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Updated: Jun 9, 2019

The Walls of Troy


By John R. Haygood


Part 1


Troy could be seen in the distance, its magnificent walls almost glowing in the darkness, torches burning on its towers and all across the city, and the majestic palace at the top of the hill, rising against the night sky. For ten years the Achaeans had been looking at it, dreaming about it, storming its walls, soaking its fields with the blood of men, and yet they still hadn't grown tired of its beauty. The largest and most magnificent city in the Greek world, second only to the marvels of Egypt, Troy was still as alluring and enchanting, as it was unconquerable.

The massive walls of the city had withstood the onslaught of the Achaean army for a decade, and yet they did not show any signs of wear. Countless volleys of arrows had splintered on these walls, chariots had crashed against them, men had shed their blood on them, and yet they still glowed under the moonlight, smooth like polished marble, without even a crack for the rain to seep through.

Gazing at this imposing view was Calchas, the seer of Apollo, the wise counsellor of the kings, whom king Agamemnon despised, but could ignore his counsel. Calchas stood on the sandy beach with his feet in the waves that washed the western coast of the narrow headland that had become the home of the Achaean men for the past ten years. The bay that separated the headland from Troy stretched for 30 stadia[1] and when the warm south wind brought in the fog from the sea, the city looked like it was floating.

Calchas had heard Odysseus approaching and he knew it was him without taking his gaze off the gleaming city. He knew not because of his mantic gift, but because no other Achaean would approach him in such a nonchalant manner. Achilles had also been a friend to the seer, perhaps a truer friend, but Achilles was now dead, his spirit resting in the Elysian Fields.

"You will catch your death out here, old man, standing in the water like that!" shouted Odysseus, as he approached the seer.

"The south wind is warm," replied Calchas with a sigh, that made Odysseus feel childish. "But perhaps you are right," he quickly added as he turned grinning, "I should join your game of dice with Diomedes."

"I would never trust you with the dice, seer. You are more cunning than I," laughed Odysseus.

That was what Calchas and so many of the men liked about Odysseus. In spite of all the death and the gloom of the long drawn war, he could always lighten the mood with his wit and his laughter. "Why are you here Odysseus?" he asked as he turned back toward Troy. Calchas was a solitary man who never joined in the feasts nor did he ever drink wine, so when other men sought his company it was not for amusement.

"I know it is not my place to meddle with the Gods, but we have been wondering... has the Far Shooter[2] spoken to you?" asked Odysseus and his apprehension was evident, allowing momentarily his uncertainty to show.

For a long time they stood there in the silence of the gentle waves. Eventually, Calchas said thoughtfully, "Interesting that you would ask me that today, of all days. Did Diomedes put you up to this? Did his beloved Grey-Eyed goddess sent him an omen," he asked with a clear hint of mischief and sarcasm that did not escape Odysseus.

"No, old man," said Odysseus. He was trying to sound serious, but Calchas always made everything sound trivial and idiotic. "Diomedes is as curious as any of us," he added.

Calchas stood for a moment, waiting for the last light to fade, then turned and with his head low, began walking toward the tents. "Come, lead me to your tent and send for Diomedes to join us." he said as his staff sunk into the sand with every other step.


[1] Stadia (stadiums) were the standard Greek unit for measuring distances. 30 stadia is approx. 5.5km.

[2] The most common epithet of the god Apollo - he who shoots his arrows from afar - the other epithet being Phoebus, the bringer of light.


Part 2


The tent fluttered around them as the southern wind grew stronger. Odysseus and Diomedes sat in silence waiting for the seer to speak. There was a wooden table in the middle of the tent with several chairs around it, but Calchas had remained standing. Odysseus scratched his thick beard as his trusted servant from Ithaca mixed the wine with the water, while Diomedes began humming a song. It was an old war song calling Athena to lend her shield, the stormy Aegis, to the men and urging her to rekindle in their hearts the strength to keep fighting.

Once the young guard had left the tent, Calchas approached the table, casting a long shadow over the two heroes. "For a long time now the gods had remained silent," he said and his hands tensed slightly around his staff. "Perhaps it is not a coincidence that you two have come seeking their counsel now," he said and he made a long pause before abruptly announcing, "Phoebus has indeed spoken! But before I give you his message, I need to tell you a story... the story of how the walls of Troy were build, and how they have already been conquered once."

"Conquered?!" repeated Diomedes, surprised.

"Indeed," replied the seer, lazily. His little trick had worked, he could now trust to have their attention and hopefully, their allegiance as well. Calchas smiled and in a conspiratorial tone he said, "That is why I am telling you all this, son of Tydeus, because there is hope. But it will take delicate actions, not stomping around like that thickheaded Agamemnon," he said, making the two heroes laugh.

"So, what is the story you want to tell us then," asked Odysseus, eagerly.

