THE INFAMOUS HORSE FROM TROY: The silence around Cassandra
During the days before the French election, I wondered what has happened and will happen. How has all this insanity become possible? How has fear and intolerance once again been allowed to control our feelings, thoughts and choices? Why do so many choose to follow paths that previously have led us all into the abyss? Thankfully, the Le Pen harpy was defeated, but let's not forget that one third of the French people voted for her, not to mention all those who did not vote at all.
While sitting in the car, my youngest daughter puts on a CD from a concert she heard in Florence. It is Vasco Brondi from Ferrara who is rapping. The beautiful Italian, a language suitable for poetry, fills the car while Brondi mirrors my thoughts:
Cadeva la sera
su una bella e malandata Europa multiculturale
su un altro bar che cambia gestione
su un altro eroe da dimenticare
Il giorno degli attentati hai scritto
per tranquillizzare tutti
che come sempre eri da quelle parti
ma non eri tra i feriti o tra i morti
E dove c’era un minareto o un campanile
c’è un albero in fiore tra le rovine
ci siamo noi due accecati dal sole
mentre cerchi di spiegare
cos'è che ci ha fatto inventare
La torre Eiffel
Le guerre di religione
Le sinfonie di Beethoven
La stazione spaziale internazionale
Le armi di distruzione di massa
e le canzoni d’amore.
The evening came
to a beautiful, lost, multicultural Europe.
To another bar that had changed owner.
To another hero who will be forgotten.
During the day of the assassinations, you wrote,
to calm all of us down,
that even if you had been there,
you were not among the injured or dead.
And where there is a minaret or a church tower,
there is a flowering tree among the ruins
where we two, dazzled by the sun,
are trying to explain
what created the
the International Space Station,
weapons of mass destruction
and the love songs.
Yes, how and why? What's happening around us? Back at home I sit by the kitchen table and read an interview with Marek Halter, a Jewish writer who is quite well-known in France, where his historical novels have sold millions of copies.
Halter is one of those Europeans living and working among us, with an almost unimaginable life history. He was born in Warsaw in 1936. His parents managed to escape the Nazis and brought their son with them to Ukraine, but they were soon by war and Stalinism swept to Moscow, eventually ending in Kokand in eastern Uzbekistan. In 1946, the family managed to return to Poland. In 1950, they came to France. Halter started studying mime under the famous Marcel Marceau and was admitted to the academy of arts. He became a rather successful artist, with a mixed style that occasionally may be considered as a reverberation of Nicolas de Staël's art.
After a successful exhibition in Buenos Aires in 1955, Halter moved there and stayed for two years, before returning to Paris, where he increasingly left the art for political journalism and activism. In 1991, Halter founded a French school in Moscow and began to commute between the Russian and French capital. In 1989, he had a great success with his novel La Mémoire d'Abraham, a romanticized description of the fate of his ancestors during two millennials. The novel has now been sold worldwide in five million copies. Then, a new novel followed almost every year.
Like so many other enthusiastic and popular authors who have used their eventful lives as sources for their stories, famous examples are Laurens van der Post and Jerzy Kosinski, Halter soon came to suffer embarrassing criticism from people who knew him or had lived in the same areas as he had. For example, did the Polish-Jewish partisan Michel Borwicz, write that Halter's autobiography "was stuffed with pure inventions". Something that does not prevent Halter from being a bold exposer of injustices, committed to the defence of dissidents around the world and not the least a convinced religious Jew, who nevertheless has exhibited a great understanding for Palestinians suffering from Israeli abuse.
Why recount Marek Halter's life story? Only as a reminder that there are people living among us, some are outstanding writers and scientists, who once were refugees not being welcome anywhere. While the majority of them were killed, the borders of Europe and the United States were closed to them. Some went in their desperation far away; ending up in Buenos Aires, Harbin, Shanghai, Sydney or Yokohama, while their friends and relatives were assassinated, confined and exterminated.
Marek Halter gave a congenial impression in the interview I read. He quoted Hanna Arendt's observation that: ”clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standarized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality” We have to scrutinze ourselves; our fears, our chauvinism and conventional opinions. Only then might we try to imagine the thoughts and convictions of terrorists and politicians who nurture opinions and act in a manner incompatible with human decency and compassion.
Marek Halter believes that the current discourse on terrorism and uncontrolled immigration should not be allowed to blind us about what really matters, though I wonder if Halter did not fall into a trap created by such blindness when he with strong conviction argued that there was no doubt that the French would vote for Emanuel Macron. After two weeks of waking up to shocking news about the triumphs of Trump and Brexit, I do not longer pay any attention to such wishful thinking. However, I was fascinated by Halter's thoughts about the Trojan horse:
By shrewdly increasing and aligning personal difficulties, as well as social deficiencies, ISIS´s propaganda is extremely successful and it is in this context we have to fight and defeat this beast. ISIS is our time´s Nazis, who in the name of their distorted ideals are happy to sacrifice the lives of youngsters. It is quite clear that terrorists want Marine Le Pen to win the elections. For them, the National Front Leader is a perfect Trojan horse, which can be used to pollute French society with hate, intolerance and racism, something that is strengthening the extremists and other fanatics and will inspire proselytes to ISIS´s hate-mongering ideology.
Younger people than I probably associate Trojan horses with malicious computer programmes breaking into our computers to destroy or steal useful information. There are a lot of such horses, most of them based on something that is called social technology. Through psychological manipulation, data abusers make their victims reveal confidential information allowing them to steal their hard-won savings.
