What did Achilles do in the Trojan War and how important was he in Greek culture?
The heroes of the Trojan War continue to fascinate audiences. Perhaps the most famous of all the Greek heroes who fought in the 10-year siege of Troy is Achilles. His adventures in the work of Homer and other works are among the most memorable in all of Graeco-Roman mythology. The young warrior who was invincible in battle, because of his swiftness and lived only for glory was the ideal Greek heroic and a cultural icon, who inspired conquerors, statesmen, poets, and artists. The myths of Achilles need to be understood, as they offer a unique window into the Greek World and mindset.
Origin of Achilles
Linear B tablets found at Mycenaean sites in Greece bear inscriptions with a name similar to Achilles. It appears that the name is very old. There is no evidence that Achilles was a Mycenaean hero or god. Some argue that the legendary hero was once a water spirit or god. Achilles was probably transformed into a hero during the Greek Dark Ages. By the time Homer (if he existed) compiled his two great epics, Achilles was a glory-seeking invincible warrior. The Homeric epics played a crucial role in the development of the mythology around Achilles. However, the myths were expanded upon by later poets, some of these in epics, part of the Trojan Cycle have been lost. A 4th century BC poem the Posthomerica also added new elements to the story of Achilles.
The life of the great hero
Achilles was the son of the beautiful nymph Thetis. She was so beautiful that she won the admiration of Zeus and his brother Poseidon. However, when it was, prophesized that the son of the nymph would be greater than his father, the two Gods backed off, not wanting to be usurped . The gods avoided the nymph after this, and she ended up marrying a mortal; King Peleus of the Myrmidons. According to one source, his mother to make him invincible and immortal dipped him into the River Styx. However, the place where she held him, his ankle was not dipped into the waters and was therefore vulnerable. However, this story comes from a much later source. Achilles was raised by the centaur Chiron and also attended a school for heroes. Homer states that he grew up in Pythia and here he met Patroclus, his life-long companion. Thetis had the gift of second sight, and she predicted that her son would either young but gloriously or else live to old age. Achilles’ parents hid him on the island of Skyros. Just before the Greeks were heading off to Troy, a prophecy by Calchas told them that they would not take the city without the help of the young Achilles. However, the King of Skyros did not want Achilles to go, disguised the youth as a girl so that the Achaeans would not find him. Odysseus, while visiting the court at Skyros had a trumpet blasted and immediately Achilles rushed to get a sword, showing his martial spirit. The wily Greek then recognized the young hero and persuaded him to join the expedition to Troy.
Achilles at Troy
Achilles soon became a crucial part in the Achaean army during the siege of Troy, which was an effort to retrieve Helen of Troy. The young hero became one of the expedition’s most feared fighters. Such was his prestige that on one occasion he persuaded the Greeks to stay and continue the siege after a defeat. In the Iliad, he is shown as the favorite of the Goddess Artemis. Homer portrays him as being quick to anger and at times lacking in self-control and this was to have tragic consequences. However, despite this Agamemnon angered Achilles, when he demanded that the Myrmidon hand over to him a slave girl. The son of Thetis reluctantly agreed, felt shamed and refused, to take any further part in the war and this his anger, leads to a catalogue of deaths and disasters. In the words of Homer ‘Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans’ . Odysseus and his old tutor Phoenix gave him gifts to stay. Ajax told Achilles that he was turning his back on his old comrade-in-arms. The proud hero rejected them all and wanted to go home. Patroclus his best friend stayed, and Achilles gave him his armor. He was to be Achilles replacement in the battles with the Trojans. In a duel with the great Trojan hero, he was killed. This devastated Achilles and he vowed revenge and one more he re-joined the war against the Trojans. By this stage, the Greeks are beginning the lose the war, because Achilles has refused to fight. In Homer the hero is shown as a man possessed and consumed by his anger and is likened to a raging river or a lion . Achilles once more put on armor and seeks out Hector, the son of the King of Troy and he is almost insane with anger. He manages to kill the great Trojan hero with an ash spear, just before the gates of the city. Then he dishonors the body of Hector and for nine days he drags it around the city walls. However, the corpse of the Trojan was miraculously preserved by the Gods. Then King Priam appealed in person to Achilles to release the body of his son. Achilles relents at last and gives the Trojan king, the corpse which is taken into the city and given the appropriate funeral rites. Homer describes the hero crying and even recognizing that his anger has led to so many needless deaths . The return of the corpse of Hector is the end of the Homeric account of Achilles. However, later sources state that Achilles continued to fight at the siege of Troy. The Aethiopis a lost epic, known only in fragments tells us that the Amazons joined the Trojans, after the death of Hector. The Queen of the Amazons, Penthesilea and Achilles are attracted to each other. But they are enemies and must fight each other. The Greek hero fights the Queen, but at first, does not try too hard as he appears dazzled by her beauty. However, he does slay her, and he grieves for her, deeply. After the death of Patroclus, Achilles forms an intense friendship with Antilochus, the son of King Nestor. Memnon, the King of Ethiopia and son of the Goddess Eos, join the Trojans. This great African hero makes an immediate impact and causes panic in the ranks of the Achaeans. During this he kills Antilochus and this enrages Achilles. In scenes reminiscent of the earlier duel with Hector, Achilles and Memnon fight a duel, which ended in the death of the African.
