing that got repeated a lot.  To the extent that you can probably find it as a “true” etymology in some sources today.)

In the long run, Laomedon’s double refusals to pay are often regarded as the first step towards Troy’s destruction in the Trojan War.  (Though obviously there’s a lot more going on there, needless to say.  Especially since Apollo is Troy’s staunchest supporter…aside from Aphrodite, anyway.)

So while it’s true that there’s a strong parallel here of supernatural builders making mighty walls and the payment agreements being reneged upon, there’s also a phenomenal difference of tone.

In the Norse tales, we’re supposed to be — as far as I can tell — on the side of the ones refusing to pay.

In the Greek tale, we’re supposed to be on the side of the ones who are being bilked.

I think that tells us a world of details about the cultural differences between Vikings and ancient Greeks.

(Not that we really needed these myths to point out those differences.  But it’s always interesting to have things highlighted in unusual ways, right?)


Starting the year right…

Published January 1, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

…blog-wise, by going back to my heartland.  That is, by talking about Greek myths.  The Trojan War, of course.  (It’s like a red letter day when it’s anything else, for the past year…well, almost a year.  A year minus two weeks, roughly.)

However, today’s is also different, ’cause today I want to talk about Helen.  Why she goes to Troy with Alexander/Paris is ultimately one of the biggest sticking points of the myth.  And by “sticking points” I more mean “hurdles on the track, which can trip the whole story and leave it flat on its face, unable to finish the race.”  It’s just that “sticking point” is more economical, in terms of number of words.

It seems like a lot of versions–even one of the earliest (technically, merely a reference (by Sappho), rather than a full telling)–insist that Helen went willingly out of love for Alexander/Paris.  That actually makes zero sense.  In fact, it makes negative sense.

Let me explain.  Helen is the Queen of Sparta.  (Actually, of Lacedaemon or Laconia, but Sparta is faster to type, so I’m going with that for this discussion.  And by that logic, I think I’ll start just calling him the later name Paris instead of the Homeric Alexander.)  And when I say she’s the Queen of Sparta, I mean it literally.  Not that she’s the “wife of the king”  but that she, herself, is the queen.  In other words, it’s her birthright to be the queen.  Menelaos only became king by marrying her.  So what the “she’s doing it for love” crowd are claiming is that she left behind the land of her birth, where the throne itself was her birthright, in order to move to a faraway kingdom (where, realistically, she wouldn’t speak the language or worship the same gods (though the myths themselves don’t reflect that)) where her beloved was only second in line to the throne.  So she’s sacrificing her royal birthright to be the foreign “bride” of a prince who has little chance of succeeding to the throne, given that his elder brother is a god among men, while Paris himself is a weakling.

Now let’s stop and look at a few other Greek queens in the same larger myth who decided that they didn’t love their husbands.  Clytemnestra spent years cavorting with Aigisthos until Agamemnon finally returned home, at which time they murdered him and then had their own wedding and settled in to rule Mycenae in peace.  (Until Orestes came home and killed them both, but that’s another story.)  Diomedes’ wife (sorry, I don’t remember her name) decided she didn’t love him, so she hooked up with a man from one of the other ruling families of Argos, and as soon as Diomedes returned home from the war, they drove him out of Argos, then ruled the city as husband and wife.  Clytemnestra’s case is complicated, but Diomedes’ wife’s case is open and shut.  Diomedes gained his throne by marrying her, so when she decided she wanted another husband, he was out of luck, out of wife, and out of home.  In other words, his position is exactly what Menelaos’ would have been if Helen simply fell in love with Paris; they would have driven him out of Sparta on his return from Crete.  Or, if Helen turned out to be more like her sister, they would have murdered him on his return.  Either way, her simply running away from Sparta–leaving behind her daughter as well as her homeland!–makes no sense.  If I had my reference books with me, I could come up with some more obscure cases that would parallel Diomedes’ pretty much exactly.  And probably a few that parallel Agamemnon’s, too.  (Though in most (or all) of those cases it would be the wife’s lover who did the killing, not the wife.  The fact that Clytemnestra herself took part in the murders was what really shocked them about the story.)