For example, a computer felon may engage in phishing. The villain sends an e-mail that appears to come from a legitimate enterprise - a bank or a credit card company - which wants to "verify" information by linking you to a fraudulent webpage, with a fake logo and alleged information where you are asked to fill in a form revealing some of those codes that swarm around us and provide access to our assets.
Phishing might also take the form of "spear fishing". This from of deception make use of the wealth of information which is available about us, providing you with the impression that they know you quite well, or that you at least are known to them. By using such information they convince you that you should share your secret information with them. There are a lot of tricks to con you with. Most of them are based on our weaknesses - bad conscience, greed, cravings, curiosity, or vanity. Or simply our helplessness; someone offers to help you with your computer problems, but soon it turns out that they were wolves hiding in a Trojan horse.
Such horses are to be found everywhere, especially in these times. They appear to conceal everything - Desperate refugees who are denied access by being accused of protecting and concealing the very executioners and torturers who plagued and tortured them.
Fear of strangers and EU hostility act as Trojan horses, which in their interior conceal dark forces. Old fogies and angry young men, who want to reintroduce dictatorship and despair in a Europe, or the United States, areas which for a long time have been protected from war, starvation and other forms of social misery.
The fight against ISIS has become a Trojan horse concealing sinister or generally shady interests. It is believed that the interior of Trojan horses conceal Russians, Americans or terrorists, any kind of group that is in accordance with your fears concerning evil forces threatening to sneak into your safe existence to annihilate you and your loved ones.
Brave men and women have heroically disclosed fraudulent villains hiding within false flagged vehicles. For example the Swedish entertainer Karl Gerhard, who was one of the few who dared to save some of Sweden´s soiled honour during the awkward times when our coalition government made embarrassing concessions to the victorious Nazis. In Karl Gerhard's revue Golden Showers, staged in 1941, the Trojan horse was rolled onto the scene, as an easy-to-understand symbol of the Nazis infiltrating the Swedish democracy.
Out of the belly of the wooden horse, painted in a folkloric manner, four girls dressed in dirndl dresses stepped out, dancing to a Tyrolean tune, which changed into a German march when an elegant Karl Gerhard stepped out of a column (the fifth one) under the horse, singing:
Out of history´s dirt and mould
comes a scary ghost.
Even old Greece, we are told
had an unpleasant host
of xenophobes crushing hope and joy,
hiding in an infamous beast
that was rolled up towards Troy
to squash relief and feast.
In a Europe where many a girl and boy
are taught that chauvinism is Europe´s soul,
they now roll up the horse from Troy,
to play the leading role.
The infamous horse from Troy
by democracy saddled and shoved.
is presented as a harmless ploy,
though it´s both feared and loved.
History repeats itself. The Trojan horse is once again placed in the middle of Europe, where we all can see it quite clearly. Shall we allow its vermin to spread among us? Let the old dragons and demons crawl out of its belly to once again destroy democracy, tolerance and unity?
For centuries, people have been fascinated by the treacherous horse and its murderous interior. The first known presentation of the beast is on a fragment of a fibula, a decorated buckle used to hold a mantle in place. Here we may discern the horse´s wheeled front legs next to a strange pot-shaped creature with two legs.
The fibula, which may be seen in the British Museum, dates back to 680 BC, 120 years after the Iliad and the Odyssey were written down. Manufactured somewhat later is a more complete presentation of the infamous horse at a funeral urn in the museum of the island of Mykonos, where the warriors have not hidden themselves, but are visible sitting by open windows on the side of the horse.
The story of Troy spread far and wide. We do, as an example, find the wheeled horse on a Ghandara relief from 100 AD. Ghandara was an ancient kingdom with its centre in today's Peshawar Valley in North-western Pakistan. Typical of the Ghandara style is a mixture of East and West. The warriors surrounding the horse are dressed like Greeks, while the woman in the doorway (Helen?) is depicted as an Indian dancer.
Ever since my grandfather told me about the Trojan horse, I have been fascinated by that strange story. Early on I devoured the stories about Troy and Odysseus's voyages and they have since followed me throughout life. The story about the mighty wooden horse hiding warriors. So crazy! How could the Trojans have been so extremely gullible that they could bring such a strange contraption into their city? Especially as so many of them knew that there was something fishy about it.
When they found the giant wooden horse among the remains of the fortified camp of the Greeks, the excited Trojans shouted that it should be burned to ashes, that they should throw their spears deep into its woodwork to listen to screams from confined Greeks and watch how their blood sipped trough the sides of the horse, or dragging it to a cliff and plunge it into the depths. As Virgil writes in his powerful Aeneid: "Fling it into the seas or torch the thing to ash, or bore into the depths of its womb where men can hide!"
To my delight I recently gained access to the Deutsches Archälogisches Institute´s large library here in Rome, which houses a complete collection of Loeb Classical Library Books. I could thus read the most famous tales about the Trojan horse. These are not found in the Iliad, but in a few sections of the Odyssey, in the Aeneid and particularly in Quintus Smyrnaeus´s undeservedly forgotten, dramatically and brutally told Posthomerica from 400 AD, which is at its best in its fervent depictions of Troy´s blood drained destruction by “ferocious" Achaeans. But, let me take it all from the beginning, trying to combine some of the texts I have read:
After ten years of exhausting fighting, war fatigue had become endemic in the Greeks' war camp. Their great hero, Achilles, had been killed by an arrow from Paris´s arch. The same man who through his abduction of Helen had become the origin of the devastating war, also became the one who ended the life of the divine Achilles, called divine due to his constant quest for perfection in everything and his almost inhuman ruthlessness and incredible strength in battle.
