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When Worlds Collide: Meeting the... Egyptians!

Welcome to the second instalment of When Worlds Collide, where we explore the encounters of the ancient Greeks with surrounding cultures! This month, discover how the Greeks reshaped their most cherished myths to make room for the Egyptians...

The Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus depicting the Romans at war with the Goths (3rd century CE)
The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina, Le Musée absolu, Phaidon, 10-2012, depicting Greek soldiers encamped on the Nile River in Egypt. When Paris was blown off course on his way to Troy, he entered Egypt via the Nile River.

DISCOVER


From the beginning, Greeks were fascinated by Egyptian culture. Greeks bought their gold from Egypt, and the pyramids were ancient, mysterious monuments even to the Greeks. The Greeks were so impressed that they adapted their myths to include elements from Egypt. For example, Perseus, the Greek hero who cut off the head of Medusa, was said to have descended from the god of Egypt's central river, the Nile.


Herodotus – one of ancient Greece’s greatest writers, considered the father of History – tells us that Egypt was even involved in the beginnings of the Trojan War.


Here's a brief overview of the story: the goddess Aphrodite charmed Helen from her husband Menelaus, the king of Sparta, and made her fall in love with Paris, the prince of Troy. Helen and Paris escaped and sailed to Troy, with Menelaus in hot pursuit. Well, that is, Menelaus and the largest army of Greeks the world had yet seen! He was determined to take Helen back to Sparta, and the Greeks and Trojans fought for ten years over the fate of Helen.

Helen boarding Paris' ship to Troy. Fresco from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.

But Herodotus tells us that Paris and Helen, after setting sail for Troy, were blown off course and ended up in Egypt. When they landed, some of Paris’ servants escaped. They knew that Paris was acting unjustly, so they ran to a holy temple, where it was forbidden for Paris to chase after them.


There, they told the Egyptian priests the whole story of Paris’ wrongdoing, how he had stolen Helen from Menelaus.


The priests sent a message to King Proteus:

"Your Highness, a stranger has come to Egypt. He is a Trojan, and has committed a great crime in Greece. After stealing a king’s wife, as well as a great deal of money, he took off for home. Because of stormy seas, he has ended up here instead. Do we let him go, or do we take what he came with?


Proteus responded: “Bring him to me.”


When Paris and Helen were brought to Proteus, Paris tried to make excuses. But Proteus said, “You have committed a great crime in Greece. You have kidnapped a woman, and stolen her husband’s wealth. Luckily for you, I have taken an oath not to kill visitors to this land, so I will not kill you. However, I will keep Helen and the goods stolen from Menelaus here, so that when he arrives, they will be waiting for him.”


Paris then sailed to Troy without Helen and without the treasures stolen from Menelaus. However, Menelaus never came to Egypt! The whole time, he thought Helen was still with Paris in Troy. This means that, when he led the Greeks to fight the ten-year-long Trojan War to get Helen back, she wasn’t even there!


This is one version of the myth of the Trojan War, and Herodotus tells us that the priests in Egypt, at the time that he was writing, told this version. However, in his poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer says that Helen really was at Troy.


So, which do you prefer – the Greek version, or the Egyptian version?

 
Frieze of the Pergamon Altar depicting Nike and Athena battling Alkyoneus
Agamemnon (left) and Achilles (with his back turned to us). Achilles refused to fight for the Greeks in the Trojan war after Agamemnon demanded that Briseis (the woman on the right) stay with him, instead of with Achilles. Fresco from Pompeii (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples), cropped from a photograph by ArchaiOptix accessed via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

CREATE


This month, inspired by these different tellings of the myth of the Trojan War, we invite you to write your own version! Do you think there are details the ancients missed out? What was Helen doing in Egypt, while the Greeks fought over her in Troy? If you have a go at writing your own version, we'd love to hear it! You can share it with us by getting a parent or guardian to email your retelling to education@hellenic.org.au.


Until next time, λεῖος πλόος!

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