Words Are My Weapon: What killed Achillies

*disclaimer = if you don’t want to hear about greek tragedy don’t read*

What killed Achilles?

The common belief is that it was a guided arrow, led by the god Apollo. But, as is always the case with the classic stories of Antiquity, things in Homer’s Iliad are not always what they seem.

What if it was something else?

Swift-Footed Achilles, the invincible warrior, and hero of the Trojan War…a man born to end lives. Perhaps it is time to transform the literal events here into symbolic ones so that we may more adequately discuss his death.

Achilles, according to legend, was dipped into the River Styx as a child, held by his ankle. His mother did this to protect him. The River Styx, for those who don’t know, is a river (comprised of souls) in the underworld. Hercules had to fight through it…(basically, it was a bad place.)

Symbolically though, is it a stretch to see a mother trying to protect her son, by teaching him all she knew, and had learned from her lifetime? And is it a stretch to assume that a caring mother would bestow upon her son (in addition to sword and shield) an understanding of human nature, compassion, trust, and loyalty?

I think not.

But Achilles was a warrior. He devoted his life to conflict, to war. But what if war wasn’t literally war; What if war was a metaphor for struggle?

And Achilles’s armor- crafted by the God Hephaestus. Wouldn’t a lifetime of conflict force you to protect yourself? And wouldn’t the best solider in a war or conflict protect himself better than all others?

And his shield – the one piece of armor that protected him the most…

It was embroidered. The pictures on Achilles’s shield were not of war, or savagery. They were of normal life- they were of a wedding. Of harmony. The culmination of a man’s greatest achievement, love.

But before you could reach Achilles’s heel, you’d have to overcome his other strengths.

Which brings me back to those “gifts” (qualities) that his mother, Thetis, gave him.

To destroy his compassion…in addition to ending lives (obviously), Homer forces Achilles to experience loss. The death of Patroclus, who was extremely close to Achilles, damaged the hero. He lost compassion and respect, and in a rage attempted to defile Prince Hector. He dragged his dead corpse through the beaches of Troy and would not allow a proper burial.

That is, until Priam showed greater compassion – thereby renewing Achilles’s own faith.

Trust, another of the key aspects to Achilles’s strength was also damaged during his time of conflict. His King loathed him, and often took specifically from him. That is a far cry from what we expect our leaders to do. Achilles therefore lacked trust in his country. He turned to people. Some of the other warriors of the Trojan War, however, also betrayed his trust by either championing the war on behalf of the King. Then there were his Myrmidon- a private army whose loyalty lied solely with Achilles. These men never disobeyed Achilles directly, but betrayed him by fighting (under the guise of Patroclus) nonetheless. His trust in everyone was lost.

Then there is Achilles’s understanding of human nature. Remember, he has experienced a lifetime of conflict. Women were sexual objects, they were taken away and given, won and lost. For him, the most basic element of human nature- love- was never properly understood. However, ironically, the events of the war, the conflict, led the Swift Footed Achilles towards a path of understanding by experiencing love (with Briseis). Of course, however, human nature does extend beyond love and so we must also postulate to what depths his loss of faith caused him to view others.

So, loyalty, trust, and compassion were destroyed, even though they were originally part of the man Achilles was, before “a lifetime of conflict.” The only thing that had strengthened was his understanding of human nature, and that was only marginal. In the end, it is the compassion and desperate attempt to collect his love – Briseis – that allows for him to be hit with the arrow.

More symbolism? Love will kill you? Don’t strip yourself of your armor before the biggest battle of all?

However you want to interpret the death of Achilles, it is clear that it was certainly not just an arrow. After his death, when Ajax and Odysseus compete for his armor, it is really just a pile of material and not what protected Achilles. I think that’s the bottom line. The only thing that would remain of Achilles’s spirit on the armor would be the pictures on his shield. They would help motivate Odysseus to return home and achieve what Achilles could not.

So what’s my whole point with all of this?

Achilles began a good, strong man- well equipped for conflict. But a man can only handle so much conflict before he breaks. Even if he seems invincible, years of conflict, years of pain could get through. And in the end, it may be something small that breaks the great warrior, but he will break.