The Wooden Horse in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 23, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The story of the Wooden Horse, or Trojan Horse, is one of the most famous stories from Greek mythology, although it is not one of the most widely written about. Despite this most people, even if they have no knowledge of Greek literature, will have some idea about the story or concept of the Wooden Horse.

The Sources

The story of the Wooden Horse takes place during the Trojan War, when the Greek, or Achaean forces, attempt to storm the city of Troy. Today, the most famous telling of events at Troy comes from Homer’s work, the Iliad, but this epic poem, tells of events before the fall of the city, and ends before the idea of the Wooden Horse is put forward. Homer’s other major work, the Odyssey, tells of events after the fall of Troy, but makes only passing mention to the Wooden Horse.

That being said, there is physical evidence for the story of the Wooden Horse, in the form of pottery, from periods both before and after Homer; and many other writers from antiquity, including the likes of Virgil and Kointos Smyrnaios, tell the tale.

The Background

The war between the Greeks and Trojans had started when the Trojan prince, Paris, had abducted Helen, the most beautiful of all mortal women. Helen though was married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta, and upon the abduction of his wife, the king called upon all the previous suitors of Helen to take up arms. Each suitor was bound by the Oath of Tyndareus, and soon a large fighting force was camped outside of Troy.

For ten years fighting took place, with the Greeks taking a number of cities, but ultimately being ineffectual at gaining access to Troy. With the ebb and flow of the fighting many heroes were killed on both sides; the Greek notably losing Achilles, and the Trojans, Hector.

Procession of the Trojan Horse

Giovanni Domenico Tipeolo PD-art-100
Giovanni Domenico Tipeolo PD-art-100 | Source

The Plan

At the end of ten years of fighting a new battle plan was called for, and it was then that the idea for the Wooden Horse was brought forth. Rather than direct fighting, subterfuge was called for. Many on the Greek side were tired of war, and although the likes of Neoptolemus and Philoctetes wanted to fight on, they were effectively outvoted by the others.

Whether the idea was Odysseus’, the Greek hero having been prompted by Athena, or whether the idea came from the Trojan seer, Helenus, depends upon the source being read.

Construction for the Wooden Horse was given over to Epeius and Ajax the Lesser, and a large group of men started work on the massive statue. For three days the Greeks toiled on the Trojan plain, until a magnificent Wooden Horse was completed.

Construction of the Wooden Horse had of course not gone unnoticed by the Trojan forces, but what they could not see was the cavity inside the structure, nor did they observe the Achaean heroes that were secreted into it.

The Heroes Inside

Various sources quote between 23 and 50 Achaean heroes hidden within. Names vary in the same way that the names of the Argonauts or the Hunters of the Calydonian Boar vary, as the addition of a supposed ancestor to a list would boost the prestige of the descendent.

Amongst the names mentioned though were several that are almost universally agreed upon:

  • Epeius – the chief architect of the Wooden Horse, and the only one who could open the hidden hatch door that would allow the discharge of the Greek heroes
  • Diomedes – King of Argos and the strongest and bravest of the Greek heroes still alive; on the battlefield he had almost killed Aeneas and had wounded Aphrodite.
  • Ajax the Lesser – King of Locris and swift of heel. Though not as powerful as the other Ajax, Ajax the Lesser was known for his skill with the spear.
  • Philoctetes – Prince of Thessaly and the inheritor of the bows and arrows of Heracles.
  • Odysseus – King of Ithaca, Odysseus was the most cunning of all the Greek heroes, and often depicted as the most underhand of all of them.
  • Menelaus – King of Sparta, brother of Agamemnon and husband of Helen.
  • Calchas – the famed seer of the Greek forces, Calchas’ prophecies were central to many of the activities undertaken by the Greek forces before their arrival at Troy, and also during the war.
  • Neoptolemus – the son of Achilles, one of the main prophecies about the Trojan War decreed that the Greeks could not win without Neoptolemus fighting alongside them.

The remnants of the Greek army burnt down their camp, and boarded their ships. The vessels then set sail, and to any observer it would appear that the Greeks were sailing for home.

Heroes of the Iliad

Nikolai Ivanovich Utkin (1780–1863)  PD-art-100
Nikolai Ivanovich Utkin (1780–1863) PD-art-100 | Source

The Plan Starts to Work

The situation for the Greeks seemed worse than it had before. Whilst there were heroes hiding inside the Wooden Horse, the Wooden Horse itself was outside of Troy; the Greeks needed it to be taken inside the city walls if the plan was to come to a successful conclusion.

The Trojans would need to be convinced by some means to take the Wooden Horse into the city, and to this end a Greek soldier by the name of Sinon agreed to be left behind.

Laocoon

William Blake Laocoon c1818
William Blake Laocoon c1818 | Source

Sinon's Tale

When the Trojans emerged from their city, Sinon of course was captured, and the Greek soldier started to spin a tale. Sinon told of how he was abandoned by his comrades, but also of how the Wooden Horse was constructed as an offering to Athena; the offering being made to ensure a safe voyage for the Greek ships on their voyage home. Additionally, Sinon also explained the reason why the Wooden Horse had been made so large; the size would prevent the horse from being taken through any of Troy’s gates, making it impossible for the Trojans to steal the offering and make it their own.

It was a tall tale, and not one that was universally believed. Laocoon, a Trojan priest saw through Sinon’s story, but when he went to attack the horse with a spear, two sea serpent emerged from the sea at the behest of Poseidon, and Laocoon and his sons were strangled. Cassandra, a daughter of King Priam, also warned against the movement of the Wooden Horse. Cassandra had been given the ability to see into the future by Apollo, but the god had also cursed her so that no one would ever believe her prophecies.

Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts

Copy after Henri Motte.
Copy after Henri Motte. | Source

Night Comes

The rest of the Trojans though were convinced by Sinon’s story, and the Greek soldier and the Wooden Horse were taken into the city; this of course meant the dismantling of part of the city’s defensive wall.

Success for the Achaean heroes was still not certain though, and once inside Troy, Helen recognised the Wooden Horse for what it was. Helen started imitating the voices of the wives of heroes; heroes whom she thought were inside the horse. Whether Helen did this to highlight her own cleverness, or to aide the Trojans, is not entirely clear, but the Greek heroes did not fall for Helen’s imitated voices

Night would eventually fall, and Epeius unlocked the trapdoor, and the Greek heroes emerged from the belly of the Wooden Horse. At the same time a signal light was lit from the sea facing wall of Troy, a signal calling back the Achaean fleet.

Troy itself was quiet, and most of the soldiers and heroes who had defended the city for ten years were in a drunken stupor; a long night of celebration had occurred with the belief that after ten years of fighting, victory had been achieved.

Some of the emerging Greek heroes made their way to the gates of Troy, and silently the gates were opened. Troy was now easily accessible to the returning Greek forces. Inside the city a slaughter began, drunken soldiers and heroes were killed, but the slaughter soon spread to everyone in the city. By the end only a few were left alive, some were prisoners and spoils of war, whilst a few stragglers followed after Aeneas.

The Wooden Horse had caused the mighty city of Troy to fall.

Sack of Troy

Daniel van Heil (1604–after 1664)  PD-art-100
Daniel van Heil (1604–after 1664) PD-art-100 | Source

The Wooden Horse in the English Language

Today the legend of the Wood Horse lives on, and as well as being a famous story, has also given rise to the concept of the Trojan Horse, and the malicious computer malware associated with it. Additionally, the term “beware Greeks bearing gifts” also derives from the Wooden Horse story; although the original lines from Virgil was “I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts”, words put into the mouth of Laocoon by the Roman poet.

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