Achilles, The Mightiest Champion of The Trojan War

Achilles was a hero of the Trojan War and arguable one of the greates heroes of all the ancient Greek myths. He was the main character in Homer’s epic poem, the “Iliad”, and cast as the fairest, ablest, and most worthy of all the heroes who took part in the Trojan War.

Family

Achilles was born in the ancient city of Fthia (probably modern Farsala in Thessaly/ Central Greece) to Peleus, king of Fthia, and the silver-footed sea goddess Thetis.

The Character Of Achilles

Achilles fighting against Memnon Leiden
Jona Lendering, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Achilles was a passionate, generous, brave hero, but he also had an impulsive and quick-tempered character. He often even gave the impression of being arrogant. During the Trojan War, Agamemnon accused Achilles of being a narrow-minded soldier who loved conflict, wars, and battles.

Achilles’ Weak Spot

Thetis, the mother of Achilles, was very attached to her son, and when he was born, she tried to make him immortal by dipping him in the sacred waters of the river Styx. However, Thetis didn’t quite achieve what she had hoped. 

While holding him in the water, she had to hold her child by one heel, which left a vulnerable spot in Achilles’ body. This weak spot proved crucial for Achilles, as he was killed during the Trojan War by an arrow that hit that exact spot.

The phrase “Achilles’ heel” has endured to this day and describes a small but important weakness in a person.

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Myths about Achilles

Achilles was a child of Thetis, one of the Nereid nymphs in Greek mythology, and Peleus, king of Fthia in Thessaly.

When Peleus met Thetis, the Centaur Chiron advised him to seize her and hold her tightly. In order to avoid Peleus, Thetis turned first into fire, then into water, and later into a wild animal. But Peleus loosened his grip only when she had returned to her original form.

The couple married at Mount Pelion, and the gods celebrated the wedding with great splendor. Soon Thetis bore a child by Peleus and wished to make it immortal. 

She buried the child in the fire one night to destroy the mortal element in his nature that came from its father and then rubbed it with ambrosia. But Peleus kept an eye on her, and when he saw the child wriggling in the fire, he cried out and seized the child, who had only burnt his lips and the ankle of his right foot.

The origin of the name “Achilles” is derived from this story (A-Hilla = one who has no lips). Thetis, frustrated with her purpose, abandoned her infant son and went back to the Nereids.

Peleus delivered the child to the Centaur Chiron, who took the child in, fed him on the entrails of lions and boars and the marrow of bears, and taught him temperance, resistance to evil passions, and resistance to pain.

According to another myth, however, Thetis bathed Achilles in the waters of the River Styx, the river of Hades. The water of the Styx had the ability to make anything invulnerable. Nevertheless, the heel by which Thetis held her child was untouched by the magic waters and remained vulnerable.

The Trojan War

When Achilles was young, the seer Calchas prophesied about the city of Troy could not be taken without his help. His mother, Thetis, tried to keep him away from the war by sending him to the Greek island of Scyros, where he was disguised as a young girl. 

The attempt proved unsuccessful, however, as the Greek hero Odysseus, The Cunning Hero Of The Trojan War discovered Achilles on the island, reached out, grabbed him, and took him to war.

Peleus, the father of Achilles, was too old to accompany him to war. He could only give him precious gifts, such as his wedding weapons from his marriage to Thetis, an immensely heavy staff of wood, and immortal horses that could speak the human language.

During the Trojan War, Achilles was accompanied by his teacher Phoenix and his close friend Patroclus. He was the leader of fifty boats manned by Myrmidons. 

From the beginning, he proved to be a dominant figure. Later he was declared the most worthy and capable of all the warriors who took part in the Trojan War.

The Mourning of Achilles

One day Achilles lost his best friend Patroclus in the war against Hector because Patroclus was wearing his armor, and his enemies thought he was Achilles. Achilles was devastated. His quiet but brave friend was very dear to him and was like his other half.

In grief, he refused to taste bread or wine. He wanted to show solidarity with his slain friend who was experiencing the fateful day instead of him.

His comrades kept telling Achilles: “You can’t win a war on an empty stomach; people need food to survive!”

But the persistent advice of his comrades did not convince Achilles—quite the opposite. He rebelled and promised himself: He would not touch the food under any circumstances.

But high up on Mount Olympus, Zeus was watching over Achilles, for he knew that he was a very brave man. And he knew perfectly that when there is a famine, people’s knees begin to tremble.

So Zeus sent his daughter Athena, the goddess of wisdom, to strengthen Achilles. The goddess came as fast as she could with her broad wings and poured ambrosia and nectar – the divine food of the gods – over Achilles’ chest. This element gave him the strength to fight all day without food but did not make him immortal.

The death of Hector.
Peter Paul Rubens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Later, he finally takes revenge by killing Hector and many other Trojans. Then he buried Patroclus with honors and organized funeral games in loving memory of his dear friend.

The Death of Achilles

From the moment Achilles was born, an early death had been prophesied for him. The death came for him during the Trojan War and was caused by an arrow from the Trojan hero, Paris. Paris, aided by the Greek god Apollo, threw a poisoned arrow and aimed it right at Achilles’ heel, the only place he was vulnerable.

Immediately after he fell dead, a tremendous battle began over his body. In the end, Odysseus managed to hold back the Trojans, and Ajax brought the body back to the Greek camp.

In the Greek camp, Thetis emerged from her sea world with the Nereids, and together with the Achaeans, they mourned their hero for seventeen days and seventeen nights. Then Achilles’ body was burned on a funeral pyre, and his ashes were buried in a tumulus at Leuces (Alba).

A monument was erected in memory of him, and funeral games were held in his honor.

Achilles and the Achillea Flower

The Achillea flower (Achillea millefolium), known colloquially as yarrows, is a flower of European origin, taking its name from the Homeric hero Achilles.

According to legend, the Achillea flower grew from rust that fell to earth from Achilles’ spear. The gentle Centaur Chiron gave him this plant to treat the wounds and bruises of his wounded soldiers, the Myrmidons.

Featured Image Credit: Léonce Legendre, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Evangelia

Evangelia Hatzitsinidou is the creator and author of www.greek-gods.info which has been merged with Olympioi.com. She has been writing about Greek Mythology for almost twenty years. A native to Greece, she teaches and lives just outside Athens.