A hero in the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, Achilles was the foremost warrior in Greek mythology. He figures prominent'v in the Iliad, the epic by Greek poet Homer that tells the story of the Trojan War*. Achilles possessed strength, bravery, military skills, pride, and honor—all the qualities the ancient Greeks prized as manly virtues. Yet his conduct was also shaped by anger and stubbornness. The tension between Achilles' larger-than-life virtues and his all-too-human weaknesses plays a role in the mood of heroic tragedy found in the Iliad.
Achilles' Heel. Like many mythological heroes, Achilles was part human and part supernatural being. His parents were Peleus, a king of Thessaly in northern Greece, and a sea nymph named Thetis. According to Homer, Thetis raised both Achilles and his closest friend and companion, Patroclus.
Other accounts added various details to Achilles' life. In one story, Thetis, fearful for her son's safety, tried to protect him by rubbing him with ambrosia, the food of the gods, and holding him in a fire to burn away his human weakness. This action horrified Peleus, and Thetis, angry at his distrust, abandoned her husband and child and returned to the sea.
Another version of Achilles' story said that Thetis tried to make her infant son invulnerable by dipping him into the river Styx, which flowed through the underworld. However, the water did not touch the heel by which she held Achilles, and this spot remained vulnerable. This myth is the source of the term Achilles' heel, which refers to a person's one great weakness.
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous
nymph minor goddess of nature, usually represented as young and beautiful
invulnerable incapable of being hurt
underworld land of the dead
Achilles' strength and athletic superiority emerged early. At age six, he could run fast enough to catch deer and was strong enough to kill lions and wild boars. Some myths say that Achilles
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
learned to run from the centaur Chiron, who also taught him music, medicine, and the skills of warfare. According to some legends, Achilles was destined from birth to suffer one of two fates: a long life without glory or a glorious death in battle at Troy.
The Trojan War. When the Trojan War began, Achilles' parents sent him to the court of King Lycomedes on the island of Skyros, where he was disguised as a girl. They hoped this would keep him from being drawn into the combat and suffering the fate of the prophecy that said he would die at Troy. Meanwhile, a seer warned the Greeks that they would never defeat the Trojans without the help of Achilles.
The Greeks searched for the boy, and Odysseus*, the most cunning and resourceful of the Greek leaders, learned of Achilles' hiding place. Passing as a traveling merchant, Odysseus displayed ornaments to the women of the royal household at Skyros. Among the ornaments were weapons. When one "girl" admired a shield and spear, Odysseus knew that he had found Achilles.
Odysseus persuaded Achilles to join the Greek forces against Troy, even though Achilles owed no loyalty to them. Some stories say that he agreed to fight to prove his courage. Other versions claim that both Achilles and Odysseus were reluctant to join the war, which was fought over the kidnapping of a beautiful Greek woman named Helen by the Trojan prince Paris. In any case, both Achilles and Odysseus joined the Greek forces led by King Agamemnon, which were camped outside the walls of Troy in Asia Minor *.
In the tenth year of the Trojan War, Achilles and Agamemnon became involved in a fierce dispute. Forced to return a young woman he had taken as a prize of war, Agamemnon demanded the woman Achilles had received as a prize instead. Achilles was furious and withdrew into his tent, refusing to fight.
When Hector, son of the Trojan king and Troy's leading warrior, attacked the Greek forces, Achilles still refused to fight. His friend Patroclus asked if he could borrow Achilles' armor. He thought that the Trojans, seeing the armor of the most feared Greek warrior, would certainly retreat. Achilles reluctantly agreed. However, to his great horror and sorrow, Patroclus was killed in combat by Hector.
centaur half-human, half-animal creature with the body of a horse and the head, chest, and arms of a human
prophecy foretelling of what is to come; also something that is predicted
seer one who can predict the future
Achilles rushed into battle in a furious desire to avenge the death of Patroclus. Three times he chased Hector around the walls of Troy before killing the Trojan prince in one-on-one combat. He then dragged the body behind his chariot, preventing the Trojans from
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
burying it and holding a proper funeral, as the Greeks had done for Patroclus. The gods forced Achilles to surrender the body of Hector to his grieving father, King Priam of Troy.
Achilles in Literature and Art. The Iliad ends with Hector's funeral and does not mention what happened to Achilles. Other sources, however, say that Achilles died in the Trojan War, shot through the vulnerable spot in his heel by Hector's brother Paris, who had started the war by kidnapping Helen. In the Odyssey, the Greek epic that is a sequel to the Iliad, Achilles descends to the underworld, where he meets Odysseus. Other accounts say that Thetis seized her son's body from its funeral pyre and carried him away to a new existence on the island of Leuke in the Black Sea.
Several ancient Greek playwrights wrote works that deal with the legacy of Achilles. The tragedy Ajax by Sophocles * is about the contest over who should receive the dead warrior's armor. The ghost of Achilles appears as a character in Hecuba, a play by Euripides *.
Later writers also focused on Achilles. In The Divine Comedy, a long poem by the Italian writer Dante Alighieri in the early 1300s, Achilles is shown living in the Second Circle of Hell, a place reserved for those who died because of love. Dante wrote that Achilles "fought with love at the last"—a reference to the legend that Paris lured Achilles to his death by making him think that he would be meeting a woman he loved. A French opera called Achille et Polyxène, written by Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1687, is based on the same myth. More than 50 other operas have been written about Achilles.
The Achilles Paradox
In the 400s B . C ., the Greek philosopher Zeno created a paradox—something that seems contradictory and impossible to explain. It involved a race between a tortoise and Achilles, a famously fast runner. According to Zeno, if the tortoise received a head start and continued to move on, Achilles could never catch up. By the time he reached the tortoise's starting point, the tortoise would have moved on to another point. This situation would occur again and again, with the tortoise always remaining ahead of Achilles.
This so-called Achilles paradox dealt with the problem of a continuum, a limited distance divided into unlimited smaller units. The Greek philosopher Aristotle proposed a solution: Because Achilles never actually stops at the points on the continuum, they do not exist. Thus Achilles would be able to catch the tortoise.
pyre pile of wood on which a dead body is burned in a funeral ceremony
English writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare mention Achilles in a number of works. The power of Achilles is mentioned in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare made the Greek warrior a central character in his long poem Troilus and Cressida. The mighty Achilles has also been the subject of many art works, from ancient Greek vases to paintings by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).