By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Who is Achilles? And what was his role in myth? How should we analyse his character, and the meaning of the story of Achilles? And where did the phrase ‘Achilles heel’ come from? Let’s take a closer look at the stories about Achilles from Greek mythology. Before we come to an analysis of the myth, it might be worth summarising the story of Achilles’ life and death.
Achilles myth: summary
Achilles was a Greek hero who played an important role in the Trojan War: the semi-legendary conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans. He was the seventh son of King Peleus of Phthia and the goddess Thetis; this parentage made Achilles semi-divine, a god (or half-god anyway) among men.
Achilles was not only semi-divine, but invincible – or at least, almost invincible. How he came to be invincible differs depending on which version of the myth we read. The most famous explanation is that Thetis, in order to make her son invulnerable to all weapons, dipped him in the waters of the Styx, the river in the Underworld. She held him by the heel, which meant that all of Achilles was dipped in the magic waters of the river – except for his heel, which remained out of the water. This detail will be important later in the story.
However, there is another version of the myth which tells of how Thetis was in the habit of making her children immortal by covering them in ambrosia during the day (ambrosia being the food of the gods), and then thrusting the hapless children into the fire at night. In other words, they were marinated in divine food for several hours before being put into the oven on Gas Mark 6 at night.
Anyway, Achilles’ father, King Peleus, wasn’t pleased with his son being slowly basted and grilled in this way, so when he saw her shove young Achilles into the fire, he quickly rescued the boy. Achilles’ right ankle bone was badly burned, so Chiron, the wise centaur, made the boy a replacement ankle bone from Damysos, a giant who was renowned for being able to run quickly.
This also meant, of course, that Achilles’ right heel was different from the rest of him, and – as in the other, more famous telling of the myth – vulnerable in that part of his body.
Achilles is most famous for his role in the Trojan War. An oracle had foretold that he would have a long but unremarkable life if he didn’t sail for Troy, but if he did join the fighting his life would be short, but filled with glory and heroism. So he promptly set off for the war.
Once again, though, his parents enter into the story. One version of the myth (told by Apollodorus in his The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World’s Classics)) tells of how Achilles’ parents, reluctant to let their young son sail off to his certain death in battle, hid Achilles among the daughters of Lycomedes, dressed as a young woman.
But Odysseus, known for his cunning, ordered the trumpets to blast, summoning all the men to war. Achilles couldn’t resist responding to this call to arms, and his true identity was thus revealed.
Achilles was known as a great warrior. He was the only one capable of inspiring true fear within the enemy Trojan army. After all, news of his invincibility had spread to the enemy camp. But after many years of fighting, Achilles refused to continue and suddenly withdrew from the fray, because Agamemnon, a great general in the Greek army, had stolen a young girl from him, Briseis, who was one of the ‘spoils’ of war Achilles had won.
This in-fighting among the Greek ranks led to the Greek army being put on the back foot, since without their star player (as it were), they could not win. But nothing, it seems, would convince Achilles to rejoin the fighting.
(By the way, the one thing everyone thinks they know about the Iliad isn’t quite true: namely, that it tells of the war between the Trojans and Greeks. As Richard Jenkyns points out in his book Classical Literature (Pelican Books), they didn’t consider themselves ‘Greek’, which was a later appellation used by the Romans. They called themselves Hellenes, but even this is inaccurate in relation to the Iliad, where Homer calls them Achaeans, Argives, or Danaans – but never Greeks or Hellenes.
What’s more, whilst the Trojan War lasted for ten years, Homer’s Iliad covers only a few weeks in the final stage of the war – and twenty-two of the twenty-four books which make up the poem cover the events of just a few days.)
Things were looking bad for the Greeks (as we’ll continue to call them, for clarity’s sake). One day, Achilles’ close friend Patrocles, whom he loved dearly, persuaded Achilles to lend him his armour, so that Patrocles could go and fight and the Trojans would see the armour and think Achilles had re-entered the conflict. This would fill them with fear and the Greeks would be able to win the war.
But Patrocles was killed in battle, and Achilles was beset with grief and anger: at Agamemnon for bringing about this sorry state of affairs, at himself for letting his friend go and fight in his stead, and at the Trojans for killing his dear friend.
His bitter anger towards Agamemnon may have prevented him from fighting out of spite, but it was nothing compared with his wrath towards the Trojans for killing the man he loved dearly. Indeed, the opening words of Homer’s Iliad reference ‘the wrath of Achilles’, which is, in many ways, the main theme of the poem.
