Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Thursday 24 June |
The Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
home iconArt & Culture
line break icon

The Trojan Horse might not be what you think it was



John Burger - published on 01/04/18

Italian scholar suggests that a mistranslation of Homer has led us to think the "gift" was a horse

The Trojan Horse may be one of the most iconic images from antiquity. It’s burned into our collective consciousness as a giant wooden structure in the shape of a horse (of course), wheeled inside the gates of the walled city of Troy.

Every school child knows what happens next. Or they used to know, anyway. These days, maybe the first thing that comes to mind is a computer virus.

The Trojan Horse also gave rise to the saying “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” Who knows–maybe it’s considered politically incorrect to say such things.

But now there’s another thing that might change about our understanding of the Trojan Horse, referred to in Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid.

Francesco Tiboni, a naval archaeologist at the University of Marseille, published an article in Archaeologia Viva claiming that a mistranslation has led us all to think that the Trojan Horse was, well, a horse.

No, says Tiboni. It was a boat. Jason Colavito, who blogs on archaeology, science, and horror fiction, explains:

According to Tiboni, the horse was not hippos, the Greek word for “horse,” but hippos, a Phoenician term for a type of warship with a curving prow. This is based ultimately on a retrofitted legend recorded by Pliny the Elder, who in Natural History 7.57 wrote that “Hippus, the Tyrian, was the first who invented merchant-ships.” Hippus was, likely, the back-formed eponym of a type of boat called in Greek (but not necessarily Phoenician) the hippos, the first true plank-built cargo ship, and one long associated with Phoenicia. In academic literature, a curved Phoenician trading vessel is usually called a “hippos ship,” but it is not, to my knowledge, a Phoenician term. It’s a Greek one, because the ship’s curving prow resembled the curves of a horse’s head. It seems to be the general consensus that such a name is of Archaic or Classical origin and does not extend back to the Bronze Age. Whether it was in common use in Homer’s day is unknown to me, though an image of one on the Balawat Gates c. 850 BCE shows that the type of ship existed at the time, regardless of what it was called. The ships are believed to derive from those of the Sea Peoples, which are depicted in Egyptian art from around 1160 BCE in the mortuary temple of Ramses III in a clearly related but somewhat different form. No record of the Mycenaean word for those ships exists, and our Greek evidence is primarily late, notably Strabo (3.3.4), so the argument must remain speculative.

Colavito quotes Tiboni: “From the lexicographic perspective, it appears evident that the appearance of the horse resulted from a translation error, an inaccuracy in the choice of the corresponding term, which, by actually altering the meaning of the original word, led to the distortion of the entire event.”

He said he takes issue with Tiboni’s claim, “since the story of the Trojan horse has both a literal and a symbolic meaning.”

“His claim would preserve the literal meaning, provided that we assume that the boat was also meant as a votive statue and not an actual functional merchant vessel, but destroys the symbolic meaning,” Colavito writes. “The horse was the symbol of Poseidon, and the emblem of Troy, and it is for that reason that the Trojans accepted it as a symbolic gesture of goodwill. By rendering it into a boat, there is no longer as much of a symbolic level to the story. Tiboni counters that the hippos ship was originally used to carry treasure and thus could be remembered in myth as a divine votive after the old Phoenician term fell out of common use. But since the change makes no difference to the story, since a boat can be the shape of a votive offering as easily as a horse, there is little advantage to choosing this option except that Tiboni studies ships professionally and would prefer to see them everywhere.”

Besides, if we accept Tiboni’s theory, what would we do with the 1961 film starring Steve Reeves and Juliette Mayniel?

Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
Philip Kosloski
Padre Pio’s favorite prayer of petition
Zoe Romanowsky
Animated film shows the power of fatherhood in just one minute
Bret Thoman, OFS
What Padre Pio saw in the Spanish Flu of 1918
Eric Clapton, Luciano Pavarotti, East London Gospel Choir
J-P Mauro
Hear Clapton and Pavarotti sing a prayer to the “Holy Mothe...
Zelda Caldwell
Catholic priest’s chapel is finalist in “Shed of the Year&#...
Philip Kosloski
Can Catholics use the Enneagram personality system?
Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP
4 Ways to understand God as Father
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.