The story of Perseus belongs to the Heroic Age of Greek history, to the time when heroes were half mortal, half divine. Many other wonderful tales belong to the Heroic Age, but among them all none are so famous as those that are told in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad tells of the war that raged around the walls of the city of Troy; the Odyssey of the adventures of the goodly Odysseus.
In the north-west corner of Asia, looking toward Greece, the ruins of an ancient city have been discovered. It was on this spot that Troy or Ilium was believed to have stood.
Strange legends gathered round the warriors of the Trojan War, so strange that some people say that there never were such heroes as those of whom the Iliad tells. However that may be, we know that in long after years, when the Greeks fought with the people of Asia, they remembered these old stories, and believed that they were carrying on the wars which their fathers had begun.
The Iliad and the Odyssey were written by a poet named Homer, so many wise folk tell. While others, it may be just as wise, say that these poems were not written by one man, but were gathered from the legends of the people, now by one poet, now by another, until they grew into the collection of stories which we know as the Iliad and the Odyssey.
At first these old stories were not written in a book; they were sung or told in verse by the poets to the people of Hellas. And because what is "simple and serious lives longer than what is merely clever," these grave old stories of two thousand years ago are still alive, and people are still eager to read them.
Some day you will read the Iliad and the Odyssey. In this story I can only tell you about a few of the mighty warriors who fought at Troy, about a few of their strange adventures.
If you look at a map of Greece you will easily find, in the south, the country called Peloponnesus. In Peloponnesus you will see Sparta, the capital city, over which Menelaus was king, when the story of the Iliad begins.
Menelaus was married to a beautiful queen named Helen. She was the fairest woman in the wide world.
One day there came to the court of the king a prince named Paris. He was the second son of Priam, King of Troy. Menelaus welcomed his royal guest and treated him with kindness, but Paris repaid the hospitality of the king most cruelly. For when affairs of State called Menelaus away from Sparta for a short time, Paris did not wait until he returned. He hastened back to Troy, taking with him the beautiful Queen of Sparta, who was ever after known as Helen of Troy.
When Menelaus came home to find that Helen had gone away to Troy, he swore a great oath that he would besiege the city, punish Paris, and bring back his beautiful queen to Sparta; and this was the beginning of the Trojan War.
Menelaus had not a large enough army to go alone against his enemy. So he sent to his brother Agamemnon, who was the chief of all the mighty warriors of Hellas, and to many other lords, to beg them to help him besiege Troy, and if it might be, to slay Paris.
The chiefs were eager to help Menelaus to avenge his wrongs, and soon a great army was ready to sail across the Hellespont to Asia, to march on Troy.
But before the army embarked, the warriors sent, as was their custom, to an oracle, to ask if their expedition would be successful.
"Without the help of goodly Achilles, Troy will never be taken," was the answer.
Achilles was the son of Thetis, the silver-footed goddess, whose home was in the depths of the sea. Well did she love her strong son Achilles. When he was a babe she wished to guard him from the dangers that would surely threaten him when he grew to be a man, so she took him in her arms and carried him to the banks of the river Styx. Whoever bathed in these magic waters became invulnerable, that is, he became proof against every weapon. Silver-footed Thetis, holding her precious babe firmly by one heel, plunged him into the tide, so that his little body became at once invulnerable, save only the heel by which his mother grasped him. It was untouched by the magic water.
Achilles set sail with the other chiefs for Troy, so it seemed as though the city would be taken by his help, as the oracle foretold. With him Achilles took his well-loved friend Patroclus.
For nine long years was the city of Troy besieged, and all for the sake of Helen the beautiful Queen of Sparta. Often as the years passed, she would stand upon the walls of Troy to look at the brave warriors of Hellas, to wonder when they would take the city. But when nine years had passed, no breach had yet been made in the walls.
Often she would stand upon the walls of Troy
When the Hellenes needed food or clothing, they attacked and plundered the neighbouring cities, which were not so well defended as Troy.
The plunder of one of these cities, named Chryse, was the cause of the fatal quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles.
In Chryse there was a temple sacred to Apollo, guarded by a priest named Chryses. His daughter Chryseis, and another beautiful maiden named Briseis the Faircheeked, were taken prisoners when the town was sacked by the Hellenes. Agamemnon claimed the daughter of the priest as his share of the spoil, while Briseis he awarded to Achilles.