Achilles rode off to avenge Patrocles’ death, killed Hector, the Trojan prince, and turned the tide of the war in the Greeks’ favour. However, Paris – Hector’s brother – managed to kill the seemingly invulnerable Achilles by shooting an arrow into Achilles’ heel, the one vulnerable part of his body. According to some sources, the Greek god Apollo himself guided the arrow.
Achilles myth: analysis
We’ve doubtless all heard the phrase ‘Achilles heel’. It is used to refer to an otherwise strong person’s one weak spot, and references a story from Greek mythology concerning the great hero Achilles. Achilles’ most distinctive characteristic is his invulnerability, coupled with the fact that he has one small spot on his body which is vulnerable. The lesson, it seems, is that everyone has their weakness, capable of bringing them down.
This is born out by Achilles’ inner character: he is a great warrior and a passionate fighter, but his passion is, in many ways, also his ‘Achilles heel’. He lets Agamemnon’s petty slight get the better of him and override his commitment to the main cause: the war itself. Just because Agamemnon stole a girl whom Achilles himself had ‘taken’ from the other side during the conflict!
And then, his love for Patrocles allowed him to grant his friend the use of his armour. This in turn arguably made Patrocles more vulnerable to enemy attack, since every Trojan would see that killing ‘Achilles’ (or who they believed to be Achilles) would help turn the Greek army back, destroying their morale when they saw their great hero fall.
And since Patrocles was not possessed of Achilles’ semi-divine invincibility, he was easy prey. Achilles then curses his own weakness in failing to foresee that this would happen. Self-hatred vies with his hatred of the enemy – and, it is implied, Achilles directs his self-hatred outwards towards the Trojans in order to avenge his friend’s death.
Although the Iliad is, as Homer announces at the beginning of the poem, about ‘the wrath of Achilles’, the Greek hero doesn’t actually die in the Iliad, nor is his heel his one vulnerable spot. (Surprisingly, a number of the most famous incidents from the myth of the Trojan War don’t appear in Homer’s poem: there’s no Trojan Horse either.) Indeed, at one point in the Iliad, Achilles is wounded in the elbow:
Thus did he defy him, and Achilles raised his spear of Pelian ash. Asteropaeus failed with both his spears, for he could use both hands alike; with the one spear he struck Achilles’ shield, but did not pierce it, for the layer of gold, gift of the god, stayed the point; with the other spear he grazed the elbow of Achilles’ right arm drawing dark blood, but the spear itself went by him and fixed itself in the ground, foiled of its bloody banquet.
What’s more, Achilles’ death doesn’t actually occur in Homer’s poem. The whole of the Iliad covers only a few weeks in the final stage of the war – and twenty-two of the twenty-four books which make up the poem cover the events of just a few days. This allows Homer to focus in detail on the individual characters in the war.
But although we learn much about Achilles’ wrath, heroism, strength, and comradeship, we learn nothing about the most famous thing now associated with him, via the idiom of the ‘Achilles heel’. That appears to have been a later invention, by other writers. Still, it is now part of the ‘canon’ of the myth, and as integral to Achilles’ story as anything found in Homer.
There were other epic poems, besides the Iliad, which were written about Achilles. Perhaps the most notable of these was Statius’ unfinished poem the Achilleid which, if completed, would have depicted Achilles’ life, right up to his death at Troy. Unfortunately, only about one and a half books were completed before Statius’ death.
So, the account of Achilles’ death was left up to other ancient Greek poets and mythmongers. But even outside of Homer’s poem, Achilles’ heel wasn’t always depicted as his … well, his Achilles heel. In some depictions of the Greek hero in classical art, he is shown dying from a wound to his torso, rather than his heel.
In one later myth, Achilles fell so in love with Priam’s daughter, Polyxena, that he agreed that he would defect to the Trojan side if Priam would agree to a marriage between Achilles and Polyxena. Priam accepted, but when Achilles turned up at the temple of Apollo Thymbrius to ratify the betrothal in the eyes of the gods, Paris – concealed behind the statue of Apollo – shot Achilles with an arrow.
The story of Achilles is, in the last analysis, about how being a great warrior-hero and a gifted fighter isn’t enough. Indeed, even being invincible isn’t enough. Achilles has both an outward physical weakness – a chink in his armour, if you will – but he also has an inner weakness, which is his tendency towards petulance when others cross him, and his love for Patrocles. He is certainly very good at holding a grudge.
But it’s worth remembering that it is only through allowing Patrocles to go off and fight in his stead that the Greeks were able to win the Trojan War. For it was Patrocles’ death that lured Achilles back to the war, so that he could turn things around for the struggling Greek army. The great war had to be won at the cost of great personal sacrifice.