Chapter 14: The Departure for Greece
Dawn arrived, and the Greeks looted the destroyed city, finding and taking much treasure. Along with the material treasure, they took the women of Troy. Some were virgins, others were newlyweds, others were aged and with grey hair, and others were mothers whose children had suckled their breasts for the last time. Many children had died, and many still-living children were separated from their mothers.
Menelaus took Helen, over whom the war had been fought. Agamemnon took Cassandra, and Neoptolemus took Andromache. Odysseus dragged away Hecuba, who was crying and trembling. She had torn her hair and had poured ashes on her head. Each Greek hero had a Trojan woman to take to his ships.
The Trojan women were now slaves, and they cried as their new masters led them to the ships. With the arrival of winter, men separate piglets from their mothers and drive the piglets from the old pigsty to a new pigsty. The piglets squeal as they are herded from one place to a new place. The Trojan women wailed as they were herded to the ships.
Helen did not cry, but she was afraid that the Greeks would hurt her. She covered her face with the veil of a married woman and followed her husband, Menelaus. Hephaestus had once found his wife, Aphrodite, having an affair with Ares. He cast a net over them while they were having sex, and then he invited the gods and goddesses to look at them. The goddesses were embarrassed and stayed away, but the gods came to look and laugh while Aphrodite blushed with shame. Helen blushed. The Greeks marveled at Helen’s beauty, and no one insulted or physically mistreated her.
The Greeks were happy to see Helen; they had fought a war for ten years to recover her. They were like sailors who have been at sea for a long time and finally see land.
But the river-gods around Troy and their daughters the nymphs mourned, as did the god of Mount Ida, as the city was abandoned. Its buildings had been burnt, its warriors had been killed, and its surviving women and children were being taken away to be slaves in Greece. The river-gods and nymphs and mountain-god felt as a farmer does whose ripe grain field is destroyed by a hailstorm. Food that could have nourished and kept alive many people is destroyed, and the center of civilization that was Troy had been destroyed.
The Greeks sang epic songs as they went about their work of putting their booty in their ships. The songs were about the gods, the war, the wooden horse, and the Greeks’ decisive victory after ten years of inconclusive warfare. The songs were joyful, like those of jackdaws following a storm when the Sun comes out. The songs reached Mount Olympus, and they made the gods who had supported the Greeks happy, but the gods who had supported the Trojans were unhappy at the working of Fate, which even they could not alter. Even Zeus, the most powerful of all beings, cannot alter Fate.
The Greeks made many sacrifices to the gods, and they praised all who had entered the wooden horse. They also especially gave gifts to and praised Sinon, who had told the lies that conquered Troy although the Trojans had tortured him in an attempt to make him tell the truth. Although the Trojans had cut off his nose and his ears, Sinon was happy with the glory that he had won.
The Greeks said among themselves, “We have won the war after ten years of struggle. We have won glory. Now we pray to Zeus to allow us a safe homecoming.”
To some Greeks Zeus gave a safe homecoming, but not to all.
During the evening, poets continued to sing the history of the Trojan War: the Greek ships had gathered at Aulis, the port from which they had sailed to Troy; Achilles had sacked twenty-three cities, twelve by sea and eleven by land; Achilles had wounded Telephus, and he had killed Eetion and Cycnus; Achilles had grown angry at Agamemnon and stopped fighting for the Greeks, and the Trojans had won major battles; Achilles had killed Hector, and then he had dragged the corpse around Troy; Achilles had killed Penthesilea and Memnon, Great Ajax had killed Glaucus, and Neoptolemus had killed Eurypylus; Philoctetes had returned to fight for the Greeks and had killed Paris; Odysseus had come up with the idea of the Trojan Horse, Epeus had built it, and many Greek warriors had gone inside the horse; the Greeks had conquered Troy, and now they were celebrating.
At midnight, exhausted from the work of war and after many hours without sleep, most of the Greeks slept.
