Despite it’s controversies (click here to hear more about them) I find the British Museum a wonderful and fascinating building and could wander around its many halls and galleries for days. In particular I love their Ancient Greece exhibition. I find the ancient Greek culture fascinating, their pantheon beautifully flawed and their stories and legends captivating, especially in the retellings. I have visited the Greek wing of the museum countless time to gaze at the pantheon marbles and the remains of temples. When I heard that Troy: Myth and Reality was opening, the fact I would be attending was inevitable.
Troy: Myth and Reality tells the public about the Trojan horse and sacking of the city of Troy as well as debating which parts of the story were true and which were inspired by different sources. The general public are probably most familiar with two sections of the story, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad takes place in the ninth year of the war, lasts for several weeks and is more the story of Achilles’ rage than the war itself. Achilles refuses to fight with the Greeks after the leader of the Greek army, King Agamemnon, steals his war bride. Without their most powerful warrior, the army is almost defeated. When Achilles’ lover Patroclus is killed, Achilles joins the battle and murders Prince Hector of Troy in revenge. After brutalising Hector’s body for twelve days, King Priam travels to the Greek camp and negotiates the return of his son’s body, quelling Achilles’ rage. The Odyssey takes place after the sacking of Troy and follows the story of Odysseus’s return journey to Ithaca. The journey should have taken two weeks but instead takes ten years after the Gods curse Odysseus. Despite all this, Odysseus eventually returns home, kills the suitors attempting to marry his wife and reclaims his home.
You may notice from the two summaries that neither book explains how the war started or ended. This is because the Iliad and the Odyssey are two stories in a series called The Epic Cycle. The Epic Cycle consists of nine separate stories.
Cypria – Eris, the Goddesses of Discord presents the apple of Discord to the Gods. This results in Paris judging Aphrodite the fairest of all the gods after she bribes him by promising him the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris receives Helen of Troy (how is different in each retelling) sparking the trojan war. This book also covers the first nine years of said war.
The Iliad – The Iliad tells the story of the death of Patroclus, Prince Hector and Achilles’ rage.
Aethiopis – This book primarily deals with the death of Achilles. Paris shoots him with a arrow through his weak spot, his Achilles’ heel.
Little Iliad – The Trojan horse is built and the Greeks retreat from the walls of the city.
Iliou Persis – The Trojan horse is wheeled inside the city gates and the citizens celebrate their victory. While doing so Greek warriors inside the horse sneak out and open the gates. Troy is sacked.
Nostoi – The Greek army returns home (apart from Odysseus) and King Agamemnon is murdered by his vengeful wife for sacrificing their daughter at the start of the war.
Odyssey – The story of Odysseus’ ten year journey home from Troy to Ithaca.
Telogony – The story of Odysseus’ death at the hands of his illegitimate son Telegonus.
Aeneid – Aeneas’ trek after the siege of Troy to found the city of Rome.
It is worth pointing out that the Aeneid isn’t always considered a cannon entry To the Epic Cycle. It was written eight hundred years after the Iliad and the Odyssey by Virgil who had been ordered to do so by the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. Virgil decided to write a story about the founding of Rome while subtly mocking Augustus in the text. He also retells certain parts of the Iliad and the Odyssey but with character names changed.
Fun fact: Troy used to be called Ilias. If you translate the title of the book The Iliad it would literally translate as Troy Story! If you are wondering how we know so much about The Epic Cycle it’s because copies of the Iliad and the Odyssey survived through time. Only summaries of the other texts exist in the modern day.
Homer is often credited with writing the Iliad and the Odyssey. I’ve spoken about Homer before on this website (click anywhere in these brackets to learn more) but, like William Shakespeare, historians are not sure who Homer was, if he was a group of authors or if the man even existed.
If he was real, we know four facts about him.
- He did not write the Iliad or the Odyssey.
- He was blind.
- He lived on the island of Chios.
- He lived somewhere around 700 BC.
The Epic Cycle was told orally and not written down for hundreds of years. As such when Homer retold the stories he included details that are historically out of place. Both armies use bronze weapons instead of iron and use battlefield tactics that had yet to be invented. Most sources we have describe Homer as being blind and based on the instructions in the Iliad of how the Greek army sailed to Troy, if we follow this route in reverse we reach the island of Chios, Homer’s suspected home.
With the author’s identity now dubious, is his story of the trojan war real? The answer is, predictably, no. Although the Greek pantheon was real to the citizens of Ancient Greece, and there are some people in the modern day who still worship these gods, their involvement in the story prove that it is a fable. However there are many elements of the story that are real. Troy is a real place. It was discovered in northwestern Turkey by a German archaeologist called Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 who followed the route Homer described in the Iliad. Archaeologists have concluded that there was a large battle at the city of Troy during the same time period as The Epic Cycle.
Even some of the fantastical elements of the story can be explained. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the website the skulls of elephants were mistaken for the skulls of giant cyclopses and the plant Odysseus consumes to counteract Circe’s poisons is a real plant called Snowdrop. If you want to read more about those examples click here.
But I think that the fact the trojan war wasn’t real is beside the point. The stories are filled with flawed and interesting characters. Achilles’ pride costs him the life of his lover and his rage eventually costs him his own life. Odysseus’ cunning allows him to escape the God’s wrath but his hubris results in the death of his crew. This is what makes the characters so interesting, they are deliciously complicated and relatable. Near the end of the exhibition there is an audio station where you can hear members of the British Army talking about their experience of war and how they relate to the ancient heroes. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey have been used in bibliotherapy the practice of reading as a healing exercise.
I highly recommend that you go to the exhibition if you have not already done so. It takes between one to two hours to complete, depending on your speed but the final date is 8th March 2020. You should also check out The Epic Cycle, even though it is a tough read I can promise you it is worth the journey.