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Considered the greatest of all Greek heroes who took part in the Trojan War, Achilles was introduced by Homer through his epic poem, the Iliad. Described as someone who was incredibly handsome, possessed extraordinary strength, loyalty, and courage, he lived to fight and he died fighting.
Let’s delve deeper into the life of the mythological hero.
Achilles – Early Life
Like other Greek mythological characters, Achilles has a complicated genealogy. His father Peleus, was the mortal king of a people who were skilled and extraordinarily fearless soldiers, the Myrmidons. His mother, Thetis, was a Nereid or a sea nymph renowned for her beauty.
After the birth of her son, Thetis wanted to protect him from harm as it was prophesied that he was destined to die the death of a warrior. However, other accounts say that she was not content having a mere mortal as a son so she bathed her son, when he was still an infant, in the waters of the River Styx. This made him all but immortal and the only part of his body that was vulnerable was where his mother held him, his heel, hence the term Achilles heel or a person’s weakest point.
Another version of the story states that the Nereids advised Thetis to anoint Achilles in Ambrosia before placing her son in a fire to burn all the mortal elements of the body. Thetis neglected to tell her husband and when Peleus saw Thetis apparently trying to kill their son, he shouted at her in anger. Thetis fled their home and returned to the Aegean Sea to live with the nymphs.
Peleus didn’t know the first thing about raising a young son, so he called on the sagacious centaur Chiron. Although centaurs were known to be violent and savage creatures with the upper body of a human and the lower body of a horse, Chiron was known for his wisdom and had previously educated other heroes such as Jason and Heracles.
Achilles was raised and trained in various disciplines, ranging from music to hunting. It is said that he was fed a diet of wild pigs, innards of lions, and the marrow of she-wolves. He was excited by his lessons and by the time he returned to his father’s home, it was quite obvious to many that he was destined for greatness.
Achilles and His Male Lover?
During his absence, his father took in two refugees, Patroclus and Phoenix. Both would have a great influence on the young Achilles and Achilles developed an especially close relationship with Patroclus, who was exiled for having accidentally killed another child.
Their close relationship is interpreted by some as more than platonic. In The Iliad, Achilles’ description of Patroclus got tongues wagging, “the man I loved beyond all other comrades, loved as my own life”.
Although Homer did not specifically mention anything about the two of them being lovers, their intimate relationship is a crucial plot to the Iliad. Furthermore, other works of literature referenced their relationship as a love affair. It is also important to note that it was homosexuality was common and accepted in ancient Greece, so it’s likely that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers.
Before the Trojan War
According to some accounts, Zeus decided to lower the Earth’s population by instigating a war between the Greeks and the Trojans. He meddled in the emotional affairs and politics of mortals. At the wedding banquet of Thetis and Peleus, Zeus invited Paris, the prince of Troy, and asked him to determine who was the most beautiful amongst Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera.
Each of the goddesses, wanting to be crowned the most beautiful, offered Paris a bribe in exchange for his vote. However, only Aphrodite’s offer was the most alluring to the young prince, as she offered him a woman for his wife. After all who could resist being offered the most beautiful wife in the world? Unfortunately, the lady in question was Helen – the daughter of Zeus who was also already married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta.
Paris eventually headed to Sparta, won Helen’s heart, and took her back to Troy with him. Shamed, Menelaus vowed revenge and assembled an army with some of Greece’s greatest warriors that included Achilles and Ajax, in a war that lasted 10 bloody years.
The Trojan War
A prophecy had foretold Achilles death in Troy and realizing that the Trojan War was happening soon, Thetis disguised his son as a girl and hid him in Skyros, at the court of King Lycomedes. Knowing that the war would be lost without Achilles, the wise Odysseus set out to find and trick Achilles into uncovering his true identity.
In the first story, Odysseus pretended to be a peddler of women’s clothes and jewelry. He included a spear among his goods and only one girl, Pyrrha, showed any interest in the spear. In the second story, Odysseus feigned an attack on Skyros and everyone fled, except the girl Pyrrha. It was all too obvious to Odysseus that Pyrrha was indeed Achilles. Achilles decided to join the Trojan War simply because it was his destiny and it was inevitable.
