The Evolution of Achilles: Background information when reading The Song of Achilles

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The Song of Achilles

A Novel

by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2012, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2012, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Beyond the Book:
The Evolution of Achilles

Print Review

The name Achilles has become synonymous with great strength and invulnerability, however to the ancient Greeks it had quite a different meaning. "Achilles" itself is a Westernization; the hero's name is better translated Akhilleus and pronounced "a-hee-LAY-us," and is of unknown and possibly pre-Greek origin. It is a combination of two words: Akhos ("grief") and Laos ("people or tribe"). It's possible that the name is derived from the Akheloos River in in western Greece, although several sources have interpreted it to mean that Achilles was the "embodiment of the grief of the people" or that he was the "hero of grief;" others construe it to mean "grief to the enemy."

The tale of Achilles and the Trojan War is one of the most well-known and influential stories in Greek mythology. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica:

Achilles tending the wounded Patroclus In the traditional accounts, Paris, son of the Trojan king, ran off with Helen, wife of Menelaus of Sparta, whose brother Agamemnon then led a Greek expedition against Troy. The ensuing war lasted 10 years, finally ending when the Greeks pretended to withdraw, leaving behind them a large wooden horse with a raiding party concealed inside. When the Trojans brought the horse into their city, the hidden Greeks opened the gates to their comrades, who then sacked Troy, massacred its men, and carried off its women... During the first nine years of the war, Achilles ravaged the country around Troy and took 12 cities. In the 10th year a quarrel with Agamemnon occurred when Achilles insisted that Agamemnon restore Chryseis, his prize of war, to her father, a priest of Apollo, so as to appease the wrath of Apollo, who had decimated the camp with a pestilence. An irate Agamemnon recouped his loss by depriving Achilles of his favourite slave, Briseis.

Achilles' deeds are most famously chronicled in Homer's The Iliad, an epic poem primarily concerning a two-week period in the ten-year-long Trojan War and written during the 8th century BCE. It is widely believed, however, that The Iliad was based on oral tradition, so it's possible the legend is much older. The Iliad details Achilles' pivotal actions over that short time period (but does not include information about his birth, childhood or death).

Achilles slaying Penthesilea Over the centuries, narrators added to the chronicle of Achilles' life, eventually developing a full biography for him. Because the stories were primarily oral, however, they varied significantly. For example, in one version of Achilles' early life, his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, coated his body in ambrosia and set him ablaze on a pyre in an attempt to burn off his mortality, thereby making him invincible (but was interrupted, which kept him from becoming completely invulnerable). In another, she dipped him in the River Styx to accomplish the same result (holding him by the heel, which then became the only vulnerable part of his body). But both of these were later additions to the myth, appearing no earlier than the 1st century CE. Indeed, there's no suggestion in The Iliad that Achilles is invincible; Homer in fact details a scene in which Achilles' elbow is wounded by a spear, and there are at least three different accounts of his death, all of which appear to have arisen well after Homer created his opus.

Portrayals of Achilles have continued to evolve over the centuries - from Aeschylus's trilogy (written in 500 BCE, now referred to as the Achilleis) to Sophocles's The Lovers of Achilles, from Robert Duncan's poem "Achilles' Song" to Brad Pitt's role in the 2004 movie Troy - making him the archetype of the strong male hero that continues to inspire people to this day.

Top image: Achilles tending the wounded Patroclus, Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BCE
Bottom image: Achilles slaying Penthesilea, Attic black-figure amphora signed by Exekias, c. 530. BCE; British Museum London.

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article is from the March 21, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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