Stupid Question ™
Aug. 30, 2004
By John Ruch
Q: Why was the Trojan horse a horse?
—S.W. and K.P., Columbus, Ohio
A: Would you believe that nobody seems to have asked this question—at least since the Trojans supposedly did 3000 years ago?
The “Trojan horse” of Greek myth was a large, hollow horse statue built by Greek troops engaged in the siege of Troy, a city they wanted to loot. After 10 years of having it, things weren’t going so well. Hence, the idea to build this outlandish horse, hide Special Forces-style troops inside, and wait for the stupid Trojans to drag the thing into town. Which they did, convinced partly by a faked retreat by the rest of the Greek troops. The Greeks hopped out, opened the gates, and the whole army returned and swept in, sacking the city.
The story is simple to tell, but we have to watch our sources carefully. While Troy did exist, there is no certainty that even a grain of truth underlies the Trojan war myths. The surviving tales date to at least 500 years later.
The earliest surviving Trojan war story—Homer’s “The Iliad”—makes no mention of the horse. It focuses instead on a brief but key period of the war featuring the superhero Achilles.
The horse shows up in two other ancient works. One is Homer’s “The Odyssey,” in which it comes up in old war stories told during Odysseus’ current adventure.
The other is Virgil’s “The Aeneid,” which is an ancient Roman poem imitative of Greek epics. “The Aeneid” provides most of the details found in our understanding of the Trojan horse tale—and the story isn’t even Greek. Therefore, most of the narrative elements that would lead to an educated guess about the horse symbolism are suspect (or, at best, accurate only for the Roman understanding of the symbolism).
The horse is mentioned only briefly in “The Odyssey.” The epic gives no explanation for the design, but makes clear it was weird enough that the Trojans spent days debating what to do with it. Specifically, they thought it might be a trick—or a divine offering.
“The Odyssey” also credits the goddess Athena with coming up with the idea and putting it in the mind of the hero Odysseus—who was among those who wound up hiding inside it. Athena is also described as having intervened so that the kidnapped Greek Helen didn’t inadvertently give away the horse’s secret.
“The Aeneid” is much more interested in the story and gives it rich embellishment. In this version, the Greeks also leave behind Sinon, a con man who pretends to be a traitor so he can convince the Trojans to take the horse into the city.
Like us, the Trojans wanted to know what the heck this horse thing was. Sinon’s pitch was that it was a divine offering to Athena.
He points out that the Greeks Odysseus and Diomedes had sacked Athena’s local temple and stolen the Palladium—a wooden statue of Athena. This, Sinon says, made Athena so mad she not only wouldn’t let the Greeks win the war, she won’t even let them go home safely.
Hence, he continues, the Greeks built this enormous wooden horse statue to appease her. Why in horse form is not clear, but the wood obviously correlates with the composition of the Palladium. Hoping the statue will do its job, the Greeks have headed home, he says.
Sinon also juices his tale with a further tweak. Another reason the statue is so big, he says, is so the Trojans can’t fit it back inside their city or temple and thus benefit from its divine powers themselves. A taunt no Trojan could avoid, apparently.
If we go back to the scant details of the original Greek myth, a couple of simple possibilities present themselves. Horses were frequently used in war (and mentioned in such terms throughout “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad”) and could be seen as symbolic of it. Thus, the Trojan horse could have been a double symbol of surrender—and invasion.
More specifically, Achilles’ supernatural horses Xanthus and Balius figure fairly prominently in the narrative of “The Iliad.” Perhaps the later “Odyssey” elaborated this idea of super-warhorses.
Here’s what I think is the best answer: Horses were also sometimes used as sacrificial animals. This might explain the idea of the Trojans thinking it to be a divine offering.
Poseidon, creator of the horse and lord of the rivers and seas, was a frequent target of horse sacrifices. He was also, in the myth, on the Greeks’ side, and also the god who would need appeasement if the Greeks were to retreat over the seas. So perhaps the Trojans assumed it was an offering to him.
On the other hand, the references to Athena’s involvement can’t be overlooked. She was a goddess of extremely varied aspects, including war (perhaps suggesting the horse shape). She was also credited with teaching horse ridership to humanity.
Of course, the Trojans could have thought the statue was some type of offering just because it was so big and weird. It could mean nothing except a striking image and a celebration of sheer trickery. Remember, it first appears in “The Odyssey,” a tale focused on the trickster Odysseus. Athena, a lover of cunning, was his patron.
In that vein, the main reason almost nobody ever asks why it was a horse is because the whole point is, we know it’s a trick. The delight of the story lies in our omniscience. The details recounted in “The Aeneid” are told by a Trojan who naturally had a lot of questions, which only reinforces that we know all the answers.
There is a final idea recently circulated by Eric Cline, an archaeology professor at George Washington University. He suggests the “horse” may be a metaphor for an earthquake that actually destroyed Troy at an opportune moment. He notes that Poseidon was credited with earthquakes and also the horse, and suggests a poetic substitution.
This is a lame idea without basis in either archaeology or the texts, especially inasmuch as it ignores Athena being credited with the horse.