When Chryses the priest found that his daughter had been carried away by the Greeks, he hastened to the tent of Agamemnon, taking with him a ransom great "beyond telling." In his hands he bore a golden staff on which he had placed the holy garland, that the Greeks, seeing it, might treat him with reverence.
"Now may the gods that dwell in the mansions of Olympus grant you to lay waste the city of Priam and to fare happily homeward," said the priest to the assembled chiefs, "only set ye my dear child free and accept the ransom in reverence to Apollo."
All save Agamemnon wished to accept the ransom and set Chryseis free, but he was wroth with the priest and roughly bade him begone.
"Let me not find thee, old man," he cried, "amid the ships, whether tarrying now or returning again hereafter, lest the sacred staff of the god avail thee naught. And thy daughter will I not set free. But depart, provoke me not, that thou mayest the rather go in peace."
Then Chryses was angry with Agamemnon, while for his daughter's sake he wept.
Down by the "shore of the loud-sounding sea" he walked, praying to Apollo, "Hear me, god of the silver bow. If ever I built a temple gracious in thine eyes, or if ever I burnt to thee fat flesh . . . . of bulls or goats, fulfil thou this my desire; let the Greeks pay by thine arrows for my tears."
Apollo heard the cry of the priest, and swift was his answer. For he hastened to the tents of the Greeks, bearing upon his shoulders his silver bow, and he sped arrows of death into the camp.
Dogs, mules, men, all fell before the arrows of the angry god. The bodies of the dead were burned on great piles of wood, and the smoke rose black toward the sky.
For nine days the clanging of the silver bow was heard. Then Achilles called the hosts of the Greeks together, and before them all he spoke thus to Agamemnon: "Let us go home, Son of Atreus," he said, "rather than perish, as we surely shall do if we remain here. Else let us ask a priest why Apollo treats us thus harshly."
But it was easy to tell why Apollo was angry, and Calchas, a seer, answered Achilles in plain-spoken words. "The wrath of the god is upon us," he said, "for the sake of the priest whom Agamemnon spurned, refusing to accept the ransom of his daughter. Let Chryseis be sent back to her father, and for sacrifice also a hundred beasts, that the anger of the god may be pacified."
Deep was the wrath of Agamemnon as he listened to the words of Calchas.
"Thou seer of evil," he cried, his eyes aflame with anger, "never yet hast thou told me the thing that is pleasant. Yet that the hosts of our army perish not, I will send the maiden back. But in her place will I take Briseis the Faircheeked, whom Achilles has in his tent."
When Achilles heard these words he drew his sword to slay Agamemnon. But before he could strike a blow he felt the locks of his golden hair caught in a strong grasp, and in a moment his rage was checked, for he knew the touch was that of the goddess Athene. None saw her save Achilles, none heard as she said to him, "I came from heaven to stay thine anger. . . . Go to now, cease from strife, and let not thine hand draw the sword."
Then Achilles sheathed his sword, saying, "Goddess, needs must a man observe thy saying even though he be very wroth at heart, for so is the better way."
Yet although Achilles struck no blow, bitter were the words he spoke to the king, for a coward did he deem him and full of greed. "If thou takest from me Briseis," he cried, "verily, by my staff, that shall not blossom again seeing it has been cleft from a tree, never will I again draw sword for thee. Surely I and my warriors will go home, for no quarrel have we with the Trojans. And when Hector slaughters thy hosts, in vain shalt thou call for Achilles."
Well did Agamemnon know that he ought to soothe the anger of Achilles and prevail on him to stay, for his presence alone could make the Trojans fear. Yet in his pride the king answered, "Thou mayest go and thy warriors with thee. Chieftains have I who will serve me as well as thou, and who will pay me more respect than ever thou hast done. As for the maiden Briseis, her I will have, that the Greeks may know that I am indeed the true sovereign of this host."
The Assembly then broke up, and Chryseis was sent home under the charge of Odysseus, one of the bravest of the Greek warriors.
When the priest received his daughter again, he at once entreated Apollo to stay his fatal darts, that the Greeks might no longer perish in their camp. And Apollo heard and laid aside his silver bow and his arrows of death.
Then Agamemnon called heralds, and bade them go to the tent of Achilles and bring him Briseis of the fair cheeks. "Should Achilles refuse to give her up," said the angry king, "let him know that I myself will come to fetch the maiden."
But when the heralds told Achilles the words of the king, he bade Patroclus bring the damsel from her tent and give her to the messengers of Agamemnon. And the maiden, who would fain have stayed with Achilles, was taken to the king.