So, why did she go to Troy?  Well, that’s the big thing that every version has to decide on, isn’t it?  It’s easiest if you’re going to accept interference by the gods.  Then the gods made her go, in one way or another, for one reason or another.  That’s really the standard explanation, when one’s specifically given, in ancient times.  (There are exceptions, of course.  The Trojan Women of Euripides established that she went for reasons of lust and greed, and Sappho said she went for love, just to name two.)  The Iliad didn’t make a big deal of it, but it did have one small mention that did point out that Aphrodite’s gift to Paris made Helen unable to refuse him, thus explaining why she left with him, and moving the blame from Helen to Aphrodite.  The Cypria apparently told the story more fully, and made it even more clear that it was divine will that she go.

But how about if one wants to tell the story without the gods, or at least without allowing them much agency to interfere directly in the actions of humans?  Then, if you want it to make sense, there are only a few good explanations, and two of them specifically turn one side into the “good guys” and the other into the “bad guys.”

1)  This is one of the “taking sides” explanations.  Helen could have left with Paris if the Greeks specifically wanted an excuse to invade Troy.  In other words, Menelaos could have told her to elope with Paris as soon as his back was turned, in order to give him and Agamemnon an excuse to invade.  This is incompatible with Menelaos’ portrayal in most ancient works, of course, but that’s not really the point here; I’m just trying to outline the possible reasons a modern author could give Helen for her departure to Troy.  Of course, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be Menelaos who gave her the order to elope:  it could have been Agamemnon, or Tyndareos could see Paris’ flirting with her as an opportunity for his sons-in-law to gain even more power and prestige, or it could even be Odysseus’ suggestion (via his wife, Penelope, perhaps, since she’s Helen’s cousin) or whoever.  Point is, one could make the Trojans out to be essentially blameless by making Helen a knowing tool literally out to cause a war.

2)  To take the other side, Paris could abduct her by force (in many tellings, Aineias goes with him to Sparta, and he’s actually a powerful warrior, unlike his cousin Paris), not so much for reasons of sexual desire, but for political or financial reasons.  Since Helen is the rightful queen, her husband is automatically King of Sparta.  He could attempt to seduce her in order to gain Menelaos’ throne, and when that doesn’t work, steal her by force, intending to coerce her into the union at his leisure, only to find that her husband isn’t willing to wait for Paris’ plan to work.  Or he could steal her for some other political scheme hatched by himself, one of his brothers, one of the Trojan elders, or even by the High King in Hattusa.  (The real Troy was, after all, a Hittite vassal state.)  As a way to make the Greeks out to be blameless, this is a version unlikely to be used by any modern author.  (Except maybe if they’re Greek?)

3)  Helen could go with Paris specifically because she alone wants to foment war between the Greeks and the Trojans.  In most versions–though not all, as there’s no indication in Homer of the story–Helen was abducted by a horny, widowed Theseus when she was a young girl, and her brothers Castor and Polydeuces chased after them with the entire Spartan army, conquering Attica to get her back.  (This is why the King of Athens during the Trojan War is Menestheus rather than Theseus or one of his sons.  The Dioscuri put Menestheus, a friend of theirs as well as a member of a branch of the Athenian royal family, on the throne while they were at it.)  Having once before caused a war by being abducted, Helen would know that her departure to Troy would lead to another war over her, so that could be her real motivation, though exactly why she would want to cause a war would depend on the modern writer’s goals.  (Credit where credit’s due, this one isn’t my idea.  My professor was the one who suggested it, but it makes perfect sense.  It’s heartless, yes, but at least the logic of it is sound, unlike the “she’s doing it for love” version.)

4)  Helen runs off with Paris not because she wants to be married to him, but because she wants to reach Troy for other reasons.  For example, maybe she’s decided that she actually hates men, and wants to be an Amazon.  Troy is much closer to Scythia (where the historical women who inspired the tales of Amazons came from) so she could hope to escape from Troy and join the Amazons.  Or maybe she has some other reason for needing to be in Anatolia:  a prophecy to fulfill, a treasure to seek, a cure for some mystical plague, foretellings of doom if she remains in Greece, there are countless possibilities for whatever the modern storyteller might want.  This version can make not only the Greeks and Trojans out to be essentially blameless as instigators of the war, but can also salvage Helen’s own reputation, if her reasons are right, so it ought to be a modern writer’s go-to logic for Helen’s departure, and yet I doubt it’s seen much (if any) use.