"Well, as you know, king Nestor of Pylos and king Priam of Troy are the two oldest and wisest kings in this war. You have both often heard king Nestor call upon the great heroes he has met and has fought next to in his long years. His glory and renown has reached even the gods on Mount Olympus."

The seer walked toward Odysseu's throne on the opposite side of the tent and stood there looking at it with his back on the two warriors."Priam, on the other hand, had not had the same fortune of earning glory and in the battlefield, nor did he have the opportunity to share his wine with many heroes. However, he was fortunate in other ways.

"When Priam was young and he was still known by his original name, Podarces, Troy was ruled by his father, king Laomedon. At that time the Earth Shaker Poseidon and the Far Shooter Apollo had angered Zeus - some say by killing some of the Cyclops, but I wouldn't know... Whatever the case, as punishment Zeus ordered them to come down from Olympus and seek paid labour under the employment of a mortal. When the two immortals heard that Laomedon, king of Troy, wanted to build a new wall around his city they disguised themselves as stonemasons and offered to take up the task. Laomedon, not knowing who these stonemasons were, hired them and they agreed that he would pay them wages of 30 drachmas each for a year's work."

"You mean to say, old man that we have been shedding our blood in a hopeless war?" said Odysseus, with exasperation.

"Perhaps," replied Calchas, with some hesitation, "but I don't believe so. Poseidon could not be the one opposing you, because he has been on the side of the Argives[3] since the beginning of this war, and if you allow me to continue you will understand why."

"I pray," said Diomedes with a sigh, "that the Far Shooter has given you a favourable omen."

"There is no simple answer to this predicament," observed Calchas calmly. "There are possibilities, however, which we must pursue, and if the gods are pleased with your actions then they will not be able to deny you victory."

"Go on then, seer," said Diomedes, with disappointment rising in his tone.


[3] Another name for the Achaeans, meaning those from the city of Argos. Not every Achaean was from Argos of course, but in Homer's time it was used to denote the political primacy of Mycenae, Argos and Tiryns.



Part 3


Calchas, turning again toward the table, continued. "So, before they began with their work, Laomedon told Apollo that he will be tending the flocks of Troy on the slopes of mountain Ida, while Poseidon would be building the wall. To supervise them in their work, Laomedon appointed Aeacus, the future king of Aegena and forefather of the Myrmidons. Aeacus was thought, by both the gods and men, to be the most righteous of the Greeks and everyone respected his judgement. However, unbeknownst to either the two immortals or to Laomedon, Aeacus had been sent there by Zeus himself, who wanted Aeacus to supervise the work of the two immortals, but also test the hubris of Laomedon. And it turned out that Zeus was right to be suspicious.

"The Earth Shaker built a splendid wall of exceeding beauty, while Phoebus with his lyre herded the twist-horned cattle, the sheep and the goats on the forested slopes of Mount Ida, and after a year's labour, their work was done. However, when the two immortals came to king Laomedon to collect their payment, the king, in his pride and greed refused to pay them. He chased the two stonemasons away, threatening to slice off their ears with his sword and to bind them up and sell them as slaves."

The two heroes were dumbfounded. "What a fool!" exclaimed Diomedes. "How could he not realise that the stonemasons were not mere mortals? No mortal could ever accomplish such a task, not even if he worked for a lifetime, let alone a single year!"

"Indeed, you are right, son of Tydeus," agreed Calchas softly. "But Laomedon was blinded by greed and arrogance. And this was not the last time he cheated someone off his rightful payment, but we will get to that....

"Such was the furry of the two gods," continued the seer, "that they took their vengeance on Troy. Apollo unleashed a deadly plague that swept the city, while Poseidon sent a gigantic sea monster to prey on the coasts and harbours of Troy, wrecking havoc, sinking ships and killing multitudes. The population was decimated, the people turned to the priests and the oracles trying to understand why the gods had turned against them. However, king Laomedon never admitted his actions to anyone and when the Trojans consulted an oracle they were told that in order to appease the gods, once a year they would have to sacrifice a noble maiden to the sea monster of Poseidon. So, once a year, the Trojans would draw lots to determine which maiden would be chained on the rocks where the waves crash. Then the monster, sent by Poseidon, would emerge from the sea and devour her, before disappearing into the depths of the sea."

"Laomedon should have been the one sacrificed!" exclaimed Odysseus. "What a coward."

"True," said Calchas, "but think! The gods were still testing him. He was given an opportunity to atone for his earlier hubris, but he chose not to."

"Why didn't the oracle declare his guilt, then?" ask Diomedes.

"I presume the gods didn't wish it to be this way, because if they had the oracle would have spoken. Remember, oracles are always bound by the will of the gods and they are limited to what the gods have decided to reveal to them. Whatever the case, the day came when the lot fell on Laomedon's own daughter, the beautiful Hesion. And that's where the story becomes interesting..." said Calchas, stretching the last word with a sly grin in his face.


