Achilles was the hero of the Trojan war as related by Homer in the Illiad. He was the mightiest of the Trojan warriors. He began life as a demigod, the son of Peleus, the king of the Myrmidons and a mortal, and Thetis who was a Nereid. The Myrmidons were legendary warriors, very skilled and brave. Nereids are sea nymphs being the daughters of Nereus and Doris. Thetis was very concerned that her son was a mortal. Therefore she attempted to make him immortal. There are two stories of how she wet about this. The lesser-known story is that she burned him in a fire nightly and then healed his wounds with a magical ambrosia. The more well-known story is that she held him tightly by the heel and submersed him in the river Styx. This made his entire body invulnerable except for the spot on his heel where she held him while he was in the river. During Achilles’ boyhood, a seer named Calchas prophesied that Troy would not fall without help from Achilles. Knowing that he would die if he went to Troy, Thetis sent Achilles to the court of Lycomedes in Scyros. He was hidden there in the guise of a young girl. While at the court he had a romance with Deidameia who was the daughter of Lycomedes. The result was a son who was named Pyrrhus. The disguise finally came to an end when Odysseus exposed Achilles by placing arms and armor amongst a display of female garments and picked Achilles out when he was the only “female” to be interested in the war equipment. Achilles then willingly joined Odysseus on the journey to Troy. He led a host of his father’s Myrmidon troops in addition to his tutor Phoenix and his friend Patroclus. Once in Troy, Achilles quickly gained the reputation as an undefeatable warrior. One of his most notable feats was the capture of 23 Trojan towns. One of these was Lyrnessos where he took a war prize in the form of a woman named Briseis. The central action of the Illiad was sparked when Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, was forced to give up his war-prize woman, Chryseis, by an oracle of Apollo. As compensation for the loss of Chryseis, Agamemnon took Briseis from Achilles. Thus enraged, Achilles refused to continue fighting for the Greeks. With Achilles’ withdrawal from the action, the war started to go badly for the Greeks and they offered large reparations to try to lure back their greatest warrior. Achilles continued to refuse to rejoin the war, however, he did agree to allow his close friend Patroclus to don his arms and armor and fight in his place. The next day Hector, a Trojan hero, mistook Patroclus for Achilles and killed Patroclus. Achilles was engulfed with rage at Hector and consumed by grief for his friend’s death. Thetis went to Hephaestus and obtained fabulous new armor for Achilles. Achilles recommenced fighting and killed Hector. Not satisfied with Hector’s death, Achilles used his chariot to drag the body before the walls of Troy and refused the corpse funeral rites. Hector’s father Priam, the king of Troy, went secretly to the Greek camp to beg the return of the body. Finally, Achilles relented and allowed Priam to take Hector’s remains. After Hector’s death time started to run out for Achilles. He continued to fight heroically and killed many Trojans as well as their allies. Eventually, Paris, who was another of Priam’s sons, enlisted the aid of Apollo and wounded Achilles in his weak spot – the heel – with an arrow. This caused Achilles death. The enduring legend from the story of Achilles has to do with the concept of the Achilles’ heel. An Achilles’ heel has come to mean that despite overall strength, there is a mortal weakness that can lead to one’s downfall. While the original myth refers to a physical weakness, in modern times it has come to reference other types of character flaws or qualities that can cause ruination. The concept of the hero has changed somewhat in our modern culture. Instead of daring people who buck trends and traditions in order to help their families, nations or cultures, today we tend to revere people like sports figures and actors. While we have the occasional government or political leader such as Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, most of what you hear about is who is making the most money due to their sports or acting ability. The concept of the sports figure hero can have some validity as these figures do occasionally overcome great odds and perform daring feats on the modern “battlefield”, i.e., the sports arena. However, this is nothing compared to the feats of the ancient heros. Hero myths are powerful stories from ancient times. So powerful are they that they cross cultures and ages, continuing to influence us today. Achilles was one of the great heros of ancient times as the mightiest warrior of the Trojan war. While who we classify as a hero has changed in our modern societies, we still look to the concept today. We teach young people about heros as a method to inspire them. We look to our heros as adults to give us guidance and to give us something to guide our hopes and dreams. While modern heros may not be of Achilles’ status, they remain an integral part of our cultures.
Osborn, D. (2010). Achilles and His Vulnerable Heel. Greek Mythology. Retrieved on March 31, 2013 from http://www.greekmedicine.net/mythology/achilles.html
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Uncredited. (2012). Achilles. Greek Mythology. Retrieved on March 31, 2013 from http://www.in2greece.com/english/historymyth/mythology/names/achilles.htm