Despite all these versions that would actually work, I have a feeling that if I did a survey of all Trojan War novels, movies and so forth of the last hundred years, I suspect that all (or almost all) of the versions that avoid or reject the intervention of the Greek gods in mortal affairs would go with some variation on the “love” version that doesn’t actually make a lick of sense.  I hope I’m wrong about that, but I fear I’m not.

(Admittedly, my own novel, Ilios, does not do anything groundbreaking in that regard, either.  But that’s because I wanted to follow the myths, so I had Aphrodite send Eros to blind her with one of his arrows.  It still doesn’t make sense, but at least she’s literally out of her head, so it doesn’t need to make sense.  Or not as much sense, anyway.)

So what’s my point?  Mostly, my point is “c’mon, guys, let’s see some creativity here!”  If you’ve gotta muck about with the myths, at least do it in a manner that’s gonna be interesting and make at least some sense.

Mythic origins

Published December 23, 2014 by Iphis of Scyros

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the “which came first?” debate regarding Patroclos and Antilochos.  There is a repetitive pattern, you see, which goes something like this:  Achilles loses someone close to him, knows he will die if he avenges him, and then he goes ahead and avenges him anyway, with the fates of him and his rival being weighed as they fight.  The version in the Iliad is, of course, well known to all.  (Rather, it bloody well ought to be!)  But the lost epic the Aithiopis told the similar tale in which Memnon killed Antilochos, and then Achilles killed Memnon to avenge him, only to die himself as he charged the city gates.  All we have for the Aithiopis is a summary and a few fragments, so it’s only a matter of speculation regarding what the precise relationship between Achilles and Antilochos was.  We know from the Iliad that they were friends, and that Antilochos was the youngest of the Achaians (and yet, bizarrely, he was also a suitor of Helen, despite that Achilles was too young to have been a suitor of Helen) so there is speculation in the academic community that Antilochos might have been Achilles’ eromenos in that lost epic, or in earlier works of oral composition that were never written down at all.  However, the ancient commentators never talk about any bond between Achilles and Antilochos other than friendship, whereas they held up Achilles and Patroclos as the ideal of love between men.  (Though there was some argument and changing of generally held opinions regarding who was the erastes and who the eromenos.)  This may have been because the scholars who say that there was romantic/sexual love between Achilles and Antilochos are wrong, or it may just be because the Iliad is one of the greatest works of literature ever, and the Aithiopis was not.  (If it was, it would have survived.)  Anyway, I’ve seen it theorized that “Homer” borrowed the bereavement/soul-weighing/vengeance motif that had originally been regarding Antilochos and Memnon, and applied it to Patroclos and Hector, thus forcibly implying a romantic bond between Achilles and Patroclos.  However, I’ve also seen it theorized that in earlier versions of the myth, Achilles had died immediately after killing Hector, as is implied by some of Thetis’ dialog in the Iliad, and that Memnon had to be invented to repeat the pattern to kill Achilles in the post-Iliad version of the myth.

As a die-hard Patroclos fan, obviously I dislike a version that makes him secondary to anyone.  However, I try to keep a level head about these things, and not let fondness overturn reason.

Now, I’ve not read much of the actual scholarship on the subject.  Just a tiny sample of the arguments on both sides.  So I don’t know the full story, academically.  Much of my theorizing on the subject therefore will necessarily seem uneducated to anyone who knows the full argument.  (As no doubt it will seem to me six months to a year from now, when I’ll probably have read much more about it.)  But I was thinking about it, just going through the myth as it has survived to now, and trying to work out which way would make sense as the earlier verison.

Neither fully works for me as the “true” pre-Iliad version.  Because if the Antilochos/Memnon version is the earlier version, then what happened to Patroclos and Hector?  Or rather, from the minimal attention paid to Patroclos in the Iliad prior to the time when he’s actually needed to start acting, it’s clear that the original audience both knew who he was, and that he was Achilles’ closest companion.  Everyone else–like Automedon, his charioteer–is “introduced” several times by their rank, role or closeness level, but Patroclos is not, because “Homer” knew that his audience didn’t need to be told that.  So he has to pre-date the Iliad by a significant margin.  And while Memnon’s demi-god status makes him a more fitting rival to Achilles than Hector is (especially since Memnon’s immortal parent is his mother, as Achilles’ is), it cannot be that Troy’s original primary defender was not a Trojan, but the King of Ethiopia.  So Hector always had to be the major enemy who needed defeating, and Achilles had to be the man to do it.

