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. Some one 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 Athene 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 Œdipus, 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 fulfill 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 Œnone.
To him, at last, the three goddesses intrusted 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. Athene 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 Œnone, 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 fulfill 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, or Ilium.
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, or Ulysses, 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 Ulysses, 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. Ulysses 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 Ulysses 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 Achaians, as they called themselves) chose Agamemnon for their commander-in-chief. He was a mighty man, king of Mycenæ and Argos, and the brother of the wronged Menelaus. Second to Achilles in strength was the giant Ajax; after him Diomedes, then wise Ulysses, 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 mean time, 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 Æneas and Deïphobus, 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 Athene, who had never forgiven the judgment of Paris, condemned all Troy with him and favored the Greeks, as did also Neptune, 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 Neptune; and the heroes made their camp on the plain before Troy. First of all Ulysses 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.