Today we will examine the life and death of the mythical Greek hero Achilles. While many people may not know the full extent of his story, they can usually recall his fateful end in the Trojan War. Even those not well versed in history will recognize his name as that of the tendon that runs from the base of the calf to the ankle. We will trace his life from his semi-divine birth to his death in the great city of Troy and discover why his name survives to this day as a part of human anatomy.
Arrow wounded Achilles statue. Achilleion Museum, Corfu, Greece.
According to legend, the Greek hero Achilles was born to a mortal father, Peleus, king of the Myrmidons, and an immortal mother, Thetis, a Nereid. The name Myrmidon and the image and nature of the Nereids have morphed into the legendary race of mermaids. Thetis tried to make Achilles immortal by dipping him into the River Styx, which was said to grant immortality. Unfortunately, because Thetis was holding Achilles by his heel, that part failed to become invulnerable.
When the Greeks declared war against the Trojans, Achilles joined the cause, commanding 50 ships and 2500 Myrmidon warriors. For the first nine years of the war, Achilles fought valiantly for the Greeks, never suffering injury or defeat. Despite his efforts, the war itself was largely a stalemate. His presence on the field, however, inspired both courage among the Greeks and fear among the Trojans. His armor had been specially forged by Hephaestus, blacksmith of the gods themselves. While this armor did not provide Achilles with immortality, it did distinguish him, causing enemies to flee at the very sight of it.
Achilles and Agamemnon (scene from Book I of the Iliad), 1st century AD. Roman mosaic, fresco of Pompeii.
During the tenth year of the war, Achilles had a falling out with the leader of the Greek armies, Agamemnon. Achilles withdrew his personal support of the Greeks against Troy, sitting idly in his tent while the Trojans began to gain the upper hand. Achilles’ best friend, Patroclus, wore Achilles’ armor into battle in an attempt to restore courage in the Greek ranks. Unfortunately, Hector, the prince of Troy, noticed Achilles’ armor and killed Patroclus in single combat, thinking it was Achilles. When Achilles learned of this, he rejoined the war, vowing revenge for his friend’s death.
Eventually, Achilles and Hector met in single combat, and Achilles slew Hector. He tied Hector’s body to the back of his chariot, dragging it behind him in a gesture of utter contempt for the Trojans. The death of Hector led to the eventual collapse of the Trojan war effort, culminating in the famous Trojan Horse incident where Greek soldiers infiltrated the city of Troy in the belly of a wooden horse given to the Trojans as a sign of peace. This infiltration spelled the defeat of Troy, ending the 10-year war.
Franz Matsch. Triumphant Achilles dragging Hector's lifeless body in front of the Gates of Troy, 1892. Achilleion Museum, Corfu, Greece.
Achilles returned to the city after the battle, supposedly to gain yet more revenge for the death of Patroclus. Paris, Hector’s younger brother, ambushed him, shooting him in the back of his heel with a poisoned arrow. As this was the one part of Achilles that was still mortal, the wound resulted in Achilles’ death. Even though he was killed by a weapon, Achilles still remained undefeated in battle, making him the chief warrior in Greek legend. Today, nearly 3000 years after the story of Achilles was written in the Iliad, we use the term “Achilles' heel” to refer to the weak point of an otherwise invulnerable individual.
“Any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.” – Homer, The Iliad
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