The climactic moment in Homer's Iliad when a dying Achilles' head bursts into flame

Magic Armor Can’t Save the Tragic Heroes: Duty & Doom for Karna, Ferdiad & Achilles

(Read the article on one page)

It is no longer a secret that there are historical connections between the myths from everywhere in the world, indicating that every culture had strong influences on each other and their legends. A minor example of this can be seen in something as simple as a body armor - Ancient India’s Karna's kawach (“armor”) has been compared with that of Ancient Greek’s Achilles’ Styx-coated body and with Ancient Irish warrior Ferdiad’s horny skin that could not be pierced.

Back in the eight and the ninth centuries BCE, Greece and India had established universities where a variety of subjects were taught and learned, including literature and rhetoric. Greece and India are also homes to the two greatest surviving epics - the Iliad and the Mahabharata. Another epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge (commonly known as “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”), a legendary tale from early Irish literature, followed some centuries after as it may have been put to writing in the eighth century CE. However, it had a considerable oral history before any of it was committed to writing.

Cú Chulainn is the central character of the Ulster (Ulaid) cycle in the in medieval Irish mythology and literature.

Cú Chulainn is the central character of the Ulster (Ulaid) cycle in the in medieval Irish mythology and literature. ( Public Domain )

A surviving example is the poem Conailla Medb michuru ("Medb enjoined illegal contracts") by Luccreth moccu Chiara, and dated around 600 CE, tells the story of Fergus' exile with Ailill and Medb (the poet describes this event as sen-eolas ("old knowledge"). Two seventh-century poems also allude to elements of the story) in Verba Scáthaige ("Words of Scáthach"), Scáthach prophesies Cú Chulainn's combats, and Ro-mbáe laithi rordu rind ("We had a great day of plying spear-points") refers to Cú Chulainn’s boyhood incident that formed a section of the epic.

The Tragic Heroes Suffer

However, it was the three tragic figures who seemed to highlight the similarities of these epics. In Poetics, Aristotle defines a tragic hero as “a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” Aristotle further describes a tragic hero as a man who suffers more than what he deserves as, from the beginning of the story, he is doomed without being the one responsible for the flaw he possesses. The nature of the tragic hero is noble but, at the same time, imperfect—allowing the audience to sympathize with him, perhaps even more so than the main character of the story.

Karna from Mahabharata, Achilles from Iliad, and Ferdiad from Táin Bó Cúailnge aptly fit Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero. By the standards of their individual cultures, the three heroes are somewhat marginalized from society and definitely suffered much more than what they deserved. None of them is the main character of their epics. However, through their individual stories, they also arouse fear and empathy in their audience while they learn from their experiences, making them become most humane characters in their stories.

The Great Wars in the Illiad, Mahabharata and Táin Bó Cúailnge

The three epics were separated by centuries and great distances. However, their story is the same: a great war and the emergence of a new age. The Mahabharata is the story of the great battle that was fought on the field of Kurukshetra between the five sons of King Pandu and their allies on the one side and the hundred sons of King Dhritarashtra with their allies on the other side. The battle involved virtually every tribal king and every powerful city-state in Central and Northern India at the time and was the culmination of a long history of struggle and diplomatic maneuvering.

The Cirebon glass painting of Bharatayudha battle in Wayang style. Kurawa on the left and Pandava on the right. On the left Karna rides the chariot with Salya as the driver, while on the right Arjuna rides the chariot with Kresna as the driver.

The Cirebon glass painting of Bharatayudha battle in Wayang style. Kurawa on the left and Pandava on the right. On the left Karna rides the chariot with Salya as the driver, while on the right Arjuna rides the chariot with Kresna as the driver. (Gunawan Kartapranata/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Iliad is set in the Mycenaean Greece in about the twelfth century BCE, portraying the epic battle between the Trojans and the Greeks in which the city of Troy crumbled into dust.


Like this Preview and want to read on? You can! JOIN US THERE  with easy, instant access  ) and see what you’re missing!! All Premium articles are available in full, with immediate access.

For the price of a cup of coffee, you get this and all the other great benefits at Ancient Origins Premium. And - each time you support AO Premium, you support independent thought and writing.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Human Origins

Cult scene: the worship of the sun-god, Shamash. Limestone cylinder-seal, Mesopotamia.
In a recent article on Ancient Origins, Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer discussed the possibility that Zecharia Sitchin mistranslated several Sumerian Texts. According to Sitchin, there were a number of Sumerian seals that relate to the Anunnaki, whom he said came from the heavens to create man and enslave mankind to work in the mines.

Ancient Technology

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article