Perhaps the gods were not any longer on their side? Nevertheless, a powerful symbol of the presence of the gods remained - Achilles armour, a thing of both good and evil. His best friend, Patroclus, had died in battle outfitted in Achilles´s armour, something that had caused the Trojans to believe he had been the dreaded Achilles, returning to the battlefield after several weeks having secluded himself in his tent, embittered after the Greeks´ leader, Agamemnon, had taken his beloved slave Briseis from him.
The Trojans stripped Achilles´s armour from the dying Patroclus and after mocking him for playing the role of the incomparable Achilles, they tried to hinder the Greeks from retrieving his body. A violent battle developed around Patroclus's naked corpse, which the Greeks finally managed to bring to Achilles. The sorrow after his friend infuriated Achilles. The only manner for soothing his enormous pain was to kill as many Trojans as possible and finally quench his first for revenge by annihilating, and furthermore debase the corpse of the warrior who had mocked and killed Patroclus - Hector. But, Achilles lacked his armour and in his despair Achilles turned to his mother, the sea goddess Thetis, who convinced Hephaestus, god of blacksmiths, craftsmen and artisans, to forge the most magnificent armour and shield ever crafted.
When Achilles was killed by Paris, Odysseus and Ajax the Telamonian succeeded in retrieving his body. The mighty Ajax carried the fallen warrior while Odysseus held the Trojans at bay. After in the same urn having mixed the ashes of Achilles with those of Patroclus, Thetis declared that the warrior who had been decisive in the rescue of her son's corpse would inherit his armour. Odysseus and Ajax quarrelled about who was most worthy of obtaining the inimitable armour. To be as impartial as possible the Greeks asked some captured Trojans to testify about who had fought the hardest to save the body of Achilles. They replied that Odysseus had dealt most of the deadly blows, while the mighty Ajax "only" had carried the armoured body. Odysseus was presented with the armour and Ajax became outraged. Without a word he went off to his tent, while bitterness and hatred raged within him. Was he not a greater warrior than Odysseus? Could that cheating swindler have been able to drag off the armour-weighted body by himself?
Locked into his dark loathing Ajax did not seem to notice neither his wife, nor his son. Overtaken by his humiliation he could not sleep. Finally he rushed out into the night. With his sword in the ready he dashed in among the cattle of the Greeks and in an unbounded fury he began to hack the hapless creatures to pieces. When Ajax bloody and exhausted dropped to the ground, the Greeks had come out of their tents and were with horror watching the gored cows and the blood-spattered Ajax. The carcasses oozed in the cool morning air. Ajax stumbled towards his tent, took leave of his wife and son, went out again, drilled down his sword's hilt into the ground, then he threw himself on the blade.
The story is typical of the Iliad, among intrigues and violent battles, outlandish personalities and amazing life experiences emerge, which through their absurdity remain in the memory of the reader and after all, tell us a great deal about us humans. The skilled writer also tends to spin his stories around amazing objects - like the armour of Achilles and the Horse of Troy.
Now, Odysseus was the main hero of the entire Greek army and when outfitted in Achilles´s armour a strong sense of power and pride filled him to the brim. The war could be won, and it would be won thanks to him! Odysseus was similar to several other of the Homeric heroes, a composite character. He could be moved to tears, for example when he in the Oddyssey listened to how the poet Demodocus sang about the mighty feats of the Greek heroes, or when he met their tragic shadows in the Underworld. He also nurtured a sincere love for his wife and son. Nevertheless, Odysseus could also be awe-inspiring and unreliable. Like many of the Greek warriors, Odysseus was obsessed by fame and prominence, mixed with a profound contempt for those whom he considered to be weaker than himself. Vergil, who obviously loathed Odysseus´s role as Troy's destroyer, called him in his Aeneid for the "iron-hearted" Odysseus.
Odysseus saw it as his unique task to conquer and sack Troy at all costs, something that could happen not only through brutal force, careful planning was also necessary. Odysseus therefore decided, along with the loyal, princely warrior Diomedes, to sail to the island of Skyros to convince Neoptolemos, Achilles only son, to join forces with them. Neoptolemos was known to be just as impulsive and violent as his father. Quite rightly Odysseus assumed that young Neoptolemos, he was still a teenager, but already as strong as his father, would be eager to avenge Achilles´s death and that he even might try to surpass his father in fierce boldness.
After Neoptolemos had proven to be the only one able to lift up and throw Achilles´s legendary spear, the Pelion, Odysseus understood that he had been right in assuming that the youngster's efforts could be as crucial as those of Achilles and to tie the hero's son closer to himself, he gave him Achilles´s armour and shield, a gesture greatly appreciated by all the Greeks. Under the leadership of Neoptolemos, they immediately attacked the Trojans and inflicted severe losses. The war was about to turn to the benefit of the Greeks.
Highly pleased with himself, Odysseus took Neoptolemos and Diomedes with him to the island of Lemnos. There he had left Philoctetes all alone ten years earlier. The reason for this drastic decision was that Philoctetes, who had been Heracles friend and inherited his bow and poisoned arrows, had been bitten by a poisonous snake. The wound had not healed and been infected in such a way that its stench became so unbearable that it affected the well-being of the Greeks. Odysseus persuaded the Greek warlord Agamemnon that their fleet had to leave Philoctetes behind.
