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As any old person who has been interrupted by a checkout assistant at a do-it-yourself supermarket scanner would agree, there is a general perception among the younger members of the community that we oldies are senile and useless. While refusing to let the unwelcome interloper scan for me, I always remember the great poem Ulysses by Lord Tennyson, which ends with the following lines:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.



The poem is based upon the Greek legendary hero Odysseus, known by the Romans as Ulysses, after his return to his island kingdom of Ithaca, following his long and eventful journey home from the Trojan War.

 The life of Ulysses exemplifies perhaps the only significant statement ever made by Malcolm Fraser (which was borrowed from the arch Fabian G B Shaw): Life wasn’t meant to be easy, and his life is most probably a combination of myth mingled with some fact. 

It all started in the 12th century BC, when the Grecian gods were a part of the everyday life of the ruling class. Menelaus was the king of Sparta in the Peloponnesian Peninsular in Southern Greece, and his older brother Agamemnon was the king of neighbouring Mycenae. Menelaus was married to Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, who was the daughter of Tyndareus, the previous king of Sparta, or so he thought. Helen’s biological father was in fact the god of sky and thunder Zeus, who had seduced her mother while in the bodily form of a swan.

 They knew how to write back then, when plots were woven with the golden words of poets and the imaginations of the gods. 

Priam was the king of Troy which was located in what is now Turkey, across the Aegean Sea from Greece. His wife was Hecuba, and on the day of the birth of their son Paris, a seer foretold that Paris would bring about the destruction of Troy unless killed.  Priam and Hecuba were unable to carry out the deed, and instead, the newly born Paris was given to a shepherd Agelausto take away and kill. Agelaus was unwilling to kill the child directly, so he left Paris on a hillside to die. Returning after nine days, Agelaus was astonished to find Paris alive, who had been suckled by a bear. Agelaus decided to raise Paris as his own son.


While engaged as a shepherd, Paris was chosen by Zeus to decide a dispute between the three goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite as to the ownership of a golden apple thrown at them by Eris, the goddess of discord.  The golden apple was to go to the most beautiful, and each of the three offered Paris a bribe, who was unable to decide after seeing the three naked. Paris accepted the bribe of Aphrodite, which was the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, who was Helen.

Later, Paris defeated his brothers in a boxing contest held in Troy, was recognised for who he was, and was returned to the royal fold.  Paris then embarked on a supposed diplomatic mission to Sparta in order to win Helen. As Paris walked in the door to her room, Helen was shot with an arrow of love, by Cupid, the god of sex and love, and proceeded to decamp with Paris to Troy where she became his wife.


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A diplomatic mission from Sparta to Troy by Menelaus and Ulysses, the king of Ithaca, failed to secure the return of Helen. Ulysses had recently married Penelope and was the father of the royal prince Telemachus. He travelled Greece with Nestor the king of Pylos in order to assemble a force to retrieve Helen and redress the insult to Menelaus. They succeeded in assembling a huge armada of 1200 ships containing 100,000 men.


The face that launched a thousand ships

The Greek force included such heroes as Ulysses, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax. The Greeks laid siege to Troy for ten years during which time the hero Achilles who had slain many Trojans and was undefeated, was shot in the heel by an arrow fired by Paris and died. As a baby, he had been immersed in the river Styx which separated the underworld from that of the living, by his mother Thetis in order to make his body invulnerable.  He was held by the ankle thereby making his heel his only vulnerable part, hence Achilles heel.

In addition, both Ajax and Paris perished. Helen was then wed to Deiphobus, the brother of Paris.

 After the siege had lasted for ten years, Ulysses discovered that Troy kept in its citadel a statue of the goddess Pallas (Athena to the Romans) known as the palladium, and as long asTroy retained the statue, the city could not be taken. Ulysses entered the city disguised as a beggar, where he was recognised by Helen who assisted him to steal the palladium.

Ulysses then devised a plan to take the city. The Greeks constructed a huge wooden wheeled horse large enough to hide 50 warriors inside, as a horse was sacred to the Trojans. During the night the Greeks dragged the horse hiding 50 men, including Ulysses and Menelaus, to the locked gates of Troy. The horse was inscribed with the message: For their return home, the Greeks dedicate this offering to Athena. The Greeks then burned their camp and sailed to the nearby island of Tenedos, leaving a spy named Sinon behind.

Upon discovery of the horse, some Trojans warned by the seer Cassandra of the danger if dragged into the city, wanted to burn the horse. However, the majority prevailed and the horse was dragged inside the city. A night of revelry followed celebrating the departure of the Greeks. Sinon lit a beacon and the fleet returned from Tenedos. Ulysses and the others emerged from the horse, killed the guards, opened the gate, and let the Greek army into the city.

 The Greeks led by Ulysses slaughtered most of the inhabitants who were leaderless given the drunken revelry but spared some of the women as concubines. Agamemnon was given Cassandra the daughter of King Priam, who was raped on the Altar of Athena while clinging to Athena’s statue, and Ulysses was given Priam’s wife Hecuba. The streets ran with blood. Priam was killed by Neoptolemus the son of Achilles while taking refuge at the Altar of Zeus, and Helen's replacement husband Deiphobus was slain by Menelaus. Menelaus was about to put Helen to the sword for her infidelity but was deterred by her beauty. The Greeks then burned the city and departed, taking Helen with them.

  This was par for the course in those far off days. A century or so before the fall of Troy, and after 40 years in the wilderness, Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan to Jericho, which was the entry to the Promised Land (Canaan) After the walls were demolished by the blow of a ram’s horn, Joshua and his men killed every man, woman, child and animal inside the walls, with the exception of a prostitute Rahab who had betrayed the Canaanites inside the city. This is in black and white in the Bible (Joshua 6:1-27).  The miraculous breaching of the walls is taught by the evangelists, but nary a word about the wholesale slaughter and bloodshed which followed.


Because of the defilement and destruction of their temples during the sack of Troy, the gods ensured that few of the Greeks returned home, and most that did return was after many years. Nestor, who had not engaged in any of the savagery, had a quick and safe return home with his men. Menelaus made it back to Sparta with Helen eight years after leaving Troy, and they lived happily ever after.

Ulysses made it back to Ithaca after ten years of wandering and many trials and tribulations, having lost all of his men, only to find that there were many suitors in his royal house seeking the hand in marriage of his faithful wife Penelope. Ulysses had been gone for twenty years, and his son Telemachus had grown into a man. Ulysses had returned disguised as a beggar and disclosed his identity to Telemachus, who assisted Ulysses to kill all the suitors.

The test given to the suitors to win the hand of Penelope was that the one who had the strength to bend and string the bow of Ulysses would be her husband and king of Ithaca. None had. Dressed as a beggar Ulysses seized the bow, bent and strung it, and then proceeded to fire arrows at the suitors, killing them all. Despite the passage of twenty years, Penelope recognised Ulysses as her husband, which was confirmed by his strength in stringing his bow, and so Ulysses regained his kingdom of Ithaca.


It is beyond the scope of this article, but many of the events described were either engineered or facilitated by various gods. They were not a very nice bunch.

The immortal words of Tennyson in the link below, are meant to be the musings of an old man longing for days gone by, as none of the men who accompanied Ulysses to Troy returned to sail with him again. Musings or not, we oldies don’t need to be told how to suck eggs by upstart youngsters or condescending politicians.

More, a reminder that we may be old, but we can still tell someone to get off our lawn and tell them to leave us alone with our still well functioning brains.


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