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For other uses, see Achilles (disambiguation).

In Greek mythology, Achilles (etymology unknown), grandson of Aeacus (Αχιλλευς Αιακιδης, Akhilleus Aiákidês, also transliterated as Achilleus, Akhilles, or Akhilleus) was the greatest and the central character of Homer's Iliad.



Achilles was the son of Peleus, king of the Myrmidons in Phthia (SE Thessaly), and the sea nymph Thetis. Zeus and Poseidon had forced her for her hand until an oracle revealed she would bear a son greater than his father, whence they wisely chose to give her to someone else. According to legend, Thetis had tried to make Achilles invincible by dipping him in the river Styx, but forgot to wet the heel she held him by, leaving him vulnerable so he could be killed by a blow to that heel. (See Achilles' tendon.) Homer, however, deliberately makes no mention of this; Achilles cannot be a hero if he is not at risk. Homer, however, does mention his being wounded, although not seriously, in the Illiad. In an earlier and less popular version of the story, Thetis anointed the boy in ambrosia and put him on top of a fire to burn away the mortal parts of his body. She was interrupted by Peleus and abandoned both father and son in a rage. Peleus gave him (together with his young friend Patroclus) to Chiron the Centaur, on Mt. Pelion, to raise.

Achilles in the Trojan War


When the Greeks left for the Trojan War, they accidentally stopped in Mysia, ruled by King Telephus. In the battle, Achilles wounded Telephus. The wound would not heal and Telephus asked an oracle who stated that "he that wounded shall heal".

According to others' reports about Euripides' lost play about Telephus, he went to Aulis, pretending to be a beggar and asked Achilles to help heal his wound. Achilles refused, claiming to have no medical knowledge. Alternatively, Telephus held Orestes for ransom, the ransom being Achilles' aid in healing the wound. Odysseus reasoned that the spear had inflicted the wound and the spear must be able to heal it. Pieces of the spear were scraped off onto the wound, and Telephus healed. This is an example of sympathetic magic.

During the Trojan War

“The Rage of Achilles” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
“The Rage of Achilles” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Achilles is one of the only two people described as "god-like" in the Iliad. This does not just refer to his supreme fighting ability, but also to his attitude. He shows a complete and total devotion to the excellence of his craft and, like a god, has almost no regard for life. Not his own — clearly he does not mind a swift death, so long as it is glorious — and not really of others. His anger is absolute. The humanization of Achilles by the events of the war is the main theme of the Iliad.

Achilles' charioteer's name was Automedon.

Agamemnon and the death of Patroclus

Achilles took twenty-three towns outside Troy, including Lyrnessos , where he captured Briseis to keep as a concubine. Meanwhile, Agamemnon took a woman named Chryseis and taunted her father, Chryses, a priest of Apollo, when he attempted to buy her back. Apollo sent a plague through the Greek armies and Agamemnon was forced to give Chryseis back to her father; however he took Briseis away from Achilles as compensation for his loss. This action sparked the central plot of the Iliad: Achilles becomes enraged and refuses to fight for the Greeks any further. The war goes badly, and the Greeks offer handsome reparations to their greatest warrior; Achilles still refuses to fight in person, but he agrees to allow Patroclus to fight in his place, wearing his armor. The next day Patroclus is killed and stripped of the armor by the Trojan hero Hector, who mistakes him for Achilles. Achilles is overwhelmed with grief for his dear friend, and the rage he once harbored toward Agamemnon begins shifting to Hector. Thetis, his mother, rises from the sea floor and berates him for excessive grief. She obtains magnificent new armor for him from Hephaestus, and he returns to the fighting, killing Hector. He desecrates the body, dragging it behind his chariot before the walls of Troy three times, and refuses to allow it to receive funeral rites. When Priam, the king of Troy and Hector's father, comes secretly into the Greek camp to plead for the body, Achilles finally relents; in one of the most moving scenes of the Iliad, he receives Priam graciously and allows him to take the body away.