Menelaus and Helen, however, talked. Helen said, “Menelaus, do not be angry at me. Paris kidnapped me while you were away from our home; I did not go with him voluntarily. I suffered, and I wanted to commit suicide either with a noose or with a sword. The Trojans stopped me and tried with words to make me forget my sorrow at being separated from my family. I wanted to return to you and our daughter. Please believe me.”
Menelaus replied, “Let us talk of this no longer. Let us forget the evil past.”
Helen was relieved; her husband did not sound angry at her. She embraced him, and they lay down together, and they had sex. They were like ivy and a vine that grow together and intertwine. The wind cannot separate the ivy and the vine, and Menelaus and Helen were one.
That night, Achilles appeared in a dream to his son, Neoptolemus. Achilles kissed his son’s neck and eyes, and then he said, “Do not mourn me — my spirit lives now among the gods. Let me give you some advice. During war, fight in the front lines. During councils, listen to the older men. Find men with good and noble minds, and make them your friends. Be friends with good men, and reject bad men. Make your mind good, and your deeds will be good. Pursue excellence and its rewards, and do not over-react to bad fortune or to good fortune. Be good to your friends, your future sons, and your future wife, and realize that not long from now you will be dead. Be kind.
“And do what I tell you to do now. I want you to go to Agamemnon and the other Greeks and tell them that I — who did so many notable deeds in the war — am angry at them. I am even angrier at them than I was when Agamemnon took Briseis away from me. I am so angry that I will send storms to the sea so that the Greeks will have to stay at Troy for a long time. The only way they can appease my anger is to sacrifice Polyxena, a young daughter of Priam, at my tomb. After she is dead, you may bury her at a distance from my tomb.”
Achilles’ spirit departed and went to the Elysian Fields, where the gods use a path that travels to and from heaven.
Neoptolemus woke up and wondered, Some of what my father said seems contradictory. Have I heard both true things and false things? Is Achilles trying to be a good person but letting his anger conquer him? Should a good son obey his father no matter what?
At dawn, Neoptolemus remembered the dream of his father and felt glad. The Greeks wanted to pull their ships into the sea and set sail, but Neoptolemus told the Greek leaders, “My father, Achilles, whose spirit now resides with the gods, came to me in a dream last night. He demands his share of the spoils of Troy. He orders us to sacrifice Polyxena at his tomb and then bury her at a distance from his tomb. If we don’t do that, he threatens to send storms to the sea and force us to stay at Troy for a long time.”
The Greeks looked out at the sea; a storm was rising and making the waves dangerous. Poseidon, who respected Achilles, had created the storm. The Greeks prayed to Achilles, and they said, “Achilles, who was descended from Zeus, is now an immortal god.”
The Greeks forcibly tore Polyxena away from her mother, Hecuba, and led her to Achilles’ tomb the way they would take a frightened calf from its grieving mother and lead it to an altar. Polyxena and Hecuba both knew that the Greeks were going to cut Polyxena’s throat with a sword. Polyxena cried the way a mother cries when her young daughter is being taken away to be a human sacrifice. Polyxena’s tears soaked her dress.
The previous night, Hecuba had had a dream: She was standing at the tomb of Achilles, crying, and from the breasts that had fed her children came not white milk but red blood that dripped onto the tomb of Achilles. She mourned the way a mother dog mourns when its masters have taken its puppies, whose eyes are still closed, and thrown them into a field for birds to kill and eat. The dog howls, and Hecuba sobbed loudly with grief.
Hecuba said, “What should I mourn first, and what should I mourn last? My sons have died. My husband has died. My city has fallen. My daughters are or will be dead, or they will be sex-slaves. You, Polyxena, will soon be dead. You are at the age where you should be looking forward to your marriage, but fate has brought you death. Achilles is dead, but that has not stopped him from bringing us grief and feeling joy at the sight of our blood. I wish that I could die before you die.”
