Story of the Greek People - E. M. Tappan

In the Days of Myths (Continued)

With hundreds of such stories as these, the children hardly needed books of fairy tales, even if there had been any in those days. But I fancy that the tales they liked best were of wonderful voyages said to have been made long before their fathers or grandfathers or great-grandfathers could remember. One of these was known as the Quest of the Golden Fleece. This fleece had been hung in a grove in Colchis (see map, p. 195), a country a long way from Greece; and more than one young hero had said to himself, "How I wish I could win it!" The difficulty was that it was guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, which never fell asleep for even a moment; and many a brave man, who was ready to fight with two or three or even four or five stout warriors, did not like to run the risk of being turned into a cinder.



Now there was a young man named Jason, who was heir to a kingdom in Thessaly. His uncle Pelias was to hold it for him until the boy had grown up; and when Jason, a brave, stalwart young man, appeared at court and said that he had come to take possession of his throne, the uncle set his wits to work to find some way of continuing to hold it. He pretended to be very ready to give it up. "But you are a young man," said he, "and before you settle down to the cares of a kingdom, should you not like to win a little glory? How would it please you to engage in Home wonderful adventure, so that your subjects may tell of your achievements hundreds of years after you are dead?" Pelias saw Jason's eyes sparkle, and the wily king then spoke of the quest of the fleece as the most glorious adventure one could engage in. Jason was delighted at the thought, and set to work at once to prepare a vessel that would hold fifty men. This itself was an amazing undertaking, for the boats of those days were only little canoes made by hollowing out trunks of tree The vessel was named the Argo, for Argus, its builder, and the fifty young men who sailed away in it were called the Argonauts.



When they were ready, the shores were crowded with people watching to see them start. King Pelias was there, of course. He pretended to be troubled because his nephew was going on so dangerous an expedition; but all the time he was saying to himself, "He'll never, never, never come back, and the kingdom will be mine."

The fifty young men were soon out of sight, and many were the adventures that they met before they came to the kingdom of Colchis. Once there, Jason went straight to King Ćetes and told him that he had come for the fleece. Now, in order to get this treasure, Ćetes had murdered the one to whom it belonged, and he had no idea of losing it. He was as wily an old ruler, however, as King Pelias, and he did not refuse to give it up. "It is only fair, though," he said to Jason, "that you should do two little favors for me first, and then you are welcome to fight the dragon and carry away the fleece—and the grove, too, if you will." The two little favors were to yoke to the plough two fire breathing bulls, and to plant the teeth of a dragon that Cadmus, a hero who lived long before this time, had slain.

Just as in the case of the Minotaur, so there was here also a princess who was much in love with the hero of the adventure, and she gave Jason a charm that made the bulls as gentle as lambs. They were soon yoked to the plough, and Jason was ready for the second trial, the sowing of the dragon's teeth. He knew very well what would happen, but he went on as quietly as if he had been sowing corn. In less time than it takes to tell the story, every tooth had sprung up, not as corn, however, but as an armed man, who stood for a moment growling savagely and looking about for some one to kill. The instant the men caught sight of Jason, they drew their swords and rushed fiercely upon him. Before this the princess Medea had told him how to save himself, and so he caught up a stone and threw it among the furious warriors. Each one thought his neighbor had struck him, and in a minute they were all fighting wildly. In another minute every one of them was dead.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


After Jason's practice with the fire-breathing bulls, he might have been able to get the better of even the dragon that guarded the fleece; but he thought it was better to sprinkle it with the magic potion that Medea had prepared. In a moment it was sound asleep, and it was the easiest thing in the world to take down the fleece from the tree on which it hung. He was too wise to go to King Ćetes to say farewell, and he hastened away to his own kingdom as fast as oars and sails would carry him.

Another old story, the most famous of all, is of the war with Troy. It began because of Helen, the most beautiful woman Greece. She had a great many suitors, and her father made them all take an oath that whomsoever she chose for a husband they would protect and help if he was ever in trouble. She chose Menelaus, king of Sparta, and for several years all went on happily. At length Paris, son of the king of Troy, came to visit Sparta, and when he went home he carried Helen with him. Now was the time for the other princes to help Menelaus, but some of them would far rather have stayed at home. Odysseus, for instance, did not wish to go, and he thought he could escape by pretending to be insane. He yoked an ox and an ass together, and began to sow salt. He was soon found out, however; for when his baby son was laid on the ground before the plough, he turned aside much too carefully for an insane man.

Helen of Troy


It took two years to build the ships and make ready; but at length the Greeks had crossed the sea and were encamped before the walls of Troy. Their leader was Menelaus's brother, Agamemnon. For nine years the war went on; but the Greeks could not capture Troy, and the Trojans could not drive them away. There were the most valiant of heroes on both sides; and the gods, too, took part in the struggle. Aphrodite favored the Trojans, and with good reason, for her son Ćneas was one of the bravest among them. Moreover, she persuaded Ares, the god of war, to help them. Apollo stood first with one party and then with the other. Athene, goddess of wisdom, and Hera, the wife of Zeus, hated the Trojans, and especially Paris; for he had once given the prize for beauty to Aphrodite rather than to either of them. Poor Zeus had a hard time in his beautiful Olympian palace, for Aphrodite would come to him crying, and beg him to be good to her beloved Ćneas; and no sooner had he comforted her with kindly promises than his wife Hera would play some trick to turn his eyes away from Troy, and then the Greeks were sure to win a victory or kill some famous Trojan champion.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


During all the years of fighting the Trojans had never really believed that they would lose their city, because it was protected by an image of Athene which was said to have fallen from the sky. The Greeks knew of this image. They felt sure that if they could get possession of it, Troy would fall; and at last the crafty Odysseus and his friend Diomedes succeeded in stealing it. Still Troy did not yield, and the fighting went on.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


After a while the Greeks began to build an enormous wooden horse on the plain just outside the city walls. They contrived to spread the story that they had given up the siege and were going home; then they sailed away, leaving the great horse behind them.

