On Achilles…

So much has been written about Achilles, you can cover pages on it; I will try to confine myself to the basics about him and how I presented him in my novel.

Achilles is the hero of Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad; he is the swiftest, strongest, and the most beautiful of all the Greeks at Troy.  The adjectives beautiful, swift running, great, godlike, blazing and brilliant are all used abundantly in this work when describing him.  He struck a cord with young Greeks in the ancient days and it is said Alexander the Great, who greatly admired him, carried a copy of The Iliad with him on all his campaigns.

Achilles was the son of the mortal Peleus, King of Phthia, and the Sea-goddess Thetis.  While still a baby, Thetis, wishing to make her son immortal, anointed him in ambrosia and laid him into the embers of sacred fires (or, by some accounts, the river Styx) holding  him by his heel, the one spot that remained vulnerable on him.  Peleus, seeing this, took the baby from her, scolding her so severely that she left them and returned to the sea.

In some accounts, Peleus then turns his son over to the Centaur, Cheiron, who gives him his name and trains him in the manly arts and instills courage in him.  When he returns to the court, Peleus places him under the tutelage of the wise man, Phoenix, and makes Patroclus a squire to Achilles; the two become closest of companions and even lovers (in ancient Greece, same-sex intimacy did not necessarily mean same-sex preference).

Another version has Thetis (apparently back in the family), who knew her son was fated to die at Troy, sending him to Lycomedes, king of the island of Scyrus; at her insistence, Lycomedes had Achilles dressed as a girl and raised him among his own daughters, naming him Pyrrha (flaming one) -which leads us to conclude Achilles had red or light hair. While there, he has an affair with one of the king’s daughters, Deidameia, who was to give birth to a son she named Pyrrhus, later changed to Neoptolemus.

When the war is imminent, Odysseus comes to Scyrus to get Achilles (on the counsel of the seer Calchas who said the war could not be won without him).  He uncovered the disguise by placing feminine trinkets and a sword and shield on the porch, and then sounded a distant trumpet as the girls were examining the items.  Achilles tore off his feminine clothes and picked up the armaments; once discovered, he eagerly embraced the invitation to go to Troy.  He assumed command of the Myrmidons and with fifty ships sailed for Troy, accompanied by Phoenix and Patroclus.  Numerous intrigues and adventures occur along the way (landing at the wrong place in Mysia; Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks, sacrificing his daughter, Iphigeneia; Achilles consciously choosing his preference for the glory of an early death to the obscurity of old-age, etc)..

Once at Troy, Agamemnon assigned Achilles to wage battles against Troy’s allied cities, an operation that took nearly nine years; he sacked twelve cities by sea, including several islands, and eleven more by land (we get this through the dialogue of The Iliad).  One of the cities was Lyrnessus, where he killed its ruler and took his beautiful daughter, Briseis, as a concubine.  After completing his mission, Achilles returned to Troy to join in the siege.  It was then that his rift with Agamemnon -where The Iliad begins- occurred.

Agamemnon was forced to give up his own concubine, Chryseis, to save the Greeks from a plague, and took Briseis from Achilles.  The story is now familiar: Achilles, fuming over the loss (he very much loved Briseis), withdraws his Myrmidons from the fighting (actually a power struggle involving leadership/subordinate principles); the Trojans take the offensive under Hector and push the Greeks to the beaches; Patroclus then begs Achilles to assist the Greeks and is permitted to wear his armor; Hector kills him thinking he is Achilles; Achilles rejoins the fighting and kills Hector in single combat and drags his body behind his chariot to the shore, refusing to allow its burial; Priam comes into Achilles’s tent and begs for the body to be ransomed; Achilles relents; Hector is given a hero’s funeral (here the Iliad ends -and Polyxena’s story begins).  I’ve just summed up the world’s greatest war epic in a single paragraph -amazing (there’s a lot more to it).

Shortly after Hector’s funeral, the Amazons under Penthesileia come to Troy’s assistance; Achilles defeats them, kills Penthesileia, and apparently falls in love with her corpse; he kills Thersites for mocking him over this (in my novel, Polyxena is an eye-witness to all this).  Later he is killed by an arrow shot by Paris.  His ashes were mixed with those of Patroclus in a golden urn that was buried in a barrow set up by the beach.  After the fall of Troy, the ghost of Achilles came to the Greeks and demanded the sacrifice of Priam’s daughter, Polyxena, on his tomb.  Later classical writers developed the reason for this:  Achilles had been in love with her; he was slain going to seek her hand in marriage when her brothers, Paris and Deiphobus, ambushed him.

The Iliad Achilles comes across as brooding and introspective, intelligent but stubborn, quick to anger, and quite social when he wants to be.  He turns into a veritable beast when avenging Patroclus’s death, devoid of humanity, but redeems himself when Priam comes to his tent for the body of Hector, regaining his compassion (one interpretation: again joining the human community).

In my novel, Polyxena knows about Achilles long before she ever sees him, the stories about his prowess and background having reached Troy, and also for having slain her brothers and the sorrow this brought to her family.  They do not meet until after he has defeated the Amazons and Polyxena is his captive.  He escorts her back to Troy, honoring the conventions protecting envoys, and this is when romance blossoms between them (covered in an earlier blog).  In the context of the novel, their time together is brief -only three chapters out of twenty-four- yet it has far-reaching consequences, especially for her.

I have tried to stay true to the myths and give Achilles his heroic stature; unlike many authors taking the Trojan side, I do not vilify him, but rather, through Polyxena’s love of him, keep his more admirable qualities intact.  How could it be otherwise?

They are, after all, in love.

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3 Responses to “On Achilles…”

  1. Angelika Devlyn Says:

    Hi there! I love Greek Mythology – nice take on it, and interesting articles. I’m going to spend ages here, I can tell 🙂

    Thanks for popping by to my blog too 🙂

  2. hallenger Says:

    Well thank you, Angelika. Glad to have you here. Be sure to spread the word, because hey…we’re all in this together. 🙂

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