Classical Mythology: Don't Try This at Home!

Don't Try This at Home!

Thetis—a minor goddess perhaps, but still a goddess—was not content to have a mere mortal as a son. So when her child, Achilles, was born, she set about to make him an immortal. Heracles, you'll recall, burned off his mortality on a funeral pyre, while the immortal part of him ascended to Mount Olympus. Thetis hoped to do the same for her son. So she anointed him with ambrosia by day and set him on the coals at night. Peleus saw his son on the coals one night and quickly pulled him off. Thetis, insulted by her husband's lack of faith in her, abandoned both Peleus and her son and returned to the sea.

Mythed by a Mile

Mythmakers do not agree on just how Thetis made her son immortal. Some say the goddess dipped the baby in the river Styx, which burned the mortal life away from him and made him nearly immortal—except for the heel by which Thetis held him. Others insist that Thetis had already given birth to several children before Achilles was born. To test their mortality, she dipped each child into a pot of boiling water, but none had survived the test. When Peleus saw his wife trying this test with Achilles, he pulled his child from the pot not even realizing that the boy had passed the test—again except for the heel by which Thetis held him.

Hey, This Kid's Got Potential!

Now a single father, Peleus gave the boy to his old friend Cheiron—renowned for his breeding, wisdom, and teaching abilities—to rear. It was Cheiron who gave the boy his name, Achilles. Cheiron taught him both the polite arts and the manly arts. Even in early childhood, Achilles showed great promise. Indeed, he ran so fast that he could chase down a deer. To build the boy's courage and strength, Cheiron fed him the intestines of wild animals. Before Achilles left Pelion, Cheiron cut down one of the mountain's great ash trees and shaped it into Achilles' spear.

While still a boy, Achilles returned to his father's home in Phthia. There Phoenix, king of the Dolopians and a friend of Peleus, took over the boy's training.

What a Life!

Phoenix had fled his homeland of Ormenium to escape his father's wrath. His mother, insanely jealous of her husband's concubine, had convinced Phoenix to seduce her rival. When his father discovered this betrayal, he cursed Phoenix, asking the Furies to deny him children. Though Phoenix considered killing his father, he chose to leave his homeland instead. Peleus gave Phoenix refuge and made him king of the Dolopians (a tribe in Thessaly).

While studying under Phoenix, Achilles met Patroclus, the son of Menoetius. Both father and son had taken refuge in Phthia (where Peleus was an exceedingly kindhearted host). Patroclus, it seems, had killed a playmate in an argument over a game of dice in Opus, their native city. After Peleus purified the boy of the killing, Patroclus—several years older than Achilles—became the younger boy's squire. Before long they became friends and, in later years, lovers.

The renowned seer Calchas also recognized Achilles' potential. When the son of Peleus was just nine years old, Calchas prophesied that the Greeks would never take Troy without him.

The More Things Change ...

Although Homer never presented Achilles and Patroclus as lovers, most tale tellers by the fifth century B.C.E. did. Male homosexuality played a much more significant social role in fifth-century Athens than it had earlier. Male social and political connections sometimes included a sexual component, but this did not necessarily imply an exclusive homosexual orientation. Male citizens also had a social obligation to marry and father legitimate children.

Draft Dodging? Try Dressing in Drag

Thetis, however, knew that her son was fated to die if he fought in the Trojan War. So in an attempt to keep him from joining Menelaus in the campaign to recover Helen, the goddess disguised Achilles as a girl and sent him to the Aegean island of Scyrus. Called by the feminine name of Pyrrha, Achilles lived among the daughters of King Lycomedes (yes, the same Lycomedes who killed Theseus [see Lucky in War, Unlucky in Love: Theseus]).

Placing a handsome and virile teenage boy—even one disguised as a girl—in the same bedroom as several pretty teenage girls had predictable results. Shortly after Achilles left the island, Deidameia, one of Lycomedes' daughters, gave birth to a son. She named the boy Pyrrhus, in honor of the “girl” who fathered him. (After Achilles' death, Phoenix renamed the boy—who would contribute greatly to the Greek victory—Neoptolemus.)

When Odysseus came to Scyrus to enlist Achilles for the war effort, Lycomedes claimed that the boy was not there. But the wily Odysseus knew a lie when he heard one, and he devised a scheme to get Achilles to reveal himself.

Odysseus laid a spear and a shield down on the porch next to a handful of baubles and trinkets. He invited all the “king's daughters” to play with the pretty jewels. While the girls played, the ship's trumpeter—acting under Odysseus's orders—sounded a martial call, indicating that they were under attack. The trick worked. As soon as the horn blew, Achilles alone dropped the baubles, seized the sword and shield, and stripped off his feminine clothes. Gotcha!

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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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