Greek spelling: Αχιλλευς (translates into English as Achilleus)
Parents: Peleus and Thetis
Children: Neoptolomus, also known as Pyrrhus
Famous myths: The Trojan War
His father, Peleus, was king of the Myrmidons in Thessaly, the same people who Achilles would rule when he got older. His mother, Thetis, was a Neired who had a special relationship with Zeus. He was raised and educated by the centaur (a creature with the lower body of a horse and the upper body and head of a human) Chiron on Mount Pelion.
When his mother learned of a prophecy that foretold if he went on the expedition to Troy he would die, she hid him away in the court of King Lycomedes on Scyros disguised as a girl. While there, he fell in love with Deidamia, the king’s daughter, who bore him a son, Neoptolemus. His identity was then blown when Odysseus tricked him into revealing his identity and he joined the Greek army as a result. (Trickery is associated with Odysseus throughout the Iliad and in the Odyssey…he was the brains behind the Trojan horse!)
The Achilles Heel is something that has endured and is present in popular culture. We call a weakness or a vulnerable point an “Achilles Heel”. Also, a tendon at the back of the leg just above the heel is called the Achilles tendon, the name arising from this myth.
In an attempt to make her son immortal, Thetis dipped Achilles’ body into the River Styx (the river of the Underworld, also known as Hades) when he was a baby. The only part of his body that she did not submerge was the heel as she was holding onto it. Thus the river made invulnerable every part of Achilles’ body it touched so his only weak spot was his heel. He would eventually meet his death in the form of a poisoned arrow to the heel.
There is another version of the story that isn’t as well known and one that I certainly wasn’t aware of before doing some background research for this article. The story goes that Thetis had earlier children by Peleus and decided to test if they were immortal. She placed them in boiling water (yes, really!) and the results proved negative. (WARNING: Do not try this at home…obviously) Then Peleus, like a normal, sensible father (not too many of those in Greek Myth), prevented Thetis from trying the same test on Achilles.
I’m not actually sure how that would give rise to the Achilles’ Heel but I’m not going to argue.
Then we get to the big one, one of the most important myths in Greek Mythology, the Trojan War. No doubt you’ll have heard of it and the Trojan Horse, a phrase which remains in our society today.
There are a number of themes in the Iliad, one of which is the Wrath of Achilles. (The Greek for Troy was ιλιος (Ilios) and thus Iliad simply means the story of Ilios) Achilles is widely regarded as the best warrior in the Achaean (Greek) ranks but due to an argument with Agamemnon, the commander of the Achaeans, he refused to fight.
I must apologise also about the introducing of new characters but the Trojan Myth is just so complex that I’m unable to explain it without name-dropping here and there.
Anyway, Achilles refuses to fight. This is in part down to his argument with Agamemnon and in part due to a prophecy. We have seen already how his mother Thetis tried to hide Achilles on Scyros to avoid him going to Troy. Well, Thetis then went to Zeus and pleaded with him to alter Achilles’ fate and this results in Achilles having a choice.
Either he can fight and suffer an early death but his name will live on forever or he can not fight in which case he will live a long life but in relative anonymity.
Interestingly, he is the only hero in the whole Iliad who gets a choice in their own fate…he might be the only hero in Greek Mythology to get such a decision. Initially, Achilles, as we already know, refuses to fight.
This calls into question the heroic ethos and the idea of the “glorious death”. This heroic ethos is tied into the idea that “bigger is better”. The more people you kill, the more glorious you are. The more opulence you have to show, the more spoils of war you have gained, the more wealth you have amassed from plundering and pillaging, the better you are.
And if you die on the battlefield your name will live on forever. If you die a young man you remain in your prime in the afterlife however if you start to age your body degenerates etc. But basically glory was attained through fighting is the idea I’m trying to get across. It was the Age of Heroes after all and ended because, well, all the heroes ended up killing each other.
Achilles’ cousin and possible lover, Patroclus, was among the heroes trying to get him to fight. When the Achaeans started losing the war, Patroclus took it upon himself to get Achilles back in the war to rally and inspire the troops. Only, he didn’t actually get Achilles to fight. He stole his armour and took to the battlefield to face the greatest Trojan warrior, Hector.
Unfortunately for Patroclus, he was slain. When Achilles found out he became mad with grief. His mother had the lame-god of metal-working and craftsmen, Hephaestus, forge him a new shield and weapons. He entered the war in a furor (uncontrollable rage) and killed warrior after warrior.
Thus he has sealed his fate. He also challenges Hector in head-to-head combat, defeats him and then defiles the body. He takes the corpse with him but when King Priam, Hector’s father and King of the Trojans, sneaks into the Achaean camp and begs for his sons body back, Achilles agrees.
This is where the Iliad ends. There is no Trojan Horse, there is no final battle and Achilles is alive and well. However, Achilles has been foretold to die and because the life of Hector was tied to the life of Troy, we understand that it, too, will fall soon.
The rest of the story is part of the Epic Cycle and can be read in the Little Iliad of which only fragments remain.
One final mention of Achilles in Homer’s works is in the Odyssey Book XI. Here, Odysseus travels to the Underworld and meets the spirit of Achilles. The great warrior speaks what becomes one of the most famous lines in all of Greek literature when he says, “I would rather work the soil as a serf on hire to some landless impoverished peasant than be King of all these lifeless dead”.
Again this calls into question the heroic ethos and glorious death that was mentioned earlier but aside from that it is a pretty cracking line.
That brings to a close everything I want to say on Achilles. I’ve been trying to come up with some ideas of what I could write about for my next myth and received the wonderful suggestion that since Halloween is coming up, why not do a darker piece. So, my next Myth of the Week will be on Hades, the Underworld or something to that effect.
Fun Fact: The picture at the start of the post is of Achilles and the second greatest warrior of the Achaeans, Ajax. The image comes from a pot in a style known as Black Figure Pottery (shouldn’t be that hard to remember, the figures are black against a red backdrop). There is also Red Figure Pottery which is simply the revers of Black Figure (red figures against a black backdrop). Due to the way these pots were made they are still in incredible condition, despite being 2,500 years old! I’m not certain who created this pot or if it is even known or what it’s date is but I shall do my best to find out (Archaeology and Architecture were never my strong suit). But perhaps the coolest thing about these pots is that you can feel the finger grooves where the potters worked them by hand all those millennia ago.
Thanks for reading and if you have a suggestion on a myth – or any topic for that matter – that you would like me to cover then please comment below. You can also follow me on Twitter by clicking here and Facebook by clicking here.
Until next time!