In Greek mythology, Achilles (Ancient Greek: Ἀχιλλεύς, Achilleus) was a Greek hero of the Trojan War, the central character and the greatest warrior of Homer's Iliad.
Achilles also has the attributes of being the most handsome of the heroes assembled against Troy.
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. Since he died due to a poisonous arrow shot into his heel, the term "Achilles' heel" has come to mean a person's principal weakness.
As with most mythology there is a tale which offers an alternative version of these events: in Argonautica (iv.760) Hera alludes to Thetis's chaste resistance to the advances of Zeus, that Thetis was so loyal to Hera's marriage bond that she coolly rejected him. Thetis, although a daughter of the sea-god Nereus, was also brought up by Hera, further explaining her resistance to the advances of Zeus.
Achilleid, written by Statius in the first century AD, and to no surviving previous 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 by which she held him, 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, Kúpria (unknown author), Aithiopis by Arctinus of Miletus, Ilias Mikrá by Lesche of Mytilene, Iliou pérsis 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.
Peleus entrusted Achilles to Chiron the Centaur, on Mt. Pelion, to be raised.
Achilles in the Trojan War
- μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
- οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί' Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε' ἔθηκεν,
- Sing, Goddess, of the rage, of Peleus' son Achilles
- the accursed rage, which brought pain to thousands of the Achaeans.
According to the Illiad (Book 16), Achilles arrived at Troy with 50 ships, each carrying 50 Myrmidons. Achilles appointed five leaders (each leader commanding 500 Myrmidons) who were: Menesthius, Eudorus, Peisander, Phoenix and Alcimedon.
TelephusWhen the Greeks left for the Trojan War, they accidentally stopped in Mysia, ruled by King Telephus. In the resulting battle, Achilles gave Telephus a wound that would not heal; Telephus consulted an oracle, who stated that "he that wounded shall heal". Guided by the oracle, he arrived at Argos, where Achilles heals him in order that he become their guide for the voyage to Troy.
According to other reports in Euripides' lost play about Telephus, he went to Aulis pretending to be a beggar and asked Achilles to heal his wound. Achilles refused, claiming to have no medical knowledge. Alternatively, Telephus held Orestes for ransom, the ransom being Achilles' aid in healing the wound. Odysseus reasoned that the spear had inflicted the wound; therefore, the spear must be able to heal it. Pieces of the spear were scraped off onto the wound and Telephus was healed.
TroilusAccording to the Cypria (the part of the Epic Cycle that tells the events of the Trojan War before Achilles' Wrath), when the Achaeans desired to return home, they were restrained by Achilles, who afterwards attacked the cattle of Aeneas, sacked neighboring cities and killed Troilus.
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 in an attempt to capture him. Yet Achilles, struck by the beauty of both Troilus and his sister Polyxena, and overcome with lust directed his sexual attentions on the youth — who refusing to yield found instead himself decapitated upon an altar-omphalos of Apollo. Later versions of the story suggested Troilus was accidentally killed by Achilles in an over-ardent lovers' embrace. In this version of the myth, Achilles' death therefore came in retribution for this sacrilege. 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.
In the Iliad
Achilles sacrificing to Zeus, from the Ambrosian Iliad, a 5th century illuminated manuscriptMain article: IliadHomer'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. At this same time, burning with rage over Agamemnon's theft, Achilles prayed to his mother Thetis to convince Zeus to help the Trojans gain ground in the war, so that he may regain his honor.
As the battle turned against the Greeks, thanks to the influence of Zeus, 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, Ajax and Phoenix, to Achilles with the offer of the return of Briseis and other gifts. Achilles rejected all Agamemnon offered him, and simply urged the Greeks to sail home as he was planning to do.
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 wearing Achilles' armor, 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.
