Last night, I was reading a re-telling of the Trojan War story by Olivia Coolidge, and I chanced upon the tale of Troilus and Cressida. This is one of the few stories in the Iliad that speaks of a woman’s betrayal of a man. The common theme in mythology is of how men use women as pawns, so I thought this will be interesting to share.
Cressida is the daughter of Calchas, the Trojan priest who foresees Troy’s fall and moves over to side with the Greeks. As the daughter of a traitor, Cressida finds no favour within Troy, until Troilus, one of the bravest young sons of Priam, falls in love with her. Though Cressida tries her best not to draw attention to herself by accepting a prince’s favour, Troilus proves to be persistent, and with the help of Pandarus, the girl’s uncle, manages to meet her alone in the garden one night to profess his love. After a little token resistance, Cressida accepts.
There followed a happy time of stolen meetings. Now Cressida sang soft songs as she sat at her loom or combed the bright hair that was her greatest beauty. Every day she smiled down from the walls at Troilus, who would bush back his battered helmet from his forehead, glowing with pride. He became a champion of champions. He won a great black shield studded with silver stars, which disappeared after he had carried it in triumph through the city. Some women whispered that it was to be found in Cressida’s hall.
In the meantime, as love blossomed between the young couple, Calchas starts making arrangements in the Greek camp to regain his daughter in return for a captured Trojan noble. Diomedes takes up this errand and comes to Priam’s court, asking for Cressida to be given up. Priam and Hector consent, though in their hearts they know that Troilus would hate to be parted from her.
Nothing would console his mad grief. He clung to his lady, swearing that he would not let her go. Cressida for her part was quiet, though very pale. ‘Trust me,’ she said to comfort him. ‘Have I not sworn that the sun shall fall from the heavens and the rocks split on Ida before I betray you?’
‘Within ten days I shall return,’ she tells him. But as she walks into the court and sets eyes on Diomedes, she gives a little start of surprise. He and Troilus were at first sight much alike. Both were yellow-haired, blue-eyed and tall. Troilus notices this and warns Diomedes that the lady Cressida ought not to come to any harm, to which Diomedes replies: ‘I make no promises.’
Diomede smiled slyly at Cressida, who blushed in annoyance at her lover’s ridiculous talk. ‘I shall go willingly with Diomede,’ she said clearly, giving her hand to the Greek. ‘I am honoured that my father sends so valiant a hero.’
‘Cressida!’ cried Troilus. She halted, half turned away. ‘In ten days?’ he asked.
Cressida turned indignantly from him. ‘You have my word,’ she said.
The days pass without sign of Cressida. The tenth day comes and goes without so much as a knock on Troy’s gates. With the realization that his lover has forsaken him, Troilus falls ill, but somewhere deep within his heart, a tiny flame of hope flickered.
A few days later, he wakes up to a great sound of cheering. A Trojan hero, Deiphobus, he hears, has returned from battle after having won a duel against Diomedes and taken his shield. But it’s not the red shield with a golden boar that he had carried into Troy when he came to ask for Cressida. This shield was black, with silver stars studded on it. It’s the shield that Troilus had once given Cressida, which she had taken with her to the Greek camp.
After a long silence, Troilus says, ‘The sun has dropped from my heaven, Pandarus.’ And the following day, he seeks out Achilles in battle, and dies by his sword.
In this story, Cressida is a driven woman. (In some versions of the story, she’s not at fault.) She has forsaken the prince who rescued her from ridicule because perhaps in her eyes, Diomedes promised her a higher status. The sights of the driven are often fixed on the rungs above them on the ladder, not on the ones below. They’re preoccupied not by what and who got them to their current level, but by those who will get them to their next. Don’t linger on the past, says success manuals of today. What got you here won’t get you there. Keep changing, evolving, moving. And so on.
I wonder if this constant drive and ambition rhetoric undermines loyalty. I wonder if we’re sometimes so caught up in thinking ‘What’s in it for me?’ that we forget to return all the good turns people have done us in the past. Do we sometimes look so stubbornly to the path that lies ahead that we forget to look over our shoulders at the people and things that have made us what we are today?