The Debunker: Does The Iliad Tell the Story of the Trojan Horse?

by Ken Jennings

Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, was a trivia-obsessed ten-year-old, and now he’s raising a few quiz kids of his own. This month he launches a new series of amazing-facts books for kids, The Junior Genius Guides. Since the first two books in the series introduce young readers to Maps and Geography and Greek Mythology, respectively, we’ve asked him to set us straight this month and debunk some popular misconceptions about classical mythology, which has always been all Greek to us. Myths about myths?! May Zeus have mercy on our souls.

The Debunker: Does The Iliad Tell the Story of the Trojan Horse?

To this day, we still use the proverb “Beware Greeks bearing gifts,” remembering the end of the Trojan War. Unable to scale the impregnable walls of Troy, the Greeks rely on stratagem: Odysseus designs a giant wooden horse, and the Greeks pretend to leave Troy by ship. The gullible Trojans think, “Nice! Free horse!” and wheel it into the city. By night, the Greek army sneaks out of the hollow horse and takes over Troy.

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But, surprisingly, you won’t find any of that in the Iliad, Homer’s great epic poem about the war for Troy! For reasons that scholars still debate today, the Iliad ends with the funeral of the Trojan prince Hector, and never gets to the end of the war. (Like Starship Troopers; unlike M*A*S*H.) The “Trojan horse” is mentioned a couple times in Homer’s follow-up, the Odyssey, but most of what we know about it today comes from Virgil’s shameless Iliad rip-off, the Aeneid.

In any case, the ancient Greeks probably didn’t think of the “Trojan horse” as the twist-ending game-changer we envision today. Homer, obviously, saw Hector’s death, not the horse, as the turning point of the war. In other myths, all is lost when Odysseus and Diomedes sneak into Troy and steal a magical, Troy-protecting McGuffin: a statue of Athena called the palladium. After the palladium is stolen, the whole horse thing is a big anticlimax.

One final debunking: the tradition that Homer was blind is an ancient one, but there’s no evidence for it. In fact, we know nothing biographical about Homer at all, including whether or not he really existed. Maybe he’s one of those fictional blind people, like Daredevil. Or, um, LeVar Burton.

Quick Quiz: Who starts the Trojan War in the first place by stealing Helen away from her husband Menelaus?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.