In Greek mythology, Achilles (also Akhilleus or Achilleus; Ancient Greek: Ἀχιλλεύς) was a Greek hero of the Trojan War, the central character and the greatest warrior of Homer's Iliad, which takes for its theme the Wrath of Achilles.
Achilles also has the attributes of being the most handsome of the heroes assembled against Troy, as well as the quickest.
Later legends (beginning with a poem by Statius in the first century AD) state that Achilles was invulnerable in all of his body except for his heel. These legends state that Achilles was killed in battle by an arrow to the heel, and so an "Achilles' heel" has come to mean a person's principal weakness.
According to the incomplete poem Achilleis written by Statius in the first century AD, and to no other sources, when Achilles was born Thetis tried to make him immortal by dipping him in the river Styx. However, he was left vulnerable at the part of the body she held him by, his heel. (See Achilles heel, Achilles' tendon.) It is not clear if this version of events was known earlier. In another version of this story, Thetis anointed the boy in ambrosia and put him on top of a fire to burn away the mortal parts of his body. She was interrupted by Peleus and abandoned both father and son in a rage.
However none of the sources before Statius makes any reference to this general invulnerability. To the contrary, in the Iliad Homer mentions Achilles being wounded: in Book 21 the Paeonian hero Asteropaeus, son of Pelagon, challenged Achilles by the river Scamander. He cast two spears at once, one grazed Achilles' elbow, "drawing a spurt of blood."
Also in the fragmentary poems of the Epic Cycle in which we can find description of the hero's death, Kùpria (unknown author), Aithiopis by Arctinus of Miletus, Ilias Mikrà by Lesche of Mytilene, Iliou pèrsis by Arctinus of Miletus, there is no trace of any reference to his general invulnerability or his famous weakness (heel); in the later vase-paintings presenting Achilles' death, the arrow (or in many cases, arrows) hit his body.
The first two lines of the Iliad read:
Achilles is the only mortal to experience consuming rage (menis). His anger is at some times wavering, but at other times he cannot be cooled. The humanization of Achilles by the events of the war is an important theme of the narrative.
According to Dares Phrygius' Account of the Destruction of Troy, the Latin summary through which the story of Achilles was transmitted to medieval Europe, Troilus was a young Trojan prince, the youngest of King Priam's (or sometimes Apollo) and Hecuba's five legitimate sons. Despite his youth, he was one of the main Trojan war leaders. Prophecies linked Troilus' fate to that of Troy and so he was ambushed and decapitated upon an altar-omphalos of Apollo by Achilles. In this version of the myth, Achilles' death came in retribution for a sacrilege he had previously committed, his decapitation of Troilus upon an altar-omphalos of Apollo. Achilles would late die in retribution for this sacrilegious act. Ancient writers treated Troilus as the epitome of a dead child mourned by his parents. Had Troilus lived to adulthood, the First Vatican Mythographer claimed Troy would have been invincible.
Homer's Iliad is the most famous narrative of Achilles' deeds in the Trojan War. The Homeric epic only covers a few weeks of the war, and does not narrate Achilles' death. It begins with Achilles' withdrawal from battle after he is dishonored by Agamemnon, the commander of the Achaean forces. Agamemnon had taken a woman named Chryseis as his slave. Her father Chryses, a priest of Apollo, begged Agamemnon to return her to him. Agamemnon refused and Apollo sent a plague amongst the Greeks. The prophet Calchas correctly determined the source of the troubles but would not speak unless Achilles vowed to protect him. Achilles did so and Calchas declared Chryseis must be returned to her father. Agamemnon consented, but then commanded that Achilles' battle prize Briseis be brought to replace Chryseis. Angry at the dishonor (and as he says later, because he loved Briseis) and at the urging of Thetis, Achilles refused to fight or lead his troops alongside the other Greek forces.
As the battle turned against the Greeks, Nestor declared that the Trojans were winning because Agamemnon had angered Achilles, and urged the king to appease the warrior. Agamemnon agreed and sent Odysseus and two other chieftains to Achilles with the offer of the return of Briseis and other gifts. Achilles refused and urged the Greeks to sail home as he was planning to do.
Eventually, however, hoping to retain glory despite his absence from the battle, Achilles prayed to his mother Thetis, asking her to plead with Zeus to allow the Trojans to push back the Greek forces. The Trojans, led by Hector, subsequently pushed the Greek army back toward the beaches and assaulted the Greek ships. With the Greek forces on the verge of absolute destruction, Patroclus led the Myrmidons into battle, though Achilles remained at his camp. Patroclus succeeded in pushing the Trojans back from the beaches, but was killed by Hector before he could lead a proper assault on the city of Troy.