At the tomb of Achilles, Neoptolemus gripped Polyxena tightly with his left hand so she could not run away. He drew his sword with his strong right hand and rested the hilt on the tomb, saying, “Father, do not be angry any longer at the Greeks. Be satisfied with this sacrifice and allow us to return safely home.”
Polyxena screamed, and Neoptolemus drove the sword into her throat. She bled much and died quickly.
The Greeks gave Polyxena’s body to the Trojan Antenor, whose son Eurymachus had been going to marry her. He buried her by his home, which was near a monument of Ganymede and the temple of Athena. As soon as Polyxena was buried, the winds and waves died down, and the sea was suitable for sailing.
The Greeks sacrificed to the gods, and they feasted and drank. They used goblets of gold and silver that they had taken from the noble palaces of Troy.
After everyone had feasted, Nestor said, “Achilles is no longer angry, Poseidon has calmed the storm at sea, and the time is right to set sail. Let us drag our ships to the sea and go home.”
The gods performed one more marvel before the Greeks could set sail. The grieving Hecuba was changed into a dog made out of stone. The Greeks put her on board one of their ships and took her across to the other side of the Hellespont, where they left her at a spot afterward known as Dog’s Tomb.
The Greeks dragged their ships to the sea and loaded them with treasure and women taken from Troy and conquered cities that had been allied with Troy.
Two Greeks were afraid to set sail immediately. The prophet Calchas worried that the ships would sail into danger when they arrived at the Capherean Rocks at the headland of the southeast end of the island of Euboea. He tried to convince the other Greeks to wait to set sail, but only Amphilochus, who also understood prophecy, stayed with him. Neither Calchas nor Amphilochus would die during their sea journey, but both would go to cities that were not their own.
The Greeks who were immediately setting sail poured wine into the sea as an offering to the gods. Their ships were crowded with armor that they had taken from dead Trojans. Their ships were decorated with garlands signifying victory. The Greeks prayed to the gods for a safe passage home for all and poured wine into the sea as a sacrifice, but their prayers were scattered by the wind.
The Trojan women looked at Troy, from which smoke still rose, as the ships sailed away; they tried to conceal their grief. Some women clasped their knees with their hands; some women held their heads in their hands. Some women held children in their arms. The children, who sucked milk from their mothers’ breasts, did not know yet that they were slaves. Their mothers’ breasts bore red welts from the scratches the Trojan women had made in their grief. No longer wives, the women did not braid their hair but let it fall loose. On their faces were the traces of dried tears; new tears soon covered up those traces. The Trojan women remembered the prophecies of Cassandra, and they looked at her. Some people sometimes respond to grief and misery in strange ways: Cassandra laughed.
Some Trojans had escaped and ran away during the sack of the city. When it was safe for them to do so, they returned and buried the dead. Antenor led the holding of the funerals. The few survivors burned the many corpses of men, women, and children on one funeral pyre.
The Greeks, who rejoiced because of their victory but mourned because of their dead, used oars and sails to leave the Trojan land. They made good time, and it seemed as if all of them would return home safely, but Athena was angry at Little Ajax because he had raped Cassandra in her temple.
When the Greeks sailed close to the island of Euboea, Athena said to Zeus, “Father, mortals no longer respect the gods, who ought to dispense justice. Mortals know that a good man often suffers and that a bad man often rejoices. Because of this, they no longer try to be just — they willingly do evil actions. This is wrong. Evil men ought to be punished. In my own temple, Little Ajax raped Cassandra. This is wrong on many levels. He committed rape. He raped a virgin who was soon to be married. He raped a virgin in a temple as she called on the virgin goddess to whom the temple was dedicated to protect her. Do not stop me as I punish Little Ajax and teach men not to commit rape. I also want to teach them to respect the gods.”
Zeus replied, “I will give you all the weapons you need to punish Little Ajax for his rape. Call up a storm against the Greeks. I give you my lightning bolts so you can kill Little Ajax. The Cyclopes made these lightning bolts for me.”
