Achilles: The Greatest Hero of Greek Mythology?
“Sing Goddess, the rage of Achilles” is the very first line of The Iliad , Homer’s epic poem, as he introduces its main hero. The Greek hero Achilles was believed to have been the strongest, bravest, and even the most handsome in the army of Agamemnon. However, Achilles was just one in the pantheon of heroes that reside within Greek myths. With heroes such as Heracles, Theseus, and many more to be compared to, where would Achilles stand among his peers? In this article, we will explore the life of Achilles and determine if he truly deserves the title of greatest hero.
Odysseus Recognizes Achilles Amongst the Daughters of Lycomedes, by Louis Gauffier. ( Public domain )
The Birth of Achilles and the Prophecy of his Death
Achilles was the son of King Peleus, the mortal king of the Myrmidons, and Thetis, goddess of the sea or a sea nymph. Peleus may have been mortal, but he had divine roots being the grandson of Zeus, the king of the gods. Thus, Achilles was the great-grandson of Zeus and divine from his mother’s side. However, his lineage was unable to deter what destiny had planned for the young prince.
The Moirai or Fates predicted that Achilles would meet his death on the field of battle outside the gates of Troy. Alarmed by the prophecy, Thetis tried to ensure that no harm would come to her son by attempting to make him invulnerable. There are two versions of this story. The first and lesser known version is that Thetis would place Achilles on top of fiery embers at night and then in the morning she would anoint his body with ambrosia. She continued this practice but Peleus fearing that his son would burn to death, put an end to the whole ritual before the transformation could be completed, leaving the young Achilles mortal.
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The second version claims that Thetis took her son to the River Styx and holding him by his heels, dunked the boy into the hellish river. Dipping him into the water ensured that his body would be invulnerable, the only chink in his armor was the heel by which he was held. That remained his only weakness. A mother’s love for her child is immeasurable because they are willing to do anything necessary to ensure their offspring’s survival.
Here there is a comparison with Norse mythology. Balder, the most beloved of the Norse gods, was also destined to die. To prevent this his mother, Frigg, knowing that every creature loved her son, demanded that everyone promise never to hurt Balder. Even objects, plants, and diseases pledged not to hurt the beloved prince.
Just like Thetis, Frigg had tried to ensure her son’s well-being, but she had forgotten to get the promise from mistletoe, a harmful plant. Just like Achilles, this weakness would be the undoing of Balder. Loki tricked a blind god into impaling Balder with a mistletoe dart, which ultimately killed Balder. In a way, the story shows that one cannot escape destiny.
Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx, by Peter Paul Rubens. ( Public domain )
The Budding Hero: Comparing Achilles with Theseus
In his early years, Achilles was taught by Chiron, the centaur and tutor of all would-be heroes. Chiron was quite a renaissance man - he was learned in many arts and disciplines and was also known as being as a prodigious healer. The list of his disciples included Jason, the twins Castor and Pollux, and even Asclepius. Under Chiron’s wing, Achilles would have learned all the skills he would need to be a brave and wise warrior. Achilles also received the tutelage of Phoenix, who would later accompany him to Troy.
However, later mythographers attest that Peleus learned of the fate of his son when Achilles was older. He tried to defy fate and sent Achilles to the court of Lycomedes in Scyros. There, the young man was dressed as a girl and resided with the king’s daughters. King Lycomedes's daughter, Deidamia, was impregnated by Achilles and gave birth to his son, Neoptolemus. Achilles' son would also go on to participate in the Trojan war .
As a budding hero, Achilles lived in comfort at the court of Lycomedes. Other contenders for the mantle of “greatest hero” didn’t have it so good. Years earlier, when Theseus had reached manhood, his mother, Aethra, sent him on a journey to Athens. On the way, he encountered enemies, whom he had to defeat to reach his destination. At Corinth, he slew Sinis, also known as the pine bender, because he killed his victims by crushing them between two pine trees. Theseus later went on to kill the Crommyonian boar and then threw the wicked Scrion (known for drowning his victims when they stopped to wash their feet) from a cliff.
Moving on, Theseus encountered Procrutes. In ancient Greek legends the deeds of Procrutes were just as wicked as those that came before, and said to have had an iron bed on which he would force his victims to lie. When a person was too big he would chop off their legs and leave them to bleed to death. If they were too small, he would tie their arms and legs and stretch them until they were dead. By the time Theseus had arrived at Athens, he had dispatched many villains. Later, he even accepted the task of slaying the minotaur. The similar beast-defeating 12 labors of Heracles are well known, and coming up.
Achilles on the other hand was known to be a great fighter but had very little experience fighting with monsters or villains. And his parents, although trying to protect the young prince, did ultimately encourage him to hide, which he did. Perhaps, Achilles lacked the same bravado that Theseus had, but when needed he rose to the occasion and made a name for himself at Troy.
Hercules defeats King Geryon. ( Public domain )
Contrasting the Sacrifice of Achilles with That of Heracles
As Achilles got used to living as a girl within the court of Lycomedes, Menelaus had to deal with the fact that Paris of Troy had run away with his wife, Helen. With the help of his brother, Agamemnon, an enraged Menelaus set about amassing a Greek army to wage war on Troy. Many notable Greek leaders rushed to join the cause. All except two - Odysseus and Achilles. The brothers first convinced Odysseus, who in turn helped find Achilles to ask him to join their cause.
Odysseus disguised himself as a peddler, who brought with him many fine trinkets and even excellent weapons. Of all the maidens, only Achilles was interested in the weapons, because although he may have been dressed as a woman, he could not hide his true nature. The shrewd Odysseus quickly recognized Achilles and thus recruited the young hero. They both may have tried to avoid the war, but their efforts were in vain. As Plato says, “No one can escape his destiny.”