But on the other hand, the Patroclos/Hector model doesn’t quite work as the primary earlier version, either.  Because–as I just said–Achilles is a demi-god and Hector is an ordinary mortal, so where is the surprise that Achilles can defeat him?  Why was there a need to weigh their souls?  And why is the greatest hero of the Achaian forces giving up his life for the love of a man whose father is a nobody?  (Well, other than the obvious reason that love doesn’t care about bloodlines.  (Unless you’re a vampire.))

So, since both versions feel logically flawed when taken individually, it occurred to me that maybe around the time the Iliad was composed there were two versions floating around.  Perhaps the Patroclos/Hector version was the one more common in Ionia, and the Antilochos/Memnon version was more common in Greece, but most bards were aware of both, and freely swapped elements and motifs back and forth between them.

That, of course, still leaves the question of where the myths truly came from, and which one actually came first, what the original myth actually looked like.  To look at that, we have to speculate about their ultimate origin.  And about whether or not they’re based on anything that really happened.

If there was a joint Achaian venture against Troy–or rather Wilusa–that inspired the myths, then it was probably around 1250 BC, according to some of the latest archaeological work.  But Troy didn’t fall in 1250 BC; there was a Troy that fell much earlier, and another that fell much later, but mid-thirteenth century Troy was not destroyed.  So right there you have a variance from the myth:  if there really was a war between the Ahhiyawa and the Wilusans during the reign of Alaksandu, it did not end with the city being destroyed.  The Hittites were busy with their own affairs, but not that busy.

So let’s imagine what might really have happened to have spawned the myth that eventually grew into the one we know today.  Many of the names of the Homeric characters have been found in Linear B tablets as the names of ordinary people, so there might well have been real people that inspired some of those characters, so let’s make the (possibly absurd) leap of faith to assume that the Ahhiyawa forces were dominated by a man named Achilleus who was just unstoppable on the battlefield.

Maybe he had some close companion who was killed, and who he avenged.  That seems likely enough; battle scenes in literature the world over are replete with men avenging their friends slain in battle.  But not necessarily such a close friend as to be inseparable, or that they might have seemed to be more than friends.

More than that, though, looking at the myths, and especially the way Neoptolemos is usually handled, if there was a real man named Achilleus fighting in that war and proving to be so much stronger than his fellows…he probably survived.  Neoptolemos is always described as being exactly like his father in appearance, and some of the explanations of his birth don’t actually allow him enough time to be an adult by the time he shows up at Troy (and/or don’t make Achilles old enough to have fathered him before reaching Troy).  And his behavior is much like Achilles’, overall.  (Depending on whose Achilles you’re talking about.  The one in the Iliad ran the full gamut from horrific to thoughtful and contemplative.  Other authors were more likely to focus on one side or the other.  Though the same can be said about Neoptolemos:  the one in Sophocles’ Philoctetes is entirely unlike the vicious killer he’s said to have been in the Ilioupersei.)  So one real person may have become two mythical characters.  And why?  Probably because after the war was over, he went home and continued to be a terrible person, and did things that the poets didn’t want their hero to be guilty of.  So that was his son, who happened to look just like him, of course!  Or the terrible things he did were during the conclusion of the war.  That explanation also works.

Though it brings me to my next point.  Because obviously if there was a real war, it didn’t end in the destruction of Troy, so the entire story of what happened in the sack cannot be based on anything real.  Or not anything real from that particular war.  The horrors of war are universal, and can readily be transposed from one to another, particularly when the technology of warfare doesn’t change between the wars in question.  They might also have been basic mythic/bardic tropes that were already centuries old by the time of the Trojan War.

So how did it really end?  Beats the smeg out of me.  Probably, the Hittites rode in with a huge army and put a stop to it.  Or whatever had been the cause was nullified in the appropriate manner.  Given back/paid for/killed/what-have-you.

That asks the question if they could really have been fighting over a woman.  Hard to say.  There are records from the Late Bronze Age where two minor kingdoms did actually come close to war over a woman–she was apparently either an unwilling bride or an adulterous one, and married to a king, no less–but the Hittites intervened and prevented open warfare.  So it’s not impossible that a stolen queen could lead to war, but it does seem improbable that a queen could be so easily stolen.  (Whether or not she wanted to go, it would still be somewhere between difficult and impossible to get her out.  Hence the reason in the myth that Menelaos is usually in Crete for his grandfather’s funeral when Helen is taken.)

