Background to The Iliad
Zeus, the father of all gods and his brother Poseidon desired the goddess of water, Thetis. However, they were warned by Prometheus, an intelligent mortal who is better known for being chained to a rock as a result of stealing Zeus’ fire, that Thetis would give birth to a son who would be mightier than his father. Alarmed at this possibility, the two gods arranged for Thetis to marry Peleus, a mortal. Since humans were believed to be inferior to gods, this ensured that Thetis’ child would be a mere mortal and would cause the prophecy to be redundant.
All issues had appeared to be solved until the gods omitted Eris, the goddess of discord from Thetis and Peleus’ wedding invitation list. Furious at this insult, Eris arrived at the wedding with her own plans. She inscribed a golden apple with the words, ‘To The Fairest’ and threw it amongst the guests. Naturally, all goddesses desired to claim the prize. Eventually, the choice was narrowed down to three of the most beautiful goddesses: Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. Unable to reach a decision, they turned to Zeus to judge who should win the title. However, Zeus refused to do so and instead, elected a mortal who had good judgment of beauty to make the choice. This mortal was Paris, prince of Troy and whose birth produced a prophecy that he would one day bring misfortune to his people and town.
The three goddesses approached Paris with not only their beauty, but also bribes. Hera offered him power and control over Europe and Asia, Athena promised that she will make him a great warrior while Aphrodite would present him the most beautiful of woman on earth. Since Paris was more interested in women than power and war, he awarded Aphrodite with the golden apple.
Thus the beginning of Troy’s troubles began, since the most beautiful woman on earth, Helen, was already married to the Menelaus, king of Sparta. After a diplomatic mission to Sparta, Paris eloped with Helen, who had fallen in love with Paris upon their first encounter*. Upon discovering Paris’ betrayal, Menelaus called on Helen’s many suitors to invade Troy and retrieve his wife. His brother, Agamemnon recruited and lead the Greek army into battle against the city of Troy, and thus began the Trojan War.
The story begins ten years into the Trojan War. Thetis, the goddess who had married Peleus gave birth to their mortal son Achilles, who was the mightiest of all Greeks, as predicted by the prophecy. Although he was a fighter for Agamemnon, their relationship was strained after Agamemnon demanded that Achilles give up his beloved war prize, Briseis. Since Agamemnon desired Briseis for himself, this enraged Achilles who consequently refused to fight in the Trojan War. This lead to dire consequences for the Greeks as they lost many men in battle and were forced to retreat to their ships after the Trojans successfully turned the tide of battle.
Concerned for his Myrmidons** yet too proud to budge from his position, Achilles was persuaded to allow his close friend and comrade Patroclus, to wear Achilles’ renowned armour and lead his Myrmidons into battle. Seeing Achilles back in battle would rouse fear in the Trojans and cause them to temporarily retreat, allowing the Greeks to recover and rest. However, Achilles insisted that Patroclus only fight until the Greeks could successfully fend off the Trojans away from their ships.
Patroclus was skilled in battle and killed many Trojans. However, Patroclus disobeyed Achilles’ orders and continued to pursue the Trojans back to their gates. During this time he fought Hector, the prince of Troy and leader of the Trojan army, and was killed.
Fuelled with rage and grief over Patroclus’ death, Achilles agreed to fight once again for the Greek army, much to Agamemnon’s pleasure. In their next battle, Achilles killed many warriors and the Trojans were forced to retreat back to the safety of their walls. Hector, against the will of his family, faced Achilles alone outside the walls of his home, knowing that Achilles was on a path to avenge Patroclus’s death. In a fierce battle between the two great warriors, Hector was killed. Achilles took Hector’s body with him and dishonoured it day after day by chaining it to a chariot and dragging it along the walls of Troy. The gods agreed that this horrendous behaviour could not continue and sent the god Hermes to guide king Priam, father of Hector to the Greek camp. Once in their camp, Priam falls to his knees and pleads Achilles for the body of his son. Touched by the king’s words, Achilles relented, allowing Priam to finally hold a proper burial for Hector.
*Literature concerning this part of the story remains ambiguous, as sources are inconsistent and obscure.
**Myrmidons were a group of the strongest and skilled warriors who fought for Achilles.