In Greek mythology, Achilles (Ancient Greek: Ἀχιλλεύς, Achilleus) was a Greek hero of the Trojan War, the central character and the greatest warrior of Homer's Iliad.
Achilles (pronounced uh-KILL-eez) is one of the most important warriors in Greek mythology. He had strength, bravery, military skills, pride, and honor—all qualities that the ancient Greeks prized as manly virtues. Yet his behavior was also shaped by anger, stubbornness, and revenge. The conflict between Achilles’ larger-than-life virtues and his all-too-human weaknesses plays an important part in the heroic tragedy of the Iliad.
Like many mythological heroes, Achilles was part human and part supernatural being. His parents were Peleus (pronounced pe-LAY-uhs), a king of Thessaly in northern Greece, and a sea nymph named Thetis (pronounced THEE-tis). According to Homer, Thetis raised both Achilles and his closest friend and companion, Patroclus (pronounced pa-TROH-kluhs). According to legend, Achilles’ mother Thetis tried to make her infant son invulnerable (incapable of being wounded, injured, or harmed) by dipping him into the river Styx, which flowed through the underworld, or land of the dead. Afterward, no sword or arrow could pierce Achilles wherever the Styx’s water had touched him. However, the water did not touch the heel by which Thetis held Achilles, so this remained the only vulnerable spot on his body. This myth is the source of the term Achilles’ heel, which refers to a person’s most notable weakness.
Achilles’ strength and athletic superiority emerged early. At age six, he could run fast enough to catch deer. Some myths say that Achilles learned to run from the centaur Chiron (pronounced KYE-ron), who also taught him music, medicine, and the skills of warfare. According to some legends, Achilles was destined from birth to suffer one of two fates: a long life without glory, or a glorious death in battle.
The Trojan War Achilles played a central role in the Trojan War. The Trojan War was a ten-year conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans. The war began when the Trojan prince Paris kidnapped a beautiful Greek queen named Helen. Her husband, King Menelaus, pulled together a large army and chased Paris and Helen, tracking them to the city of Troy. The Greek army camped outside of the city walls and laid siege (engaged in a persistent attack against the city) to Troy for ten years. When the Trojan War began, Achilles’ parents tried to keep him from joining the Greek forces against the Trojans in order to prevent the prophecy regarding his death in battle from coming true. But the Greeks felt they needed Achilles to fight with them because they had received a prophecy that they could not defeat the Trojans without him. They therefore sent the Greek leader Odysseus (pronounced oh- DIS-ee-uhs) to persuade Achilles to join the war. Achilles agreed to fight with them—even though he knew his choice might cost him his life—because he valued glory in battle more than a quiet existence in peace.
Achilles did indeed earn great glory in battle against the Trojans. Throughout the ten-year siege he killed many Trojans and struck fear into the hearts of the Trojan forces. The Trojans were helpless against his mighty strength and his invulnerability to weapons. He was, however, an extremely proud warrior; when he felt that he had been insulted by the leader of the Greek forces, Agamemnon, he refused to fight for the Greeks. He only returned to the fight when his friend Patroclus died at the hands of the great Trojan warrior Hector.
Achilles rushed into battle in a furious desire to avenge the death of Patroclus. He chased Hector around the walls of Troy three times before killing the Trojan prince in one-on-one combat. He then dragged the body behind his chariot for nine days, which prevented the Trojans from holding a proper funeral. The gods forced Achilles to surrender the body of Hector to his grieving father, King Priam of Troy. Soon after, Achilles was killed on the battlefield when he was struck in his vulnerable heel by an arrow fired by Hector’s brother, Paris.
Achilles in Context
The Trojan War in which Achilles fought was a struggle between two different groups—the Greeks and the Trojans—over Helen, who was a symbol of Greek pride as the most beautiful woman in the world. Modern-day scholars do not know for sure just how much of the story of the Trojan War is fiction, but the story reflects the reality of living in a time period when the ancient Greeks were frequently in conflict with nearby regions for control of land and resources. The warrior culture of ancient times arose from the need to protect land used for farming or keeping animals. Warriors also conquered more land when poor farming conditions or conflict with other peoples made moving necessary. Young men were trained in warrior skills as well as in the warrior code of honor and glory. Under the command of Alexander the Great, the Greeks succeeded on the battlefield and spread their empire across much of what is now the Middle East and western Asia. In an oral culture such as ancient Greece, the tales of battles and heroism passed on from generation to generation highlighted the importance of heroic deeds and glory.
The glory Achilles achieves does not make him a perfect example of a Greek man, however. His pride causes him to put himself above that of the army in which he fights, and results in both heavy Greek losses in battle and the death of his own best friend Patroclus. This flaw in the character of Achilles reflects the importance of the group over that of an individual to the ancient Greeks. In ancient Greek society, life was so difficult that people relied heavily on their social relationships in order to survive; one person acting for his or her own interests rather than that of the group could bring about the downfall of everyone.
Key Themes and Symbols
Achilles represents the ultimate warrior, seeking glory through his skills as a soldier. He chooses to die on the battlefield, knowing his heroic deeds will be remembered forever, rather than live a long, unremarkable life away from battle.
Another theme of the story of Achilles is revenge. After having an argument with Agamemnon, Achilles gets his revenge on the king by refusing to fight.This leads to the death of Patroclus,which prompts Achilles to seek revenge against his friend’s killer, Hector. After Achilles killsHector, Paris seeks revenge against Achilles for the death of his brother.
Achilles in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Achilles and his story have appeared in many forms over the centuries. In addition to being the main character of Homer’s Iliad, he was the subject of several plays written by Greek dramatists Aeschylus (pronounced ES-kuh-lus) and Sophocles (pronounced SOF-uh-kleez).
During the Renaissance, he was featured as a character in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, and appears in modern works such as Disney’s animated television series Hercules (1998).
U.X.L Encyclopedia of World Mythology