Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

November 18, 2005

First published November 17, 2005

 in First city magazine

Troy: From myth to history

Film review in First city magazine, Delhi.

“The gods are conspicuous by their absence,” said a friend after he watched the recently released film Troy starring Brad Pitt. And it is true. No Aphrodite. No Zeus. No Apollo — except as an idol enshrined in a temple. No myth or magic. None of the fantastic plots and subplots inspired by the legendary city and its eventual collapse that for hundreds of years fired the imagination of the ancient Greco-Roman world. What we see on screen is a realistic recreation of a war that might have taken place in 1000 BC inspiring Homer’s great epic, Iliad. Iliad means the epic of Ilium, which is another name for Troy. Homer’s Iliad, one of the oldest works on the Trojan war, focuses on the dispute between the leader of the Greek army, Agamemnon, and the Greek champion, Achilles, in the tenth year of the siege of Troy. Ten years — that’s how long the walls of Troy built by the gods withstood the Greek onslaught. But in the film, it is a war that lasts a few days, ending with the legendary Trojan Horse with which the Greeks trick their way into the great walled city and finally plunder it. The film rightly portrays Odysseus as the mastermind behind the Trojan Horse trick. Odysseus is the hero of Homer’s other epic, the Odyssey that describes his 10-year struggle to find his way back home, a miserable fate that awaited each and every Greek warrior who fought on Trojan shores. The director, Wolfgang Peterson, of Troy has ensured that the characters of the film display the many qualities attributed to them by Homer. Agamemnon may plunge into war to satisfy his ambitions, but he is also the visionary who seeks to unite the warring Greek cities. Achilles may be a great warrior but he is self-absorbed and narcissistic and fiercely independent. Hector a man who stands by family and country to the point of stupidity. Priam a great king and loving father whose superstitions spell his doom. Nestor, Agamemnon’s chief advisor is wise but also a diplomatic sycophant. Melenaus, Helen’s husband, is more insulted than heartbroken by his wife’s behaviour. Paris, Helen’s handsome and passionate lover, is a wimp. Each character is well rounded with strong and weak points. There is no clearly defined hero or villain. Judgement is left to the audience. One is overwhelmed by the simplicity of the film’s narration and the grandeur of the scenes. The battle scenes look real — especially the scale of armies, thousands of Trojans and Greeks marching towards each other. What one regrets is not what is on the screen, but what could have been on the screen, with or without the presence of the gods. To simplify the plot the scriptwriter writer has sacrificed many interesting characters: Priam’s wife Hecabe who hates Helen; Priam’s daughter Cassandra whose prophecies of doom though true are never believed; Agamemnon’s daughter Ipigeniah who is sacrificed by her own father before the Greek ships set sail for Troy; Agamenon’s wife Clytemnestra who in her husband’s absence takes on a lover and plots to have her husband killed when he returns from Troy; Oenone, Paris’ first wife, who he abandons after falling in love with Helen and who takes revenge by showing the Greeks the route to Troy and by refusing to use her knowledge of herbs to save Paris when he is fatally wounded in battle; Helenus, Priam’s younger son and oracle, who turns against his people when he is not allowed to marry Helen after Paris is killed. The film does not mention Pentheselia, the amazon warrior woman who fought for the Trojans, who Achilles fell in love with after he killed her, mistaking her for a man. So smitten was he by her beauty that he made love to her dead body, an act of necrophilia that disgusts all. There is no sign of Memnon, the king of the Ethiopians, who fights for the Trojans and whose death his mother, the goddess of dawn, still mourns by shedding tears of dew. Besides avoiding characters, a few plots have been edited or changed perhaps keeping the audience in mind. The most important change is the relationship between Achilles and Patrolocus. The film presents the latter as Achilles’ cousin. In the epic and in the entire Greek narrative tradition, Patrolocus and Achilles are lovers. Their homoerotic affection has lead to many artworks and volumes of literature. This was the love between two perfect men of equal stature, a love that according to Plato was the ideal love. In fact, Ganymedes, cup bearer of the gods and boy-lover of Zeus, poster boy of man-boy love, was a Trojan prince, an ancestor of Paris. The Hollywood