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Category Archives: Trojan War

The Glory and the Tragedy of Achilles

by May 8, 2013

The hero of The Iliad, Achilles is the central character and fiercest warrior in Homer’s epic. He is portrayed as being hot-headed, ferocious, and often filled with grief. Achilles as the mournful warrior is a theme that Homer recounts several times during the course of The Iliad. Combining the nature of a grieving Achilles with his supposed immorality and unrelenting rage on the battlefield makes for a complex and deeply human Greek hero.

But where did this larger than life character come from?

Achilles' mother Thetis

Achilles’ mother Thetis, with Zeus

Achilles was supposedly the son of the water goddess, Thetis, and the mortal king Peleus. Achilles’ mother is a recurring character in The Iliad and she attempts to aid her son in numerous ways. While Homer makes no reference to Achilles as an immortal; other variants of the stories, written by the Roman poet Statius, describe how Thetis held her infant son by the heel and dipped him in the river Styx to grant him everlasting life.

As a young man Achilles was reared by the centaur Chiron, who was said to be kind, wise, and knowledgeable in the ways of medicine. While a disciple of Chiron, Achilles fed on the innards of lions and wild swines. In The Imagines, a work written by the Greek poet Philostratus of Athens, Chiron is said to have told the young Achilles:

“For although you have been taught by me thus gently the art of horsemanship, and are suited to such a horse as I, some day you shall ride on Xanthus and Balius; and you shall take many cities and slay many men.”

Xanthus and Balius were the names of the two horses that would drive Achilles’ chariot into battle. This prediction by Achilles’ teacher would be fulfilled within the pages of The Iliad.

Briseis before Agamemnon

Briseis before Agamemnon

At the onset of Homer’s epic, we learn of the wrath of Achilles as he retreats from battle, insulted by Agamemnon, commander of the Achaean forces. Agamemnon has taken the woman Briseis, whom Achilles views as his rightful trophy of war, a battle conquest. (It is later revealed that Achilles actually loves Briseis, and is distraught to see her taken from him.)

Of course this sting from Agamemnon makes Achilles enraged and filled with wrath, which is the perpetual theme in the story. Achilles demonstrates his anger as he withdraws from the campaign, even as the Achaean forces lose hundreds of lives at the hands of the Trojan army and their hero, Hector.

Then Achilles’ mother, Thetis, decides to help in an usual manner. She convinces Zeus to favor the Trojans, and indeed, the tides of war shift against the forces of Agamemnon. Agamemnon soon learns that his losses are caused by dishonoring Achilles, and therefore sends Odysseus to convince the great soldier to return to battle.

At this point Achilles has become reflective, caught up in his own grief. He seems torn between attaining glory on the battlefield or living a long life in the land of his fathers. As Odysseus tries to persuade him, Achilles states:

“For my mother the goddess, silver-footed Thetis, tells me that twofold fates are bearing me toward the doom of death: if I abide here and play my part in the siege of Troy, then lost is my home-return, but my renown shall be imperishable; but if I return home to my dear native land, lost then is my glorious renown, yet shall my life long endure, neither shall the doom of death come soon upon me.”

Achilles is determined to leave Troy and return home, and attempts to convince his troops to depart with him. While he is caught in a state of uncertainty, Hector and the Trojan army have pushed the Achaean forces to the beaches and have threaten to destroy them entirely.

Achiles and Patroclus

Achiles and Patroclus

Facing complete annihilation, it is Achilles’ closest companion, Patroclus, who leads the Achaean forces against the Trojans… all while wearing Achilles’ armor. Achilles, himself, remains in camp while Patroclus fights valiantly, killing many Trojans while under the guise of his great, god-like friend. However Patroclus is unable to lead a successful siege against Troy. He is killed in battle by Hector, who is aided by the god Apollo.

