The Very Odd Substitute Explains the Trojan War

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Agamemnon sends an embassy, including Odysseus, to make amends with Achilles. The efforts of ambassadors are, however, fruitless. Then Odysseus and Diomedes go out on a night-time reconnaissance mission, kill many Trojans, and capture a Trojan spy. On the succeeding day Agamemnon's bravery drives the Trojans back to the walls of the town; but he himself, Diomedes, Odysseus, and other heroes leave the battle wounded, and the Greeks retire behind the camp walls. The Trojans advance and attack the Greek walls.

The opposition of the Greeks is brave; but Hector breaks the rough gate with a rock, and the stream of enemies pours itself unimpeded into the camp. Once more the Greek heroes who are still capable of taking part in the fight, especially the two Ajaxes and Idomeneus, succeed with the help of Poseidon in repelling the Trojans, while Telamonian Ajax dashes Hector to the ground with a stone; but the latter soon reappears on the battlefield with fresh strength granted to him by Apollo at the command of Zeus.

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Poseidon is obliged to leave the Greeks to their fate; they retire again to the ships, which Ajax in vain defends. The Trojans advance still further to where they are able to begin torching the Greek ships. At this point, Achilles allows his friend Patroclus to borrow his armour and enter the battle with their contingent of soldiers to help the distressed Greeks.

Supposing it to be Achilles himself, the Trojans in terror flee from the camp before Patroclus, who pursues them to the town, and lays low vast numbers of the enemy, including the brave Sarpedon, whose corpse is only rescued from the Greeks after a severe fight. At last Patroclus himself is slain by Hector with the help of Apollo; Achilles' arms are lost, and even the corpse is with difficulty saved. And now Achilles repents of his anger, reconciles himself to Agamemnon, and on the following day, furnished with new and splendid armour by Hephaestus at the request of Thetis, avenges the death of his friend on countless Trojans and finally on Hector himself.

The Iliad concludes with the burial of Patroclus and the funeral games established in his honor, the restoration of Hector's corpse to Priam, and the burial of Hector, for which Achilles allows an armistice of eleven days. Immediately after the death of Hector the later legends bring the Amazons to the help of the Trojans, and their queen Penthesilea is slain by Achilles. Then appears Memnon at the head of an Ethiopian contingent. He slays Antilochus son of Nestor, but is himself slain by Achilles.

And now comes the fulfillment of the oracle given to Agamemnon at Delphi; for at a sacrificial banquet a violent quarrel arises between Achilles and Odysseus, the latter declaring craft and not valour to be the only means of capturing Troy. Soon after, in an attempt to force a way into the hostile town through the Scaean gate, Achilles falls, slain by the arrow of Paris, directed by the god. After his burial, Thetis offers the arms of her son as a prize for the bravest of the Greek heroes, which provokes a fight among the Greeks for the title and the arms.

Odysseus wins, and his main competition, the Telamonian Ajax, kills himself.

Odysseus captures Helenus, son of Priam, who advises the Greeks that Troy could not be conquered without the arrows of Heracles and the presence of someone related to Achilles. They fetch Philoctetes, the heir of Heracles, whom the Greeks had abandoned and left for dead on the island of Lemnos, and Neoptolemus, the young son of Achilles, who had been brought up on Seyros. The latter, a worthy son of his father, slays the last ally of the Trojans, Eurypylus, the brave son of Telephus; and Philoctetes, with one of the arrows of Heracles, kills Paris.

Even when the last condition of the capture of Troy, the removal of a small statue of Athena, called the Palladium, from the temple of Athena on the citadel, has been successfully fulfilled by Diomedes and Odysseus, the town can only be taken by treachery. On the advice of Athena, Epeius, son of Panopeus, builds a gigantic wooden horse, in the belly of which the bravest Greek warriors conceal themselves under the direction of Odysseus. The rest of the Greeks pretend to abandon the fight.


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They burn their camp and embark on ship, only, however, to hide in waiting behind a nearby island. The Trojans, streaming out of the town, find the horse, and are in doubt as to what to do with it. According to the later legend, they are deceived by the treacherous Sinon, a kinsman of Odysseus, who has of his own free will remained behind.

