Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 4 Chapter 1 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 4, Chapter 1 : The Trojan War | Summary



Prologue: The Judgment of Paris

The conflict leading to the Trojan War begins when the goddess of discord, Eris, is excluded from the wedding party for King Peleus and the sea nymph Thetis. As revenge, Eris throws a golden apple into the banquet hall marked with a note: "For the Fairest." The goddesses Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena are the finalists, but Zeus refuses to decide. He sends them to Paris, a prince of Troy who lives near Mount Ida with a nymph named Oenone. Each of the goddesses offers Paris a reward for choosing her, but he gives the apple to Aphrodite who promises him the "fairest woman in all the world."

The Trojan War

Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, is the fairest woman in the world. Her parents are Zeus and Leda, but she is raised the daughter of Leda's husband, Tyndareus, who exacts an oath from her many suitors that they will unite with her husband if he is wronged in his marriage. Paris leaves his nymph, Oenone, and goes to Sparta where Menelaus and Helen welcome him. While Menelaus visits Crete, Paris takes Helen to Troy. When Menelaus returns and finds Paris and his wife gone, he summons the kings of Greece to help him, and all but Odysseus, King of Ithaca, and Achilles, son of Peleus and Thetis, come at once.

When a messenger goes to Ithaca to fetch Odysseus, he finds the king plowing a field and sowing it with salt, as if he had gone mad. The messenger places Odysseus's infant son in front of the plow, and Odysseus turns the plow to avoid the child. The ruse of his madness is exposed, and Odysseus joins the others for war. Odysseus goes to the court of King Lycomedes, where Thetis has sent Achilles disguised as a woman to keep him from the war. Odysseus pretends to be a peddler, and when Achilles, still in disguise, shows interest in Odysseus's weapons, his cover is blown. Odysseus easily convinces Achilles to join the army.

The troops sail in 1,000 ships to Troy, but their commander, Menelaus's brother Agamemnon, must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to ensure good sailing conditions. Despite the size of the Greek force, Troy is a strong city and the siege rages for nine years with no advantage to either side. The gods also choose sides in the war, which prolongs the action. Aphrodite supports the Trojans because of Paris's judgment, and Athena and Hera support the Greeks for the same reason. Zeus prefers the Trojans but fears openly opposing Hera.

Apollo afflicts the army with a plague, which leads Agamemnon and Achilles to argue. Achilles insists Agamemnon return his female companion, Chryseis, to her father, one of Apollo's priests. In retaliation, Agamemnon takes Achilles's woman, Briseis. Achilles is so insulted that he refuses to leave his tent. With Achilles out of action, Ajax and Diomedes distinguish themselves in battle. They severely injure the hero Aeneas, Aphrodite's son. Diomedes wounds Ares when he finds the god fighting beside Hector, which forces the Trojans to retreat. Hector asks his mother, Queen Hecuba, to pray to Athena for the troops' safety, but Athena ignores the prayer. Andromache, Hector's wife, begs him not to return to battle, but he does anyway. Hector's fighting and Achilles's absence tip the battle in Troy's favor.

The Greeks try to convince Achilles to return to the field, but he refuses. Achilles's friend Patroclus cannot abandon his countrymen, so he takes Achilles's armor and goes to battle. Hector kills Patroclus and takes his armor, which finally rouses Achilles. He finds Hector and kills him. Then Achilles takes Hector's armor and drags his corpse around the city behind his chariot.

King Priam of Troy goes to Achilles with a mound of treasure to convince him to return his son Hector's body for burial. The king's words move Achilles to order his servants to wash and dress Hector's body. The fighting stops for nine days while Troy laments Hector, then he is cremated and his ashes buried in a golden urn.


Prologue: The Judgment of Paris

If the heroes featured in Part 3 of Mythology represent ideals for humanity, "The Judgment of Paris" shows how far from those ideals the gods can be. The Trojan War lasts a decade and costs untold lives, and it all starts because of the petty jealousy of a handful of goddesses. First, Eris introduces the coveted golden apples into the wedding feast because she is not invited to a wedding. As the goddess of discord, it stands to reason she is unpopular at parties. Her entire reason for existing is to sow conflict. The goddesses who fight over the apples, however, are Olympians who should know better: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Athena is associated with wisdom. Hera is queen of the gods. Aphrodite is the goddess of beauty. These are goddesses who should be sufficiently secure in their respective positions to rise above the bickering following Paris's judgment to award the apple to Aphrodite—the goddess of beauty who appeals to Paris's own vanity by promising him the most beautiful woman in the world. His decision should not come as a huge surprise to anyone, yet Hera and Athena—both of whom arguably enjoy greater status than Aphrodite in Olympus because of their proximity to Zeus—are unable to let go of the slight they perceive in this decision.

The Trojan War

While Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty, her decision to offer Helen to Paris demonstrates an extreme impairment of judgment on her part. She must know Helen is married and that her departure from Menelaus's home could cause serious trouble. Aphrodite is guided purely by her own ego and vanity, which reveals how little concern the gods have for humanity's general welfare when their own minor interests are at stake.

Odysseus's resistance to joining the war becomes paradoxical in Part 4, Chapters 2 and 3. Despite his reluctance to participate in the war, Odysseus is the one who develops the plan that eventually brings the fighting to a close, and he is one of the last soldiers to return home from Troy. His decision to feign madness to evade going to war provides an early glimpse at his clever talent for deception that will eventually serve the Greek army so well. He isn't a coward; he just loves his family too much to leave them willingly, which becomes clear when he refuses to sacrifice his son to keep himself out of battle.

Agamemnon appears to lack the same devotion to family Odysseus demonstrates toward his son, as Agamemnon is willing to sacrifice his oldest daughter to ensure his army's safe passage to Troy. Even though he laments the choice, he goes through with the act, and it comes back to haunt him in Part 5, Chapter 1. This choice appears even less honorable when, after almost 10 years of war, Apollo strikes the Greek army with a plague that can only be lifted if Agamemnon gives up his "prize of honor," a female servant named Chryseis. Agamemnon kills his daughter for the good of his army but enters into a bitter feud with Achilles because he does not want to give his servant back to her father and end a plague that threatens the troops.

Furthermore, the feud puts the troops at further risk because Achilles, their best fighter, decides to leave the battle when Agamemnon takes Achilles's woman. It is possible that Agamemnon refuses to give up Chryseis precisely because he already had to sacrifice his daughter, so he believes he has given up enough in service of the gods. It is equally possible Agamemnon's apparent hypocrisy in these two decisions stems from an interest in his own comfort, which Chryseis serves in a more direct way than Iphigenia could have. Urged on by Nestor, the oldest and wisest of the commanders in the Greek company, the Greeks attempt to make amends with Achilles and draw him back to battle, to no avail.

Achilles eventually returns to the fight, but only out of love and loyalty to his friend and armor-bearer, Patroclus, who shows greater honor than Achilles in his decision to join his countrymen and try to assist them. Patroclus fights bravely, but he is young and unseasoned. When he encounters Hector, he doesn't stand a chance. Hector's choice to take Patroclus's armor, which is actually Achilles's armor, is a mildly dishonorable choice, but it does not compare with Achilles's decision to desecrate Hector's body after he avenges Patroclus. Achilles is so distraught by the loss of his friend that his actions are driven by a near-madness, yet he is not ultimately disgraced by his actions against Hector. Like Hercules in Part 3, Chapter 3, Achilles is a flawed hero redeemed by his ultimate decision to make amends for his wrongs, following a pattern of error and redemption important for Greek heroes.

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