1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Achilles

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For works with similar titles, see Achilles.

ACHILLES (Gr. Ἀχιλλεύς), one of the most famous of the legendary heroes of ancient Greece and the central figure of Homer’s Iliad. He was said to have been the son of Peleus, king of the Myrmidones of Phthia in Thessaly, by Thetis, one of the Nereïds. His grandfather Aeacus was, according to the legend, the son of Zeus himself. The story of the childhood of Achilles in Homer differs from that given by later writers. According to Homer, he was brought up by his mother at Phthia with his cousin and intimate friend Patroclus, and learned the arts of war and eloquence from Phoenix, while the Centaur Chiron taught him music and medicine. When summoned to the war against Troy, he set sail at once with his Myrmidones in fifty ships.

Post-Homeric sources add to the legend certain picturesque details which bear all the evidence of their primitive origin, and which in some cases belong to the common stock of Indo-Germanic myths. According to one of these stories Thetis used to lay the infant Achilles every night under live coals, anointing him by day with ambrosia, in order to make him immortal. Peleus, having surprised her in the act, in alarm snatched the boy from the flames; whereupon Thetis fled back to the sea in anger (Apollodorus iii. 13; Apollonius Rhodius iv. 869). According to another story Thetis dipped the child in the waters of the river Styx, by which his whole body became invulnerable, except that part of his heel by which she held him; whence the proverbial “heel of Achilles” (Statius, Achilleis, i. 269). With this may be compared the similar story told of the northern hero Sigurd. The boy was afterwards entrusted to the care of Chiron, who, to give him the strength necessary for war, fed him with the entrails of lions and the marrow of bears and wild boars. To prevent his going to the siege of Troy, Thetis disguised him in female apparel, and hid him among the maidens at the court of King Lycomedes in Scyros; but Odysseus, coming to the island in the disguise of a pedlar, spread his wares, including a spear and shield, before the king’s daughters, among whom was Achilles. Then he caused an alarm to be sounded; whereupon the girls fled, but Achilles seized the arms, and so revealed himself, and was easily persuaded to follow the Greeks (Hyginus, Fab. 96; Statius, Ach. i.; Apollodorus, l.c.). This story may be compared with the Celtic legend of the boyhood of Peredur or Perceval.

During the first nine years of the war as described in the Iliad, Achilles ravaged the country round Troy, and took twelve cities. In the tenth year occurred the quarrel with Agamemnon. In order to appease the wrath of Apollo, who had visited the camp with a pestilence, Agamemnon had restored Chryseis, his prize of war, to her father, a priest of the god, but as a compensation deprived Achilles, who had openly demanded this restoration, of his favourite slave Briseis. Achilles withdrew in wrath to his tent, where he consoled himself with music and singing, and refused to take any further part in the war. During his absence the Greeks were hard pressed, and at last he so far relaxed his anger as to allow his friend Patroclus to personate him, lending him his chariot and armour. The slaying of Patroclus by the Trojan hero Hector roused Achilles from his indifference; eager to avenge his beloved comrade, he sallied forth, equipped with new armour fashioned by Hephaestus, slew Hector, and, after dragging his body round the walls of Troy, restored it to the aged King Priam at his earnest entreaty. The Iliad concludes with the funeral rites of Hector. It makes no mention of the death of Achilles, but hints at its taking place “before the Scaean gates.” In the Odyssey (xxiv. 36. 72) his ashes are said to have been buried in a golden urn, together with those of Patroclus, at a place on the Hellespont, where a tomb was erected to his memory; his soul dwells in the lower world, where it is seen by Odysseus. The contest between Ajax and Odysseus for his arms is also mentioned. The Aethiopis of Arctinus of Miletus took up the story of the Iliad. It told how Achilles, having slain the Amazon Penthesileia and Memnon, king of the Aethiopians, who had come to the assistance of the Trojans, was himself slain by Paris (Alexander), whose arrow was guided by Apollo to his vulnerable heel (Virgil, Aen. vi. 57; Ovid, Met. xii. 600). Again, it is said that Achilles, enamoured of Polyxena, the daughter of Priam, offered to join the Trojans on condition that he received her hand in marriage. This was agreed to; Achilles went unarmed to the temple of Apollo Thymbraeus, and was slain by Paris (Dictys iv. 11). According to some, he was slain by Apollo himself (Quint. Smyrn. iii. 61; Horace, Odes, iv. 6, 3). Hyginus (Fab. 107) makes Apollo assume the form of Paris.

Later stories say that Thetis snatched his body from the pyre and conveyed it to the island of Leuke, at the mouth of the Danube, where he ruled with Iphigeneia as his wife; or that he was carried to the Elysian fields, where his wife was Medea or Helen. He was worshipped in many places: at Leuke, where he was honoured with offerings and games; in Sparta, Elis, and especially Sigeum on the Hellespont, where his famous tumulus was erected.

Achilles is a typical Greek hero; handsome, brave, celebrated for his fleetness of foot, prone to excess of wrath and grief, at the same time he is compassionate, hospitable, full of affection for his mother and respect for the gods. In works of art he is represented, like Ares, as a young man of splendid physical proportions, with bristling hair like a horse’s mane and a slender neck. Although the figure of the hero frequently occurs in groups—such as the work of Scopas showing his removal to the island of Leuke by Poseidon and Thetis, escorted by Nereïds and Tritons, and the combat over his dead body in the Aeginetan sculptures—no isolated statue or bust can with certainty be identified with him; the statue in the Louvre (from the Villa Borghese), which was thought to have the best claim, is generally taken for Ares or possibly Alexander. There are many vase and wall paintings and bas-reliefs illustrative of incidents in his life. Various etymologies of the name have been suggested: “without a lip” (ἀ, χεῖλος), Achilles being regarded as a river-god, a stream which overflows its banks, or, referring to the story that, when Thetis laid him in the fire, one of his lips, which he had licked, was consumed (Tzetzes on Lycophron, 178); “restrainer of the people,” (ἐχέ-λαος); “healer of sorrow” (ἀχε-λώιος); “the obscure” (connected with ἀχλύς, “mist”); “snakeborn” (ἔχις), the snake being one of the chief forms taken by Thetis. The most generally received view makes him a god of light, especially of the sun or of the lightning.

See E. H. Meyer, Indogermanische Mythen, ii., Achilleïs, 1887; F. G. Welcker, Der epische Cyclus, 1865–1882; articles in Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Daremberg and Saglio’s Dictionnaire des Antiquités and Roscher’s Lexikon der Mythologie; see also T. W. Allen in Classical Review, May 1906; A. E. Crawley, J. G. Frazer, A. Lang, Ibid., June, July 1893, on Achilles in Scyros. In the article Greek Art, fig. 12 represents the conflict over the dead body of Achilles.