He pretends that he has escaped from an evil plan of Odysseus to use him as a human sacrifice, and that the horse has been erected to expiate the robbery of the Palladium. To destroy it would be fatal to Troy, he claims, but should it be brought into the city, the Trojans would conquer Europe. The Trojan Laocoon warns against the Greek gift and is killed by sea monsters. The Trojans take it as a sign and decide to bring the statue into the city.

The Trojan Horse

The Trojans are overjoyed and celebrate their victory and the departure of the Greeks. Sinon in the night opens the door of the horse. The heroes descend, and light the flames that give to the Greek fleet the agreed-upon signal for its return. Thus Troy is captured; all the inhabitants are either slain or carried into slavery, and the city is destroyed.

The only survivors of the royal house are Helenus, Aeneas, Hector's wife Andromache, and Cassandra, who is taken as a war prize by Agamemnon. The Greeks run riot in the conquered city and their offenses set off divine outrage. For many of the Greeks, their sufferings are far from over.

Where Men Won Glory

Only Nestor, Diomedes, Neoptolemus, Philoctetes, and Idomeneus reach home in safety; while Menelaus and Odysseus first have to undergo wanderings for years. The Locrian Ajax is killed at sea, and Agamemnon immediately after his arrival home. Blackboard :. The Trojan War.

But even if his name is known and his date and region can be inferred, Homer remains primarily a projection of the great poems themselves. Their qualities are significant of his taste and his view of the world, but they also reveal something more specific about his technique and the kind of poet he was. It has been one of the most important discoveries of Homeric scholarship, associated particularly with the name of an American scholar, Milman Parry , that the Homeric tradition was an oral one—that this was a kind of poetry made and passed down by word of mouth and without the intervention of writing.

On this occasion he sings of the illicit love affair of Ares and Aphrodite in a version that lasts for exactly Homeric verses. This and the other songs assigned to these singers—for example, that of the Trojan Horse , summarized in the Odyssey —suggest that ordinary aoidoi in the heroic tradition worked with relatively short poems that could be given completely on a single occasion. That is what one would expect, and it is confirmed by the habits of singers and audiences at other periods and in other parts of the world the tradition of the poet-singers of Muslim Serbia has provided the most fruitful comparison so far.

Such relatively short songs must have provided the backbone of the tradition inherited by Homer, and his portraits of Demodocus and Phemius are likely to be accurate in this respect. What Homer himself seems to have done is to introduce the concept of a quite different style of poetry, in the shape of a monumental poem that required more than a single hour or evening to sing and could achieve new and far more complex effects, in literary and psychological terms, than those attainable in the more anecdotal and episodic songs of his predecessors. It can be asked how one can be so confident in classing Homer himself as an oral singer, for if he differed from Phemius or Demodocus in terms of length, he may also have differed radically in his poetic techniques.

The very nature of his verse may provide a substantial part of the answer. The clearest and simplest instance is the so-called noun-epithet formulas. These constitute a veritable system, in which every major god or hero possesses a variety of epithets from which the choice is made solely according to how much of the verse, and which part of it, the singer desires to use up.

Odysseus is called divine Odysseus, many-counseled Odysseus, or much-enduring divine Odysseus simply in accordance with the amount of material to be fitted into the remainder of the hexameter six-foot verse. A ship is described as black, hollow, or symmetrical not to distinguish this particular ship from others but solely in relation to the qualities and demands of the rhythmical context. The whole noun-epithet system is both extensive and economical—it covers a great variety of subjects with very little exact reduplication or unnecessary overlap. It would seem that so refined and complex a system could not be the invention of a single poet but must have been gradually evolved in a long-standing tradition that needed both the extension and the economy for functional reasons—that depended on these fixed phrase units because of its oral nature, in which memory, practice, and a kind of improvising replace the deliberate, self-correcting, word-by-word progress of the pen-and-paper composer.

