Achilles

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In Greek mythology, Αχιλλεύς Achilles also Achilleus) was the greatest and the central character of Homer's Iliad.

Birth

Achilles was the son of the mortal Peleus, king of the Myrmidons in Phthia (southeast Thessaly), and the sea nymph Thetis. Zeus and Poseidon were rivals for the hand of Thetis. That is until Prometheus the fire bringer revealed that if one of these gods wed Thetis, she would bear a son greater than his father. For this reason, the two gods withdrew their pursuit. When Achilles was born, Thetis had tried to make Achilles immortal by dipping him in the river Styx, but forgot to wet the heel she held him by, leaving him vulnerable. (See Achilles' tendon.)

Achilles in the Trojan War

During the Trojan War

Achilles is one of the only two people described as "god-like" in the Iliad. He shows a complete and total devotion to the excellence of his craft and, like a god, has almost no regard for life. Not his own — clearly he does not mind a swift death, so long as it is glorious (kleos) — and not really of others. His anger is absolute. The humanization of Achilles by the events of the war is the main theme of the Iliad.


Agamemnon and the death of Patroclus

Achilles took twenty-three towns outside Troy, including Lyrnessos, where he captured Briseis to keep as a concubine. Meanwhile, Agamemnon took a woman named Chryseis and taunted her father, Chryses, a priest of Apollo, when he attempted to buy her back. Apollo sent a plague through the Greek armies and Agamemnon was forced to give Chryseis back to her father; however he took Briseis away from Achilles as compensation for his loss. This action sparked the central plot of the Iliad: Achilles becomes enraged and refuses to fight for the Greeks any further. The war goes badly, through the influence of Zeus, and the Greeks offer handsome reparations to their greatest warrior. Achilles is visited by Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix who attempt to persuade him to return to battle, but Achilles still refuses to fight. Once the Greeks are pushed back to the ships, which are just starting to be set on fire by Hector, he agrees to allow Patroclus to fight in his place, wearing his armor. The next day Patroclus is killed and stripped of the armor by the Trojan hero Hector, who mistakes him for Achilles. Achilles is overwhelmed with grief for his friend, and the rage he once harbored toward Agamemnon begins shifting to Hector. Thetis, his mother, rises from the sea floor and berates him for excessive grief, reminding him it is a fine thing to sleep with women too. She obtains magnificent new armor for him from Hephaestus, and he returns to the fighting, killing Hector. He desecrates the body, dragging it behind his chariot before the walls of Troy three times, and refuses to allow it to receive funeral rites. When Priam, the king of Troy and Hector's father, comes secretly into the Greek camp to plead for the body, Achilles finally relents; in one of the most moving scenes of the Iliad, he receives Priam graciously and allows him to take the body away.

The greatness of Achilles lies in not just being the greatest Greek fighter ever, but in knowing the choice provided to him by Destiny. His mother Thetis had prophesied to him that if he pulled out of the Trojan War, he would enjoy a long and a happy life. If Achilles fought, however, he would die before the walls of Troy but assure an everlasting glory, surpassing that of all other heroes. He had made the choice, and coming face to face with it showed his greatness.

Xanthus

During the Trojan War, Xanthos, one of Achilles' horses, was rebuked by Achilles for allowing Patroclus to be killed. Xanthus responded by saying (Hera temporarly gave him voice to do so) that a god and a mortal had killed Patroclus and a god and a mortal would soon kill Achilles too.

Memnon, Cycnus, Penthesilea, and the death of Achilles

Shortly after the death of Hector, Achilles defeated Memnon of Ethiopia, Cycnus of Colonae and the Amazonian warrior Penthesilia (with whom Achilles also had an affair in some versions). As predicted by Hector with his dying breath, Achilles was thereafter killed by Paris by an arrow to the heel, His bones are mingled with those of Patroclus, and funeral games are held. Like Ajax, he is represented (although not by Homer) as living after his death in the island of Leuke at the mouth of the Danube.

The Fate of Achilles' armor

Achilles' armor was the object of a feud between Odysseus and Ajax the Greater (Achilles' older cousin). They competed for it and Odysseus won. Ajax went mad with grief and vowed to kill his comrades; he started killing cattle (thinking they were Greek soldiers), and then himself.

Other stories about Achilles

Some post-Homeric sources claim that in order to keep Achilles safe from the war, Thetis (or, in some versions, Peleus) hides the young man at the court of Lycomedes, king of Skyros. There, Achilles is disguised as a girl and lives among Lycomedes' daughters, perhaps under the name "Pyrrha" (the red-haired girl). With Lycomedes' daughter Deidamia, Achilles fathers a son, Neoptolemus (also called Pyrrhus, after his father's possible alias). According to this story, Odysseus learns from the prophet Calchas that the Achaeans would be unable to capture Troy without Achilles' aid. Odysseus goes to Skyros in the guise of a peddler selling women's clothes and jewelry and places a shield and spear among his goods. When Achilles instantly takes up the spear, Odysseus sees through his disguise and convinces him to join the Trojan campaign. In another version of the story, Odysseus arranges for a trumpet alarm to be sounded while he was with Lycomedes' women; while the women flee in panic, Achilles prepares to defend the court, thus giving his identity away.

In Homer's Odyssey, there is a passage in which Odysseus sails to the underworld and converses with the shades. One of these is Achilles, who when greeted as "blessed in life, blessed in death", responds that he would rather be a slave than be king of the dead. This has been interpreted as a rejection of his warrior life, but also as indignity to his martyrdom being slighted.


The Lost Play of Aeschylus

In the early 1990s a lost play by Aeschylus was discovered in the wrappings of a mummy in Egypt. The play, Achilles, was part of a trilogy about the Trojan War. It was known to exist due to mentions in ancient sources, but had been lost for over 2,000 years.

There is another lost play with Achilles as the main character, The Lovers of Achilles, by Sophocles.

Spoken-word myths (audio)

Achilles myths as told by story tellers
1. Achilles and Patroclus, read by Timothy Carter
Bibliography of reconstruction: Homer Iliad, 9.308, 16.2, 11.780, 23.54 (700 BC); Pindar Olympian Odes, IX (476 BC); Aeschylus Myrmidons, F135-36 (495 BC); Euripides Iphigenia in Aulis, (405 BC); Plato Symposium, 179e (388 BC-367 BC); Statius Achilleid, 161, 174, 182 (96 CE)

References

Bibliography

  • Ileana Chirassi Colombo, “Heros Achilleus— Theos Apollon.” In Il Mito Greco, éd. Bruno Gentili & Giuseppe Paione, Rome, 1977;
  • Anthony Edwards:
    • “Achilles in the Underworld: Iliad, Odyssey, and Æthiopis”, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, 26 (1985): pp. 215-227 ;
    • “Achilles in the Odyssey: Ideologies of Heroism in the Homeric Epic”, Beitrage zur klassischen Philologie, 171, Meisenheim, 1985 ;
    • “Kleos Aphthiton and Oral Theory,” Classical Quarterly, 38 (1988): pp. 25-30 ;
  • Hélène Monsacré, Les larmes d'Achille. Le héros, la femme et la souffrance dans la poésie d'Homère, Paris, Albin Michel, 1984;
  • Gregory Nagy:
    • The Best of The Acheans. Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry, Johns Hopkins University, 1999 (rev. edition);
    • The Name of Achilles: Questions of Etymology and 'Folk Etymology', Illinois Classical Studies, 19, 1994;
  • Dale S. Sinos, The Entry of Achilles into Greek Epic, Ph.D. thesis, Johns Hopkins University;