Of course, Helen running off to Troy with Alexander/Paris has always been the weak spot of the myth.  Because no matter how you slice it, it makes no sense, unless you assume the purely external “the gods forced her to do it” explanation.  Okay, sure, maybe she doesn’t love Menelaos and wants to elope with the handsome, exotic visitor.  Fine.  But why would she run away from her father’s kingdom and go to the kingdom where her beau is only the second in line for the throne?  Menelaos only becomes King of Lacedaemon because he marries Helen:  if she doesn’t want him any longer, it would make much more sense for her Trojan lover to kill him and then marry her, becoming the new king.  If he made it look like an accident or bandits on the road, he would likely get away with it entirely.  (And that’s only assuming that there’s no method of divorce.  If she could simply end her marriage, then that would be the obvious course of action.  There were ways of ending marriages in the Late Bronze Age (at least in Anatolia) but I don’t know if it was possible for the woman to set them in motion.)  Why do something so stupid as to take her away to Troy, leaving her husband alive and well and howling for retribution?  Even in ancient times, this never sat well with people.  Herodotus went to great lengths trying to come up with an explanation that made sense, and it still didn’t.

Net result?  No way the real war was over Helen.  Not if Helen was the same Spartan Queen we know.  Because it made no sense for her to leave.  So if it was fought over a runaway/abducted wife, then she was not the wife of a king, not his primary wife, anyway.  There are strong indications that it wasn’t just Sparta:  in the Late Bronze Age, inheritance via the female line was typical, so that it was the son-in-law who inherited, not the son.  (Not that it happened everywhere.  But it did happen among the Hittites, as far as we can tell, and the Greek myths provide enough examples of inheritance by the son-in-law that it seems a strong indication that in their distant past, when the myths were set, that was the norm for them, as well.)  However, there are also indications that the Mycenaean kings may have had two wives:  one to gain them their throne, and one from elsewhere.  (As Telamon, King of Salamis, had two sons, one by his wife, who had been his ticket onto the throne of Salamis, and one by his Trojan “concubine.”  In the Late Bronze Age, Aias and Teukros were probably both legitimate, but in different ways.)  So perhaps a secondary wife was brought to Troy by a king or prince?  Well, it’s not impossible.  But I don’t know how probable it is, either.  There are so many question marks, you know?

And by this point…if I had anywhere else I wanted to take this, I’ve forgotten it, so I’m just going to stop here.

I want to get back to my writing anyway.  I’m almost done with my (very) loose adaptation of “Achilles in Petticoats” into a modern, more mythically accurate, less ludicrously sexist play, and I’d like to finish it up before Christmas if I can.

‘Tis done!

Published September 27, 2014 by Iphis of Scyros

I’ve now officially taken the leap and self-published (half of) my first novel!

It’s kind of scary, y’know?

What if everyone who buys it hates it?

What if no one even buys it?

Et cetera….

My book covers the Trojan War from the marriage of Peleus and Thetis up until, well, for the half that’s out, it goes up to Achilles vowing to take vengeance on Hector for the death of Patroclos.  Book II will take it all the way up to the victorious Greek army preparing to sail away again.

That much is totally normal, nothing to worry about.

What worries me is that it’s written in sort of an experimental style.  Every chapter is in the first person, narrated by a different character.  Consequently, there’s a lot of inconsistency in the narrative style.  Some of them feel–to me, at least–much better than others.  That’s why I’ve been hoping for some reader feedback on LeanPub to improve any chapters that aren’t as good as the others.  (Hopefully I won’t be informed that none of them are any good…)

If only I knew how long it’s likely to take for anyone to potentially buy a copy!  But LeanPub doesn’t have very much fiction, so I don’t know what the general sales levels on fiction on the whole is…

Urgh…gotta stop worrying about this.

Anyway…I may as well self-advertise while I’m moaning, right?

I wasn’t sure what to do about the price, so I left it at their suggested default of minimum $0.99, and “suggested” $4.99.  I probably should have reduced the suggested.  Yeah, I think I’ll go do that.  Since it’s a work in progress, and only half a novel and all…

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