Many expressions, many portions of sentences are individually invented for the occasion, or at least so it seems. Even so, there is a strongly formulaic and ready-made component in the artificial language that was used by Homer, including its less conspicuous aspects such as the arrangement of particles, conjunctions, and pronouns. It looks, therefore, as though Homer must have trained as an ordinary aoidos, who began like most of the present-day Yugoslav guslari by building up a repertoire of normal-length songs acquired from already established singers.

The greatest heroic adventures of the past must already have been prominent in any repertoire, especially the Panhellenic adventures of the Seven Against Thebes , the Argonauts , and the Achaean attack on Troy. Some aspects of the Trojan War might already have been expanded into songs of unusual length, though one that was still manageable on a single occasion. Yet the process was presumably carried much further in the making of the monumental Iliad , consisting of more than 16, verses, which would take four or five long evenings, and perhaps more, to perform.

This breakthrough into the monumental, which made exceptional and almost unreasonable demands of audiences, presupposes a singer of quite exceptional capacity and reputation—one who could impose the new and admittedly difficult form upon his listeners by the sheer unfamiliar genius of his song. The 8th century bce was in other respects, too, an era of cultural innovation , not least in the direction of monumentality, and huge temples like the early temple of Hera in Samos and colossal funerary vases like the mixing bowls and amphorae in the so-called Geometric style from the Dipylon cemetery in Athens may have found a literary analogue in the idea of a vast poetical treatment of the Trojan War.

But in an important sense Homer was building upon a tendency of all known oral heroic poetry toward elaboration and expansion. The singer does not acquire a song from another singer by simple memorization. He adjusts what he hears to his existing store of phrases, typical scenes, and themes, and he tends to replace what is unfamiliar to him with something he already knows, or to expand it by adding familiar material that it happens to lack.

Every singer in a living oral tradition tends to develop what he acquires. There is an element of improvisation, as well as of memory, in his appropriation of fresh material; and judging by the practice of singers studied from the middle of the 19th century onward in Russia, Serbia, Cyprus , and Crete the inclination to adjust, elaborate, and improve comes naturally to all oral poets.

Homer must have decided to elaborate his materials not only in quality but also in length and complexity. All oral poetry is cumulative in essence; the verse is built up by adding phrase upon phrase, the individual description by adding verse upon verse.

Homer seems to have carried this cumulative tendency into new regions of poetry and narrative; in this as in other respects for example, in his poetical language he was applying his own individual vision to the fertile raw material of an extensive and well-known tradition. The result is much more complex than with an ordinary traditional poem. These are the tasks of modern Homeric scholarship. Yet such different forms and ideas in Homer are not conveniently separated into distinct sections of the text, which can therefore be assigned to early or late phases of composition.

On the contrary, they may coexist in a single artificial linguistic form or a single descriptive phrase. Any member of the tradition, not least Homer himself, may, moreover, have chosen to archaize on one occasion, to innovate on another. One result is that the epics are dubious authorities for the assessment of historical events like the attack on Troy or the status of workers, just as they are ambiguous sources for early Greek grammar or theology.

An alphabetic writing system reached Greece in the 9th or early 8th century bce. Before that was a gap of or years, following the collapse of Mycenaean culture and the disappearance of Linear B writing with each sign generally representing a syllable , during which Greece seems to have been nonliterate. During that interval, certainly, much of the epic tradition was formed. The earliest alphabetic inscriptions to have survived, a few of them containing brief scraps of hexameter verse, date from about bce.

Therefore, if Homer created the Iliad at some time after bce , he could conceivably have used writing to help him. Some scholars think that he did. Others believe that he may have remained nonliterate since literacy is not normally associated with oral creativity but dictated the poem to a literate assistant. There are objections to all three theories, but this much can be generally agreed: that the use of writing was in any case ancillary , that Homer behaved in important ways like a traditional oral poet. That is doubtful; certainly the capacities even of ordinary oral poets in this direction are constantly surprising to habitual literates.

