Sources for Troilus and Creseyde and the Original Events
of the Trojan War
By Michelle Persaud
Poets in ancient Greece relied on memory to tell their
stories in the verbal tradition. Because there was no
one definitive written account of the Trojan War, it
is accepted that Homer’s Iliad covers events up
until the death and desecration of Hector. Other events
from notable poets have been added to modify the existing
story; the general telling of the story ends with the
Sack of Troy.
Because poets retold and modified stories continuously,
there are several events and outcomes revolving around
the characters of the Trojan War. The story of Troilus
and Criseyde was only elaborated on much later by Benoît
de Sainte- Maure in his Roman de Troie (c.
1155-60). In Homer’s original, Creseyde is named
Chryseis, in Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato (1335),
which is Chaucer's primary source, and Sainte-Maure’s,
she is named Breseyda/Briseida. Sainte-Maure created
the story based on texts originally believed to be eyewitness
accounts of the war from the texts of Dictys Cretensis
and Dares Phrygius. Both translations have since proven
to be forgeries, but at Sainte-Maure’s time they
were considered more reliable than Homer’s account.
Chaucer used Roman de Troie and a paraphrase
of Dares Phygius’ De Excidio Troiae by
Joseph of Exeter in his writing of Troilus and Criseyde.
Old Greek texts were not readily available, so Chaucer,
though he knew who Homer was, likely had no access to
According to Homer’s epic, all gods and goddesses
were invited to the wedding feast of Peleus and Thetis,
except for Eris. She disguised herself and threw an
apple onto the feast table inscribed with the words
"for the most beautiful." Hera, Athena, and
Aphrodite each claimed the apple, each believing she
was the most beautiful. Zeus sent them with Hermes to
visit the mortal Paris. Each goddess pled their case.
Hera promised him royal power, Athena promised victory
in war, Aphrodite promised him Helen, the most beautiful
woman in the world. Paris chose Aphrodite.
She took him to Sparta to visit King Menalaus, caused
Helen to fall in love with him. The couple returned
to Troy. Menelaus called all Aechean kings in on their
pact to defend Helen; they congregated and sailed from
Aulis under the command of Agamemnon. They stopped at
the island of Chryse before they arrived at Troy, they
pillaged and took slaves, Agamemnon took Chryseis as
bounty and Achilles took Briseis. A snake bit Philoctetes
(inheritor of Heracles’s bow and arrow) leg. His
wound festered until it stunk so badly that they dropped
him off on the island Lemnos where he remained and suffered
for ten years.
Chryseis’ father Chryses was a priest of Apollo.
Apollo swore to help the Trojans until Chryseis was
returned to her father. Agamenon complied, he took Briseis
from Achilles to compensate his losses. Achilles angrily
responded by withdrawing his troops from the war. His
mother Thetis appealed to Zeus for help to avenge her
son. Zeus caused the Trojans to advance after Achilles
was deprived of his slave.
The armies struck a truce that allowed Menelaus and
Paris to fight in single combat. When Paris was losing
terribly, Aphrodite carried him Paris away to his bed
and called for Helen. She argued with him out of embarrassment.
Hector brought him back to the battlefield.
Hector spoke to his wife and son, Andromache and Astynax,
at the city walls. He said goodbye before returning
to the battle. She begged him not to go. Achilles had
already killed her father and her seven brothers. She
never saw him alive after this encounter.
Bocaccio’s Il Filostrato would likely
pick up at this point in Homer’s tale. Aphrodite
wanted to assist the Trojans. She poisoned Chryseis
with lust for Diomedes. Aphrodite knew incredible tension
would grow between Agamemnon and Diomedes when Agamemnon
former slave (who cost them dearly in battle) returned
to Diomedes, causing a great setback in the Greek camp.
Chryseis knew Cassandra had a soft spot for no one but
her brother Troilus. Chryseis wanted to learn of the
war prophesies, figuring this information would help
her get close to Diomedes. Chryseis seduced Troilus,
convinced him to confide in her some of his sister’s
prophesies. Chryseis escaped that night to Diomedes’
tent. He was surprised and apprehensive because she
was the enemy and she had already caused enough trouble
for the Greeks. She bathed him and prepared him for
bed and told him two prophesies. First, what began with
an apple must end with a horse. Second, that Troilus
must be dead by the days’ end if the Greeks were
to ever take Troy. Diomedes panicked because the sun
had already set, but Chryseis gave him a present of
the bloodied knife. She told him how she stabbed Troilus
in his back as he kissed her. Diomedes was appalled
that she could kill through deception, but she expected
that a hardened warrior should be able understand death.
