Achilles

Hero of the Trojan War

Achilles, a central figure in Greek mythology and the Trojan War, was the formidable leader of the Myrmidons. Known for sacking cities and slaying Hector, he was considered invincible in battle. Today, we will examine the life and death of this mythical Greek hero.

According to legend, Achilles was born to a mortal father, Peleus, king of the Myrmidons, and an immortal mother, Thetis, a Nereid or a sea nymph. Thetis wanted to make Achilles immortal, so she dipped him into the River Styx, which was believed to grant immortality. However, because she was holding Achilles by the heel, that part failed to become invulnerable.

Thetis dipping the infant Achilles into the River Styx by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1625

Thetis dipping the infant Achilles into the River Styx by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1625

When Achilles was nine, a seer predicted his heroic death in battle against the Trojans. To prevent this, Thetis disguised him as a girl and sent him to the Aegean island of Skyros. Despite her efforts, Achilles’ fate as a great warrior prevailed, and he eventually left Skyros to join the Greek army.

According to legend, Zeus started the Trojan War to decrease the number of people on Earth. He stirred up trouble between the Greeks and the Trojans by getting involved in their political and personal matters. The trouble began at the wedding of Achilles’ parents when Zeus had the Trojan prince, Paris, judge a beauty contest between the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Each goddess tried to bribe Paris, but Aphrodite’s bribe was the most enticing: she promised him the most beautiful wife in the world. Unfortunately, this wife, Helen, who was also Zeus’s daughter, was already married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta. Encouraged by Aphrodite, Paris kidnapped Helen and took her, along with Menelaus’ riches, back to Troy.

The abduction of Helen by Francesco Primaticcio, 1530-39

The abduction of Helen by Francesco Primaticcio, 1530-39

This act infuriated Menelaus, who swore to get his wife back. He gathered an army of Greece’s greatest warriors and set out to conquer Troy and retrieve Helen. 

When the Greeks declared war against the Trojans, Achilles joined the cause, commanding 50 ships and 2,500 Myrmidon warriors. For the first nine years of the war, Achilles fought fearlessly 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. His armor, specially forged by Hephaestus, the gods’ blacksmith, did not make Achilles immortal but distinguished him, causing enemies to flee at the very sight of it.

During the tenth year of the war, Achilles had a falling out with the leader of the Greek armies, Agamemnon. The dispute began after Achilles captured two women, Briseis and Chryseis, during a raid. He kept Briseis for himself and gave Chryseis to Agamemnon. When Chryseis’ father offered a ransom to get her back, Agamemnon refused. Since Chryseis had been a priestess of Apollo, the god sent a plague to the Greek camp as punishment. Agamemnon eventually gave Chryseis back, but he took Briseis from Achilles to compensate for his loss. Feeling insulted and dishonored, Achilles and his Myrmidons withdrew to their camp, refusing to fight any longer. Achilles sat idly in his tent while the Trojans began to gain the upper hand.

Achilles and Agamemnon, a mosaic from Pompeii, 1st century CE

Achilles and Agamemnon, a mosaic from Pompeii, 1st century CE

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, seeking revenge.

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. 

Triumphant Achilles dragging Hector’s lifeless body in front of the Gates of Troy by Franz Matsch, 1892

Triumphant Achilles dragging Hector’s lifeless body in front of the Gates of Troy by Franz Matsch, 1892

However, the end was near for the great warrior. Just as his mother had feared, he was destined to be cut down in his prime, despite achieving great glory and fame. Once again, it was Apollo who interfered in human affairs, guiding an arrow shot by Paris, the Trojan prince who started the war by abducting Helen. Paris, Hector’s younger brother, ambushed Achilles, shooting him in the back of his heel with a poisoned arrow. As this was the only part of Achilles that was still mortal, the wound resulted in his death. Even though he was killed by a weapon, Achilles still remained undefeated in battle, making him the chief warrior in Greek legend.

Wounded Achilles statue, Corfu, Greece

Wounded Achilles statue, Corfu, Greece

In the meantime, Hector’s death 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 by hiding in a wooden horse given to the Trojans as a sign of peace. The Greek surprise attack sealed Troy’s defeat, ending the 10-year war.

Today, nearly 3,000 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.

Words of wisdom

“Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.” ―Oscar Wilde

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” ―Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“Have no fear of perfection―you’ll never reach it.” ―Salvador Dali

“My best friend is a person who will give me a book I have not read.” —Abraham Lincoln

Bibliography

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