Since then Philoctetes had had a miserable life on the deserted island, avoided like the plague because of his unbearably stinking wound. But, Odysseus had by a soothsayer been told that it was Philoctetes who with his poisoned arrows finally would kill Paris, Achilles´s slayer. The only one who would be able to convince the unmatched archer to come with them to Troy would be young Neoptolemos, who, at the time of Philoctetes´s abandonment had been far too young to participate in the Trojan expedition. At that time had Philoctetes, when he found himself so treacherously abandoned, screamed after his disappearing brothers-in-arms that he would never ever help those Greeks who so deceitfully had left him alone on the island with his stinking foot.
Obviously, Philoctetes became furious when he spotted Odysseus. Nevertheless, he softened when he listened to Neoptolemo's desperate pleas for help. To everyone's delight, Podalirius, the Greek´s most efficient physician, son of the healing god Asclepius, was able to cure Philoctetes´s foetid foot. Immediately afterwards, Paris became deadly injured in one hand by one ofPhiloctetes´s poisoned arrows. Helen, who was still in love with Paris, rushed in her despair up to the slopes of Mount Ida to find the wood nymph Oenone, the only creature who knew an antidote to Heracles´s arrows. But it turned out that Oenone once had been abandoned by Paris in favour of Helen and she now refused to help her former lover and her beautiful rival. The poisoned Paris died in Helen's arms.
Odysseus diligently spied all over the place, listening to all sorts of rumours and had his informants everywhere. In this way he learned that Helenus, like Paris and Hector a son of the Trojan king Priam, angry and bitter was living as a hermit in the woods of Mount Ida. When Paris died, Helenus asked his father to marry the widow of Paris. However, after Hector's death, Priam had given his brother Deiphobus command over Troy's troops and in connection with this forced Helen to marry him. Helen detested Deiphobus, who was a drunkard, and in irritation over his father´s and brother's betrayal and well aware of Helen's contempt for Deiphobus, Helenus had moved far away from the city. Now he was captured by Odysseus henchmen. Helenus, who like his sister Cassandra was a seer, was well-versed in all the secrets of Troy.
Under torture Helenus was forced to reveal that the Trojans firmly believed that as long as Athena's sculpture, the so-called Palladium, was in her temple within the walls of Troy, the city would never fall to a foreign army. Together with Diomedes, Odysseus sneaked into Troy to steal Athena´s effigy. They killed the temple guard, but while the two cronies were breaking down the goddess´s statue from her altar, the priestess Theano, armed to the teeth, rushed in and declared at the top her voice that she would with her violent screams wake up the entire town in defence of its invaluable Palladium. Odysseus silenced Theano by declaring that if she concealed the theft, he could guarantee that her husband Antenor, who was known as willing to negotiate peace with the Greeks, and her entire household would be spared when the Greeks stormed the city, something that now was inevitable. Theano promised to keep quite. Odysseus later convinced the Greeks to honour his deal with Theano.
Diomedes and Odysseus brought with them the Palladium. Diomedes was the only mortal being who, besides Heracles, had succeeded in wounding a god and his weapons, like the armour of Achilles, had been forged by Hephaestus. However, if Diomedes was unconventional and pure-hearted, Odysseus was cunning and could sometimes prove to be an extremely deceitful friend. Something he revealed when he and Diomedes dragged the Palladium through the night.
Odysseus wanted all the honour of Troy's fall for himself and when he saw the stronger Diomedes struggling with the Palladium, he apologized himself and said he had to tie up his sandal. When Diomedes turned his back on him, Odysseus drew his sword with the intention of running it through Diomedes and bring the Palladium to the Greeks by himself, claiming that Diomedes had been killed by the Trojans. However, the moon came out from behind a cloud and made the sword of Odysseus to gleam. Diomedes noticed the flash of bronze, turned around and found that his friend stood behind him with a raised sword. He threw himself on Odysseus, pressed him to the ground, tied up his hands and securely fastened the Palladium to the back of his sneaky friend, while he with the flat side of his sword was rapping Odysseus´s upper arms to force him to stumble towards the Greek quarters. Ajax spared Odysseus's life because he had realized that his plans and endless scheming were necessary for defeating the Trojans.
Assiduously Odysseus continued with his meticulous planning for the final demise of Troy. After the torture of Helenus, he now knew how bitter Helen had become after Paris's death and her unfortunate marriage to Deiphobus. According to Helen's own story, as she told it to Odysseus´s son Thelemachus in the Odyssey, Odysseus had sought her up inside Troy:
By flogging his own body till it showed all the marks of ill-usage he made himself look like a slave, and with a filthy rag across his back he slunk into the enemy city and explored its streets. […] I was the only soul who pierced through his disguise, but whenever I questioned him he was clever enough to evade me. However, the time came when he let me bathe and anoint him, and at last, after I had given him some clothes to wear and solemnly sworn that I would not disclose his name to the Trojans before he returned to the huts by the ships, he gave me full details of the Achaean´s plans.
Odysseus now eagerly awaited a sign from the gods and it finally came in the shape of a dream. Epeius, an architect and craftsman, had in his sleep seen how Athena had bent over him and ordered him to build a huge wooden horse. It would be able to accommodate fifty men, fully dressed in armour and the goddess would guide Epeius in his work. In the Aeneid Virgil wrote that "ship timber" was used to construct the horse and that was probably the reason to why the horse in Wolfgang Petersen's epic movie Troy from 2004 appears to have been constructed of parts from demolished ships.
However, Quintus Smyrnaeus writes that it was made from carefully selected wood from “the shagged mountain heights of the Hellespont's shores.” Other authors mention that the horse was built with the reddish wood of dogwood. The horse was completed in three days and was a masterpiece, “the streaming tail, the ears, the lucent eyes - all that which lifelike horses have. So it grew like a live thing more than a human work, for a God gave to a man that wondrous craft.” It was so excellently crafted that the tiny gaps where the trapdoor was fitted into the horse's belly could not be discerned with the naked eye.