At least it may be accepted that partial texts of the epics were probably being used by the Homeridae and by professional reciters known as rhapsodes who were no longer creative and had abandoned the use of the lyre by the latter part of the 7th century bce. The first complete version may well have been that established as a standard for rhapsodic competitions at the great quadrennial festival at Athens , the Panathenaea , at some time during the 6th century bce. Even that did not permanently fix the text, and from then on the history of the epics was one of periodical distortion followed by progressively more effective acts of stabilization.

The widespread dissemination of the poems consequent upon the growth of the Athenian book trade in the 5th century and the proliferation of libraries after the 4th was followed by the critical work of the Alexandrian scholar Aristarchus of Samothrace in the 2nd century bce , and much later by the propagation of accurate minuscule texts notably the famous manuscript known as Venetus A of the Iliad , incorporating the best results of Greco-Roman scholarship, in the Byzantine world of the Middle Ages. Rare portions of either poem may have been added after, but not long after, the main act of composition; the night expedition that results in the capture of the Trojan spy Dolon and that fills the 10th book of the Iliad , some of the underworld scenes in the 11th book of the Odyssey, and much of the ending of the Odyssey after line of the 23rd book regarded by Aristarchus as its original conclusion are the most probable candidates on the grounds of structure, language, and style.

Yet the overriding impression is one of powerful unity. The Iliad is not merely a distillation of the whole protracted war against Troy but simultaneously an exploration of the heroic ideal in all its self-contradictoriness—its insane and grasping pride, its magnificent but animal strength, its ultimate if obtuse humanity. Much of the poetry between the first book, in which the quarrel flares up, and the 16th, in which Achilles makes the crucial concession of allowing his friend Patroclus to fight on his behalf, consists of long scenes of battle, in which individual encounters alternate with mass movements of the opposing armies.

The Odyssey tends to be blander in expression and sometimes more diffuse in the progress of its action, but it presents an even more complex and harmonious structure than the Iliad. See also Greek literature: The genres.

A Different Horse: Alternate Interpretations of the Trojan War | eHISTORY

The participation of the gods can both dignify human events and make them seem trivial—or tragic; it must for long have been part of the heroic tradition, but the frequency and the richness of the divine assemblies in the Iliad , or the peculiarly personal and ambivalent relationship between Odysseus and Athena in the Odyssey, probably reflect the taste and capacity of the main composer. In the extended similes the strain of heroic action is relieved by the illuminating intrusion of a quite different and often peaceful contemporary world, in images developed often almost longingly beyond the immediate point of comparison.

These similes , in their placing and their detail at least, surely depend on the main composer. And yet, beyond such general intuitions as these, the attempt to isolate his special contributions often becomes self-defeating. The Iliad and the Odyssey owe their unique status precisely to the creative and therefore unanalyzable confluence of tradition and design, the crystalline fixity of a formulaic style and the mobile spontaneity of a brilliant personal vision.

The result is an impressive amalgam of literary power and refinement. The Iliad and the Odyssey, however, owe their preeminence not so much to their antiquity and to their place in Greek culture as a whole but to their timeless success in expressing on a massive scale so much of the triumph and the frustration of human life.


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Although all literature must be engaged with that to some degree, epic poems are not where one most expects to find it. But these poems rise above the immediate concerns of heroic battle or the struggle against gods and nature or against monstrous forces, and they do so with the help of a poetical language of great simplicity and subtlety, a rugged and surprisingly variable narrative technique, and a nucleus of remarkable tales set around the Trojan War and its aftermath.

Their greatest power lies, perhaps, in their dramatic quality because much of each poem consists of conversation and speeches, in which rhetoric is kept firmly under control and the individual characters emerge as they confront each other and the gods with advice, inquiry, request, resignation, and passion.

Chapter 2: Homer, The Iliad

Achilles, Hector, Menelaus, Ajax, Odysseus, and the others acquire a kind of heroic glow that even Greek tragedy later found hard to emulate. That is the result, in part, of the very archaism of these age-old tales, which the special techniques of monumental composition never attempted to conceal; but it also depends on something that overlaps that archaism, namely a sheer mythic quality imparting to these tales something of the universal validity to which all great literature aspires and which Homer achieved consistently and with an apparent ease that must be deceptive.

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