The Achaean response

The Achaean response to Paris & Helen: Sacrifice & the Catalogue of Ships

Menelaus’ first response to the ‘abduction’ is not violence but diplomacy. He and Odysseus are cut off from the rest of Achaean forces and exposed to an assassination attempt – which is bungled. Great store was set by negotiation at the time – reflected in famous agreements such as the Treaty of Kadesh. But here diplomatic attempts failed as Wilusa chose the path of greatest resistance. Who really chose this course of action in reality?

Back in Greece, a huge naval force (although nothing like the ‘thousand ships’ Helen’s face is supposed to have launched) was assembled at Aulis. But the ships could not sail because the winds had gone.

Never recounted by Homer (which suggests that it may have been absorbed from another tradition – perhaps an older one; perhaps not), the first victim of the catalogue of murders set off by Helen’s act was a young child – Agamemnon’s daughter, no less: Iphigenia.

This tale is mixed up with something else: the culpability of a Greek soldier who had killed a deer in the sanctuary of Artemis. Whatever the true driver, Agamemnon lures his daughter to Aulis with the news that Achilles, the greatest warrior of the time, is waiting to marry her.

She is sacrificed in the fashion of a goat. This in turn sets off other murders: Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon on his return from Troy which spurs Orestes to kill both his mother and her new lover, Aegisthus.

Iphigenia’s sacrifice may sound like a flight of fancy or else something from an otherwise forgotten past. But, in desperate times Mediterranean societies continued to make human sacrifices for centuries to come. And recent excavation finds – indeed, since publication of Hughes’ historia of Helen – suggest that there is not much unusual here.

At the Mycenaean palace at Kydonia on Crete, it is quite clear that human sacrifice was taking place. Cut up (and this may be relevant) and buried beneath the floor of the palace – possibly as an offering to chthonic powers – is the sacrificed body of a woman, scattered amongst the remains of sacrificed domestic animals: at least 2 goats and a pig. So, not only was there human sacrifice, it was comfortably mixed in with goat sacrifice as well.

Human remains from the Mycenaean palace of Kydonia. Photo credit: ANA-MPA / Maria Andreadaki-Vlazaki

Today, there is not much to see at Aulis. The whole area is covered in a layer of dust from a cement factory.

As mentioned, Homer does not draw in the Iphigenia story. In its place we have something known as the ‘catalogue of ships’ regarding the 29 naval contingents launched from Aulis. The places mentioned do not accord with the most powerful places in the Iron Age and the rhythmic pattern of the poem is slightly broken here. It suggests that this section has been orally recalled from a time before Greek lost some of its initial sounds.

Cities mentioned by Homer
By Pinpin – Inspiré de la carte “ACHAEANS and TROJANS” du site de Carlos Parada, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2830268

Furthermore, the laying of a hydrological supply pipe in Thebes in 1993 turned up a Linear B tablet which changed perceptions of the importance of that area during the thirteenth century.

Amongst the Boeotians, the city of Eleon had always been a problem: outside Homer there had been no recorded mention of it. But it was there on the new Theban tablet. Furthermore, Thebes and Aulis were at least as important as Mycenae at the time.

Homer also said that the Trojan city was beloved of Apollo. An inscription on the Alaksandu Treaty speaks of a revered deity in Wilusa by the name of Appaliunas.

In reality, it would have been impossible for Wilusa to endure a siege for ten years. But arrowheads do suggest that Wilusa suffered a sustained period of attack in the late Bronze Age. That was not all either: the citadel also shows signs of earthquake damage from the period.

It was always a mystery how the Achaean army could have held out for so long. But then in 1960 at the village of Dendra, almost in the shadow of the Mycenaean citadel of Midea, a Swedish archaeological team made an incredible discovery. It is now recognised to be slightly earlier than the supposed date of the War with Troy but its design is extraordinary, confirming Homer’s words about the use of boars’ tusks in helmet apparel. [Extremely heavy, this type of armour could only have been used for short periods in chariot archery-based warfare. It is practically impregnable.] This is the ‘Dendra panoply’, a well-preserved battle armour outfit from the fifteenth century. It is now housed in Nafplion’s museum.

The Dendra panoply
© – Simon J Kyte

Homer dwells on some of the bloodthirsty scenes. Lust for beauty and lust for blood are intertwined here.

καλώς θάνατος – Troy is not just about Helen; it is also ‘pro patria mori’. To the archaic mind, violent death was often seen as the best. Indeed, death might often be sought out by the hero. In contrast ‘old’ age was viewed as creeping humiliation. [Jaynes argued for a psychological bicameralism in ancient thinking whereby people behave in a fashion as though they are suffering from schizophrenia. That would be why in Homer people do not seem to be in charge of their own actions. I take it with a pinch of salt.] However, to avoid disgrace, dead heroes had to be swiftly collected from the battlefield for a funeral pyre as desecration of the corpse (either by the enemy or by wild dogs) could wipe out glory.

However, thanatos had a feminine counterpart, ker – the progenitor of the horror of death, a female death spirit. They were drawn to the slaughter on battlefields.

With so many dying at Troy, Paris and Menelaus challenge one another to a duel but Aphrodite intervenes, unable to watch Paris being pulverised. She sweeps him off the battlefield to a large carved bed, disguises herself as an old woman and goes to Helen. Helen is furious with Aphrodite but the latter threatens to take away her beauty, which in her society is her security and she shrinks back to Paris’ chamber. But whilst they make love and then worship the deity, the battle outside continues to rage.

In Homer Menelaus is almost pacific – he did try to negotiate after all. He suggests taking a Trojan soldier prisoner rather than executing him and is mocked by his brother, Agamemnon for it. Over a hundred lines of butchery follow.

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