- Pronunciation: a-KEEL-ees
- Origin: Greek
- Role: Hero
- Symbol: Shield
- Father: Peleus
- Mother: Nereid
- Children: Semele
- Other Names: Achilleus
Who Is Achilles?
Achilles was a warrior and quite possibly the most popular of all the Greek heroes. He was incredibly strong, remarkably brave and remained loyal to those closest to him. But he did have a vulnerability deemed the “Achilles heel”. The Iliad by Homer tells us the tales of his famous Trojan War adventures and misfortunes.
Achilles was the son of a mortal and a sea nymph. His father, Peleus, was king of the Myrmidons. His mother, Nereid, raised Achilles with his cousin, Patroclus. Achilles’ mother wanted to keep her son safe from harm and worked every day to make him immortal. In the end, her course would seal the fate of her son.
Legends and Stories
There is no shortage of myths regarding Achilles. His tales are exciting, inspirational and full of emotion, including sorrow. Here are just a few of the hero’s stories, beginning in childhood and continuing until the end.
Thetis did everything in her power to make sure that Achilles would be immortal. When he was a baby, she would burn his body over a fire at night, dress his burns and dunk him into the River Styx. The water was said to have the power of immortality from the gods. But in order to submerge him, she would hold him tightly by his heel. The water never came into contact with this part of his body and therefore left him vulnerable, giving us the well-known term “Achilles heel”.
When Achilles was 9 years old, it was predicted by a seer that he would die in a battle with the Trojans. When Thetis heard this, she disguised her son as a girl and sent him to live on the Aegean Island to protect him from battle. But Achilles was destined to be a warrior and eventually left on his own to join the Greek army. Thetis still wanted to protect her son and asked Hephaestus, a blacksmith, to make her son a shield and sword that would keep him safe during battle. The armor protected his torso but couldn’t protect the one part of his body that wasn’t immortal.
The Trojan War
Achilles entered the Trojan War and became quickly known as a powerful warrior. He was undefeated in battle but the war continued to press on. Achilles found himself in a bitter quarrel with Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaean army. Agememnon had captured a woman named Chryseis, whose father was priest of Apollo. He tried to buy his daughter’s release but Agamemnon refused.
This enraged Apollo and he punished the Greek armies by sending a plague to kill each soldier. Agamemnon was forced to free the girl in an effort to save the few soldiers he had left. But he demanded a replacement, the Trojan princess Breseis. It is assumed that Achilles was involved with her as he refused to fight for Agamemnon anymore.
Without Achilles leading battles, the Trojans began to make headway in the war. The Greeks lost many battles until Achilles’ childhood friend, Patroclus, approached him with a compromise. He didn’t’ ask Achilles to fight but instead asked if he could use his armor, which was easily recognized by the Trojans. They would think that Achilles was on the battlegrounds again and hopefully retreat in fear.
The plan was working until Apollo intervened. He helped Hector, the Trojan prince, find Patroclus and kill him. Achilles vowed revenge and followed Hector. He killed any Trojans that tried to stop him. When he reached Hector, he tried to reason with the Greek hero but it was impossible. Achilles stabbed Hector in the throat as revenge for killing his best friend. He then dragged Hector’s body through the streets as a final insult.
Achilles’ death is not found in The Iliad but by piecing together other myths, we are able to understand what eventually ended the hero’s life. There was a truce between the two sides during Hector’s funeral. While attending the event, Achilles spotted Polyxena and her brother. Polyxena was the daughter of Priam. He attacked the pair and killed Polyxena’s brother. Priam was enraged but knew that Achilles was attracted to Polyxena and devised a plan. He told Achilles he would allow him to marry his daughter if he would end the war.
Polyxena agreed as she understood the real plan. She convinced Achilles to head to the temple of Apollo and make a sacrifice, as this was where their upcoming wedding would take place. Paris, Hector’s brother, was hiding in the wings of the temple with his bow and arrow. As Achilles approached the alter, Paris shot a poisoned arrow at the only vulnerable part of the hero-his heel. Achilles died in the arms of Odysseus, knowing the the prophecy of his death had come true.
Achilles’ family tree is a bit complicated. His father was a legend in his own right and a mortal king of the Myrmidons, who were known for their incredible war tactics. They were skilled soldiers who rarely demonstrated fear. His mother was Thetis and was focused on keeping her son safe, not just as a child, but for eternity. She wanted him to be immortal and never feel pain.
There are no clear statements regarding Achilles’ own family. Some say that he married Medea and they were reunited after death in the Elysian Fields of Hades. Some myths say that he had a relationship with Briseis, a queen whose story puts her in the center of a battle between Achilles and Agamemnon.
Achilles had one son, named Neoptolemus. He was conceived while Achilles was disguised as a girl in an effort to spare him from the Trojan War. He was hidden in the kingdom of Scyros and was involved with the king’s daughter, who gave birth to the child.
Achilles was incredibly handsome. He was known to be brave, loyal and intelligent but a bit self-centered at the same time. He knew how strong and powerful he was. In artistic representations of Achilles, he is often shown as a warrior, with a bodysuit and helmet. He is often shown in battle. For this reason, many representations of him also show him with a spear and shield.
The main symbol of Achilles is his shield. He used his shield in his fight with Hector and it is mentioned in Homer’s The Iliad. The shield was described as incredibly intricate and many artists have done their best to interpret the exact design that went to battle with Achilles. The shield symbolizes his strength and how he protected himself as best as he could but still left part of his body vulnerable to attack.