Triumphant Achilles dragging Hector's lifeless body in front of the Gates of Troy. (From a panoramic fresco on the upper level of the main hall of the Achilleion)After receiving the news of the death of Patroclus from Antilochus, the son of Nestor, Achilles grieved over his cousin's death 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 the battle was inevitable. Wanting to go down fighting, he charged at Achilles with his only weapon, his sword, but missed. Accepting his fate, Hector begged Achilles – not to spare his life, but to treat his body with respect after killing him. Achilles told Hector it was hopeless to expect that of him, declaring that "my rage, my fury would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw — such agonies you have caused me". Achilles then got his vengeance, killing Hector with a single blow to the neck and tying the Trojan's body to his chariot, dragging 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.
PenthesileaAchilles, after his temporary truce with Priam, fought and killed the Amazonian warrior queen Penthesilea, but later grieved over her death. At first, he was so distracted by her beauty, he did not fight as intensely as usual. Once he realized that his distraction was endangering his life, he refocused and killed her. As he grieved over the death of such a rare beauty, a notorious Greek jeerer by the name of Thersites laughed and mocked the great Achilles. Annoyed by his insensitivity and disrespect, Achilles punched him in the face and killed him instantly.
Memnon, and the fall of AchillesFollowing the death of Patroclus, Achilles' closest companion was Nestor's son Antilochus. When Memnon, king 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 B.C. 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 with an arrow (to the heel according to Statius). In some versions, the god Apollo guided Paris' arrow. Some retellings also state that Achilles was scaling the gates of Troy and was hit with a poisoned arrow.
Ajax carries off the body of Achilles: Attic black-figure lekythos, ca. 510 BC, from Sicily (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)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). Another version of Achilles' death is that he fell deeply in love with one of the Trojan princesses, Polyxena. Achilles asks Priam for Polyxena's hand in marriage. Priam is willing because it would mean the end of the war and an alliance with the world's greatest warrior. But while Priam is overseeing the private marriage of Polyxena and Achilles, Paris, who would have to give up Helen if Achilles married his sister, hides in the bushes and shoots Achilles with a divine arrow, killing him.
Achilles was cremated and his ashes buried in the same urn as those of Patroclus.
Paris was later killed by Philoctetes using the enormous bow of Heracles.
Fate of Achilles' armorAchilles' armor was the object of a feud between Odysseus and Telamonian Ajax (Ajax the greater). They competed for it by giving speeches on why they were the bravest after Achilles to their Trojan prisoners, who after considering both men came to a consensus in favor of Odysseus. Furious, Ajax cursed Odysseus, which earned the ire of Athena. Athena temporarily made Ajax so mad with grief and anguish that he began killing sheep, thinking them his comrades. After a while, when Athena lifted his madness and Ajax realized that he had actually been killing sheep, he was so embarrassed that he committed suicide. Odysseus eventually gave the armor to Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles.
A relic claimed to be Achilles' bronze-headed spear was for centuries preserved in the temple of Athena on the acropolis of Phaselis, Lycia, a port on the Pamphylian Gulf. The city was visited in 333 BC by Alexander the Great, who envisioned himself as the new Achilles and carried the Iliad with him, but his court biographers do not mention the spear, which he would indeed have touched with excitement. But it was being shown in the time of Pausanias in the second century AD.
Achilles and PatroclusAchilles' relationship with Patroclus is a key aspect of his myth. Its exact nature has been a subject of dispute in both the classical period and modern times. In the Iliad, they appeared to be generally portrayed as a model of deep and loyal friendship. However, commentators from the classical period to today have tended to interpret the relationship through the lens of their own cultures. Thus, in 5th century BC Athens the relationship was commonly interpreted as pederastic. Contemporary readers may interpret the two heroes either as relatives or close friends, as "war buddies", as being in a teacher/student relationship, or in love with each other as an egalitarian homosexual couple. Whichever the case may be, Achilles nevertheless continued to have sexual relationships with women.
The cult of Achilles in antiquityheroic cult of Achilles on the White Island, Leuce, in the Black Sea off the modern coasts of Romania and Ukraine, with a temple and an oracle which survived into the Roman period.
