Woes of Troy


A Tale of the Trojan War


There was once a war so great that the sound of it has come ringing down the centuries from singer to singer, and will never die.

The rivalries of men and gods brought about many calamities, but none so heavy as this; and it would never have come to pass, they say, if it had not been for jealousy among the immortals,–all because of a golden apple! But Destiny has nurtured ominous plants from little seeds; and this is how one evil grew great enough to overshadow heaven and earth.

The sea-nymph Thetis (whom Zeus himself had once desired for his wife) was given in marriage to a mortal, Peleus, and there was a great wedding-feast in heaven. Thither all the immortals were bidden, save one, Eris, the goddess of Discord, ever an unwelcome guest. But she came unbidden. While the wedding-guests sat at feast, she broke in upon their mirth, flung among them a golden apple, and departed with looks that boded ill. Someone picked up the strange missile and read its inscription: “For the Fairest”; and at once discussion arose among the goddesses. They were all eager to claim the prize, but only three persisted.

Venus, the very goddess of beauty, said that it was hers by right; but Juno could not endure to own herself less fair than another, and even Athena coveted the palm of beauty as well as of wisdom, and would not give it up! Discord had indeed come to the wedding-feast. Not one of the gods dared to decide so dangerous a question,–not Zeus himself, –and the three rivals were forced to choose a judge among mortals.

Now there lived on Mount Ida, near the city of Troy, a certain young shepherd by the name of Paris. He was as comely as Ganymede himself,–that Trojan youth whom Zeus, in the shape of an eagle, seized and bore away to Olympus, to be a cup-bearer to the gods. Paris, too, was a Trojan of royal birth, but like Oedipus he had been left on the mountain in his infancy, because the Oracle had foretold that he would be the death of his kindred and the ruin of his country. Destiny saved and nurtured him to fulfil that prophecy. He grew up as a shepherd and tended his flocks on the mountain, but his beauty held the favor of all the wood-folk there and won the heart of the nymph Oenone.

To him, at last, the three goddesses entrusted the judgment and the golden apple. Juno first stood before him in all her glory as Queen of gods and men, and attended by her favorite peacocks as gorgeous to see as royal fan-bearers.

“Use but the judgment of a prince, Paris,” she said, “and I will give thee wealth and kingly power.”

Such majesty and such promises would have moved the heart of any man; but the eager Paris had at least to hear the claims of the other rivals. Athena rose before him, a vision welcome as daylight, with her sea-gray eyes and golden hair beneath a golden helmet.

“Be wise in honoring me, Paris,” she said, “and I will give thee wisdom that shall last forever, great glory among men, and renown in war.”

Last of all, Venus shone upon him, beautiful as none can ever hope to be. If she had come, unnamed, as any country maid, her loveliness would have dazzled him like sea-foam in the sun; but she was girt with her magical Cestus, a spell of beauty that no one can resist.

Without a bribe she might have conquered, and she smiled upon his dumb amazement, saying, “Paris, thou shalt yet have for wife the fairest woman in the world.”

At these words, the happy shepherd fell on his knees and offered her the golden apple. He took no heed of the slighted goddesses, who vanished in a cloud that boded storm.

From that hour he sought only the counsel of Venus, and only cared to find the highway to his new fortunes. From her he learned that he was the son of King Priam of Troy, and with her assistance he deserted the nymph Oenone, whom he had married, and went in search of his royal kindred.

For it chanced at that time that Priam proclaimed a contest of strength between his sons and certain other princes, and promised as prize the most splendid bull that could be found among the herds of Mount Ida. Thither came the herdsmen to choose, and when they led away the pride of Paris’s heart, he followed to Troy, thinking that he would try his fortune and perhaps win back his own.

The games took place before Priam and Hecuba and all their children, including those noble princes Hector and Helenus, and the young Cassandra, their sister. This poor maiden had a sad story, in spite of her royalty; for, because she had once disdained Apollo, she was fated to foresee all things, and ever to have her prophecies disbelieved. On this fateful day, she alone was oppressed with strange forebodings.

