According to ancient authors, Laocoon was a Trojan priest of Poseidon (note, however, that some sources claim that he was instead one of Apollo's priests). In mythology, Laocoon was the brother of the hero Anchises and son of Capys. One of our best sources for the story of Laocoon is found in Virgil's Aeneid. In this epic tale, the Roman poet Virgil describes the dramatic scene in which the Trojans discover an enormous Wooden Horse standing outside the city of Troy. The prescient priest Laocoon warns against bringing the gigantic Horse into Troy in a famous speech:
"'O my poor people,
Men of Troy, what madness has come over you?
Can you believe the enemy truly gone?
A gift from the Danaans, and no ruse?
Is that Ulysses' way, as you have known him?
Achaeans must be hiding in this timber,
Or it was built to butt against our walls,
Peer over them into our houses, pelt
The city from the sky. Some crookedness
Is in this thing. Have no faith in the horse!
Whatever it is, even when Greeks bring gifts
I fear them, gifts and all.'"
(Virgil, The Aeneid, Book II, 59-70)
Immediately after saying these words, Virgil has Laocoon hurl his spear into the flank of the Wooden Horse. However, this gesture was to come back to haunt Laocoon. For soon after this incident, while the priest is sacrificing to his god Poseidon, a pair of giant sea serpents emerge from the sea and envelope both Laocoon and his two sons (this tragic scene is immortalized in the aforementioned Hellenistic statue - see the gallery page below for details and an image). The Trojans interpret this grotesque punishment as a sign that Laocoon offended the gods - either Athena or Poseidon in particular - for attacking the Wooden Horse. In the end, the Horse in brought into Troy, which is a fatal mistake and seals the city's doom.
Laocoon in Art History
Gallery | For pictures and information about Laocoon in art, visit the Mythography gallery!
Who's Who in Classical Mythology