Iliad Background

Iliad = the story of Ilium (Troy), the city of Ilus (the grandfather of Priam). The work, 15,693 lines of hexameter, has been called this since the 5th century bce.

Ilus’’ son, King Laomedon, decided to build a wall for protection in the early days as the city was prospering. Poseidon agreed to offer divine aid, but after the impenetrable city wall was built, the Trojans refused to pay compensation for Poseidon’s efforts. Without divine protection, the city would be vulnerable to attack.

The mortal Peleus and the goddess Thetis were to be wed. This was arranged by Zeus, because although he was interested in Thetis, a prophecy revealed by Prometheus noted that her son would be greater than the father, and Zeus is touchy on this point due to family history. (As a reward for this knowledge, Zeus allowed Heracles to shoot the eagle that devoured Prometheus’ liver each day.) They invite all the gods but Eris (Discord, or Strife), somewhat naturally. But she is enraged at the snub and throws a golden apple (kalistei) among the guests with the inscription: “for the fairest.” Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each claims it to be intended for her.

There is difficulty finding a judge to decide between the three goddesses, Zeus naturally weaseling out. A shepherd is brought in, who turns out to be Paris, a son of Priam, king of Troy, and Hecuba. A prophecy had foretold that he would be the destruction of Troy, so he was exposed as an infant on Mount Ida, saved by shepherds, and brought up in obscurity. Now Hermes presents the vying goddesses, presenting themselves naked. Hera bribes Paris with power and the most prosperous kingdom, Athena promises glory in war, and Aphrodite promises him the most beautiful woman on earth. His choosing Aphrodite makes enemies of the other goddesses, who therefore favor the Greeks rather than the Trojans in the coming war.

Paris first sails to Troy to establish himself as prince, then to Greece where he is received by Menelaus, king of Sparta, who happens to be married to the most beautiful woman promised for Paris, Helen (“Helen of Troy,” oddly). Helen is seduced and persuaded to elope to Troy with Paris. When Menelaus is away at a funeral in Crete, they take some palace treasure too.

Menelaus calls upon his brother, Agamemnon in Mycenae, and assorted chieftains such as Aias (Ajax), Diomedes, Nestor, Idomeneus, and others. Back in the courting days, many had sworn allegiance to whomever would win the hand of Helen. They also needed Odysseus (Ulysses), who had been warned that he’d be gone from his home in Ithica for 20 years. He feigned madness but was found out when his newborn son was thrown in the path of the plow he was driving wildly about. They also draft Achilles, who had been warned that if he went to war he would attain great glory but die young. His mother Thetis (yep! and don’t think too hard about the time frame here) disguised him in women’s clothes, but the ruse was discovered by Odysseus when he and Diomedes pretended to be peddlers and hawked trinkets for the girls of the palace and laid a sword and shield nearby. When a trumpet blast sounded an alarm, Achilles instinctively grabbed the shield and sword and was found out.

These groups form a loose confederacy much like the way the gods operate under Zeus. After assembling 1000 ships (since Helen’s face has to launch that many for Marlowe), the winds die. It is discovered that Agamemnon had killed a deer sacred to Artemis, goddess of the hunt. To pacify her anger, Agamemnon must sacrifice his own daughter, Iphegenia. He tells her she will be married to Achilles, gets her to the sacrificial altar, and slashes her throat. Good news, though: the winds pick up. The Greeks sail to Troy, stopping at an island to sacrifice to the gods where a snake bites Philoctetes on the foot. The disgusting wound won’t heal and he is too sick to travel, so they abandon him and will have to address this much later. They approach Troy, but an oracle has said that the first to land would be the first to die, so there’s a lot of stalling. Finally Protesilaus leaps from the ship and runs up the shore. Hector comes over the rise and kills him. The war is on and drags on for nine years by the time the Iliad picks up the story, covering only a few months in the tenth year.

Iliad Index