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 though 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.
The cult of Achilles in modern times: The Achilleion in CorfuIn the region of Gastouri (Γαστούρι) to the south of the city of Corfu Greece, Empress of Austria Elisabeth of Bavaria also known as Sissi built in 1890 a summer palace with Achilles as its central theme and it is a monument to platonic romanticism. The palace, naturally, was named after Achilles: Achilleion (Αχίλλειον). This elegant structure abounds with paintings and statues of Achilles both in the main hall and in the lavish gardens depicting the heroic and tragic scenes of the Trojan war.
The name of AchillesAchilles' name can be analyzed as a combination of ἄχος (akhos) "grief" and λαός (Laos) "a people, tribe, nation, etc." In other words, Achilles is an embodiment of the grief of the people, grief being a theme raised numerous times in the Iliad (frequently by Achilles). Achilles' role as the hero of grief forms an ironic juxtaposition with the conventional view of Achilles as the hero of kleos (glory, usually glory in war).
Laos has been construed by Gregory Nagy, following Leonard Palmer, to mean a corps of soldiers, a muster. 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 soon after the 7th century BC. It was also turned into the female form Ἀχιλλεία, Achilleía, attested in Attica in the 4th century BC (IG II² 1617), and, in the form Achillia, on a stele in Halicarnassus as the name of a female gladiator fighting an "Amazon". Roman gladiatorial games often referenced classical mythology, and this seems to reference Achilles' fight with Penthesilea but gives it an extra twist of Achilles' being "played" by a woman.
Other stories about Achilles
Achilles as guardian of the palace in the gardens of the Achilleion in Corfu. He gazes northward toward the city. The inscription in Greek reads: ΑΧΙΛΛΕΥΣ i.e. AchillesSome post-Homeric sources claim that in order to keep Achilles safe from the war, Thetis (or, in some versions, Peleus) hides the young man at the court of Lycomedes, king of Skyros. There, Achilles is disguised as a girl and lives among Lycomedes' daughters, perhaps under the name "Pyrrha" (the red-haired girl). With Lycomedes' daughter Deidamia, whom in the account of Statius he rapes, Achilles there fathers a son, Neoptolemus (also called Pyrrhus, after his father's possible alias). According to this story, Odysseus learns from the prophet Calchas that the Achaeans would be unable to capture Troy without Achilles' aid. Odysseus goes to Skyros in the guise of a peddler selling women's clothes and jewelry and places a shield and spear among his goods. When Achilles instantly takes up the spear, Odysseus sees through his disguise and convinces him to join the Greek campaign. In another version of the story, Odysseus arranges for a trumpet alarm to be sounded while he was with Lycomedes' women; while the women flee in panic, Achilles prepares to defend the court, thus giving his identity away.
In book 11 of Homer's Odyssey, 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. But Achilles then asks Odysseus of his son's exploits in the Trojan war, and when Odysseus tells of Neoptolemus' heroic actions, Achilles is filled with satisfaction. This leaves the reader with an ambiguous understanding of how Achilles felt about the heroic life. 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 Epirote 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.
Achilles in Greek tragedyThe Greek tragedian Aeschylus wrote a trilogy of plays about Achilles, given the title Achilleis by modern scholars. The tragedies relate the deeds of Achilles during the Trojan War, including his defeat of Hector and eventual death when an arrow shot by Paris and guided by Apollo punctures his heel. Extant fragments of the Achilleis and other Aeschylean fragments have been assembled to produce a workable modern play. The first part of the Achilleis trilogy, The Myrmidons, focused on the relationship between Achilles and chorus, who represent the Achaean army and try to convince Achilles to give up his quarrel with Agamemnon; only a few lines survive today.
The tragedian Sophocles also wrote a play with Achilles as the main character, The Lovers of Achilles. Only a few fragments survive.