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N.S. Gill

Myth Monday - Troilus and ... Polyxena

By August 27, 2012

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Flight of Troilus and Polyxena
Flight of Troilus and Polyxena
Top: Achilles watching out for Troilus
Bottom: Flight of Troilus and Polyxena to avoid Achilles' ambush. Attic black-figure kylix, ca. 570-565 BC.
PD Courtesy Bibi Saint-Pol

The love story between the Trojan Troilus and Cressida is familiar to students of literature primarily through Shakespeare's tragedy and also through Chaucer, but despite the setting, it is not taken directly from ancient/classical mythology. Troilus was there in vase paintings -- like the one above. He also appears in Homeric epic, and the epic cycle. Cressida is a misnaming, perhaps, of Achilles' war prize Briseis, who, many centuries later, may have been turned into the daughter of an important epic cycle seer for the Greek forces, Calchas, but the love story is more modern.

If Not Cressida, Then Troilus and Who...?

If you'll look at the caption, you'll see the wasp-waisted figure, a female, is not Cressida, but Polyxena.

[See Minoan Art: Bull Dancers for more on the depiction of females in Greek art.]

Polyxena and Troilus were children of the Trojan royal couple Priam and Hecuba. Troilus was King Priam's youngest legitimate (usually) son and Polyxena was his youngest daughter.

Polyxena's Role

Polyxena is typically said to have been killed sacrificially by the Greeks. This wasn't the first time the Greeks sacrificed a royal daughter in connection with victory over the Trojans. That would be Iphigenia, sacrificed at Aulis. Remember Calchas, the seer and "father" of Cressida mentioned earlier? Calchas was the seer who advised Agamemnon on what they must do to appease the goddess Artemis.

[See Aeschylus' Agamemnon for how the girl's mother, Clytemnestra, got revenge for her daughter's murder.]

Here's one version of the story from the Fables of Hyginus:

"When the victorious Danaans were embarking from Troy, and about to return to their own country, each one taking his share of the spoils, the voice of Achilles from his tome is said to have demanded a part of the spoils. And so the Danaans sacrificed at his tome Polyxena, daughter of Priam, a most beautiful girl, because when Achilles had sought her in marriage and had come for an interview, he was killed by Alexander and Deiphobus."

Achilles Kills Troilus

Troilus is also said to have been born to Hecuba and the god Apollo. Stories of his death are varied. Scottish anthropologist of the 19th-20th centuries Sir James G. Frazer summarizes them in a note to his translation of the Epitome of the Library of (Pseudo-)Apollodorus. In one version, the young prince is exercising his horses in the sanctuary of Apollo (Thymbraion, mentioned in Sophocles' Troilus) when Achilles sees and kills him with a spear or Achilles kills him at the altar or Achilles orders his execution to prevent the fulfillment of a prophecy that should Troilus live to be 20, the Trojans would not lose the war (Plautus' Bacchides 953-5). In Book I of the Aeneid -- the Trojan prince Aeneas is Troilus' cousin -- Vergil describes the scene of Troilus' death:

"Elsewhere Troilus, his armour flung away in flight - unhappy boy, and ill-matched in conflict with Achilles - is carried along by his horses and, fallen backward, clings to the empty car, still clasping the reins; his neck and hair are dragged on the ground, and the dust is scored by his reversed spear."
(H.R. Fairclough, translator)

The photos above show an armed Achilles waiting to ambush the prince, hiding behind a fountain house or well house, not an altar, and Troilus is running from it on one of a close pair of horses. Since this scene appears on other pottery, it indicates, according to Timothy Gantz in Early Greek Myth, that the fountain house was a common variation on the story. Polyxena is elsewhere shown with a jug to fill with water, although here, the jug is between Achilles' legs. Gantz says that other amphoras show that the method of death wasn't simply a spear blow, but decapitation, so that the Greek hero could toss the head at the Trojans or display it gruesomely on his spearpoint.

The Love Plot

Gantz says that there is another complication of the story, that Achilles was in love with the young man, according to the Hellenistic poet Lykophron (ll. 307-313), but Troilus failed to reciprocate and that was why he had to die.

Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:

  1. Hercules Hurls His Guest
  2. Scylla
  3. Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
  4. Hercules the Giant-Killer
  5. The First Tyrant
  6. The King and the Harpies
  7. The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
  8. Vediovis
  9. Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
  10. Hero and Leander
  11. Who Were the Argonauts?
  12. The Chimera
  13. Narcissus and Echo
  14. How Perseus Fits In
  15. Hesiod and the Bestiary
  16. The First Olympics Origins I
  17. Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
  18. Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
  19. Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
  20. Who Is the Virgo?

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