The Trojans could not find out their reason for building the monster; but while they were talking about it and gazing at it, some shepherds brought into the town a young Greek named Sinon, whom they had captured. He told a pitiful story. He said that Odysseus hated him, and had induced the Greek soothsayer to declare that he must be put to death as a sacrifice for their safe return to Greece. He had escaped and hidden in a swamp till the Greeks had gone.

Horse of Troy


The Trojans were ready to be kind to any man whom Odysseus hated. King Priam at once ordered him to be freed from his bonds, and bade him forget the Greeks and become a Trojan. "But tell us why that monster of a horse was built," he said; and Sinon declared that it was a sacrifice to Athene because she was angry with them for touching her statue with bloody hands. "It was made too large to pass through your city gates," he explained, "for they knew that if it was once within your walls, it would protect you, and victory would come to you instead of to the Greeks."

The Trojans believed every word that Sinon said. They tied ropes to the huge figure and began to drag it into the city. They even tore down a place in the walls to make a passage for it. That night the treacherous Sinon opened a door in the body of the horse, and a party of armed Greeks hidden within let down a rope and slid noiselessly to the ground. The Trojans were asleep, and it was an easy matter to kill the watch men and throw open the gates to the other Greeks; for they had not sailed to Greece, but had only hidden behind a little island a few miles away.



This is the famous story of the fall of Troy, or Ilium. It has come down to us in a grand old poem called the Iliad, so we can read it in the very words in which it was known to the Greeks. The Iliad tells the tale as far as the death of Hector, a brave Trojan warrior who was slain by Achilles; but the story of the wooden horse comes from another great poem, the Ćneid, which was written by the Latin poet Virgil. The Greeks believed that the Iliad was composed by a blind poet named Homer, who was born on the island of Chios, and who wandered about the land reciting or chanting his poems. He was a beggar, and yet he was a welcome guest at the house of every chieftain, for at the feasts he could play on his four-stringed harp and sing of the wonderful deeds of the olden time. He composed another poem, the Odyssey, which is about the wanderings of Odysseus; for the baby that had been laid in front of the plough had become a stalwart young man before the gods would permit the hero to return to his home. Odysseus had most amazing adventures. He visited the land of the Lotus-eaters. Those who ate of the lotus forgot all about home and friends, and Odysseus had to drag some of his men away by main force. He was shut up in a cave by one of the Cyclops; he stopped at the island of the magician Circe, who turned men into beasts; he sailed cautiously between the two monsters, Scylla and Charybdis. One of the sea-nymphs promised to make him immortal if he would only forget his home and remain on her island; but he was still longing for his wife and his son on the island of Ithaca, and finally he succeeded in making his way thither. He revealed himself to his son, and together they punished the suitors who had been wasting his property and troubling his wife.



These old stories are well worth knowing, just because they are good stories; but besides this each one of them has some bit of truth for a starting-point. The minds of the Greeks were full of poetic fancies, and it was easy to turn the memory of a hot, dry summer, for instance, that ended with thunderstorms, into the story of Phaëthon; or the account of some piratical voyage into the poetry of the golden fleece. The story of Theseus probably means that at some time tribute was paid to Crete by the Athenians. The return of the Heraclidć must refer to the times when the Dorians pushed their way into the Peloponnesus and got possession of the greater part of the peninsula.



Even with the help of these stories, we do not know nearly so much about the early history of Greece as we should like. We can, however, be almost sure of a few facts, namely:—

That the Greeks belonged to the great Aryan race that used to live in central Asia; that they came to Greece in small bands of immigrants; that they were divided into four tribes, Ćolians, Dorians, Ionians, and Achćans; that the Dorians pushed down into the Peloponnesus and crowded out many of the Achćans; that these Achćans made their way to the north and drove out the Ćolians, who then crossed the Ćgean Sea and founded colonies on the shores of Asia Minor; that they were followed by the Ionians, and finally by some of the Dorians, who did not find room enough in the Peloponnesus; that there was fighting at intervals between Greece and Asia Minor for hundreds of years, until Greece was finally conquered by Alexander, king of Macedonia. This, however, was only three centuries before Christ.


One of the best-known myths is the tale of the Golden Fleece.

The most famous stories are of the Trojan War, which is told partly in Homer's Iliad and partly in Virgil's Ćneid; and of the wanderings of Odysseus, told in Homer's Odyssey.

These are myths, but every myth is founded upon some bit of truth, and, therefore, we may be sure of a few facts about the early history of Greece.

Suggestions For Written Work

Describe the grove and the Golden Fleece.

Sinon tells the Greeks what he plans to do.

Describe the coming of Homer to the house of a chieftain.