Achilles is thrown into a state of deep mourning for his lost companion, whom he loved more than any other. Achilles laments the death of Patroclus when he states:

“I sat by the ships, a useless burden, though there are better in Assembly, so may this strife of men and gods be done with.”

Achilles’ mother, Thetis, comes to comfort her son. She convinces the god Hephaestus to craft a new shield and set of armor for her son. Achilles, now filled with rage and revenge, returns to battle to seek the death of Hector.

The wrath of Achilles is unable to be contained. He slaughters many Trojans in pursuit of his determined enemy, Hector. Achilles even fights the river god Scamander, who has become angered by the number of bodies that are choking his river. With the help of the gods Hera and Hephaestus, Achilles defeats the river deity and continues his pursuit of the Trojan prince.

The combat between Achilles and Hector has been retold in innumerable ways. The Iliad says that Achilles confronts Hector while in battle outside the walls of Troy. Hector turns and runs from the enraged warrior and circles the walls of Troy three times with Achilles in pursuit. Then the goddess Athena takes the form of Hector’s brother, Deiphobus, and convinces Hector to turn and face Achilles.

Hector swings to challenge the charging Achilles. The prince of Troy realizes that he has been tricked and that the wrath of Achilles cannot be quelled. Hector lunges at his opponent with his sword, but is quickly killed at the hands of Achilles.

Achilles with Hector's body

Achilles with Hector’s body

As Hector dies, Achilles recounts his hatred for the Trojan. He declares, “my rage, my fury would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw – such agonies you have caused me”.

Achilles further demonstrates his enmity for Hector by tying his body to the back of his chariot and dragging it around the walls of Troy.

It is not until Priam, Hector’s father, pleads with Achilles, that Hector is given funeral rites. The Iliad ends with the funeral of Hector; the downfall of Troy is soon to come.

—-

“The Glory and the Tragedy of Achilles” was written by Van Bryan

The Story before the Story of the Iliad

by March 8, 2013

A good story grows like a tree, upwards, seeking the sun and light. Its heavy branches, though substantial on their own, become stronger and more intriguing as plots and characters entangle. Additionally, deep below the bark and greeney, a parallel network of criss crossing roots holds up the story for all to see. The grander the legend, the larger and more intricate its backstory.

A tale on the scale of The Iliad, therefore, has an astounding myth to proceed it.

To know the roots of Homer’s epic poetry, one must dig very deep into Greek mythology… all the way to the first king of Gods and the ruler of Titans, Cronus. Despite his many attempts to prevent it, Cronus was eventually overthrown by his son, Zeus. In the process, Zeus was warned that one day he too would be replaced, just like his father.

At the same time another prophecy emerged, suggesting that the son of Thetis, a sea-nymph with whom Zeus was enamored, would become greater than his father. Zeus, therefore, ordered that Thetis should be betrothed to an elderly human king, Peleus son of Aiakos.

Judgement of Paris

The judgement of Paris

And so there was a wedding, attended by all the glorious gods and goddesses, except one. Eris, the goddess of Discord was not allowed in, for fear she would cause her usual irreparable damage. Her discordance, however, was not to be limited by a gate. Upon her dismissal, she threw a golden apple into the festivities. On it was inscribed the following: καλλίστῃ, meaning “To the fairest”.

Naturally three gorgeous goddesses claimed ownership. Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all assumed that they were the most beautiful. The other gods and men, however, smartly chose to remove themselves from the decision making process, including Zeus himself. No one wanted to incur the wrath of the other two. Instead the unenviable task was placed on the shoulders of one Trojan prince, a man named Paris. The poor fellow was unable to make a decision and so the goddesses, keen on winning, resorted to offering bribes.

Wisdom and great skill in battle were Athena’s promised rewards.

Hera tried to lure Paris with power and control over all of Asia.

Aphrodite, however, used the best bait of all: The most beautiful woman in the world would be in love with Paris if he nominated the goddess as owner of the golden apple.

Paris accepted.