Helen hardly looks like the ravishing beauty who every man fell in love with, who was abducted by the great Theseus of Athens when she was but a child. There is no reference to the tale of how, to protect his future son-in-law, whoever he may be, Helen’s father demanded that every man who sought her hand in marriage take a vow to protect the life and honour of the man who would eventually marry her — the legendary reason why every Greek warlord supported Melenaus and launched a 1000 ships to bring Helen back from Troy. In legend, not in film, Melenaus and Agamemnon survive the war. Instead it is Paris who dies. As the city is plundered, Melenaus rushes into the royal palace intent on killing his unfaithful wife. But she bares her breast and so overwhelms him with her beauty that he forgives her and takes her back to Greece, where according to some traditions they lived happily ever after. According to other versions, on the way home they stopped at an island where the women, whose husbands had died in Troy fighting with the Greeks, were so angered by Helen’s indifference to their sacrifice and grief that they lynched her and hanged her by her hair from a tree. The tragic fate of Trojan women is hardly dwelt upon. We are never told that the Greeks enslave the noble Hector’s lovely wife and hurl his infant son to his death from the city walls. One does get a brief glimpse of Aeneas and his old father towards the end of the film. His name is never mentioned and we are not told that Agamemnon himself spared his life because he was touched by the lad’s devotion to his father. We know this character as Aeneas because he is given the ‘sword of Troy’ and asked to ensure the survival of Trojan legacy. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, what Aeneas took with him was not a sword but an image of the goddess, Athene, which he later enshrined in the city he founded — Rome. When the film draws to an end, Achilles does die with an arrow piercing his heel tendon, the ‘Achilles heel’ of legend. But he does not die because of that wound as Greek mythology informs us. As the soldiers surround the dead body of their great champion, one can almost imagine the birth of the Achilles myth. They would have whispered to their children, “Nothing harmed Achilles because his mother, who was a demi-goddess, dipped him in the river Styx, that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, holding him by the ankles, leaving that part vulnerable to weapons. That is where an arrow struck him. That is why he died.” Many people are convinced that at the heart of an epic or legend is an event that occurred a long time ago, that narratives becomes sacred because they are the only available records (however distorted and embellished they may be) of a community’s past. To these people the Trojan war, like the Mahabharata war, did occur. Those who seek to rationalize myths by reducing them to history, often forget that the purpose of myth is not to report an actual event, rather to communicate to a people their own understanding of the world. According to traditional Greek belief, the Trojan war was merely a temporal expression of a quarrel on Mount Olympus, home of the gods. Eris, the goddess of discord, angry at being the only member of the Greek pantheon not to be invited to the wedding of Achilles’ father, Peleus, threw a golden apple in the court of Zeus. On the apple were written the words, “For the most fairest goddess.” Three goddesses vied for this exalted status: Aphrodite, the goddess of love, Athena, the goddess of wisdom and Hera, the goddess of marriage. Not wanting to judge on such a contentious issue, Zeus sent the goddesses to Paris, prince of Troy. Paris gave the apple to Aphrodite, not because she was the fairest goddess but because she offered him the love of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. In rage, Athena and Hera swear to do everything in their power to destroy Troy. Athena, who once protected the city of Troy, abandons it and grants Odysseus the cunning to conjure up the Trojan Horse. The film Troy may look ‘real’ in the absence of the gods, but it fails to convey what Homer’s Illiad did about the Greek mindset: that for the Greeks, humans were merely pawns in a bigger game played amongst the gods. Bad things happened (pestilence in the Greek army) when the gods frowned (Apollo’s rage when his priest’s daughter is raped). A hero (Achilles, Odysseus) for the Greeks was the one who triumphed in life despite the frowns of the gods (Eris, Poseidon). It is this mindset of fearing and disdaining the gods that spawned the birth of rationalism and individualism, so much a part of Western ethos.

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