Loretta Barnard

Know who you’re Googling: Achilles

troy-achilles

Approx Reading Time-11Achilles: a heroic figure muddied by thousandfold popular culture adaptations. Thus, The Big Smoke‘s own Helen of Troy cuts through the ambiguity.

 


Achilles, the warrior whose wrath inspired Homer’s epic work The Iliad, was known as valorous, clever and a bit of a babe. Brad Pitt portrayed him in the 2004 film Troy, and that’s as good a way to envisage Achilles as any.

Achilles was the son of Peleus, King of the Myrmidons, and the sea nymph Thetis. Thetis was also pretty hot stuff. The gods Zeus and Poseidon fancied her, but when they were told that any son of hers would grow up to be more powerful than his father, they dropped her like that old hot potato. Even gods feel insecure. Peleus, it seems, coped rather better.

Thetis, being immortal, wanted immortality for Achilles, so when he was a baby she took him to the Styx, the river separating Earth from the Underworld. There she dunked the kid into the river so that he would be, if not immortal, then at least invulnerable.

Because she held him by the heel, that missed out on the dunking. Thus, Achilles had only one weakness: his heel.

We all know where this is leading.

Anyway, Achilles grows up alongside his boon companion Patroclus. As you might expect, homoerotic overtones have been imposed on this part of the story – although Homer writes of them only as close friends, close as brothers – and anyway all that homoerotic stuff was pretty much de rigueur in ancient Greece. The bottom line (if you’ll excuse the pun) is that where Achilles goes, Patroclus goes too.

Now for the action. When Paris of Troy abducts Helen from her husband Menelaus of Sparta, Menelaus is humiliated and entreats his brother King Agamemnon to lead an army to Troy to get that gal back. Under Agamemnon’s command, Greek leaders amass the legendary one thousand ships and off they go to a war that lasts ten years.

Of course, Achilles had to die. His mother had told him that his destiny was either to live a long life as no one special, or a short life as a fearsome warrior famous for all time. He opted for glory.

Achilles contributes at least fifty ships to the force and proves himself a hotshot commander and soldier; for nine years, the most successful of the Greek warriors, his status elevated by the fact that prophecies declared Troy couldn’t be vanquished without him.

Homer’s Iliad plonks us at the tail end of the Trojan War when Achilles has withdrawn his troops from battle over a spat with Agamemnon about a girl.

What happened was this: Agamemnon had been holding hostage a priestess of Apollo, who was so furious about it that he’d sent a plague to devastate the Greeks. When Achilles demanded Agamemnon return the priestess so the plague could be lifted, Agamemnon threw a hissy fit and took Achilles’ girl Briseis for himself, seeing it as compensation for the loss of his captive. Achilles was livid! Actually he spends a lot of time being angry at this, that and the other.

With Achilles out of action, things aren’t going well for the Greeks. Achilles is a proud man and it takes some real sweet-talking to lure him back to battle. Eventually, however, and in spite of his personal animosity towards Agamemnon, Achilles decides he’ll grant a little concession. After all, he’s basically a good guy but with a tad too much hubris for his own good.

So he allows Patroclus to dress in his armour, pretend to be Achilles and strike terror into the hearts of the Trojan warriors. It all begins triumphantly, with Patroclus killing many enemy soldiers, but these things have a way of backfiring. Hector, crown prince of Troy, kills Patroclus in battle and, as was the custom, keeps the armour as a spoil of war.

Okay, mess with my girl is bad enough, thinks Achilles, but mess with my bestie and you’re in deep trouble.


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First thing: Achilles gets himself a new suit of armour from Hephaestus, who’s a dab hand in the forge because he’s the God of Blacksmiths and Metallurgy. Then he seeks out Hector and in a one-on-one duel, kills him. He’s so enraged by Patroclus’s death that rather than allow Hector’s body to be returned to his family, he ties him to his chariot and drags Hector through the dirt, which is definitely not cricket.

Priam, King of Troy and Hector’s father, pleads with Achilles for the return of his son’s body. By then, nine days after Hector’s death, Achilles has calmed down a bit and he agrees. Hector’s remains go back to the grieving Trojans. His funeral marks the end of The Iliad.

Hang on, what about the arrow and the heel? Achilles’ death from a poisoned arrow guided by Apollo but shot by Paris (yeah, same spoiled brat whose sex drive pretty much started the war) to avenge the death of his brother Hector, isn’t told in The Iliad, although it’s predicted. Hector’s dying words to Achilles are that he would die by Paris’s hand near the gates of Troy.

And so it happens, according to other sources. Homer’s Odyssey mentions Achilles’ funeral, and his death is mentioned by Ajax in Sophocles’ play of the same name. The myths say that his remains were interred with those of Patroclus, brothers in eternity.

Of course, Achilles had to die. His mother had told him that his destiny was either to live a long life as no one special, or a short life as a fearsome warrior famous for all time. He opted for glory.

Oh, and because of the whole heel thing, his name was used for the large tendon at the back of the ankle.

So there you go. Fame in battle and fame in anatomy…not bad, Achilles, not bad.

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who, in a long career, has done almost everything possible in the book publishing industry. These days she actively pursues her love of music, literature and theatre, and is something of a wannabe roving ambassador for the creative and performing arts.

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