Part 4


Calchas walked around the table to pour himself some water. He made sure he took his time, making slow, almost theatrical moves as he picked up the hydria[4] and poured water in his cup. He took a long sip and then, fixing his eyes on the heroes, continued. "It so happened that at the time the great hero Heracles[5] was passing through the area, and as he was travelling up the Trojan coastline he happened upon the beautiful Hesion, chained to the rocks in the sea."

"Heracles?" asked Odysseus, perplexed. "I don't think I've heard this story before."

"Well, king of Ithaca, your islands are a long way from the coasts of Troy, and your poets might have missed some of the stories," laughed Calchas, enjoying the opportunity to tease Odysseus.

"I might have heard the story, but a long time ago" said Diomedes, thoughtfully.

"There are variations to it," explained Calchas. "Some say that he was on his way to his expedition against the Amazons. Others claim that he was on his way to Colchis with the Argonauts, on their quest to find the Golden Fleece. Another version of the story says that he had just been released from his servitude to the Lydian queen Omphale and was heading north. While a more complicated version claims that the incident took place when the hero was travelling with the Argonauts to Colchis, but was still a slave of queen Omphale."

At that point Calchas paused and it was clear that he was trying to make up his mind. "If I had to choose," he said after a long pause, "I would say that the last version of the story is the one I think is the correct one. And I think you will agree with me when you hear how things came to be.

"Go on," said Odysseus as his curiosity increased.

"Heracles, feeling sorry for Hesion, offered to Laomedon to kill the sea monster, save his daughter and, along with her, save Troy from the curse of Poseidon. Needless to say, Laomedon immediately recognised a way out of the curse that had been plaguing his reign for so long. When Laomedon asked Heracles what kind of reward he wanted if he accomplished this feat, Heracles asked for the divine mares that Zeus had given Laomedon as compensation for the abduction of Ganymedes."

"I think I can see where this story is going," smiled Odysseus. "But, I still don't see how this would help us."

"Intelligence will not serve you well if there is no patience," replied Calchas mockingly. "Have I finished my story?"

"No..." smiled Odysseus, "but, we are running out of wine. If you still have a lot to tell us I will have to call the servants," he added and the two heroes laughed.

"I see," said Calchas drily, which made the two men exchange amused looks. "Well," he went on, "as you can imagine, Laomedon agreed on the reward and Heracles, along with his two companions, the great heroes Oicles and Telamon, proceeded to save Hesion."

"Telamon of Salamis?" asked Odysseus surprised.

"Yes," said Calchas and paused. Odysseus and Diomedes had suddenly become sullen. "Do not linger on the dead," said the seer, but seeing how distressed the two men had become he sighed and went on. "I have no words of comfort to offer you, but this I can tell you Odysseus: in your travels you will have your chance to see Telamonian Ajax again. You can only pray that he will have forgotten your quarrel by then."

"He deserved a better death," said Diomedes.

"Perhaps," answered Calchas, "but the gods had other plans. Take my advice, do not linger on the dead, least they visit us in our sleep," he said emphatically and struck his staff on the ground. The two warriors looked at each other, but neither spoke. They both wanted to ask more about this meeting with their dead friend, but they knew that the seer wouldn't give them any more details now - and Odysseus was secretly grateful for this. In his heart of hearts he felt guilty for Ajax's suicide, even if - or perhaps because - the Bright Eyed goddess[6] had whispered in his ear that he was the one she had chosen to give Achilles' enchanted armour to. Whether the seer knew this or not, he didn't show, but he quickly went on with his story, and Odysseus did not object.


[4] The hydria was a special jar used specifically for carrying and serving water, named after hydor/ύδορ which means 'water' in Greek

[5] The Greek version of Hercules

[6] The most common epithet of the goddess Athena. It is very interesting because the actual Greek word glaukopis/γλαυκώπις is based in the word glaykos/γλαύκος which actually means grey-blue (of the sea) as well as bright or shining.


Part 5


"Heracles and his companions reached the rocks where the princess had been chained and began to remove the shackles. Before they had time to release her, however, the terrible beast had risen from the dark depths of the sea and it was upon them. The three heroes were faced with a terrible foe, but they were lucky because the monster was fixated with the princess. Time and again it's snapping jaws nearly closed on Hesion, but each time the heroes fend it off, until eventually Heracles struck the killing blow, just as Telamon had freed the maiden from the rock.

"I suppose," continued Calchas, who had started pacing around the tent, "you won't be surprised if I tell you that, when the three Heroes delivered Hesion safely to the palace of Laomedon and asked to receive their payment, the devious king refused to keep his end of the agreement. Instead he threatened them and turned his guard against them. Now, had it not been for their quest to Colchis, they would have certainly taken their revenge, but under the circumstances they decided to warn him that they would return to claim what was rightfully theirs. Laomedon, however, paid no heed to them, and so they parted."