Inside the horse it was crowded and hot and the confined warriors had to be absolutely quiet. They could not even move, since their heavy armour could squeak and warn the Trojans about their presence. They suffered and sweated.
Soon the Trojans came out of their walled city to marvel at the mighty wooden horse, which stood alone among the remains of the Greeks' camp. Epeius had on its belly engraved the words: “For their return home, the Greeks dedicate this thankoffering to Athena." The bewildered Trojans discussed among themselves what to do with this enormous, abandoned wooden horse. They admired its perfection, read the inscription and wondered about it. Could it not in all its utter absurdity, after all be a strange and hallowed gift to Athena. Their livid discussions were interrupted when a dirty, excited Greek was brought to Priam, the Trojans' revered king. The young man, who was called Sinan, had been discovered trembling from fear among the reeds by the river of Scamander.
Priam talked kindly to the upset Greek and asked him to explain why he had been left alone on their shores. The distraught youngster declared that he had been chosen to be a sacrificed to the gods. The lot had fallen on him to ensure a safe return for the Greek fleet. The Greeks, who always had been counting upon Athena's benevolent patronage, had been utterly terrified when her statue, the Palladium, which Diomedes and Odysseus had stolen from Troy, suddenly fell to the ground. They put it back again and moored it securely to the altar. Nevertheless, it fell down again, not once but twice. Then they summoned their high priest, Calchas, who enthusiastically supported by Odysseus had demanded that Sinan had to be sacrificed and that it was now high time to break the siege and leave Troy's beaches. If Athena was against them, they could not win the war. In addition, Epeius had had a dream that was interpreted in such away so that the Greeks had to appease Athena further by making the wonderful horse as a sacrificial gift, more remarkable than anything else. It would be so huge, beautiful and absurd that it would astonish the Trojans, at the same time as they would be unable to bring it through the gateway to Troy. The intention was to make the Trojans burn the wooden horse on the beach and thus provoke the wrath of Athena, who would destroy Troy, and the Greeks did not have to lift a single finger in support of the destruction.
Sinan's story was broken off by wild screams from the priest Laocoön, who came running towards the horse, closely followed by his two sons, while shouting: “Trojans, never trust that horse. Whatever it is I fear the Greeks, especially bearing gifts." With great force he threw a lance deep into the horse's side. The weapon vibrated violently and from the inside of the horse the reverberation of high-sounding bronze was heard together with creepy death rattle. The Trojans were stunned by fear and hesitation - were warriors hidden inside the daunting contraption, or were the frightening sounds a warning from Athena?
The suspicion that gods were involved in it all was confirmed when the earth under Laocoön began to shake violently. The legs of the priest trembled uncontrollably, his eyes rolled in their sockets. Desperately he pressed his hands against his temples, complaining it felt as if his head would burst into pieces. He fell to his knees, while his eyes exploded and blood gushed across his cheeks. But despite being struck by aching and sudden blindness Laocoön stumbled towards the altar of Poseidon, which centuries ago had been erected on the beach. His sons brought forth a flower-adorned bull as a gift to Poseidon, god of horses and oceans.
The Trojans and the Greek Sinan silently watched the doings of the blind Laocoön. While his sons gathered firewood for the sacrifice, Laocoön turned his empty eye-sockets towards the Trojans, shouting: "This is a deceitful deception planned by the Achaean chiefs. I will through this sacrifice demonstrate that I´m right!" As with most characters of the Iliad, Laocoön had a complicated life story.
Laocoön had been an Apollo priest and as such sworn to celibate, though he was already married and had further aggravated his god by making love to his wife in front of his effigy. Consequently, Laocoön was disgracefully deposited by the Apollo worshipers. This happened when Poseidon's priest had been stoned to death. After refusing to sacrifice to Poseidon for generating storms and other misery preventing the Greek fleet from reaching the shores below Troy. After the death of Poseidon's priest, Laocoön was by lot chosen to be his successor.
Laocoön thus found himself in a sensitive position, as a former Apollo priest he had to prove himself worthy of the trust the Trojans had bestowed upon him as Poseidon's servant. Despite his blindness and desperation, Laocoön could with the help of his sons proceed with the slaughter of the bull and present a burnt offering to Poseidon. Vergil wrote how Aeneas later told Queen Dido of Carthage what had expired:
Laocoön, the priest of Neptune picked by lot, was sacrificing a massive bull at the holy altar when – I cringe to recall it now – look there! Over the calm deep straits off Tenedos swim twin, giant serpents, rearing in coils, berating the sea-well side, plunging toward the shore, their heads, their blood-red crests surging over the waves, their bodies thrashing, backs rolling in coil on mammoth coil and the wake behind them churns in a roar of foaming spray, and now, their eyes glittering, shot with blood and fire, flickering tongues licking their hissing maws, yes, now, they´re about to land. We blanch at that sight, we scatter. –Like troops on attack they´re heading straight for Laocoön - first each serpent seizes one of his small young sons, constricting, coiling around him, sinks its fangs in the tortured limbs, and gorges.
Vergil suggested that it was Athena who had sent the monstrous snakes, but other writers seem to agree that it was Apollo who did it, to punish a distrustful servant who had decided to serve another god and in his name tried to impress the Trojans. A powerful Hellenic sculpture in the Vatican depicts Laocoön and his sons' painful deaths in the embrace of snakes. We can clearly perceive the despair of Laocoön when he has realized that the gods wished for his death and that all hope had evaporated.