She killed out of love for him.
Resuming with Homer’s account, Agamemnon offered
to return Briseis to Achilles along with other valuable
gifts. Achilles is far too insulted to accept these
enticements to rejoin the war. Odysseus, Phoenix and
Ajax the greater had visited Achilles as envoys. Odysseus,
the great tactician, delivered a speech including a
listing of the gifts. Briseis was accompanied by an
oath from Agamemnon that he never slept with her. It
included the provision that if they got to sack the
city after the war, Achilles would choose twenty Trojan
woman (except for Helen), and Achilles would marry Agamemnon’s
daughter on his return home and receive the largest
dowry ever, including seven rich cities. Achilles recognized
the bribe and rejected the gifts. The Trojans continued
to advance until Hector set fire to the Greek ships.
Patroclus, Achilles best friend, insisted that he dress
in Achilles armor on the field if Achilles himself refused
to join the war. Achilles reluctantly allowed him the
armor. Patroclus furiously struck down Trojans on the
field, including Sarpedon. Apollo struck Patroclus across
the back, Euphorbus speared him, and Hector finally
Achilles joined the war only to avenge Patroclus, his
only goal was to kill Hector. His received all the gifts
promised to him, including Briseis. Thetis brought him
new armor forged by Hephaestus because Hector had taken
the old armor from Patroclus’ dead body. Achilles
drove all the Trojans back behind their city wall except
for Hector, he alone remained outside. Athena disguised
herself as Deiphobus beside him, and when Hector called
to his brother for a spear, Athena disappeared, leaving
him defenseless against Achilles. Achilles killed Hector
and dragged the body behind his chariot around the city
walls for each of the twelve days of Patroclus’
funeral. They also sacrificed twelve Trojan prisoners
and held athletic games in Patroclus’ honour.
Apollo restored Hector’s body after each journey.
Priam eventually paid a ransom for the body. Trojans
mourned his death for nine days. (This is the end of
the Iliad).<to top>
The fighting continued. Achilles killed Penthesilea,
leader of the Amazons, and Memnon, leader of the Ethiopians.
He fought Aeneas in single combat, but Poseidon carried
him away, prophesying that he would become the ruler
of future Trojans. Apollo then guided one of Paris’s
arrows that fatally struck Achilles in his heel, the
only vulnerable area on his body. Ajax the greater brought
his body back and they gave him a lavish funeral.
Odysseus captured Helenus who prophesied several conditions
for the Greeks before they could take Troy. He said
they needed Neoptolemus and that Troy could only be
captured with Heracles’s bow and arrow. Odysseus
and Diomedes brought Philoctetes back from Lemnos, healed
his wound. Philoctetes then shot and killed Paris.
Epeus built the wooden horse hollow and Greek warriors
crawled into the belly. They waited for the Trojans
to pull it into the city. The rest of the Greeks sailed
to Tenedos. The Greek Sinon remained outside, pretending
to be abandoned by the army. The Trojans wheeled it
in, believing if the gods could not see the horse, the
Greeks would face rough times at sea. Cassandra and
Laocoon realized the truth, but no Trojan believed them.
Laocoon struck the horse’s belly with his spear,
but no one heard the clanking of armor. As he later
sacrificed to Apollo, two serpents swam form Tenedos,
killing him and his two sons.
The Trojans pulled down part of the wall and brought
the horse in. Helen imitated the voices of the Greek
kings’ wives, calling them by name, but Odysseus
stopped them from answering. As the Trojans slept, Sinon
unlatched the belly of the horse, and the army returned
from Tenedos. The city was sacked, citizens killed,
and the city was burned.
Antenor was allowed to live because he opposed the
war. Neoptolemus butchered Priam on the steps of the
altar. Astyanax was thrown from the city walls. Cassandra
hid inside Athena’s temple, but Ajax the lesser
dragged her out and raped her, the gods killed him for
this on his voyage home. The Trojan women were made
slaves to the Greek leaders, Hecuba taken by Odysseus,
Neoptolemus took Andromache, and Agamemnon took Cassandra
(who foretold her own death). Achilles’ ghost
calls for Polyxena to be sacrificed at his tomb. Aeneas
escapes and journeys to Rome. This is the starting point
of the Aeneid by Virgil.