But if he who was to be the ruin of his country had returned, he had come victoriously. Paris won the contest. At the very moment of his honor, poor Cassandra saw him with her prophetic eyes; and seeing as well all the guilt and misery that he was to bring upon them, she broke into bitter lamentations, and would have warned her kindred against the evil to come. But the Trojans gave little heed; they were wont to look upon her visions as spells of madness. Paris had come back to them a glorious youth and a victor; and when he made known the secret of his birth, they cast the words of the Oracle to the winds, and received the shepherd as a long-lost prince.

Thus far all went happily. But Venus, whose promise had not yet been fulfilled, bade Paris procure a ship and go in search of his destined bride. The prince said nothing of this quest, but urged his kindred to let him go; and giving out a rumor that he was to find his father’s lost sister Hesione, he set sail for Greece, and finally landed at Sparta.

There he was kindly received by Menelaus, the king, and his wife, Fair Helen.

This queen had been reared as the daughter of Tyndarus and Queen Leda, but some say that she was the child of an enchanted swan, and there was indeed a strange spell about her. All the greatest heroes of Greece had wooed her before she left her father’s palace to be the wife of King Menelaus; and Tyndarus, fearing for her peace, had bound her many suitors by an oath. According to this pledge, they were to respect her choice, and to go to the aid of her husband if ever she should be stolen away from him. For in all Greece there was nothing so beautiful as the beauty of Helen. She was the fairest woman in the world.

Now thus did Venus fulfil her promise and the shepherd win his reward with dishonor. Paris dwelt at the court of Menelaus for a long time, treated with a royal courtesy which he ill repaid. For at length while the king was absent on a journey to Crete, his guest won the heart of Fair Helen, and persuaded her to forsake her husband and sail away to Troy.

King Menelaus returned to find the nest empty of the swan. Paris and the fairest woman in the world were well across the sea.


When this treachery came to light, all Greece took fire with indignation. The heroes remembered their pledge, and wrath came upon them at the wrong done to Menelaus. But they were less angered with Fair Helen than with Paris, for they felt assured that the queen had been lured from her country and out of her own senses by some spell of enchantment. So they took counsel how they might bring back Fair Helen to her home and husband.

Years had come and gone since that wedding-feast when Eris had flung the apple of discord, like a firebrand, among the guests. But the spark of dissension that had smouldered so long burst into flame now, and, fanned by the enmities of men and the rivalries of the gods, it seemed like to fire heaven and earth.

A few of the heroes answered the call to arms unwillingly. Time had reconciled them to the loss of Fair Helen, and they were loath to leave home and happiness for war, even in her cause.

One of these was Odysseus, king of Ithaca, who had married Penelope, and was quite content with his kingdom and his little son Telemachus. Indeed, he was so unwilling to leave them that he feigned madness in order to escape service, appeared to forget his own kindred, and went ploughing the seashore and sowing salt in the furrows. But a messenger, Palamedes, who came with the summons to war, suspected that this sudden madness might be a stratagem, for the king was far famed as a man of many devices. He therefore stood by, one day (while Odysseus, pretending to take no heed of him, went ploughing the sand), and he laid the baby Telemachus directly in the way of the ploughshare. For once the wise man’s craft deserted him. Odysseus turned the plough sharply, caught up the little prince, and there his fatherly wits were manifest! After this he could no longer play madman. He had to take leave of his beloved wife Penelope and set out to join the heroes, little dreaming that he was not to return for twenty years. Once embarked, however, he set himself to work in the common cause of the heroes, and was soon as ingenious as Palamedes in rousing laggard warriors.

There remained one who was destined to be the greatest warrior of all. This was Achilles, the son of Thetis,–foretold in the day of Prometheus as a man who should far outstrip his own father in glory and greatness. Years had passed since the marriage of Thetis to King Peleus, and their son Achilles was now grown to manhood, a wonder of strength indeed, and, moreover, invulnerable. For his mother, forewarned of his death in the Trojan War, had dipped him in the sacred river Styx when he was a baby, so that he could take no hurt from any weapon. From head to foot she had plunged him in, only forgetting the little heel that she held him by, and this alone could be wounded by any chance. But even with such precautions Thetis was not content. Fearful at the rumors of war to be, she had her son brought up, in woman’s dress, among the daughters of King Lycomedes of Scyros, that he might escape the notice of men and cheat his destiny.