Most Trojans confronted with the horrifying scene became convinced that Sinan had spoken the truth. In fact, he had skilfully performed a drama orchestrated by Odysseus and the men who were locked inside the horse's belly attentively listened to Sinan´s skilled acting. With great effort the Trojans dragged the horse towards their walled town, ignoring that they, on no less than three occasions, all had heard indistinct whining and metal clanking from the interior of the huge wooden contraption they were struggling with.
The Trojans tore down the brickwork above the city gate so the horse could pass, when it had arrived inside the walls its exhausted haulers were met by a strange sight. Among a frenzied group of Bacchae and in the company of her estranged husband, Helen had come to meet them. Three times she circled dancing around the horse all the while, with a cuddly voice, she imitated the voices of the wives of the confined warriors. She called their names, enticing them. Confined in the crummy darkness within the horse, the men did not know what to believe. Helen imitated the voices so cleverly that several of the cramped men thoughtlessly came close to respond to Helen´s alluring calls. Anticlus became so convinced that his wife Laodamia was calling for him that he opened his mouth to answer, but Odysseus held his hands so hard across his mouth and throat that he choked him to death.
Why did Helen after previously explaining to Odysseus that she was prepared to kill her husband Deiphobus and return to Menelaus, act as she did? When she apparently confidently and together with Menelaus, much later in the Odyssey recounted the episode to Odysseus´s son Telemachus, her husband tried to explain Helen´s behaviour as an incident of transient insanity induced by a cruel god, in the light of her later actions it might appear as if Menelaus had been right.
In the depth of the night, the Greeks sneaked out of the horse and signalled with torches to their comrades, who in the dark had surrounded Troy, that the coast now was clear and a brutal plunder and massacring could begin. Crazed by previously restrained rage and an uninhibited bloodthirst, like a flock of furious predators, they robbed, raped and killed the startled, drowsy and hangovered Trojans.
Among the worst beasts was Neoptolemos, who in search of the aged Priam, rushed into the palace where, despite the protests of his wife Hecuba, the aged king had armed himself and hobbled along to stop Achilles´s son's crazed rampage. As he followed Hecuba towards the altar of Zeus, placed in the middle of their palace, Priam met with his youngest son, Polites, who severely injured rushed to him, closely followed by Neoptolemos who caught the defenceless boy and slammed him against the marble floor, crushing his skull. Priam faintly hurled his lance towards his son's killer, but Neoptolemos effortlessly blocked it with his shield and grabbed Priam, who had stumbled in Polites´s blood, by his grey hair and dragged the old man to the altar where he buried his sword to the hilt in the king's body.
Neoptolemos then searched for Astyanx, son of Hector and Troy's crown prince. He found the boy in his father's tomb chapel, where his mother Andromache had hidden him. Neoptolemos tore the child from the arms of his mother, rushed up on the walls of Troy and threw down Astynax from the city's highest tower.
While this was happening, Aeneas tried to offer as much resistance as he could muster by collecting a gang of Trojan warriors to attack the Greeks, like a "wolf pack chasing after blood during a foggy night, blindly hounded by wanton, furious hunger." But all was futile, they were decimated one by one, and Aeneas was soon alone rushing through streets and palaces where the Greeks plundered, raped and murdered. He found Helen crying behind Hestia´s altar, "terrified, anticipating the Trojans´ revenge, now when Troy was lost due to her crazy love, terrified by the rage of the Greeks and the anger of her disposed husband." At the sight of the scared woman, Aeneas felt a surge of hot anger, lifting his sword while thinking ”a thing of loathing cowering at the altar. Helen. Out of it flared the fire inside my soul, my rage ablaze to avenge our fallen country - pay Helen back, crime for crime.” Then he imagined he heard the voice of his deceased mother: "What is the use of succumbing to such a meaningless anger? Save instead your wife and son, hurry to them!"
Aeneas left Helen to her fate and immediately after him Menelaus rushed in, catching sight of his runaway wife. Raging from anger and jealousy he raised his sword, but Helen who had bared her breasts awaiting Aenea's death blow was so desperately beautiful that Menelaus dropped the sword, and instead of killing her took the traumatised Helen in his arms and showered her with kisses. Then they rushed into Deiphobus bedroom where he drunkenly fidgeted with his armour. Together Helen and Menelaus hacked him to pieces. A long time later, Aeneas met in Hades Deiphobus´s mangled shadow that bitterly lamented that: ”My own fate and the deadly crimes of that Spartan whore have plunged in this hell.”
How Menelaus spared Helen was briefly mentioned by Aristophanes in his comedy Lysistrate, where women agree to organize a love strike to prevent their men from fighting. When one of the women wondered if their husbands would not be furious if they averted their love, Lysistrate laughed and said that desire could overcome violence:
How? Well just imagine. We´re at home, beautifully made up, and we walk around the house wearing sheer lawn shifts and nothing else; the men are all horny and can´t wait to leap on us; and we keep our distance and refuse to come to them – then they´ll make peace soon enough, you´ll see.
Her friend Lampito added:
Didn't Menelaus drop his sword, I'm thinking, when he got but a wee glimpse of Helen´s twa wee apples.
Beauty and passion were Helen's blessing and curse. It was her infatuation with Paris that caused a bloody war. A passion described by Sappho in a poem from the early 500's BC, partly preserved in a beautiful fragment.
Some believe a team of cavalry, others infantry
And still others a fleet of ships, to be the most beautiful
Thing on the dark earth, but I believe it is
Whatever a person loves.