Prepared by Raji Soni
The principal source of the story is Ovid’s Metamorphoses,
Book Six, lines 410-678. Other notable sources are Philomela
by Chretien de Troyes, the Ovide moralisé,
and Gower’s Confessio Amantis. Chaucer’s
explicit version of the story, "The Legend of Philomela"
in The Legend of Good Women, was most influenced
by the Ovide moralisé.
Ovid’s macabre narrative in Book Six is characterized
by a heightened sense of pathos and by detailed descriptions
of the violence carried out by Tereus, Procne, and Philomela.
The story begins with a concise portrait of Tereus,
Prince of Thrace, which emphasizes his military success
and bravery by placing him "among the sons of Fame"
(422) and by considering him "From Mars deriv’d"
(424). Acting out of honour and political alliance,
the aged, frail King Pandion of neighboring Athens betroths
his eldest daughter Procne to Tereus. Their wedding
is marked by the presence of dismal mythological figures,
including Fiends and Furies, and the omen of owls. Procne
gives birth to Itys, "the new-born prince"
of Thrace (437). After five years of living with Tereus,
Procne expresses nostalgia for her family, particularly
her younger sister Philomela. She requests either to
be sent to Athens or for Philomela to be brought to
Thrace. Tereus consents to the latter. Upon reaching
Athens and seeing Philomela, whose beauty and purity
are said to exceed that of the fairest Nymphs (451),
Tereus "with the burning coals of lust was fir’d"
(457), signaling the advent of incestuous impulses.
Pandion agrees to be parted from Philomela on the condition
that she is brought home shortly and safely. When the
vessel reaches Thrace, Tereus, intoxicated by the "lust
of his vicious thoughts" (508) takes Philomela
to an isolated lodge and rapes her. Tereus then removes
Philomela’s tongue and locks her away. Returning
to the palace, Tereus fabricates a story of Philomela’s
death and tells it to Procne. A year later, having had
a loom at her disposal, Philomela sends a remarkable
woven narrative of her rape to Procne. Dismayed, Procne
rescues her sister and brings her secretly to the palace.
Seeking revenge and no longer able to love Itys because
of his father’s transgression, Procne, with the
help of Philomela, kills and dismembers him. The sisters
then boil his body in a stew and Procne serves it to
Tereus. Enraged after being told he has devoured his
son, Tereus pursues the sisters. The three figures then
metamorphose – Procne into a swallow; Philomela
into a nightingale; and Tereus into a lapwing.
Chaucer’s version of this tale in The Legend
of Good Women differs significantly from Ovid’s
narrative. Chaucer omits the role of Itys entirely.
By shifting focus away from characterization, Chaucer
lightens the pathos elicited in Ovid’s narrative.
The metamorphoses of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela are
omitted. Chaucer seems to give a possible reason for
these changes in the opening lines of "The Legend
of Philomela": in lines 2241-2243, Chaucer labels
the tale venomous, capable of infecting the morality
of the reader. Likely Chaucer attempted, through his
omissions, to censor the violence of mythology. This
emendation is consistent with the tradition of the Ovid
moralise. <to top>
The appearance of mournful Procne, in her metamorphosed
state, at the beginning of Book II of Troilus and Criseyde
(lines 64-70) is possibly portentous. Given that the
swallow’s song narrates the events leading up
to Procne’s transformation (and that Chaucer held
the content of the tale to be venomous), it likely signals
an inevitable shift toward woeful events at the lower
end of the cosmological Wheel. Interestingly, the appearance
of Procne’s swallow is balanced by the appearance
of the nightingale, which can be construed as symbolic
of Philomela, later in Book II (lines 918-924). But
the nightingale’s amorous song, sung appropriately
before Criseyde falls to sleep, is questionable in the
context of the violence endured by Philomela. Why doesn’t
Philomela’s nightingale carry the same mournful
tone as Procne’s swallow? A possible explanation
favours Philomela’s innocent condition before
her violation. Perhaps Philomela’s metamorphosis
redeems her trauma by yielding an uncorrupted existence
(characterized by blissful birdsong) that mirrors her
life before reaching Thrace. The subsequent appearance
of the eagle is ambiguous (lines 925-931). The seeming
violence it inflicts on Criseyde – removing her
heart with its talons and inserting its own –
might enable its identification with Tereus’ lapwing.
But another layer of interpretation, given by Dr. Sutherland,
reads the exchange of hearts as indicative of an exchange
of love between Troilus and Criseyde. <to