To this very palace, however, came Odysseus in the guise of a merchant, and he spread his wares before the royal household,–jewels and ivory, fine fabrics, and curiously wrought weapons. The king’s daughters chose girdles and veils and such things as women delight in; but Achilles, heedless of the like, sought out the weapons, and handled them with such manly pleasure that his nature stood revealed. So he, too, yielded to his destiny and set out to join the heroes.

Everywhere men were banded together, building the ships and gathering supplies. The allied forces of Greece (the Achaeans, as they called themselves) chose Agamemnon for their commander-in-chief. He was a mighty man, king of Mycenae and Argos, and the brother of the wronged Menelaus. Second to Achilles in strength was the giant Ajax; after him Diomedes, then wise Odysseus, and Nestor, held in great reverence because of his experienced age and fame. These were the chief heroes. After two years of busy preparation, they reached the port of Aulis, whence they were to sail for Troy.

But here delay held them. Agamemnon had chanced to kill a stag which was sacred to Diana, and the army was visited by pestilence, while a great calm kept the ships imprisoned. At length the Oracle made known the reason of this misfortune and demanded for atonement the maiden Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s own daughter. In helpless grief the king consented to offer her up as a victim, and the maiden was brought ready for sacrifice. But at the last moment Diana caught her away in a cloud, leaving a white hind in her place, and carried her to Tauris in Scythia, there to serve as a priestess in the temple. In the meantime, her kinsfolk, who were at a loss to understand how she had disappeared, mourned her as dead. But Diana had accepted their child as an offering, and healing came to the army, and the winds blew again. So the ships set sail.

Meanwhile, in Troy across the sea, the aged Priam and Hecuba gave shelter to their son Paris and his stolen bride. They were not without misgivings as to these guests, but they made ready to defend their kindred and the citadel.

There were many heroes among the Trojans and their allies, brave and upright men, who little deserved that such reproach should be brought upon them by the guilt of Prince Paris. There were Aeneas and Deiphobus, Glaucus and Sarpedon, and Priam’s most noble son Hector, chief of all the forces, and the very bulwark of Troy. These and many more were bitterly to regret the day that had brought Paris back to his home. But he had taken refuge with his own people, and the Trojans had to take up his cause against the hostile fleet that was coming across the sea.

Even the gods took sides. Juno and Athena, who had never forgiven the judgment of Paris, condemned all Troy with, him and favored the Greeks, as did also Poseidon, god of the sea. But Venus, true to her favorite, furthered the interests of the Trojans with all her power, and persuaded the warlike Mars to do likewise. Zeus and Apollo strove to be impartial, but they were yet to aid now one side, now another, according to the fortunes of the heroes whom they loved.

Over the sea came the great embassy of ships, sped hither safely by the god Poseidon; and the heroes made their camp on the plain before Troy. First of all Odysseus and King Menelaus himself went into the city and demanded that Fair Helen should be given back to her rightful husband. This the Trojans refused; and so began the siege of Troy.


Nine years the Greeks laid siege to Troy, and Troy held out against every device. On both sides the lives of many heroes were spent, and they were forced to acknowledge each other enemies of great valor.

Sometimes the chief warriors fought in single combat, while the armies looked on, and the old men of Troy, with the women, came out to watch far off from the city walls. King Priam and Queen Hecuba would come, and Cassandra, sad with foreknowledge of their doom, and Andromache, the lovely young wife of Hector, with her little son whom the people called “The City King”. Sometimes Fair Helen came to look across the plain to the fellow-countrymen whom she had forsaken; and although she was the cause of all this war, the Trojans half forgave her when she passed by, because her beauty was like a spell, and warmed hard hearts as the sunshine mellows apples. So for nine years the Greeks plundered the neighboring towns, but the city Troy stood fast, and the Grecian ships waited with folded wings.

The half of that story cannot be told here, but in the tenth year of the war many things came to pass, and the end drew near. Of this tenth year alone, there are a score of tales. For the Greeks fell to quarrelling among themselves over the spoils of war, and the great Achilles left the camp in anger and refused to fight. Nothing would induce him to return, till his friend Patroclus was slain by Prince Hector. At that news, indeed, Achilles rose in great might and returned to the Greeks; and he went forth clad in armor that had been wrought for him by Vulcan, at the prayer of Thetis. By the river Scamander, near to Troy, he met and slew Hector, and afterwards dragged the hero’s body after his chariot across the plain. How the aged Priam went alone by night to the tent of Achilles to ransom his son’s body, and how Achilles relented, and moreover granted a truce for the funeral honors of his enemy,–all these things have been so nobly sung that they can never be fitly spoken.