It is very easy to make this
Clear to everyone, the one who by far
Outshone all humankind in beauty,
Helen, abandoned her high-born husband
And sailed away to Troy with no thought whatever
For her child or beloved parents, lead astray by Eros … lightly.
In the Iliad Helen accused Aphrodite for her tragic fate. After she had witnessed how Paris nearly had come to been killed by Menelaus while they fought a duel outside the walls of Troy, watched by both Greeks and Trojans. On her way to her seat, placed next to King Priam on a dais on Troy's parapets, from which she would witness the duel, Helen was followed by accusatory glances from the Trojans: "There´s the one who caused us so much suffering" they whispered to each other. However, the revered old men around Priam throw admiringly looks after her, murmuring:
Who on earth could blame the Trojan and Achaean men-of-arms for suffering for so long for such a woman´s sake? Indeed she is the very image of an immortal goddess.
When Helen had witnessed how mighty Menelaus had fought for her sake and how Paris had been rescued to life only by Aphrodite´s involvement when she opened the strap to his helmet, which Menelaus had seized and dragged up so he could be able chop off Paris´s head. Helen was seized by the arm by Aphrodite who had appeared next to her. Helen accused her:
Lady of mysteries, what is the object of this mummery? Now that Menelaus has beaten Paris and is willing to take home his erring wife. […] So you begin by coming here, and try to lure me back to Paris. No; go and sit with him yourself. Forget that you are a goddess. Never set foot on Olympus again, but devout yourself to Paris. Pamper him well, and one day you may be his wife – or else his slave. I refuse to go and share his bed again – I should never hear the end of it. There is not a woman in Troy who would not curse me if I did. I have enough to bear already.
When Paris bloody and beaten returned to Helen, her love and tenderness toward him returned and all her desire for Menelaus evaporated. It was for Paris´s sake she had abandoned everything. It was because of their love that Troy had been plunged into misery and thousands of men had died. How could she let him down now? Perhaps Helen's dilemma was best described in Ludovic Halevsky's libretto to Offenbach's hilarious and frivolous opéra bouffe La belle Hélène, in which he had transformed Homer´s Troy into a seaside resort where silly deities and equally hare-brained Homeric heroes are involved in complicated intrigues to gain the favours of beautiful, but equally ridiculous women. In an aria, Helen explains that she is a hapless victim of her own beauty:
Oh! How unhappy we are!
Beauty, that fatal gift from above!
We must fight against men,
we must fight against the gods!
I fight with valour.
I fight, but it's useless.
For if Olympus wants me to fall,
one day or another, it will happen.
Tell me, Venus, what pleasure did you find
in showering me with such assets?
More than the ravages of brutal men, it is the tragic fate of women, which gets hold of the reader in the ferocious depictions of Troy's fall and its tragic aftermath. The proud Andromache, Hector's beloved wife, who was forced to witness how her husband's corpse was dragged around Troy's walls after Achilles chariot, how had seen her entire family being massacred and how her only son Astyanax had been ripped out of her arms by the ruthless Neoptolemos, who furthermore had sacrificed her beloved sister-in-law Polyxena on the grave mound of Achilles – the Greek hero had been violently in love with Polyxena. As a final humiliation, Andromache became enslaved by Achilles's brutal son, and after his death, she became a wife of two more men.
Polyxena´s mother Hecuba, who had her husband and several sons and daughters brutally murdered by Achilles and his son, ended up as being passed on as a slave to Odysseus, but after maddened by fury she had gouged out the eyes of Polymestor, she lost her mind completely. During the war she had confided her favourite son Polydorus to the care of Polymestor, though this unreliable king had cowardly murdered Polydorus when he was reached by the news of the Greek victory. When Odysseus rebuked her for her violent temper Hekuba began to bark and the legend states that she was turned into a bitch, or a werewolf. Dante met her in the Inferno:
… then did Hecuba,
a wretch forlorn and captive, when she saw
Polyxena first slaughter´d and her son,
her Polydorus, on the wild sea-beach,
next met the mourner´s view, then reft of sense,
did she run barking like a dog:
Such mighty power had grief to wrench her soul.
Maybe most tragic of all of the surviving Trojan women was Cassandra. Even she a daughter of Priam and Hecuba. Cassandra had as a priestess and sybil been consecrated to Apollo, but when the god violently seized the extraordinary beautiful Cassandra and asked to make love to her, Cassandra rejected his approaches and the snubbed god spit her in the mouth and declared that all her prophecies should be true, but no one would ever believe in her.
Cassandra also appeared by the side of the Trojan horse, soon after Helen had performed her strange dance around it. The sybil entered into a divine trance and like a roaring lioness, with the long, soft and undulating hair flying around her beautiful face and wide opened eyes, she declared:
O wretches! Into the Land of Darkness now we are passing; for all round us full of fire and blood and dismal moan the city is. Everywhere portents of calamity Gods show: destruction yawns before your feet. Fools! Ye know not your doom: still ye rejoice with one consent in madness, who to Troy have brought the Argive Horse where ruin lurks! Oh, ye believe not me, though ne'er so loud I cry!
However, the Trojans rejected and scoffed her:
Why doth a raving tongue of evil speech, daughter of Priam, make thy lips to cry words empty as wind? No maiden modesty with purity veils thee: thou art compassed round with ruinous madness; therefore all men scorn thee, babbler! Hence, thine evil bodings speak to the Argives and thyself! For thee doth wait anguish and shame yet bitterer than befell presumptuous Laocoön. Shame it were in folly to destroy the Immortals' gift.
They pushed her back when Casssandra rushed forward with an axe in one hand and a burning torch in the other, hindering her from coming close to the unfortunate horse. A furious mob hunted Cassandra down to the temple of Athena, where she pleaded sanctuary by the plinth of the goddess´s statue.
