This is a chapter of Once Upon A Time: Children’s Stories From The Classics by Blanche Winder.
Athena was the wisest among the immortals, just as Aphrodite was the most beautiful. The vigorous and lovely maiden who had sprung out of the king’s head was always ready to teach and help mortals who wanted to do brave and good things. The Romans called her Minerva, but the Greeks called her Athene or Pallas Athena; and, one day when she saw some people building a fine and beautiful city in Greece, she went to Zeus and said that she would like to take the city under her special protection and name it Athens, after herself.
Zeus was willing, and everything was about to be settled without dispute. But, at that moment, tramping heavily up the mountainside, his crown of shells and pearls pulled down over his angry eyes, and the sea anemones dropping from his wet robes among the wood anemones that bloomed in the path, Poseidon, the sea king, himself arrived on Olympus, most terribly annoyed.
“The city belongs to me,” he said. “I have always built cities, as everyone knows. I intend to give my own name to it. So your new favorite need say nothing further in the matter! I am much cleverer than she!”
Zeus hesitated and looked at Athena, who was standing proudly beside him, and who answered with spirit:
“If the sea king is so much cleverer than I, let him do something to show it!”
Poseidon made a sound under his glistening beard that was rather like the roar of the sea itself. Then he struck the earth with his three-pronged scepter, and out of the ground leaped a beautiful horse, shaking a mane that was white and curling as the foam. But Athena, smiling, thrust her spear deep among the mountain flowers, and an olive tree grew up, slow and stately, and shook out its silver-green leaves against the blue sky. Then, she turned to Zeus, serenely.
“Which is the better gift to men,” she asked, “the horse or the olive tree? On horses they can ride magnificently to battle, or drive their chariots to visit neighboring princes. But the olive trees will give them wood for their houses, oil to knead their bread, and soft shade in their orchards. Which is the better gift? Let the Shining Ones decide!”
And, with one consent, the bright immortals who were gathered about the king’s throne decided in favor of the olive tree. So Poseidon marched angrily back to his royal caves under the ocean, and Athena was allowed to call the city “Athens” as she had desired. And, as everybody knows, it is called Athens to this day.
Athena visited this beautiful city regularly, as well as all the others that were built in the valleys of Greece. Whenever a new baby was born, she hastened to it, to breathe into it something of her own wise and serene spirit. Perhaps, of all men, she loved best a king who was called Odysseus, whom she taught to be very strong and brave indeed. Yet, though she inspired him with courage, she always told him that the peace which broods in the olive groves is better than the battles to which men ride on the horses loved by the sea king. So that, when a great war broke out, and other kings and princes were hurrying to the fight, Odysseus determined to stay at home in his kingdom with his little son and his sweet wife, Penelope. He pretended, therefore, that he had lost his wits —though it is certain that he kept them very much about him— and, going out one spring morning with a plow, yoked an ox and a horse together and set to work to plow the sands of the sea shore, and to sow the furrows, quite gaily, with wide thrown handfuls of salt!
But the messenger who had come to summon Odysseus to battle was even wilier than he, and, watching him, said to himself, “This king of Ithaca is not so mad as he seems!” Then he slipped away to the palace, stole the baby prince from his cradle, and laid him, still sound asleep, in one of the strange and sandy furrows made by his royal father’s plow.
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Odysseus, singing and staring, came foolishly along. But, when he caught sight of the baby, his face altered. With a quick movement, he swung aside the horse and ox, upset the plow, and snatched his little son into his arms. Then, looking round, he saw the triumphant messenger; so, confessing that his silly madness was all a pretense, he took up his shield and sword, buckled on his armor, and went bravely off to the war with the rest of the world.
The Grecian kings and captains set sail in white-winged ships and traveled till they reached a seacoast, with green fields and woods beyond, where purple hills rose high behind the shining towers of a glorious city that was called Troy. On the walls of Troy stood a great host of Trojans, as strong and fearless as the Greeks themselves, who shook their spears, and sang their war songs, and shouted defiantly at those who had come to conquer them.
The Grecians made a most wonderful camp outside the city, hauling their ships onto the beach and setting them in rows, and building reed-thatched huts for their leaders. Then they marched up to the walls, their minstrels chanting, and their clear trumpets pealing. About their feet the sands of the shore were tossed up in a golden mist; from their great shields and helmets were reflected the dazzling rays of the sun; and their leaders shouted to them from war chariots drawn by great horses. So that all the little wood nymphs, and sea nymphs, and river nymphs, who cared nothing for battle, nor which side should be the winner, fled away to the quiet glades and streams of the forest, and only stayed still when, once more, they heard no sounds about them but the singing birds, and the rippling water, and the wind among the trees.
But not so Athena! She floated on her strong wings, high as an eagle, above the Grecian armies, her piercing looks bent down upon Odysseus, her mind set on his victory and his fame. She, who had taught him to love peace, must now teach him to triumph in war.
