Classical Mythology: Achilles: The Angry Young Hero
Achilles: The Angry Young Hero
Of all the heroes who fought in the 10-year Trojan War, none approached the greatness of Achilles. A bold and ruthless warrior, Achilles showed his courage and skill on the battlefield countless times. He alone killed multitudes of Trojans, as well as their most fierce allies.
The perfect hero on the battlefield, Achilles was not without flaws. His brashness led him to ignore the advice and counsel of others. His tremendous pride caused him at one point to abandon his Greek comrades and quit the war because he felt insulted. His explosive anger and bloodlust led him to desecrate the body of his most heroic adversary.
As it turned out, Achilles—who seemed unbeatable whether in one-on-one combat or in the middle of a bloody battlefield—was not invulnerable either. Guided by the hand of Apollo, an arrow pierced Achilles' heel—the one spot where he could be killed. His death demonstrated for the ages that even the greatest of heroes was vulnerable.
How to Create an (Almost) Invulnerable Hero
The creation of the ancient world's greatest war hero did not happen by accident or chance. The gods brought his parents together. His mother made him nearly invulnerable. His tutors trained him in martial skills with an eye to his future glory. And the greatest princes of Greece recruited him while he was still a boy.
Even today, when we refer to a specific flaw that causes the mighty to fall, we use a term that harkens back to the death of Greece's greatest war hero: We call this weakness a person's Achilles' heel.
A Lover, Not a Fighter: His Father Peleus
Achilles was the son of Peleus, the king of Phthia, a city in Thessaly (northeastern Greece), and Thetis, a goddess of the sea. As young men, Peleus and his brother Telamon—sons of Aeacus, king of the island of Aegina—killed their half-brother Phocus. Though they had murdered Phocus at the behest of their mother, Aeacus banished both Peleus and Telamon from the island.
What a Life!
Aegina was named after the river god Asopus's daughter, whom Zeus had abducted and brought to the uninhabited island. (Zeus consigned Sisyphus to eternal torment for telling Asopus who had taken his daughter.) Aeacus, son of Zeus and Aegina, grew up alone on the island. When he prayed for company, his father Zeus transformed the island's ants into men and women whom Aeacus named the Myrmidons—the “ant-men.”
Telamon migrated to the island of Salamis, where he later became king. Peleus headed for Thessaly, where Eurytion, the king of Phthia, welcomed him. Eurytion performed the rites necessary to purify Peleus of his brother's murder and offered his guest the hand of his daughter, Antigone. Peleus settled there for a time, but his life in Phthia ended when he accidentally killed his father-in-law Eurytion with an errant toss of his spear during the Calydon boar hunt.
Peleus took refuge in Iolcus, where his fellow Argonaut, Acastus, had succeeded Pelias to the throne (see Crimes of Passion: Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts). Acastus purified his friend of the accidental killing, and invited him to remain in Iolcus.
Unfortunately, Astydameia, Acastus's wife, fell in love with Peleus. When he spurned her advances, Astydameia claimed that Peleus had violated her.
Acastus could not commit the impiety of killing a man he had recently purified, but he was incensed by his friend's alleged betrayal. So he worked out a plan of indirectly causing Peleus's death.
What a Life!
King Oeneus of Calydon once forgot to include Artemis when he sacrificed the first fruits of the harvest. To avenge this insult, the goddess sent down a wild boar to ravage the countryside, destroy the crops, and kill both people and animals. The Calydon boar hunt brought together some great heroes: Peleus and Telamon, Castor and Polydeuces, Theseus and Peirithous, Jason, the huntress Atalanta, and Meleager, who finally killed the beast.
Acastus invited Peleus to join him and his nobles in a hunting contest. Peleus returned from the hunt apparently empty-handed, but he silenced the laughter of the other hunters by pulling the tongues of his kills out of his pouch. By not taking the time to drag the animals back to camp, he had easily won the contest.
Exhausted, Peleus fell asleep. Under the cover of night, Acastus stole his sword, hid it under a dung heap, and abandoned Peleus, hoping that the barbarous Centaurs would find him and kill him. The half-human beasts might have done so, but Cheiron—the wise and civilized Centaur who made his home on Mount Pelion—found him first. Cheiron saved Peleus and returned his sword.
Peleus—accompanied by Jason, Castor, and Polydeuces—later returned to Iolcus with an army. He killed Astydameia for her treachery and had his army march between the pieces of her severed body.
A Marriage Made in Heaven
Thetis, like the other 49 Nereids, was a daughter of the old sea god Nereus and the sea goddess Doris. Zeus had courted Thetis, who had once helped rescue him from a rebellion by Poseidon, Hera, and Athena (see The Reign of Thunder and Lightning: Olympus Under Zeus). But the ruler of the gods lost interest in the sea nymph when he learned from Prometheus that the son she would bear would become greater than his father. Remembering that he had overthrown his own father to become king of the gods and fearful of suffering the same fate himself, Zeus decided that Thetis should not marry any god. Instead, she would become the rare goddess who married a mortal. Zeus chose Peleus, who had inherited the throne of Phthia from his father-in-law Eurytion. (Antigone, Peleus's first wife, had killed herself when Astydameia's lies raised doubt about her husband's fidelity.)
Cheiron, king of the Centaurs, soon sent his friend Peleus to Thetis's favorite grotto. Cheiron told Peleus that if he could hold on to the sea goddess through all her transformations, she would become his bride. Peleus found Thetis, wrapped his arms around her, and refused to let go. Though she changed into fire, water, a lioness, a snake, and a cuttlefish, Peleus held on tight. Finally, the sea goddess yielded, consenting to be his wife.
All the gods and goddesses attended this legendary wedding. The gods, already honoring the couple with their presence, added to the honor with presents. Thetis received a magnificent jeweled crown from Aphrodite. To Peleus, the gods brought two immortal horses, Xanthus and Balius.
Unfortunately, Eris, the only goddess not invited to the wedding, tried to crash the party. When she was still refused admittance, she used the Golden Apple—and the rivalry it sparked among three goddesses—to sow the discord that would more than a decade later lead to the 10-year Trojan War (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy).
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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