Meanwhile, the wedded sea-nymph Thetis and her elderly husband bore a child by the name of Achilles. The young boy was given an intriguing destiny. He had the choice to live a long and uneventful life or to die young in glory and live forever in poetry. Achilles would chose the latter.

Thetis wanted her son Achilles to be immortal and invisible and, depending on the version, used different techniques to make this so. One source claimed that she lifted the child by the foot and immersed him in a river which ran to the underworld. Wherever the water touched him, Achilles was made invulnerable, everywhere except where his mother held him… his infamous heel.

While Achilles was growing into a hero-worthy man, Paris was eagerly awaiting his award for crowning Aphrodite the fairest of them all.

The reader may be wondering, who was the magnificent creature that the goddess of beauty promised to the Trojan prince? It was none other than Helen, whose face would eventually launch a thousand ships. Helen was the daughter of Tyndareus, King of Sparta and a woman named Leda, who had either been raped or seduced by Zeus when he was in the form of a swan.

Helen, in her radiance, had many suitors, and her father could not decide which one was best… plus those who who were not chosen might retaliate against him.  Eventually one quick witted man came to his rescue, the famous Odysseus. In exchange for support of his own marriage, he offered the following advice: Require all of Helen’s suitors to promise to defend her marriage, regardless who the father chose. The suitors eventually, and with a certain amount of grumbling, swore the required oath.

Finally a man was decided for Helen: Menelaus. The decision was political, as Menelaus had wealth and power and was Agamemnon’s brother. Unfortunately for all, Menelaus then made a huge mistake. He had promised Aphrodite a grand sacrifice of a 100 oxen if he won Helen, a promise promptly forgot after he received his prize. Thus he incurred Aphrodite’s wrath.

Paris, however, did not forget Aphrodite, nor their agreement. He set sail for Greece under the pretense of a diplomatic mission in order to claim Helen. Before entering the palace, the goddess of beauty held up her end and ordered Eros to shoot Helen with his arrow. The moment she set her gaze on Paris, Helen was in love.

Paris didn’t think this kidnapping was really such a big deal. There were plenty of men before him who had stolen women from foreign lands without repercussion. Jason, for instance, took Medea from Colchis, and Heracles captured the Trojan princess Hesione without any issues.

This time, however, was going to be very different.

According to Homer, it didn’t go straight to war. Menelaus first journeyed to Troy to seek a more peaceful solution. When that didn’t work, Menelaus asked Agamemnon to uphold the oath that the Achaean kings and princes had sworn, to defend Helen’s marriage. Emissaries were sent to them all, to gather them in order to retrieve Helen.

Not all of them came willingly.

Odysseus, for instance, feigned madness in order to avoid the war. He tried to sow his fields with salt as proof, but Agamemnon’s man tricked him into revealing his sanity. He placed Odysseus’ infant son in front of the plough’s path, and the father could not fake delusion any more. He turned aside to save his child.

The story before the Iliad

Achilles discovered by Ulysses – by Bray

Achilles, too did not readily join forces. His mother disguised him as a woman so he would not have to go to battle. When Odysseus, Telamonian Ajax, and Achilles’ tutor Phoenix came to fetch him from the island of Skyros, they could not immediately recognise him. Fortunately, they had a plan. The men pretended to be merchants bearing trinkets and weapons. They were then able to spot Achilles out the second he chose to look at the swords and spears rather than bracelets and beads.

The Achean army was almost ready. All of the suitors sent their forces to the city of Aulis, and one by one the commanders with their ships and men arrived. The last one to show up was Achilles, who was at the time only 15 years old.

An omen then occurred. A snake slithered from a sacrificial altar to a sparrow’s nest nearby. It ate the mother and her nine babies and was then converted into stone. Troy, apparently, would fall in the tenth year of war.

And just like that, with the twisting roots embedded, the bud of the story was ready to break through the soil and bloom.