For many years the fighting lasted, and, over and over again, during those years, the Greeks flung themselves, shouting and singing, against the walls of Troy. The sea king looked on at the battle earnestly, peering up through the green waves of the bay. Athena, watching just as eagerly from the sky, saw that the Greeks could never, by themselves, throw down those ramparts of smooth and polished stone. So, one evening, knowing that Odysseus would be sure to visit a little grove near the shore, where a statue of her was set up, she sailed down from the clouds to the earth; and the king of Ithaca, coming along all alone in the moonlight, saw her shining robe, and heard the throbbing of her eagle wings.
Then she told him what to do, and he hurried back to the other kings and captains with a wonderful plan. All that night the Trojans heard strange noises on the shore, as if a thousand carpenters were at work. Toward morning the bustle died away, and there came up to the city the sound of creaking ropes, and clanking rudders, and wind in the wide sails of moving ships. The Trojans peeped over the walls as soon as the dawn showed like a silver veil shaken out over the purple hills, and there, on the beach, they saw no more streets of ships, nor moving companies of men — nothing but deserted tents and huts, and, in the middle of them, a great mysterious, shadowy thing, very tall and broad, reared up against the morning sky.
The people of Troy looked, and pointed, and then stole cautiously out, in little companies, through the city gates. With great curiosity, they peeped into the deserted tents. Then they gathered about the strange, towering thing on the beach, and saw that it was a huge wooden horse, its vast head thrust high toward the clouds, its great hoofs buried among the shells and pebbles left by the tide.
As they stood in amazement around this surprising monster, a wise man called Laocoon, who was one of their priests, came running, in his white robes, down the shore path, crying out to them to beware.
“Odysseus, that clever and crafty warrior, has done this!” he called. “That is no horse, but a hiding place for soldiers, or else a new kind of battering ram!”
As he shouted his warning, he threw his spear with all his might at the great statue, and, when it pierced the horse’s side, there were some people who declared that the wooden monster groaned!
Then, from the city, another crowd came along, with a prisoner in their midst — the only Grecian, it seemed, that was left in the land. He told them that they must by no means break down the wooden horse, for it had been raised by the Greeks in honor of Athena herself before their ships had sailed away. They had made it of an enormous size so that it could not be taken through the gates of the city; for, he added, if the monster were set up within the walls of Troy, Athena would follow it there and would give her protection to the Trojans instead of, as before, to their Grecian enemies.
While they all talked, the priest in the white robes drew near to the sea, and laid gifts for the sea king at the edge of the waves, turning his back on his foolish fellow citizens as they chattered around the wooden horse. But, to everybody’s horror, the ocean suddenly divided with a roar, and out came two huge sea serpents, their flaming heads throwing burning shadows upon the smooth, green water. The serpents swept along till they reached the land, where they devoured not only Laocoon but his sons as well; and then they made their way to the little grove where Odysseus had, the night before, talked with Athena, laid themselves down at the foot of her statue, and licked its feet!
The Trojans were sure, now, that the prisoner spoke the truth. Had not the Immortal Lady herself sent sea serpents to destroy the rash man who had thrown his spear at her wooden horse?
So everybody set to work to get the horse into Troy. Some tied ropes to its head, and some made wheels for its hoofs, while others knocked a great hole in the walls of the city, as they could not possibly push the huge steed through the gates. Then down came a procession of beautiful girls, dancing along the streets and out onto the beach; they danced and sang around the horse, and threw garlands of flowers about its mighty neck and limbs. And so, with music and laughter, and a great tossing of roses and cowslip balls, the Trojans dragged the wooden monster up the slopes, through the big hole in the walls, right into the very heart of the glorious city of Troy.
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Then, thinking all was safe, they feasted and shouted until the middle of the night, when, tired with rejoicing, they rested, and let silence fall upon the walls and roofs. In the silence, the Greek prisoner, whom they had set free as a reward for his help, crept to the feet of the wooden horse, unlocked a door that was hidden there, and threw up a rope. Then, down the rope, from the inside of the horse, slid Odysseus! Soldier after soldier followed, and in this way, in the dead of the night, the Greeks spread themselves through the sleeping city; while, at a given signal, their ships, which were hidden in a quiet bay not far off, came sailing back into the harbor from which the Trojans thought they had gone forever.
Morning broke to the sound of another and a last battle. But, as there were Greeks within and Greeks without, the people of the city had no chance now against their enemies. So that, through the cleverness of Odysseus, and the lessons he had learned from beautiful Athena, Troy fell into the hands of the Grecians, and they set fire to it, and, for many days it burned, its flaming towers sending out a terrible, golden light over the waters of the ocean, where the sea king, who had little love for Odysseus, shook his three-pronged spear fiercely at Athena, as she floated triumphantly in the clouds above.