How Ulysses Invented

the Device of the Horse of Tree

by Andrew Lang


An Extract From: Tales of Troy, Ulysses the Sacker of Cities


After Paris died, Helen was not given back to Menelaus.  We are often told that only fear of the anger of Paris had prevented the Trojans from surrendering Helen and making peace.  Now Paris could not terrify them, yet for all that the men of the town would not part with Helen, whether because she was so beautiful, or because they thought it dishonourable to yield her to the Greeks, who might put her to a cruel death.  So Helen was taken by Deiphobus, the brother of Paris, to live in his own house, and Deiphobus was at this time the best warrior and the chief captain of the men of Troy.

Meanwhile, the Greeks made an assault against the Trojan walls and fought long and hardily; but, being safe behind the battlements, and shooting through loopholes, the Trojans drove them back with loss of many of their men.  It was in vain that Philoctetes shot his poisoned arrows, they fell back from the stone walls, or stuck in the palisades of wood above the walls, and the Greeks who tried to climb over were speared, or crushed with heavy stones.  When night fell, they retreated to the ships and held a council, and, as usual, they asked the advice of the prophet Calchas.  It was the business of Calchas to go about looking at birds, and taking omens from what he saw them doing, a way of prophesying which the Romans also used, and some savages do the same to this day.  Calchas said that yesterday he had seen a hawk pursuing a dove, which hid herself in a hole in a rocky cliff.  For a long while the hawk tried to find the hole, and follow the dove into it, but he could not reach her.  So he flew away for a short distance and hid himself; then the dove fluttered out into the sunlight, and the hawk swooped on her and killed her.

The Greeks, said Calchas, ought to learn a lesson from the hawk, and take Troy by cunning, as by force they could do nothing.  Then Ulysses stood up and described a trick which it is not easy to understand.  The Greeks, he said, ought to make an enormous hollow horse of wood, and place the bravest men in the horse.  Then all the rest of the Greeks should embark in their ships and sail to the Isle of Tenedos, and lie hidden behind the island.  The Trojans would then come out of the city, like the dove out of her hole in the rock, and would wander about the Greek camp, and wonder why the great horse of tree had been made, and why it had been left behind.  Lest they should set fire to the horse, when they would soon have found out the warriors hidden in it, a cunning Greek, whom the Trojans did not know by sight, should be left in the camp or near it.  He would tell the Trojans that the Greeks had given up all hope and gone home, and he was to say that they feared the Goddess Pallas was angry with them, because they had stolen her image that fell from heaven, and was called the Luck of Troy.  To soothe Pallas and prevent her from sending great storms against the ships, the Trojans (so the man was to say) had built this wooden horse as an offering to the Goddess.  The Trojans, believing this story, would drag the horse into Troy, and, in the night, the princes would come out, set fire to the city, and open the gates to the army, which would return from Tenedos as soon as darkness came on.

The prophet was much pleased with the plan of Ulysses, and, as two birds happened to fly away on the right hand, he declared that the stratagem would certainly be lucky.  Neoptolemus, on the other hand, voted for taking Troy, without any trick, by sheer hard fighting.  Ulysses replied that if Achilles could not do that, it could not be done at all, and that Epeius, a famous carpenter, had better set about making the horse at once.

Next day half the army, with axes in their hands, were sent to cut down trees on Mount Ida, and thousands of planks were cut from the trees by Epeius and his workmen, and in three days he had finished the horse.  Ulysses then asked the best of the Greeks to come forward and go inside the machine; while one, whom the Greeks did not know by sight, should volunteer to stay behind in the camp and deceive the Trojans.  Then a young man called Sinon stood up and said that he would risk himself and take the chance that the Trojans might disbelieve him, and burn him alive.  Certainly, none of the Greeks did anything more courageous, yet Sinon had not been considered brave.

Had he fought in the front ranks, the Trojans would have known him; but there were many brave fighters who would not have dared to do what Sinon undertook.

Then old Nestor was the first that volunteered to go into the horse; but Neoptolemus said that, brave as he was, he was too old, and that he must depart with the army to Tenedos.  Neoptolemus himself would go into the horse, for he would rather die than turn his back on Troy.  So Neoptolemus armed himself and climbed into the horse, as did Menelaus, Ulysses, Diomede, Thrasymedes (Nestor’s son), Idomeneus, Philoctetes, Meriones, and all the best men except Agamemnon, while Epeius himself entered last of all.  Agamemnon was not allowed by the other Greeks to share their adventure, as he was to command the army when they returned from Tenedos.  They meanwhile launched their ships and sailed away.

But first Menelaus had led Ulysses apart, and told him that if they took Troy (and now they must either take it or die at the hands of the Trojans), he would owe to Ulysses the glory.  When they came back to Greece, he wished to give Ulysses one of his own cities, that they might always be near each other.  Ulysses smiled and shook his head; he could not leave Ithaca, his own rough island kingdom.  “But if we both live through the night that is coming,” he said, “I may ask you for one gift, and giving it will make you none the poorer.”  Then Menelaus swore by the splendour of Zeus that Ulysses could ask him for no gift that he would not gladly give; so they embraced, and both armed themselves and went up into the horse.  With them were all the chiefs except Nestor, whom they would not allow to come, and Agamemnon, who, as chief general, had to command the army.  They swathed themselves and their arms in soft silks, that they might not ring and clash, when the Trojans, if they were so foolish, dragged the horse up into their town, and there they sat in the dark waiting.  Meanwhile, the army burned their huts and launched their ships, and with oars and sails made their way to the back of the isle of Tenedos.