Achilles was the greatest warrior to have ever lived. He was the Golden Warrior of the Bronze Age. Even Alexander the Great admired and emulated Achilles throughout his life, sleeping with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow. And yes, for me, Achilles was as real as Alexander was. The Trojan War by Barry Strauss clearly made my day when I read, "Did they exist or did the poet invent them? ...names are some of the easiest things to pass down in an oral tradition, which increases the likelihood that they were real people" (11). He continues "it's plausible but unproven" and that is good enough for me.
Why do I love and admire Achilles so much? Let me count the ways. The "Greatest of the Greeks" stood taller than the rest, he was passionate, reckless, stubborn, and fierce. And yet, he loved. His struggle to balance his swift-years, or short life, with the acquisition of honor and glory is the universally symbolic struggle to discover one's purpose on earth. Why are we here? What are we supposed to be doing with the time we've been granted? Achilles knew from the beginning that his years would be short, that he was destined to die at Troy, and that his legacy would forge for him an immortality that few have ever achieved. The list of names that have achieved that level of renown is very short, and ironically includes my other favorite hero, Alexander the Great.
Achilles represents the passionate side of human nature ruled by the heart. He loved as fiercely as he fought. It is well known that Achilles had great affection for Patrokles, his elder friend and comrade in arms. They grew up together, trained together, and fought bloody battles side by side facing death for years before the Trojan walls were breached by Odysseus's plan. The nature of their relationship has been hotly debated for centuries without any conclusion because we simply do not know. Homer never said they were or weren't. However, silence on the subject isn't proof that they Achilles and Patrokles were anything other than heroic friends, models of what love looked like between warriors who faced death and depended on each other implicitly for survival. For me, the silence means they were exactly as Homer portrayed them, heroic friends who had a deep bond for one another.
Achilles also loved a two women in particular: his wife Deidamia and later after her capture, the princess Briseis. Hidden among the ladies in the court of King Lycomedes of Skyros by his mother, Thetis, Achilles met Deidamia. They were young (still teenagers) and affectionate, eventually married, and parents to Achilles's son, Neoptolemus. When the Golden Warrior was about about 20, he was called to war by Odysseus on behalf of Agamemnon to go to Troy. The war his mother was trying to protect him from came knocking at his door. Achilles left for Aulis joining the other Greeks (the Achaeans, the Danaans, and the Argives). They set sail for the east, their heads full of dreams of gold and plunder...and women. Achilles is credited with sacking several cities before Troy, and in one of those cities, Pedasus, Achilles captured the princess Briseis of Lyrnessus, wife of Mynes. He came to love her, regarded her as his wife, and even Patrokles had an affection for her, promising to throw a wedding feast once she and Achilles returned to Pythia.
It was the passion Achilles bore for Patrokles and Briseis that caused him to face the ultimate question we all must answer if we expect to live a life with any happiness at all. How do I know myself? Achilles was a warrior. It was the biggest part of his person. His greatest strength and also his greatest weakness. How to balance his purpose, his drive with love? That he loved the princess and she loved him is undeniable. Their bond was deep enough that Achilles's outrage, when Agamemnon took her from him by decree pushed the Golden Warrior to the edge of madness. His first impulse was to slit the old king's throat in rage...the rage that the muse sings about in the opening lines of the Iliad. Only Athena could hold him back...literally yank his hair back to stop him from killing the king in cold blood. She counseled caution. Achilles response was fatal withdrawal of military support. He removed himself and his Myrmidons from the fighting, which was a devastating blow to the Greek efforts because Hektor took the opportunity to hammer them miles back to the beaches. Agamemnon forced Achilles to choose between love and honor. For Achilles it was no simple matter. His days were numbered, he knew he must fight, and be true to his nature as a warrior (his purpose) to survive on the battlefield. The king's actions threatened to rob him of glory and honor, in essence his life's purpose.
This reaction caused a chain of events that are no less tragic than any Shakespeare play. Patrokles felt bad for the losing Greeks and begged Achilles to borrow the Golden Warrior's armor so he could encourage the Greeks to not give up. Achilles granted the notion and as a result, Hektor, killed Patrokles thinking it was Achilles. When Achilles found out, he lost his grasp on his rage and unleashed his terrible fury on Hektor. He rejoined the war effort and killed Hektor in hand to hand combat. Briseis was returned to him and she loved him more than ever, maybe out of a desperation that he was all she had left in the world. In the end, it was Briseis who washed his corpse and wept for her dead lover. Achilles's life purpose was completed, all prophecies were fulfilled, and his immortality secured. I suppose you could say, love, was his Achilles heel. The research continues...
--Janell Rhiannon © 2015
Keep in touch. The Homeric Chronicles are coming...2015