“Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus— that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls deep into Hades…” – Homer’s Iliad. Opening verses.

Who was Achilles?

Achilles was the hero of Homer’s Iliad and the mightiest of the Greeks who fought in the Trojan War. Achilles’ father was the mortal Peleus and his mother was the nereid Thetis.

According to myth, his mother Thetis attempted unsuccessfully to make her son immortal. In the most well-known version of the myth, Thetis held the young Achilles by the heel and dipped him in the river Styx; everything the sacred waters touched became invulnerable, but while she was dipping him in the water she had to hold him by the heel so the heel remained dry and therefore unprotected (hence the experession “Achilles’ heel”).

When Achilles was a young boy, the seer Calchas prophesied that the city of Troy could not be taken without his help. Thetis knew that if her son went to Troy he would die an early death, so she tried to hide him in the court of Lycomedes, in the island of Skiros, disguised as a young girl. During his stay in Skiros Achilles had an affair with Lycomedes’ daughter, Deidameia, and she had a son, Pyrrhus (or Neoptolemus), by him. Achilles’ disguise was finally uncovered by Odysseus, who placed arms and armor amidst a display of women’s finery and seized upon Achilles when he was the only “maiden” to be fascinated by the swords and shields.

Achilles then went willingly with Odysseus to Troy, leading his father’s Myrmidons and accompanied by his close friend Patroclus. At Troy, Achilles distinguished himself as an unbeatable warrior. When Agamemenon took away the woman Briseis (a war prize) from Achilles this sparked the central plot of the Iliad. Achilles became enraged and refused to fight for the Greeks any further. After the withdrawal of Achilles the war started going badly for the Greeks who offered handsome reparations to their greatest warrior, however, Achilles still refused to fight in person, but he agreed to allow his friend Patroclus to fight in his place, wearing his armor. The next day Patroclus was killed and stripped of the armour by the Trojan hero Hector, who mistook him for Achilles.

Heracles

Jason and the Argonauts

Agamemnon

Achilles

Odysseus

The death of Hector. The death of Achilles.

Upon learning of Patroclus’ death Achilles was overwhelmed with grief for his friend and rage at Hector. Thetis obtained a magnificent new armour for her son from Hephaestus, and Achilles returned to the fighting and killed Hector. He desecrated the body, dragging it behind his chariot before the walls of Troy, and refused to allow it to receive funeral rites. When the king of Troy and Hector’s father Prima, came secretly into the Greek camp to plead for the body, Achilles finally relented. In one of the most moving scenes of the Iliad, he received Priam graciously and allowed him to take the body away.

After the death of Hector, Achilles’ days were numbered. He continued fighting heroically, killing many of the Trojans and their allies. Finally, Priam’s son Paris, with the help of Apollo, wounded Achilles in the heel with an arrow. Achilles eventually died of the wound. After his death, it was decided to award Achilles’ divinely-wrought armour to the bravest of the Greeks. Odysseus and Ajax competed for the prize, with each man making a speech explaining why he deserved the honour. Odysseus won, and Ajax then went mad and committed suicide.

During his lifetime, Achilles is also said to have had a number of romantic episodes. He reportedly fell in love with Penthesilia, the Amazon maiden whom he killed in battle during the Trojan War, and it is also claimed that he married Medea.

According to historians Plutarch and Arrian, Achilles was a great inspiration for Alexander the Great. It is said that the young Alexander used to sleep with the Iliad under his pillow and dreamt of becoming a new Achilles who’d lead lead the Greeks to glory – which he eventually did by conquering most of the then known world.

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