Achilles was the strongest and most celebrated warrior of the Trojan War. Perhaps the man reason was that his mother the nymph Thetis was allegedly brought up by Hera herself who sided with the Achaeans against Hercules. Achilles father was Peleus, king of the Myridons. Both Zeus and Poseidon had been rivals for the hand of Thetis until Prometheus warned Zeus of the prophecy the she would bare a son greater than his father. This ceased the rivalry of the two gods and Peleus was permitted to marry her. Another or added version of this is the Thetis is so loyal to Hera’s marriage to Zeus that she coolly rejects his romantic advances.
There are two legends concerning Achilles’ vulnerability. One is that Thetis wished to do away her son’s mortality so she anointed him with ambrosia and was going to put him atop of a fire to burn away the mortal parts of his body. Peleus interrupted her and she abandoned both father and son on a rage. Another version is that she dipped Achilles in the river Styx, just holding him by the heel. Thus, we have the terms Achilles heel or Achilles’ tendon.
There are, as already seen, several versions to the legend of Achilles. In one version his father Peleus sent his son to the Centaur Chiron to be tutored. Then Thetis fearful that her son would be die an early death if sent to Troy hid him disguised as a young girl in the court of Lycomedes. While there he had an affair with the daughter of Lycomedes, Deidameia, and she bore a son Neoptolemus. It was while at the court that Odysseus spied Achilles out. He was the only young girl attracted to swords and other weapons of war.
Achilles willingly joins Odysseus in going off to war. In the Trojan War he proves himself a majestic warrior. He bravely led his men, at times with consuming rage at others with cool, level headedness. Achilles is said to be the only mortal experiencing consuming rage. This is seen at the beginning of the Iliad when the assembled soldiers learn the real cause of the plague and what forced Agamemnon to send Chyrseis back but demands to be compensated by receiving Briseis in exchange. Achilles who was thought to love the latter or just obstinate refused to surrender her. Agamemnon, by being the supreme commander, ordered Achilles to do so, which he does but refuses to participate any further in the war.
After a dream in which Agamemnon visualizes defeat with the help of Achilles and seeing the strength of Hector, son of Priam, King of Troy, Agamemnon rescinds, sending Brises back to Achilles with costly gifts and promises.
From this point Achilles initiated the fighting. Achilles had already sent, his cousin and best friend, Patroclus, who led the Myridons to attack the walls of Troy and pushed the Trojans back from the beaches. Some writers and historians when considering the social culture of the 5th Greeks think the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus may have been pederastic, while others think not. Perhaps this is why Achilles had revenge in killing Hector. Patroclus’ armor was removed as a Trojan victory trophy. Thetis asked Hephaestus to make new armor for her son. Achilles rejoins the battle scoring numerous victories. However, Achilles’ early death is prophesized by his horse Xanthus who is endowed with a moment of speech. Another version states that Hector with his dying breath proclaimed the arrow of Paris in the heel would kill Achilles.
Legends also surround the death of Achilles although he was killed by the arrow of Paris in his heel. There is a version telling that Apollo directed the arrow. Another version is that Achilles fell in love with Princess Polyxena, Priam’s daughter, and asked her father for her hand. Priam agrees knowing such a marriage would end the war and form an allegiance with the great warrior. However, Paris knowing this would mean he would have to give up Helen kills Achilles.
Priam had not agreed to the marriage of Polyxena and Achilles just to stop the fighting, but also because Achilles had fought against Penthesileia, queen of the Amazons. Achilles rescued the city when Penthesileia was attacking it during the funeral of Hector. According to legend this encounter happened during a temporary with Priam. At first Achilles hesitated to hill the Amazon, being stunned by her beauty. Then realizing how dangerous she was and his own life was threatened he killed her. When Achilles grieved over her death a Greek, Thersites, mocked him; this annoyed Achilles because the man was so insensitive and he hit him in the face and killed him instantly.
No legend speaks well of Paris because all consider his act of murdering Achilles loathing. But Achilles is heralded as a great warrior and hero. He could have remained with his father Peleus on the island of Aegina and led a peaceful life, but instead he was brave and single mindedly fought with the Myridons.
Another legend says after reaching the underworld Achilles was given Medea as a wife. A.G.H.
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965
Hunter, James. “Achilles.” <http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/achilles.html>