After receiving the news of the death of Patroclus from Antilochus, the son of Nestor, Achilles grieved over his friend and held many funeral games in his honor. His mother Thetis came to comfort the distraught Achilles. She persuaded Hephaestus to make new armor for him, in place of the armor that Patroclus had been wearing which was taken by Hector. The new armor included the Shield of Achilles, described in great detail by the poet.
Enraged over the death of Patroclus, Achilles ended his refusal to fight and took the field killing many men in his rage but always seeking out Hector. Achilles even engaged in battle with the river god Scamander who became angry that Achilles was choking his waters with all the men he killed. The god tried to drown Achilles but was stopped by Hera and Hephaestus. Zeus himself took note of Achilles' rage and sent the gods to restrain him so that he would not go on to sack Troy itself, seeming to show that the unhindered rage of Achilles could defy fate itself as Troy was not meant to be destroyed yet. Finally Achilles found his prey. Achilles chased Hector around the wall of Troy three times before Athena, in the form of Hector's favorite and dearest brother, Deiphobus, persuaded Hector to stop running and fight Achilles face to face. After Hector realized the trick, he knew his death was inevitable and accepted his fate. Hector, wanting to go down fighting, charged at Achilles with his only weapon, his sword. Achilles got his vengeance, killing Hector with a single blow to the neck. He then tied Hector's body to his chariot and dragged it around the battlefield for nine days.
With the assistance of the god Hermes, Hector's father, Priam, went to Achilles' tent to plead with Achilles to permit him to perform for Hector his funeral rites. The final passage in the Iliad is Hector's funeral, after which the doom of Troy was just a matter of time.
Following the death of Patroclus, Achilles's closest companion was Nestor's son Antilochus. When Memnon of Ethiopia killed Antilochus, Achilles was once again drawn onto the battlefield to seek revenge. The fight between Achilles and Memnon over Antilochus echoes that of Achilles and Hector over Patroclus, except that Memnon (unlike Hector) was also the son of a goddess.
Many Homeric scholars argued that episode inspired many details in the Iliad's description of the death of Patroclus and Achilles' reaction to it. The episode then formed the basis of the cyclic epic Aethiopis, which was composed after the Iliad, possibly in the 7th century BC. The Aethiopis is now lost, except for scattered fragments quoted by later authors.
As predicted by Hector with his dying breath, Achilles was thereafter killed by Paris—either by an arrow (to the heel according to Statius), or in an older version by a knife to the back while visiting Polyxena, a princess of Troy. In some versions, the god Apollo guided Paris' arrow.
Both versions conspicuously deny the killer any sort of valor owing to the common conception that Paris was a coward and not the man his brother Hector was, and Achilles remained undefeated on the battlefield. His bones were mingled with those of Patroclus, and funeral games were held. He was represented in the lost Trojan War epic of Arctinus of Miletus as living after his death in the island of Leuke at the mouth of the river Danube (see below).
In the lost epic Aithiopis, a continuation of the Iliad attributed to Arktinus of Miletos, Achilles’ mother Thetis returned to mourn him and removed his ashes from the pyre and took them to Leuce at the mouths of the Danube. There the Achaeans raised a tumulus for him and celebrated funeral games.
Pliny's Natural History (IV.27.1) mentions a tumulus that is no longer evident (Insula Akchillis tumulo eius viri clara), on the island consecrated to him, located at a distance of fifty Roman miles from Peuce by the Danube Delta, and the temple there. Pausanias has been told that the island is "covered with forests and full of animals, some wild, some tame. In this island there is also Achilles’ temple and his statue” (III.19.11). Ruins of a square temple 30 meters to a side, possibly that dedicated to Achilles, were discovered by Captain Kritzikly in 1823, but there has been no modern archeological work done on the island.
Pomponius Mela tells that Achilles is buried in the island named Achillea, between Boristhene and Ister (De situ orbis, II, 7). And the Greek geographer Dionysius Periegetus of Bithynia, who lived at the time of Domitian, writes that the island was called Leuce "because the wild animals which live there are white. It is said that there, in Leuce island, reside the souls of Achilles and other heroes, and that they wander through the uninhabited valleys of this island; this is how Jove rewarded the men who had distinguished themselves through their virtues, because through virtue they had acquired everlasting honor” (Orbis descriptio, v. 541, quoted in Densuşianu 1913).
