Helen of Troy Painting by Evelyn de Morgan (detail)
The Siege of Troy
"There are four very great events in history, the siege of Troy, the life and crucifixion of Christ, the exile of Krishna in Brindavan and the colloquy with Arjun on the field of Kurukshetra. The siege of Troy created Hellas, the exile in Brindavan created devotional religion (for before there was only meditation and worship), Christ from his cross humanised Europe, the colloquy at Kurukshetra will yet liberate humanity. Yet it is said that none of these four great events ever happened."
from Thoughts and Aphorisms — Sri Aurobindo
What is the siege of Troy and why has one of India's greatest seers and poets declared it to be one of the very great historical events, something that may be considered of global importance to Man kind? At certain moments in evolution as it expresses itself in the outer events that collectively we call history, there arises a need for the human race to rediscover the old truths of life, thought and action and to give them fresh shape. The siege of Troy marks such a moment, for that event generated the impulse which led to the creation of Hellas.
What was Hellas and what has been its contribution to the human march? Hellas is the name given to the nation, language and culture that sprung up in Greece in the fifth century BC and that in the following centuries spread its influence throughout the
Mediterranean world. It eventually laid its imprint on most of the nations emerging in what was to become modern Europe.
In the Hellenic world we see the birth of the first human society which made mind its ruling power. 'A sound mind in a sound body" was the acknowledged aim of life in ancient Greece. By a sound mind they meant a mentality whose capacities were thoroughly developed and fitted for a noble use in all fields of life, and by a sound reason they meant a rationality that was capable of a wise and tranquil ordering of life and a rule over its passions. The Greek focus on the mind gave a special emphasis to the philosophical, aesthetical and political dimensions of life. It did not, however, recognize the spiritual dimension to the extent that we find evident in Asia.
The Greeks (as they are more commonly called by historians) were passionate seekers for Truth, but especially for the actual truth of things, for the laws of truth which could act effectively in life. The mind of the Hellene took delight in the play of reason for its own sake and followed with eagerness the many movements of mind, always seeking the hidden reality which they sensed expressed itself in rational, universal laws which could be discovered by men. This quest for Truth extended to all domains of human life. In the intellectual domain, this free play of intelligence led to the discovery of a range of philosophical systems. These systems were the base upon which many later western philosophers constructed their philosophical systems of thought. In the field of politics the Greeks understood that one of the primary conditions for the development of the perfect society was the development of the free individual. Thus, they chose to rule them selves by creating an assembly where every citizen had an equal vote. In so doing, they made the first bold experiment in democratic political forms. The life that blossomed in Athens in the fifth century BC took humanity a step farther in its quest for a right balance of freedom and restraint. This initial experiment stimulated further experimentation in Europe and eventually led to the development of the modern democratic state on that continent.
The Hellene vision of Life was not shaped by mind alone;
beauty in all its forms was equally dear to it. In fact, the Hellenes developed a remarkable aesthetic sense that saw the beautiful wherever it turned its gaze and bowed to it with reverence in every form and activity. This fine sense for form and rhythm, for precision and clarify, and above all for harmony and order, is the central fact of Greek culture,
The thirst for Truth and Beauty led to a search for perfection not only of material form, but also in the actions of life. The Greeks called this truth in action, arete or excellence, and they greatly admired a man whose thoughts and sentiments radiated it and whose actions were governed by it. A life thus lived became a worthy offering to the gods. Note that this arete is not a specialized skill; it is a unifying power that radiates from the man who has successfully integrated his being.
The Greek hero is the embodiment of Truth in action. We will see this clearly later when we look more closely at Achilles, the most revered of their heroes. For the Greeks, heroes are representative men whose individual actions are always viewed in relation to a larger divine framework. Often a Greek hero's strength or individual prowess in action was attributed to his semi-divine parentage. This immortal element binds its human receptacle to the gods and sets him the heavy task of restraining human passion so he can express the nobler, more divine aspects of his nature that will work out the Divine Will.
It is through Homer's epic The Iliad that the Greek spirit that had been growing in the previous centuries was finally gathered and given form. Later, this new spirit was transmitted to all mankind, but first it revealed the Greeks to themselves, unifying them and making of them one people. Through this epic. Homer presents the Greek world-view, a view of life where men are seen as a base metal beaten and shaped by the gods and fate until their inner golden nature is revealed. He showed the Greeks more than just heroic deeds; his poetic genius drew aside the curtain of outer events and gave a vivid picture of the inner forces there at work.