Athena put on a breastplate on which was displayed the head of Medusa with its writhing, fire-breathing snakes, she picked up her father’s thunderbolts, and she sent a message to Aeolus, the god of the winds, to cause a storm at sea to raise huge waves and sink ships. Iris took Athena’s message to Aeolus, who was with his wife and their twelve children. He listened to Iris, and then he used his trident to strike the side of the mountain in which was a cave that housed the winds. Aeolus’ trident broke a hole in the mountain, and the winds rushed out. Poseidon helped Athena by sending waves to batter the ships.
The waves raised the ships high and then dropped them low as if they were falling from a mountain into an abyss in which sand boiled up from the bottom of the sea.
The winds of Aeolus pummeled the ships. Zeus’ lightning bolts terrified the Greeks. Athena laughed.
The Greeks could do little or nothing to save themselves. They could not row or manage their sails. Their pilots could not steer their ships. Ships collided and crushed Greek men and Trojan women and children. Many fell into the sea and drowned. Some held onto pieces of oars and other wreckage and hoped to survive.
Athena threw a lightning bolt that shattered the ship of Little Ajax and scattered its pieces across the waves. Many Trojan women were happy to die even if it meant the death of their children, whom they held in their arms. Some Trojan women tightly gripped Greeks so that they could not swim; the Trojan women were eager to make Greeks die with them.
Little Ajax grabbed onto a piece of wreckage and stayed afloat; he was strong like a Titan. The waves lifted him and then let him drop. The gods marveled at his ability to stay alive in the storming sea.
Athena knew that he would die, and she wanted him to suffer before he died. Little Ajax, however, did not know that he would die. He boasted that he would live even if all the Olympian gods were against him.
Little Ajax grabbed onto a rock, and struggled to hold on to it as his hands grew bloody, but Poseidon broke the rock that Little Ajax was holding onto and Little Ajax fell into the sea. Even then, he could have escaped death, but Poseidon sent the rock after Little Ajax to land on top of him and carry him to the bottom of the sea and bury him. Athena had once lifted the island of Sicily and covered the giant Enceladus with it; Poseidon now covered Little Ajax with a huge rock.
The Greek ships were either sunk or badly damaged by the storm. Heavy rain fell. One Greek said, “In the days of Deucalion, storms such as this raged. He had sacrificed a boy to Zeus, who was disgusted by such a sacrifice, and Zeus sent storms to flood the world.”
Many corpses floated in the sea, and many corpses were cast onto the nearby land. This made Nauplius, the son of Poseidon and the father of Palamedes, happy. Odysseus had not wanted to go to Troy, and so had feigned madness, but Palamedes discovered the fakery and so Odysseus had to go to war. Odysseus never forgave Palamedes for that, and in revenge, according to rumor, he got Palamedes killed. Nauplius wanted justice for his son’s death, but the Greeks refused to give him justice, and so Nauplius prayed for the destruction of many Greeks and their ships. Poseidon granted that prayer.
Nauplius personally caused the death of many Greeks. On a dangerous shore, he held up a flaming torch. The Greeks thought that it was a signal directing them to a safe harbor, so they sailed toward the torch, and their ships and their bodies broke on the rocks of a reef.
Athena was happy in the destruction of ships and lives, but she respected Odysseus and she mourned because she knew that he was fated to suffer from the future anger of Poseidon at him.
Poseidon, with the help of Zeus and Apollo, destroyed the defensive fortifications the Greeks had built at Troy. Floods and an earthquake swept away the Greeks’ defensive wall and filled in their trench. After this destruction, only sand could still be seen.
The storm eventually ended, as all things do, and the surviving Greeks continued their sea voyages and tried to reach their homes, bringing their slaves with them.
Copyrighted by Bruce D. Bruce
Note: The above is an excerpt from my book From the Iliad to the Odyssey: A Retelling in Prose of Quintus of Smyrna’s Posthomerica, available here: