The chief of the Greek heroes in the Iliad, in which his anger with Agamemnon and his duel with Hector are dominant themes. He was the only son of the mortal Peleus, king of Phthia in Thessaly, and of the seanymph Thetis, daughter of Nereus. Both Zeus and Poseidon wished to have a child by the beautiful Thetis, but Themis or Prometheus warned them that her son would be greater than his father. Not wishing to run the risk of begetting a power superior to themselves, the gods arranged the marriage of Thetis with a mortal king, Peleus, and in order to recompense her they celebrated the wedding with spectacular pomp. The seeds of the conflict leading up to the Trojan War were sown at the wedding. Eris (Strife), who had deliberately not been invited so as to avoid the chance of conflict between the couple, nevertheless arrived at the proceedings and cast down before the assembly the golden apple, inscribed ‘for the fairest’, which was to set Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite at loggerheads. Thetis was exceedingly attached to her son, and in the Iliad she seems to be the only woman for whom he feels a really close tie. In his earliest childhood she attempted to endow him with immortality by anointing him with ambrosia by day and burying him in the embers of the fire at night. Peleus, however, discovered her putting the baby in the fire and was terrified. Thetis was so angry at his interference and mistrust that she abandoned both her husband and her child and returned to the sea. Homer does not seem to be acquainted with the well-known story of Achilles’ invulnerability. According to this tale, Thetis dipped her newborn baby in the river of Hades, the Styx, but since she had to hold him by the heel, this one spot was left unprotected. It was because of this that Paris was able to kill Achilles with an arrow. After his mother deserted him, Achilles was placed in the care of the wise Centaur Chiron, who had educated the Argonauts. Chiron taught him to practise running, and he became the swiftest of living men; Homer’s favourite epithet for him is podarkes—‘the swift of foot’. Chiron also taught him the skills of warfare and fed him on the entrails ofwild beasts to give him the quality of fierce courage. He also instructed him in music andmedicine. Later on Achilles returned to Phthia and became the intimate friend ofPatroclus, a rather older youth, who had taken refuge at Peleus’ court. Patroclus becameAchilles’ squire and lover. At the same time, Achilles received training in governmentand diplomacy from another refugee at Phthia, Phoenix, whom Peleus made king of theDolopes.It was also said that Achilles was sent by Thetis to the court of Lycomedes on theisland of Scyros since she knew of his tragic destiny. The doom which Thetis foretoldwas that Achilles would either die in inglorious old age or else—and much moreprobably—would join the expedition to Troy, from which he could never return.Lycomedes disguised Achilles as a girl, called him Pyrrha, and hid him in the women’squarters in his palace, because Calchas had prophesied that Troy could never be takenunless Achilles joined the expedition. While this duplicity was being maintained,Achilles took advantage of his female company by seducing the king’s daughterDeidamia, who bore him Neoptolemus (sometimes called Pyrrhus).After a while the Greeks, who needed Achilles’ presence to make a success of theexpedition, sent Odysseus to Scyros to find him. This clever schemer was able topenetrate Achilles’ disguise by a trick. He placed weapons among some jewellery in theporch of Lycomedes’ house. While the women of the royal household were admiring thejewellery, a trumpet was sounded as if to signal danger. Achilles immediately seized theweapons and gave himself away. Then, perhaps through shame at having been a party tothis deception, he ignored his mother and quite freely sailed to Troy with the expedition.He owed Agamemnon no loyalty, and had not, like others, taken an oath to defendHelen’s husband Menelaus, but went as if to face a personal challenge to his valour. AtAulis, where the fleet was weather-bound, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughterIphigenia in order to placate Artemis, and used Achilles as a lure to attract her to the spot,offering her the bait of marriage with the young prince. According to Euripides’Iphigenia in Aulis, Achilles did not know what was afoot, and tried to rescue the girl; butwhen she realised the purpose of her sacrifice, she reconciled herself to death. Thus theGreeks were enabled to sail.
They missed their way, however, and landed by mistake in Mysia, far to the south of Troy, where the king of Teuthrania, Telephus, a son of Heracles, drove them back to their ships, with the exception of Achilles, who turned the tables and inflicted a grave wound in Telephus’ thigh with his spear. The Greeks left Mysia, realising that they were far from Troy, and returned to Argos. Here, dressed in rags, came Telephus, who had learnt from an oracle that only the inflicter of his wound could cure him. Odysseus reminded Achilles that his spear was responsible for the wound, and Achilles cured it by apply-ing rust from the spear. Telephus repaid this favour by guiding the Greeks to Troy. On arriving off Troy, the Greeks first landed on Tenedos, where Achilles disobeyed a warning of Thetis, perhaps unintentionally, by slaying Tenes, king of the island and a son of Apollo. Achilles had been told that the archer-god Apollo would take vengeance on him for the murder, and in fact he was subsequently brought low by an arrow from Paris’ bow, guided by Apollo. Thetis also warned him not to be the first to land in Troy; this time he obeyed.
