Achilles in Greek Mythology – Story and Facts

Achilles in Greek Mythology

Achilles was a hero of Greek mythology depicted in an Iliad by Homer. Achilles is also the main character in this war epic. The greatest feat attributed to him was his heroism in the Trojan War.

Life of Achilles

Largely considered a demigod, Achilles was the son of Peleus, a mortal man, and Thetis a Nereid (sea nymph). Peleus was the King of the Myrmidon people of Thessaly.

Greek god Zeus, the highest of the gods, and Poseidon (the god of the sea) had both been vying for the hand of Thetis in marriage.  This rivalry went on until finally, fore-thinker Prometheus stepped in to warn them about a prophecy decreed by divine law.  In this prophecy, the god had proclaimed that Thetis was to give birth to a male child who will be mightier than his birth father.

On hearing this, both Zeus  probably because they could not see any son of theirs growing to become mightier than either of them, they let go of their amorous intentions and allowed her to marry Peleus.

There is another version of the story that tells of how Thetis resisted Zeus because she knew of Zeus’s marriage to his sister Hera.

She had resisted him out of loyalty to the goddess Hera because Hera had brought her up.  Her reticence so angered Zeus that he pronounced a decree that Thesis, even though she was immortal was not permitted to marry an immortal.

As legend has it, King Peleus handed the little boy, Achilles over to Chiron who was half man, half beast (i.e a Centaur) on Mountain Pelion to bring up. Chiron was charged with keeping Achilles away away from Thetis. This was because he had caught her in a secret hideout trying to burn mortality out of Achilles to make him immortal. This was Thetis’  usual practice with all her children.

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Achilles’ future was foretold by Thetis when she prophesied concerning two paths that had been chartered for his life. He would either achieve glory and die at a young age or have an ordinary existence, devoid of great achievements but live a long life.  The young man chose glory over safety.

According to several post-Homeric sources, in a desperate bid to prevent Achilles from fighting in the war, his mother or as some conflicting versions assert, Peleus took him to King Lycomedes of Skyros for safety. There, he lived among the king’s daughters and was presumably named “Pyrrha”, meaning the red-head.

The tale continues that Prophet Calchas revealed to Odysseus that the Achaeans would not be able to cause the fall of Troy and capture it without the help of Achilles. As the story has it, Odysseus traveled to Skyros and with trickery revealed the true identity of Achilles. In this Iliad, he arrived in Troy with a huge well-equipped army of fifty ships with many legions of brave fighting men and thus began a ten-year-long war to capture Troy.

Achilles and his affection for men

As the story further unfolds, it becomes obvious that Achilles had bisexual tendencies. This came to the fore when on meeting Prince Troilus, a brave Trojan prince, Achilles was reportedly sexually attracted to both brother and sister but decided on expressing his desire for the young man. The young prince strongly rebuffed these advances. Prince Troilus was later found beheaded on the altar of Apollo Thymbraios presumably by Achilles.

Another such trait was found in his affection toward Patroclus. The truths of these assertions and allusions were argued in the Classical era, and down the ages. Homer described the two as dear friends and fellow soldiers.

Homer did not pointedly state that they were lovers but their relationship was very much spoken of in other Greek tales. Achilles was broken hearted and inconsolable when Patroclus lost his life to Hector who killed him thinking he was Achilles because he wore Achilles’ armor. In his pain, he fought in battle with such brutal force that the god of the river, Scamander fought with him.

Achilles’ Death

Achilles

The statue of the injured Achilles (located at Corfu, Greece), after an arrow of Paris, pierced through his heels. Image credit: greece.com

He was credited with many notable exploits in this war epic but he was killed before he could savour the glory of a battle well fought. He was slain close to the end of the battle over Troy by Paris, brother of Hector. So how did Achilles actually die?

A deadly shot from Paris’ arrow struck Achilles in the heel, which was the only part of his body left vulnerable when his mother burned the mortality out from his body as a child.

Other sources claim that Thetis held her son by the heel when she submerged him into the Sytx River when he was a little child.  Achilles was thus made immortal but for that little part of his body.

That part of our bodies became known as the Achilles Tendon and/or Achilles Heel. Apart from its position on the physical body also means a spot of weakness found in a person or object that is otherwise considered to be totally strong and invulnerable.

His various names

According to the myth, Achilles was known by at least nine names, each having a purpose or reason.

Pyrisous: “Saved from the fire”, his first given name, in conformity with Thetis’s tradition of burning the mortal parts of her children in a fire.

Larissaeus: Derived from Larissa in Thessaly, a name that has not been changed to date.

Ligyro: His original given name.

Nereius: Given to him by his mother Thetis, who was a Nereids.

Pelides: Taken from Peleus.

Phthius: In honour of his place of birth, Pathia.

Aeacides: After grandfather Aeacus.

Aemonius: Adapted from Aemonia, the former name of present-day Thessaly.

Many stories, plays, poems, films were written in various parts and versions, all of which spoke of the great heroism of Achilles.

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