The greatness of Achilles lies in not just being the greatest Greek fighter ever, but in knowing the choice provided to him by Destiny. His mother Thetis had prophecied to him that if he pulled out of the Trojan War, he would enjoy a long and a happy life. If Achilles fought, however, he would die before the Walls of Troy but assure an everlasting glory, surpassing that of all other heroes. He had made the choice, and coming face to face with it showed his greatness.


During the Trojan War, Xanthus, a magical horse, was rebuked by Achilles for allowing Patroclus to be killed. Xanthus responded by saying that a god had killed Patroclus and a god would soon kill Achilles also.

Memnon, Cycnus, Penthesilea, the death of Achilles

Shortly after the death of Hector, Achilles defeated Memnon of Ethiopia, Cycnus of Colonae and the Amazonian warrior Penthesilia (with whom Achilles also had an affair in some versions). He was very soon after killed by Paris — either by an arrow to the heel, or in an older version by a knife to the back while visiting Polyxena, a Trojan princess. Both versions conspicuously deny the killer any sort of valor, and Achilles remains undefeated on the battlefield. His bones are mingled with those of Patroclus, and funeral games are held. Like Ajax, he is represented as living after his death in the island of Leuke at the mouth of the Danube.

The Fate of Achilles' Armor

Achilles' armor was the object of a feud between Odysseus and Ajax the great. They competed for it and Odysseus won. Ajax went mad with grief and vowed to kill his comrades; he started killing cattle (thinking they were Greek soldiers), and then himself.

The Lost Play of Aeschylus

In early 1990s a lost play by Aeschylus was discovered in the wrappings of a mummy in Egypt. The play, Achilles, was part of a trilogy about the Trojan War. It was known to exist due to mentions in ancient sources, but had been lost for over 2000 years.

Spoken-word myths (audio)

Achilles myths as told by story tellers
Achilles and Patroclus wiki.ogg
Bibliography of reconstruction: Homer Iliad, 9.308, 16.2, 11.780, 23.54 (700 BCE); Pindar Olympian Odes, IX (476 BCE); Aeschylus Myrmidons, F135-36 (495 BCE); Euripides Iphigenia in Aulis, (405 BCE); Plato Symposium, 179e (388-367 BCE); Statius Achilleid, 161, 174, 182 (96 CE)

Achilles in film

The role of Achilles has been played by:


Homer, Iliad; Homer, Odyssey XI, 467-540; Apollodorus, Bibliotheke III, xiii, 5-8; Apollodorus, Epitome III , 14-V, 7; Ovid, Metamorphoses XI, 217-265; XII, 580-XIII, 398; Ovid, Heroides III ; Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica IV, 783-879;


  • Ileana Chirassi Colombo, “Heros Achilleus— Theos Apollon.” In Il Mito Greco, éd. Bruno Gentili & Giuseppe Paione, Rome, 1977;
  • Anthony Edwards:
    • “Achilles in the Underworld: Iliad, Odyssey, and Æthiopis”, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, 26 (1985): pp. 215-227 ;
    • “Achilles in the Odyssey: Ideologies of Heroism in the Homeric Epic”, Beitrage zur klassischen Philologie, 171, Meisenheim, 1985 ;
    • “Kleos Aphthiton and Oral Theory,” Classical Quarterly, 38 (1988): pp. 25-30 ;
  • Hélène Monsacré, Les larmes d'Achille. Le héros, la femme et la souffrance dans la poésie d'Homère, Paris, Albin Michel, 1984;
  • Gregory Nagy:
    • The Best of The Acheans. Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry, Jonhs Hopkins University, 1999 (rev. edition);
    • The Name of Achilles: Questions of Etymology and 'Folk Etymology', Illinois Classical Studies, 19, 1994;
  • Dale S. Sinos, The Entry of Achilles into Greek Epic, Ph.D. thesis, Johns Hopkins University.

External links

Last updated: 05-08-2005 04:57:30