Achilles’ first adversary was Cycnus, a son of Poseidon, who was said to be invulnerable to weapons. Achilles strangled him with Cycnus’ own helmetstrap. He also ambushed and killed Troilus. As Troy proved impossible to take by siege or assault, Achilles led the Greek forces against many of the neighbouring towns, and sacked twelve of these on the coast and eleven inland. The most important of the latter were Lyrnessus and Thebe-under-Placus. Eetion, father of Andromache, was king of Thebe; Achilles killed him and his seven sons and ransomed the queen. At Lyrnessus he met Aeneas for the first time, and put him to flight; he also killed Mynes and Epistrophus, sons of King Evenus. It was here, too, that he captured the beautiful Briseis, whom he made his concubine and claimed to love more than any other woman. It was largely on account of her that the events described in the Iliad were said to have taken place. Agamemnon had taken for his concubine Chryseis, the daughter of Apollo’s prophet Chryses. He was furious at being compelled to give her back to her father to avoid Apollo’s wrathful punishment, and peevishly removed Briseis from Achilles, who had urged him to restore the girl, to compensate himself for his loss. Achilles then withdrew from the war and entreated his mother to punish Agamemnon by using her influence with Zeus to persuade him to swing the tide of war against the Greeks. The plan worked beautifully for Achilles; but he later put himself in the wrong by refusing compensation consisting of an apology from Agamemnon, marriage with any of Agamemnon’s three daughters, and the restoration of his concubine. From this moment Achilles’ plan went astray, for his close friend and squire Patroclus, pitying the Greeks who were fighting for their lives to defend their beached ships, persuaded Achilles to lend him his armour and let him lead the Myrmidons (the people of Phthia, Peleus’ country) into battle. Achilles warned Patroclus to do no more than defend the ships, but he went too far, and after great successes was killed by Hector, who stripped Achilles’ armour from his body.
On learning the news Achilles was overwhelmed by anger and remorse. Thetis and the Nereids came to mourn with him and Achilles told her that he longed for death. He swore to kill Hector, and Thetis realised that he had indeed not long to live as he was doomed to die very soon after Hector. He stood by the wall and thrice shouted the war-cry, at which the Trojans retreated in confusion. Then he reconciled himself with Agamemnon and attacked the Trojans furiously, clad in new armour made for him at Thetis’ request by the god of fire, Hephaestus. He killed countless Trojans and embroiled himself with the god of the River Scamander, who, being a protector of the place and naturally hostile to the invader, was enraged at the number of Trojan dead that Achilles had flung into his stream. Hephaestus saved Achilles by drying up the river. When the Trojans were finally penned within their walls, Hector alone remained to confront him. Achilles pursued him three times round the city; then Hector turned and faced him, with a plea that if he was killed, his body might be spared and returned to his father King Priam. Achilles refused to give him any such undertaking and slew him. He then defiled Hector’s body and dragged it round Patroclus’ tomb on twelve consecutive days, leaving it there as a consolation for his friend’s ghost and refusing to return it to Priam. At last Thetis persuaded Achilles to relent, and after the funeral games of Patroclus, at which Achilles performed human sacrifice, Priam retrieved the corpse. After the events described in the Iliad, Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, came to reinforce the Trojans. Achilles killed her but fell in love with her dead body. When
Thersites mocked him for so doing, Achilles killed him too. For this sin, Achilles was obliged to make sacrifice to Leto and her children, Apollo and Artemis, and then had to be purified by Odysseus. A second ally of Troy whom Achilles slew was the Ethiopian Memnon. Immediately after this an arrow from Paris’ bow, guided by Apollo, gave Achilles a mortal wound. His body was rescued by Aias (Ajax) son of Telemon, and he was mourned for seventeen days. When Thetis and the Nereids came and sang a dirge, the whole army fled to the ships in terror. The Muses also joined the lamentation. On the eighteenth day he was cremated, his ashes laid in a golden urn made by Hephaestus, and a tomb near the sea covered his bones, mingled with those of Patroclus. According to a later tradition, the shades of Achilles and Patroclus went to live in Leuce (White Island), a place of felicity for the greatest heroes. There was a contest as to who should be awarded Achilles’ armour: Aias claimed it, but when it was granted to Odysseus by the other Greeks, Aias killed himself. This is the subject of Sophocles’ tragedy Aias. Odysseus gave the armour to Neoptolemus to induce him to join the war, as Helenus, a Trojan prophet, predicted that his presence was necessary for a Greek victory. The ghost of Achilles rose from the tomb and demanded the slaughter of Priam’s daughter Polyxena before the Greeks would be allowed to depart home. This is a theme of Euripides’ play Hecuba. Achilles’ character in mythology is powerful, arrogant and cruel. He is resentful of his fate and given to violent outbursts of temper. He is a symbol of youth and strength, doomed to an early but glorious death. He was the hero whom Alexander the Great most admired.