During the night, while Greek hordes overran the defenceless city, the brutal Ajax, to differ him from Ajax the Telamonian he was called Ajax the Lesser, ran to Athena´s temple, knowing that the beautiful Cassandra had hidden herself in there. Already knowledgeable about her horrible fate the sybil clung to the pedestal waiting for the cruel warrior to arrive. He came and raped her. When the poor woman tried to prevent Ajax from bringing her into captivity, she clung to Athena's image and it fell over them.
When Ajax appeared among the Greeks dragging the bleeding Cassandra after him, while she screamed that he had defiled Athena's sanctuary, a furious Odysseus demanded that Ajax had to be stoned to death, when his comrades-in-arms hesitated, he explained "Do you not understand that through his thoughtless brutality he has brought the goddess's wrath upon us. She who always has protected us!" Nevertheless, the Greeks pardoned Ajax, but took the beautiful Cassandra away from him, passing her on to Agamemnon.
Thus ends the tragic story of the Trojan Horse in a powerful final, orchestrated by the incomparable Aeschylus in his drama Agamemnon, from the 400's BC.The key scene of Aeschylus’s drama is when Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra opens the door for Cassandra to hers and Agamemnon´s palace in Mycenae, asking her to participate in the sacrifice of a bull, intended to be an act of thanksgiving for her husband´s safe return home.
In fact, Clytemnestra and her lover Aighisthus planned to murder both Agamemnon and Cassandra, as revenge for Clytemnestra´s husband sacrificing their daughter, Iphigenia, ten years earlier, just to safeguard the Greek fleet´s journey to Troy. During the absence of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra had comforted herself in the company Aeghisthus and through the murder of the Master of the House, the two lovers now wished to marry and thereby gain control of the wealth and power of Agamemnon.
Obviously, in her capacity as a powerful sibyl, Cassandra was already familiar with the moment of her own death and the misery that would result from that unfortunate murder. In front of the gates of Agamemnon’s palace, Casandra became rigid and did not utter a single word. Agamemnon had already entered and Clytemnestra reminded Cassandra that she had against all odds survived the slaughter at Troy and gained the confidence and protection of Greece's richest and most powerful king, she should thus show some gratitude for the goodwill of the gods.
When Clytemnestra had disappeared into the palace, Cassandra's stunned silence ceased and she embarked on a god-inspired dithyramb, re-counting the blood-drenched history of the Atreus House. How it was being persecuted by the Erinyes, the wanton goddesses of revenge:
The house that hates god, an echoing womb of guilt, kinsmen torturing kinsmen, severed heads, slaughterhouse of heroes, soil drenched by streaming blood.
”Aieeeee!” Cassandra screamed without any apparent sense, time after time. ”Aieeee! Earth – Mother – Rape of the Earth! Apollo, Apollo!”
A powerful dialogue, not much different from the questions, answers and prayers sung in a Catholic mass, developed between Cassandra and a choir of old men, trying to understand and soften her rage. However, Cassandra was a prophetess, who furthermore had experienced the senseless violence that Agamemnon and his men had bestowed upon Troy and how this rape of an entire nation already was affecting the perpetrators. Now it was Agamemnon's turn to be sacrificed and Cassandra was forced to follow him in death. But, Cassandra let herself be sacrificed with open eyes and without fear. She knew what it meant to be a victim. She knew the truth behind everything and even if her prophesies were not believed, she could not be bullied anymore. She knew that her voice would be heard after her death and its message finally be rooted in the hearts of people. She also knew that the future was dark: ”Lust for power never dies – men can never have enough.”
Cassandra's condemnations and warning words would be echoing throughout the centuries - and although she was forced to die, her voice reverberated into the future.
So he [Agamemnon] goes down and the life bursting out of him -
Great sprays of blood, and the murderous shower
Wounds me, dyes me black and I, I revel
Like the Earth when the spring comes down,
The blessed gifts of god, and the new green spear
Splits the sheath and rips to birth in glory.
Thus ends the story about the Trojan horse, pregnant with the message of Cassandra. Burn the Trojan horses before it's too late! Chase out those hiding inside them. Force them out into the glaring light! And if we do not succeed in doing that - let our youngsters do it. They are our hope for a better future. Let them rejoice in a new spring, think about and secure their children's future, something our generation so shamelessly have neglected. Never let our vigilance against intolerance, ruthlessness and selfishness disappear and die. Do not let outer appearances deceive us. Do not buy a pig in the poke.
Apollodorus (1956) The Library, part II. London: The Loeb Classical Library, William Heineman. Brondi, Vasco (2017) La luci della centrale elettrica: Coprifuoco. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJ098cHaOrU Fagles, Robert (1977) The Orestia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics. Fagles, Robert (2010) Vergil: the Aeneid. London: Penguin Classics. Guerrera, Antonello (2017) “Marek Halter: ´Vogliono far vincere i Fascisiti ma la Francia saprá resistire all´odio´,” in La Repubblica, 21 april. Johnson, Marguerite (2007) Sappho. London: Duckworth. Kirkpatrick, Robin (2012) Dante Alighieri - The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. London: Penguin Classics. Quintus Smyrnaeus (1913) The Fall of Troy. Cambridge, MA: The Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press. Rieu, Emile Victor (1980) Homer: The Iliad. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics. Rieu, Emile Victor (1986) Homer: The Odyssey. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics. Sommerstein, Alan H. (2002) Lysistrata and Other Plays. London: Penguin Classics.