Hector, the bulwark of Troy, had fallen, and the ruin of the city was at hand. Achilles himself did not long survive his triumph, and, ruthless as he was, he ill-deserved the manner of his death. He was treacherously slain by that Paris who would never have dared to meet him in the open field. Paris, though he had brought all this disaster upon Troy, had left the danger to his countrymen. But he lay in wait for Achilles in a temple sacred to Apollo, and from his hiding-place he sped a poisoned arrow at the hero. It pierced his ankle where the water of the Styx had not charmed him against wounds, and of that venom the great Achilles died. Paris himself died soon after by another poisoned arrow, but that was no long grief to anybody!

Still Troy held out, and the Greeks, who could not take it by force, pondered how they might take it by craft. At length, with the aid of Odysseus, they devised a plan.

A portion of the Grecian host broke up camp and set sail as if they were homeward bound; but, once out of sight, they anchored their ships behind a neighboring island. The rest of the army then fell to work upon a great image of a horse. They built it of wood, fitted and carved, and with a door so cunningly concealed that none might notice it. When it was finished, the horse looked like a prodigious idol; but it was hollow, skilfully pierced here and there, and so spacious that a band of men could lie hidden within and take no harm. Into this hiding-place went Odysseus, Menelaus, and the other chiefs, fully armed, and when the door was shut upon them, the rest of the Grecian army broke camp and went away.

Meanwhile, in Troy, the people had seen the departure of the ships, and the news had spread like wildfire. The great enemy had lost heart,–after ten years of war! Part of the army had gone,–the rest were going. Already the last of the ships had set sail, and the camp was deserted. The tents that had whitened the plain were gone like a frost before the sun. The war was over!

The whole city went wild with joy. Like one who has been a prisoner for many years, it flung off all restraint, and the people rose as a single man to test the truth of new liberty. The gates were thrown wide, and the Trojans–men, women, and children–thronged over the plain and into the empty camp of the enemy. There stood the Wooden Horse.

No one knew what it could be. Fearful at first, they gathered around it, as children gather around a live horse; they marvelled at its wondrous height and girth, and were for moving it into the city as a trophy of war.

At this, one man interposed,–Laocooen, a priest of Poseidon. “Take heed, citizens,” said he. “Beware of all that comes from the Greeks. Have you fought them for ten years without learning their devices? This is some piece of treachery.”

But there was another outcry in the crowd, and at that moment certain of the Trojans dragged forward a wretched man who wore the garments of a Greek. He seemed the sole remnant of the Grecian army, and as such they consented to spare his life, if he would tell them the truth.

Sinon, for this was the spy’s name, said that he had been left behind by the malice of Odysseus, and he told them that the Greeks had built the Wooden Horse as an offering to Athena, and that they had made it so huge in order to keep it from being moved out of the camp, since it was destined to bring triumph to its possessors.

At this, the joy of the Trojans was redoubled, and they set their wits to find out how they might soonest drag the great horse across the plain and into the city to ensure victory. While they stood talking, two immense serpents rose out of the sea and made towards the camp.

Some of the people took flight, others were transfixed with terror; but all, near and far, watched this new omen. Rearing their crests, the sea-serpents crossed the shore, swift, shining, terrible as a risen water-flood that descends upon a helpless little town. Straight through the crowd they swept, and seized the priest Laocooen where he stood, with his two sons, and wrapped them all round and round in fearful coils. There was no chance of escape. Father and sons perished together; and when the monsters had devoured the three men, into the sea they slipped again, leaving no trace of the horror.

The terrified Trojans saw an omen in this. To their minds, punishment had come upon Laocooen for his words against the Wooden Horse. Surely, it was sacred to the gods; he had spoken blasphemy, and had perished before their eyes. They flung his warning to the winds. They wreathed the horse with garlands, amid great acclaim; and then, all lending a hand, they dragged it, little by little, out of the camp and into the city of Troy. With the close of that victorious day, they gave up every memory of danger and made merry after ten years of privation.