The Rage of Achilles
When the Iliad begins, the Trojan War had been raging for nine years. The rage or anger of Achilles is the key theme of the Iliad. In fact, the first word of the whole poem is “anger”. Achilles was angry because Agamemnon took a captive woman from him, Briseis, his prize as a recognition of his fighting prowess. It is important to note that early Greek society was highly competitive. A man’s honor depended on his position and sense of identity. Briseis was Achille’s prize and by taking her away from him, Agamemnon dishonored him.
Achilles was distracted with this situation. With one of the greatest Greek warriors absent from the battlefield, the tide was turning in favor of the Trojans. With no one to look up to, the Greek soldiers were disheartened, losing one battle after another. Eventually, Patroclus was able to talk Achilles into allowing him to use his armor. He disguised himself as Achilles so that the soldiers would think he had returned to the battlefield, in the hopes that this would strike fear in the heart of Trojans and encourage the Greeks.
The plan worked briefly, however, Apollo, still seething with anger with how Briseis had been treated, intervened on behalf of Troy. He helped Hector, the prince of Troy and one of its greatest heroes, find and kill Patroclus.
Furious at the loss of his lover and his very good friend, you can just imagine how Achilles must have felt. He vowed to take revenge and chased Hector back to the city walls. Hector tried to reason with Achilles, but he would not hear any of it. He killed Hector by stabbing him in the throat.
Determined to humiliate Hector even in death, he dragged his dead body behind his chariot back to his camp and tossed it on the garbage heap. However, he finally relents and returns Hector’s body to his father, Priam, so he can be given a proper burial.
The Iliad doesn’t mention anything about Achilles’ death, though his funeral is mentioned in the Odyssey. It is said that the god Apollo, still burning with anger, informed Paris that Achilles was on his way.
Not a brave warrior and a far cry from his brother Hector, Paris hid and shot Achilles with an arrow. Guided by the hands of Apollo, the arrow hit Achilles’ heel, his only weakness. Achilles died instantly, still undefeated in battle.
Achilles Throughout History
Achilles is a complex character and he has been reinterpreted and reinvented so many times throughout history. He was the archetypal hero who was the embodiment of the human condition because although he had greatness, he was still fated to die.
In several areas across Greece, Achilles was revered and worshipped like a god. The city of Troy once hosted a structure known as the “Tomb of Achilles”, and it became a pilgrimage of many people, including Alexander the Great.
Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring Achilles statue.
What Does Achilles Symbolize?
Throughout history, Achilles has come to symbolize many things:
- Military prowess – Achilles lived to fight and he died fighting. Loyal, courageous, fearless, and powerful, he was undefeated on the battlefield.
- Hero worship – his supernatural strength and power made him a hero and Greeks looked up to him and believed that as long as he was on their side, they would conquer the Trojans. What made him more compelling is that he also had fallibility. He was not exempt from fits of rage and brutality.
- Brutality – no one approves, be it man or god, of how Achilles tried to defile Hector’s body after beating him in battle. Although he relented in the end and returned Hector to Priam, the damage had already been done and he gained a reputation of brutality and lack of compassion.
- Vulnerability – Achilles’s heel is a symbol of his vulnerability and weakness, which is something that every person has, regardless of how strong and invincible they appear. This doesn’t take anything away from him – it just makes us relate and see him as one of us.
He is famous for his ability to fight and the significance of his actions during the Trojan War.
He was extremely strong and had incredible fighting skills, stamina, endurance and the ability to resist injury.
His only weakness was his heel, because it didn’t touch the waters of the River Styx.
Reports vary, but according to some myths, he was made invincible and resistant to injury by being dipped in the River Styx by his mother. However, he wasn’t immortal like the gods, and he would eventually grow old and die.
He was killed by an arrow shot by Paris. Apollo is said to have guided the arrow towards his vulnerable spot.
This term refers to one’s most vulnerable area.
It appears to be his male friend Patroclus, who he calls the only one he ever loved. Also, Patroclus appears jealous of Briseis and her relationship with Achilles.
A hero who had many conquests in battle, Achilles was the personification of courage, strength, and power. Yet while many see him as a savior, he was also human just like the rest of us. He battled with the same emotions just like everyone and he is proof that we all have weaknesses.