The Periplus of the Euxine Sea gives the following details: "It is said that the goddess Thetis raised this island from the sea, for her son Achilles, who dwells there. Here is his temple and his statue, an archaic work. This island is not inhabited, and goats graze on it, not many, which the people who happen to arrive here with their ships, sacrifice to Achilles. In this temple are also deposited a great many holy gifts, craters, rings and precious stones, offered to Achilles in gratitude. One can still read inscriptions in Greek and Latin, in which Achilles is praised and celebrated. Some of these are worded in Patroclus’ honor, because those who wish to be favored by Achilles, honor Patroclus at the same time. There are also in this island countless numbers of sea birds, which look after Achilles’ temple. Every morning they fly out to sea, wet their wings with water, and return quickly to the temple and sprinkle it. And after they finish the sprinkling, they clean the hearth of the temple with their wings. Other people say still more, that some of the men who reach this island, come here intentionally. They bring animals in their ships, destined to be sacrificed. Some of these animals they slaughter, others they set free on the island, in Achilles’ honor. But there are others, who are forced to come to this island by sea storms. As they have no sacrificial animals, but wish to get them from the god of the island himself, they consult Achilles’ oracle. They ask permission to slaughter the victims chosen from among the animals that graze freely on the island, and to deposit in exchange the price which they consider fair. But in case the oracle denies them permission, because there is an oracle here, they add something to the price offered, and if the oracle refuses again, they add something more, until at last, the oracle agrees that the price is sufficient. And then the victim doesn’t run away any more, but waits willingly to be caught. So, there is a great quantity of silver there, consecrated to the hero, as price for the sacrificial victims. To some of the people who come to this island, Achilles appears in dreams, to others he would appear even during their navigation, if they were not too far away, and would instruct them as to which part of the island they would better anchor their ships”. (quoted in Densuşianu)
The heroic cult of Achilles on Leuce island was widespread in antiquity, not only along the sea lanes of the Pontic Sea but also in maritime cities whose economic interests were tightly connected to the riches of the Black Sea.
Achilles from Leuce island was venerated as Pontarches the lord and master of the Pontic (Black) Sea, the protector of sailors and navigation. Sailors went out of their way to offer sacrifice. To Achilles of Leuce were dedicated a number of important commercial port cities of the Greek waters: Achilleion in Messenia (Stephanus Byzantinus), Achilleios in Laconia (Pausanias, III.25,4) Nicolae Densuşianu (Densuşianu 1913) even thought he recognized Achilles in the name of Aquileia and in the north arm of the Danube delta, the arm of Chilia ("Achileii"), though his conclusion, that Leuce had sovereign rights over Pontos, evokes modern rather than archaic sea-law."
Leuce had also a reputation as a place of healing. Pausanias (III.19,13) reports that the Delphic Pythia sent a lord of Croton to be cured of a chest wound. Ammianus Marcellinus (XXII.8) attributes the healing to waters (aquae) on the island.
Laos has been construed by Gregory Nagy, following Leonard Palmer, to mean a corps of soldiers. With this derivation, the name would have a double meaning in the poem: When the hero is functioning rightly, his men bring grief to the enemy, but when wrongly, his men get the grief of war. The poem is in part about the misdirection of anger on the part of leadership.
The name Achilleus was a common and attested name among the Greeks early after 7th century BC.It was also turned into the female form of Ἀχιλλεία,firstly attested in Attica,4th century BC, (IG II² 1617) and Achillia, Gladiatrix relief.jpg as the name of a female gladiator fighting, 'Amazonia'. Roman gladiatorial games often referenced classical mythology and this seems to reference Achilles' fight with Penthesilea, but give it an extra twist of Achilles being 'played' by a woman.
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 to the worst of masters than be king of all the dead. This has been interpreted as a rejection of his warrior life, but also as indignity to his martyrdom being slighted. Achilles was worshipped as a sea-god in many of the Greek colonies on the Black Sea, the location of the mythical "White Island" which he was said to inhabit after his death, together with many other heroes.
The kings of the Epirus claimed to be descended from Achilles through his son, Neoptolemus. Alexander the Great, son of the Epiran princess Olympias, could therefore also claim this descent, and in many ways strove to be like his great ancestor; he is said to have visited his tomb while passing Troy.
Achilles fought and killed the Amazon Helene. Some also said he married Medea, and that after both their deaths they were united in the Elysian Fields of Hades — as Hera promised Thetis in Apollonius' Argonautica. In some versions of the myth, Achilles has a relationship with his captive Briseis.
The tragedian Sophocles also wrote a play with Achilles as the main character, The Lovers of Achilles. Only a few fragments survive.
|Achilles myths as told by story tellers|
|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)|