What were the events leading up to the siege of Troy? The conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans was ignited by an ignoble
act on the part of the Trojan prince, Paris. While a guest at the palace of Menelaus, the king of Sparta, Paris stole the king's wealth and abducted his wife, Helen. While Paris and Helen were still at sea, the Greeks took immediate action and sent an embassy to Priam, the king of Troy, demanding Helen's return. This, the Trojans refused to do; partly because of the fact that Helen herself declared that she had accompanied Paris of her own freewill. And so the stage for war was set.
Greece at that time was a collection of semi-independent small kingdoms, most of whose kings had bound themselves in an oath to honor whichever man was chosen as Helen's husband and to standby him in case of future threats to the marriage. So, when Menelaus discovered the treachery, he and his brother Agamemnon, the mightiest of the Greek lords, summoned all the oath-takers to redeem their pledge and to gather men and ships for war with Troy. When the Greek fleet finally set sail for Troy, it included men in its ranks who were destined to become heroes in the course of the war that followed: such great names as Odysseus, Diomedes, Ajax and, greatest of all, Achilles.
In Homer's description of the events of the siege of Troy, we are presented with a vast field of war where men are tested to reveal the depth of their courage, strength and heroism. In this process, human nature is honed by gigantic forces both human and divine that purify the lower nature and bring out the latent noble and god like possibilities. The struggles between the Greeks and the Trojans revolve around issues of power and honor. The Iliad shows us the conflict between mighty human spirits, and how the Gods intervene in such conflicts to work out a Divine Will. Homer casts the life of Man in divine proportions. This is the power which the true seer offers to those of us who are able to enter into the ancient spirit and atmosphere, and to feel what is going on behind the outer action.
For centuries, Greeks of all walks of life read Homer's epics as the base of their formal education and as a guide in cultural and civic matters of all kinds. It is the common heritage of Homer that helped them to form an integral vision of Man and his place
Homer (Rhodes, late Hellenistic period)
in the universe. Later, Europeans allowed Homer's influence to penetrate their respective lives and cultures to such a degree that his epics became one of the most powerful forces sculpting the modern mind.
When we approach Homer's epic with a modern mind and sensibility, we must make the effort to cast aside many of our familiar attitudes and assumptions and plunge into the new world that the Greeks were in the process of calling into being, a world Sri Aurobindo describes as "lucid and slender and perfectly little." The Greek conception of a hero does not always run parallel to our modern conceptions. Their hero is one who delights in his manhood and enters into all its activities — and in those times that meant war, plunder, adventure — with a happy heart. He worships the Olympian gods in the prescribed way, honoring them outwardly by burning thighs of oxen on his altar, and inwardly with an attitude of humility and reverence, always recognizing his own place in the divine scheme of things.
The Iliad gives us a striking example of such a hero in Achilles. He is a man who abides in the human dimension temporarily ruled by anger and grief, but is pulled god ward by his own god-like nature's response to the call of the gods to work out a divine purpose at Troy. Achilles fulfills his social obligations and earns honor and glory through his physical courage and prowess as a warrior. He reveres the gods and listens to their guidance, and finally, at the climax of the Iliad (in the last chapter, which follows) is able to express pity and mercy and compassion to his Trojan opponent, Priam. The momentous meeting between the greatest of the Greek warriors and the Trojan king has been arranged by the gods who are outraged by the fact that Achilles is defiling the body of defeated Prince Hector. To honor his beloved friend Patroclus and to assuage his own feelings of guilt at being the cause of his friend's death, he daily drags the naked corpse of Hector behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. Messengers are sent from Zeus to rectify this indignity. Achilles is told pointblank by his goddess-mother, Thetis, that he must hand over the body of Hector in return for a ransom. Achilles' immediate reaction
is to submit himself to the divine will. Meanwhile another goddess descends and informs Priam that he must take a hand-some ransom and venture into the enemy camp to beg for there lease of his son's body. When the two finally meet — the noble king, Priam and the long-wrathful Achilles — there is a momentous change. These bitterest of enemies, gaze at each other — soul to soul — and reach a state of compassion in which they mourn each other's losses and grieve over the losses that all men experience in the field of war. They part and each goes on to his own severe fate, but readers of generations live inspired by their reconciliation, by the example of men uplifted into a diviner sphere. It is this eternal moment that Homer has immortalized for his own people and for all men and women who yearn to be free from the lower nature and to live in the highest part of themselves.
Areas in grey represent Greek territories between the 11th and 10th centuries BC.