The Death of the hero and its aftermath
In the Iliad, the dying Hector just before he dies, predicted the death of Achilles. He told his killer that he would be killed by an arrow fired by Paris, the man who had kidnapped Helen of Troy. According to the oldest variant of the death of Achilles, he was scaling the gates of Troy when Paris shot an arrow at him, that hit his heel. This was his most vulnerable part and the hero died of his wound, and from this, we get the term ‘Achilles Heel’ . He was buried with great pomp on the Hellespont and a daughter of the King of Troy was sacrificed at his funeral. All the Greek leaders wanted the famed armor of Achilles. A competition was staged to determine who was worthy of it. Odysseus and Ajax made speeches to their Trojan prisoners and they were asked to decide which one was the bravest. They found in favor of Odysseus and this drove Ajax, mad and he committed suicide. Achilles makes one final appearance in Homers, the Odyssey, in some ways a sequel to the Iliad. While visiting Hades, or the realm of the dead, Odysseus meets the great warrior. The dead hero laments his fate and remarks with a great poignancy that he would rather be a living slave than dead . This is often seen as a rejection of the heroic ethos that stressed glory at all costs. However, there is another tradition that has Achilles spending the afterlife in the Island of the Blessed, a kind of Ancient Greek paradise.
The importance of the myth of Achilles
The Greeks are often portrayed as rationalists but myths were crucially important in society and they believed the figure portrayed in Homer to be a historical figure. A cult arose around the dead hero. He was seen as a semi-divine figure who could grant the wishes of the living or aid them in their struggles. Many of the heroes of the Iliad had cults around Greece. The cults of Achilles were all associated with areas which it was claimed that he had a connection with. One of the main cults was that at Troad, now in north-western Turkey. Among the other sites associated with the son of Thetis is one in Thessaly. Greek colonists in the Black Sea, established shrines to Achilles, perhaps to seek his protection from nomads from the Eurasian Steppes. Cult-sites dedicated to him have been found on the coast of Turkey and an island off the coast of Ukraine. Many votive offerings and ceremonies in honor of the son of Peleus are known to have taken place at these sites for centuries. The city of Olbia in what is now Romania had a cult centre that attracted people from all over the Black Sea region.
Achilles and culture
The great Greek dramatists and poets often depicted Achilles and his life in their works. He is a central character in works by Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Sadly, many of these works are now lost. He was revered by many of the greatest figures in Greek history. He was the embodiment of the great warrior and in many ways was the ideal man. Achilles had all the characteristics that the Hellenes admired . The myth of Achilles inspired among others the Athenian general-statesman Alcibiades and Alexander the Great. Thetis son along with the other aristocrats and kings in the Homeric epics was crucial in the development of the elite’s code of honor. Aristocrats were expected to win time or honor and to display arete or excellence, just like the characters in Homer. It is widely believed that aristocrats who disliked the democracies that emerged in Greece from the 5th century BC, were inspired by Achilles. However, for many Greeks, Achilles was a warning about the dangers of a lack of self-control and unrestrained anger. Romans had an ambivalent attitude to the son of Thetis. He was the enemy of the Trojans whom they believed were their ancestors. Every few years there is a movie, tv-series or book based on the characters of the Trojan war and Achilles have been portrayed many times in contemporary popular culture. Even after almost three millennia, the son of Thetis and King Peleus continues to fascinate people. The hero as portrayed in Homer is regarded as being an influence on the development of later heroes in literature, and possibly even modern super-heroes.
Achilles was to the Greek’s the embodiment of the heroic ideal. He represented the virtues that they most admired. But he also represented to them the price of glory that was violence and early death. The warrior who slew Hector was central to the mythology of the Trojan War. A cult grew up around this legendary hero and this demonstrates how influential myths were in the Classical World. Achilles was critical in the culture of the Ancient World, he was important in the development of the ethos of the aristocracy of the Greek world and many famous figures, modelled their conduct on the warrior.
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