"By the gods!" roared Diomedes. "The impudence of this man; the shamelessness! I am amazed they did not strike him dead right there and then."

"Many have wondered the same thing," agreed Calchas, "but there is a clear answer to that. If you remember I mentioned earlier that I believe Heracles happened in the area while travelling with the Argonauts, while also under the servitude of queen Omphale," said Calchas and Odysseus nodded in agreement. "Well, if that was the case, then not only they were in the middle of a unique quest which they could not jeopardise, but also Heracles, being bound to the Lydian queen, was not yet free to act as he wished."

"Of course," said Diomedes, contemplating the predicament of the three heroes.

Calchas paused to compose his thoughts. "Heracles returned from the expedition with the Argonauts and went back to his servitude under queen Omphale. When the time came for his sentence to end, Heracles immediately called upon his fellow warriors, including Telamon and Oicles, and quickly put together a small army of eighteen ships with fifty men each, and sailed against Troy.

"King Laomedon tried to meet them in the battlefield but the Trojans could not stand against the might of the heroes and Heracles forced them in to a siege. It did not last long though, as Heracles and Telamon assaulted the walls and eventually broke through them, opening a hole for the attackers to enter the city. They sacked Troy and Heracles killed Laomedon, enslaved his son Podarces and gave Hesion to Telamon as his wife. It was at that point that Hesion was allowed to purchase the freedom of her brother and installed him as the new king of Troy, under his new name Priam, which means the one who has be bought or ransomed."

"So, Priam was there? He saw the city being sacked?" said Odysseus. "I never thought this happened in his lifetime."

"Yes he was, and if it has happened once, then it can happen again," declared Calchas, trying to lift their spirits.

"I think you are ignoring one important difference, old seer," said Diomedes. "We have no Hercules. Alas! We don't even have Achilles or Ajax anymore!"

"Which is precisely why we need a relic from that first victory against Troy," replied Calchas and he stepped closer to the table. "If you cannot have these great heroes by your side, then at least you should have their weapons," he said and looked Odysseus right in the eyes. "Which you, most resourceful king of Ithaca, unknowingly prevented from happening."

"You are mad," exclaimed Odysseus in shock. "I would have never turned down such a gift from the gods!" he protested vehemently.

"You have already done so," said Calchas, who was clearly enjoying the strong emotions he had stirred in the king of Ithaca. "You were the one who convinced the sons of Atreus[7] to abandon Heracles' truest friend and keep him away from this war." Calchas had an almost triumphant expression on his faceas he looked at the king of Ithaca.

"Seer, do not insult me. It is clear that you don't know what you are talking about!"

"What do you know about Heracles' death?" asked the old seer as he turned his back to the bewildered hero and begun pacing around the tent again.

Seeing as Odysseus was too stunned to reply, Diomedes stepped it. "Well, Heracles was poisoned by his wife, Deianira, after she was tricked by the centaur Nessus, who gave her poison for love potion."

"Well done, son of Tydeus. Praise to your teacher," said the seer.

"The supposed love potion the centaur gave Deianira as he was dying, was his own blood that had been poisoned by the arrow with which Heracles that struck him down when he tried to abduct Deianira at the river crossing. And in fact he gave her his blood soaked cape, which he instructed her to give to Heracles to wear if she ever wanted to rekindle his love for her. When years later Deianira heard that Heracles was falling in love with another woman, she sent her husband the poisoned cape as a gift. When Heracles put it on, the poison - the same poison from his own arrows, which he had dipped in the venomous blood of the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra - begun eating through his flesh, tearing his muscles and exposing the bone.

"In terrible and excruciating pain, Heracles climbed at the top of Mount Oeta and tearing down trees, he built a pyre for himself. He climbed onto the pyre, but none of his friends would light it, except for his closes friend, Philoctetes."

"Philoctetes!" cried Odysseus. For a moment he could not understand, but then it sunk in. "How could I have forgotten this?" he roared, furious at himself.

"Oh, you fool..." breathed Diomedes. "What a wicked trick have the gods played on you... on us all!" The more he contemplated the predicament, the more amazed Diomedes was. But not so Odysseus, who had been left there, wondering at the cunning trick gods had played on him.

"I think you now know what needs to be done," said Calchas, giving the two heroes a long, hard stare, but neither of them said a word. "If we are in agreement then, I will ask king Agamemnon to call for an assembly." The two kings looked at each other and they knew that against the will of Apollo and the cunning of Calchas they had no choice. The seer approached the tent entrance and opening the screen he said to the guards "Call the heralds, I need to speak to king Agamemnon immediately."


[7] King Agamemnon and king Menelaus



The end.


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