Odysseus could have spared Achilles from joining the war, simply by saying that he couldn’t find him. But a soothsayer named Calchas had told Menelaus that without Achilles they would not be able to capture Troy. He therefore chose to recruit the young man, hoping to return home quicker after the battle was won.
While it is true that Achilles had to leave his young son and love, and the fact that he would die in Troy loomed over his head, if we compare his sacrifice with that of Heracles, it starts to pale in comparison. Heracles was a demi-god, the son of Zeus and a mortal, thus even before he was born he had made an enemy of Hera, who would make his life a living nightmare. Hera even tried to prevent Heracles from being born.
Throughout his life, he was constantly under attack, but the worst attack came when he was a young adult. Hera cast a spell that made Heracles temporarily insane, which led him to murder his beloved wife and children. Even though he had been cruelly cursed into doing this deed, he wanted to be punished, so he sought Apollo’s help.
Apollo knew that Heracles was not at fault, being aware of Hera’s vendetta against the young man. Still, Apollo ordered Heracles to perform 12 “heroic labors” for Eurystheus, the King of Mycenae. Once completed, his guilt would be absolved and he would also be granted immortality. Unlike Achilles, Heracles was tested from the beginning and had to suffer greatly to earn his place among the gods.
Achilles kills Hector. (Léonce Legendre / CC0)
Achilles, Hector and the Trojan War
Before the Greeks launched their attack, an envoy went to Troy to try and resolve the conflict peacefully. These negotiations broke down and the Greeks prepared to embark on their quest. It was during their preparation that Achilles first got into conflict with Agamemnon, who had used the young warrior’s name to lure his own daughter to camp. Here the innocent girl was sacrificed to appease Athena.
Achilles’ main concern was creating his legacy. Knowing that he was fated to die at Troy, he still accompanied the Greeks, and once they reached the shore, Achilles was an unstoppable force who killed many of Troy’s greatest warriors. But despite the Greeks’ best efforts, years continued to pass without any end in sight. Achilles ravaged the cities around Troy, capturing no less than twelve of them.
In the tenth year, however, trouble struck the Greek camp when Achilles got into an argument with Agamemnon. The argument was over a young Trojan woman, Chryseis, whom Agamemnon had taken as a concubine. Achilles wanted the king to return Chryseis to her father, who was a priest of Apollo. Unfortunately, Agamemnon didn’t listen and only mocked the young hero. In turn, an enraged Apollo punished the Greek army by sending a plague. To appease Apollo’s wrath, Agamemnon agreed to return his concubine, only if Achilles would relinquish his Trojan Princess, Breseis, to him instead.
Achilles did as was required, but afterwards he refused to participate any further in the war, taking refuge in his tent. Without Achilles, the Greeks began suffering losses. Achilles refused to fight, but his friend Patroclus was able to reach a compromise. He would wear Achilles armor on the battlefield, to scare the Trojans. This scheme ultimately ended with the death of Patroclus at the hands of Hector.
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Angered by the loss, Achilles swore revenge. Thetis asked Hephaestus, the divine blacksmith, to make a sword and shield for her son to use. Achilles mother was doing her best to ensure the survival of her son. Fueled by rage, Achilles took down anyone that got in his way while he was chasing Hector. Finally, when they reached the gates of Troy, Hector tried to reason with the young hero, but his cries fell on deaf ears. Achilles plunged a dagger into Hector’s throat ending the warrior’s life.
Instead of allowing the Trojans to take Hector’s body for burial, Achilles dragged it behind his chariot to the Achaean camp where he proceeded to dump it in a garbage heap. However, in the end, he did allow Hector’s body to be returned to his father for a proper burial. Later, he marched on Troy once more, still fueled by the flames of revenge. Unfortunately, this time the arrow shot by Paris was guided by Apollo, hitting Achilles heel, his one weak area. Achilles died on the spot, but remained undefeated in battle.
The Death of Achilles by Peter Paul Rubens. ( Public domain )
Achilles and his Destined Demise
In the eleventh book of Homer’s Odyssey, we hear the exchange of Odysseus with the spirit of Achilles. And while Odysseus honors the fallen hero with titles such as the greatest warrior, Achilles' words are filled with regret. As he says:
“Glorious Odysseus: don’t try to reconcile me to my dying. I’d rather serve as another man’s laborer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth than be lord of all the lifeless dead.”
He asks about his son and father, wishing to be by their side. The regret that he has from dying in battle is clear, he tells Odysseus about the joys of life. The only news that consoles him is when he learns of his son’s greatness in the Battle of Troy. Homer further writes:
“The spirit of Achilles, Aeacus’ grandson, went away with great strides through the field of asphodel, rejoicing at my news of his son’s greatness.”
Achilles may have been a hero, but Homer shows that he was also a man, who longed for a simple and long life, where he could have seen his son grow and tend to his father in old age. Often, we don’t see the human side of the heroes, but here Achilles regrets dying in battle. What good is an illustrious title when he isn’t around to enjoy the beauty of life?
Achilles was undoubtedly a brilliant fighter, but his life seems to have been very protected. During his heroic phase of life, his stubborn nature cost his friend his life. A hero is responsible for the lives of all those who depend upon him, especially in battle. Achilles died undefeated in battle, but his drive for revenge was his ultimate undoing. “Hard times don’t create heroes,” said Bob Riley. “It is during the hard times when the hero within us is revealed.”
After comparing the life and legacy of Achilles with other heroes from ancient Greek mythology , the title of “Greatest Hero” may belong to another. Heracles would be the most likely candidate. But, if we look outside the borders of ancient Greece, the possibilities are greatly expanded.
Top image: Representational image of Achilles. Source: Warpedgalerie / Adobe Stock
By Khadija Tauseef