That very night Sinon the spy opened the hidden door of the Wooden Horse, and in the darkness, Odysseus, Menelaus, and the other chiefs who had lain hidden there crept out and gave the signal to the Grecian army. For, under cover of night, those ships that had been moored behind the island had sailed back again, and the Greeks were come upon Troy.

Not a Trojan was on guard. The whole city was at feast when the enemy rose in its midst, and the warning of Laocooen was fulfilled.

Priam and his warriors fell by the sword, and their kingdom was plundered of all its fair possessions, women and children and treasure. Last of all, the city itself was burned to its very foundations.

Homeward sailed the Greeks, taking as royal captives poor Cassandra and Andromache and many another Trojan. And home at last went Fair Helen, the cause of all this sorrow, eager to be forgiven by her husband, King Menelaus. For she had awakened from the enchantment of Venus, and even before the death of Paris she had secretly longed for her home and kindred. Home to Sparta she came with the king after a long and stormy voyage, and there she lived and died the fairest of women.

But the kingdom of Troy was fallen. Nothing remained of all its glory but the glory of its dead heroes and fair women, and the ruins of its citadel by the river Scamander. There even now, beneath the foundations of later homes that were built and burned, built and burned, in the wars of a thousand years after, the ruins of ancient Troy lie hidden, like mouldered leaves deep under the new grass. And there, to this very day, men who love the story are delving after the dead city as you might search for a buried treasure.


The Greeks had won back Fair Helen, and had burned the city of Troy behind them, but theirs was no triumphant voyage home. Many were driven far and wide before they saw their land again, and one who escaped such hardships came home to find a bitter welcome. This was the chief of all the hosts, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and Argos. He it was who had offered his own daughter Iphigenia to appease the wrath of Diana before the ships could sail for Troy. An ominous leave-taking was his, and calamity was there to greet him home again.

He had entrusted the cares of the state to his cousin Aegisthus, commending also to his protection Queen Clytemnestra with her two remaining children, Electra and Orestes.

Now Clytemnestra was a sister of Helen of Troy, and a beautiful woman to see; but her heart was as evil as her face was fair. No sooner had her husband gone to the wars than she set up Aegisthus in his place, as if there were no other king of Argos. For years this faithless pair lived arrogantly in the face of the people, and controlled the affairs of the kingdom. But as time went by and the child Orestes grew to be a youth, Aegisthus feared lest the Argives should stand by their own prince, and drive him away as an usurper. He therefore planned the death of Orestes, and even won the consent of the queen, who was no gentle mother! But the princess Electra, suspecting their plot, secretly hurried her brother away to the court of King Strophius in Phocis, and so saved his life. She was not, however, to save a second victim.

The ten years of war went by, and the chief, Agamemnon, came home in triumph, heralded by all the Argives, who were as exultant over the return of their lawful king as over the fall of Troy. Into the city came the remnant of his own men, bearing the spoils of war, and, in the midst of a jubilant multitude, King Agamemnon sharing his chariot with the captive princess, Cassandra.

Queen Clytemnestra went out to greet him with every show of joy and triumph. She had a cloth of purple spread before the palace, that her husband might come with state into his home once more; and before all beholders she protested that the ten years of his absence had bereaved her of all happiness.

The unsuspicious king left his chariot and entered the palace; but the princess Cassandra hesitated and stood by in fear. Poor Cassandra! Her kindred were slain and the doom of her city was fulfilled, but the curse of prophecy still followed her. She felt the shadow of coming evil, and there before the door she recoiled, and cried out that there was blood in the air. At length, despairing of her fate, she too went in. Even while the Argives stood about the gates, pitying her madness, the prophecy came true.

Clytemnestra, like any anxious wife, had led the travel-worn king to a bath; and there, when he had laid by his arms, she and Aegisthus threw a net over him, as they would have snared any beast of prey, and slew him, defenceless. In the same hour Cassandra, too, fell into their hands, and they put an end to her warnings. So died the chief of the great army and his royal captive.

The murderers proclaimed themselves king and queen before all the people, and none dared rebel openly against such terrible authority.

But Aegisthus was still uneasy at the thought that the Prince Orestes might return some day to avenge his father. Indeed, Electra had sent from time to time secret messages to Phocis, entreating her brother to come and take his rightful place, and save her from her cruel mother and Aegisthus. But there came to Argos one day a rumor that Orestes himself had died in Phocis, and the poor princess gave up all hope of peace; while Clytemnestra and Aegisthus made no secret of their relief, but even offered impious thanks in the temple, as if the gods were of their mind! They were soon undeceived.

Two young Phokians came to the palace with news of the last days of Orestes, so they said; and they were admitted to the presence of the king and queen. They were, in truth, Orestes himself and his friend Pylades (son of King Strophius), who had ventured safety and all to avenge Agamemnon. Then and there Orestes killed Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, and appeared before the Argives as their rightful prince.

But not even so did he find peace. In slaying Clytemnestra, wicked as she was, he had murdered his own mother, a deed hateful to gods and men. Day and night he was haunted by the Furies.

These dread sisters never leave Hades save to pursue and torture some guilty conscience. They wear black raiment, like the wings of a bat; their hair writhes with serpents fierce as remorse, and in their hands they carry flaming torches that make all shapes look greater and more fearful than they are. No sleep can soothe the mind of him they follow. They come between his eyes and the daylight; at night their torches drive away all comfortable darkness. Poor Orestes, though he had punished two murderers, felt that he was no less a murderer himself.

From land to land he wandered in despair that grew to madness, with one only comrade, the faithful Pylades, who was his very shadow. At length he took refuge in Athens, under the protection of Athena, and gave himself up to be tried by the court of the Areopagus. There he was acquitted; but not all the Furies left him, and at last he besought the Oracle of Apollo to befriend him.

“Go to Tauris, in Scythia,” said the voice, “and bring from thence the image of Diana which fell from the heavens.” So he set out with his Pylades and sailed to the shore of Scythia.

Now the Taurians were a savage people, who strove to honor Diana, to their rude minds, by sacrificing all the strangers that fell into their hands. There was a temple not far from the seaside, and its priestess was a Grecian maiden, one Iphigenia, who had miraculously appeared there years before, and was held in especial awe by Thoas, the king of the country round about. Sorely against her will, she had to hallow the victims offered at this shrine; and into her presence Orestes and Pylades were brought by the men who had seized them.

On learning that they were Grecians and Argives (for they withheld their names), the priestess was moved to the heart. She asked them many questions concerning the fate of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and the warriors against Troy, which they answered as best they could. At length she said that she would help one of them to escape, if he would swear to take a message from her to one in Argos.

“My friend shall bear it home,” said Orestes. “As for me, I stay and endure my fate.” “Nay,” said Pylades; “how can I swear? For I might lose this letter by shipwreck or some other mischance” “Hear the message, then,” said the high-priestess. “And thou wilt keep it by thee with thy life. To Orestes, son of Agamemnon, say Iphigenia, his sister, is dead indeed unto her parents, but not to him. Say that Diana has had charge over her these many years since she was snatched away at Aulis, and that she waits until her brother shall come to rescue her from this duty of bloodshed and take her home.”

At these words their amazement knew no bounds. Orestes embraced his lost sister and told her all his story, and the three, breathless with eagerness, planned a way of escape.

The king of Tauris had already come to witness the sacrifice. But Iphigenia took in her hands the sacred image of Diana, and went out to tell him that the rites must be delayed. One of the strangers, said she, was guilty of the murder of his mother, the other sharing his crime; and these unworthy victims must be cleansed with pure sea-water before they could be offered to Diana. The sacred image had been desecrated by their touch, and that, too, must be solemnly purged by no other hands than hers.

To this the king consented. He remained to burn austral fires in the temple; the people withdrew to their houses to escape pollution, and the priestess with her victims reached the seaside in safety. Once there, with the sacred image which was to bring them good fortune, they hastened to the Grecian galley and put off from that desolate shore. So, with his new-found sister and his new hope, Orestes went over the seas to Argos, to rebuild the honor of the royal house.


Title: Old Greek Folk Stories Told A New (1897)

Author: Josephine Preston Peabody


(PS: Staff) Have you ever listened to the song: Cassandra by ABBA.


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