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Many of the heroes that we see in the Iliad are semi-divine, the one that tends to be focused on the most is Achilles. Though he is not a child of Zeus, unlike some of the other heroes, Achilles is consistently referred to as the greatest of all the warriors at Troy. We are shown that he struggles with his humanity so much so that for the majority of the poem, Achilles watches the battle without participating, in the same way that the Olympian gods do. However, after the death of Patroclus, Achilles seems to turn off his humanity completely and totally embrace the divine aspects of himself. This continues to be true until Book 24 when Achilles has an encounter with Hector’s father, King Priam. During this encounter, we see more human characteristics return to Achilles. Despite this fact, I do not believe Achilles re-embraces his humanity, but rather shows just how divine he truly is.
Book 24 opens with Achilles grieving for Patroclus, even after his funeral games. The grief that Achilles is suffering makes him a shell, and it appears to everyone else that he is hard hearted, in the same way that Apollo accuses the other gods of being, “ hard-hearted you are, you gods,you live for cruelty! …now you cannot bring yourselves save him…” (24.39-42). Apollo even goes on to degrade both Achilles and the gods further, “ but murderous Achilles—you gods, you choose to help Achilles. That man without a shred of decency in his heart…his temper can never bend and change…”(24.46-48). All of the things that Apollo points out in his speech to the other gods, all the attributes of Achilles— his unyielding temper, his hardness of heart, lack of shame— they are all attributes of the gods. It seems that Apollo is saying that Achilles is more god than he is human, “no doubt some mortal has suffered a dearer loss than this… he grieves,he weeps, but then his tears are through. The Fates have given mortals hearts that endure” (24.54-57).
In fact in his speech, Apollo also says, “like some lion going his own barbaric way,giving into his power, his brute force and wild pride, as down he swoops on the flocks of men to seize his savage feast” (24.48-51). It shouldn’t be lost on us that after Zeus was born, Rhea hid him in a cave, where he was attended by lions, and in this speech Achilles is compared to a lion; nor should it be overlooked that Zeus often sends signs through birds of prey and the metaphor that is applied to Achilles is that of a bird of prey. Aside from the obvious connections to Zeus that Apollo draws, he also says that Achilles is going “his own barbaric way.” This seems odd because it sounds like Apollo is making a judgment about Zeus, especially given that he connects Achilles to Zeus explicitly. Hera also seems to say that Achilles is more divine than any other human, “ …if all you gods,in fact,would set Achilles and Hector high in equal honor. But Hector is mortal…Achilles sprang from a goddess” (24.68-71). All of this points to Achilles not being human at all, like some how the divine part of him cancelled out the mortal part. It is not clear that the gods fear Achilles, though it does seem that they look at him with a sort of reverence, and are always careful in their dealings with him.
On the other hand, Achilles doesn’t seem to think himself anything more than a semi-divine mortal with extraordinary talents on the battlefield. He shows reverence at least to Zeus, if no one else, obeying his decree, “ the swift runner replied in haste, ‘so be it. The man who brings the ransom can take away the body if Olympian Zeus himself insists in all earnest” (24.168-170). Achilles belief in his own humanity is made clear when King Priam speaks about the relationship between a king and his son(s), “remember your own father,great godlike Achilles— as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age! No doubt the countrymen round about him plague him now,with no one there to defend him,beat away disaster. No one— but at least he hears you’re still alive and his old heart rejoices,hopes rising day by day,to see his beloved son come sailing home from Troy” (24.570-576). Following this episode, “Achilles wept himself,now for his father, now for Patroclus once again…when brilliant Achilles had had his fill of tears and the longing for it had left his mind and body… he raised the old man by the hand and filled with pity” (24.597-603). Pity is an emotion that we often see the gods experience, particularly Zeus, and this emotion often warrants mercy from Zeus. In a similar fashion, Achilles because of his pity is merciful to Priam when he give him Hector’s body. Not only is merciful then, he is also merciful when he promises to stop the fighting for as long as Priam needs to conduct a proper royal funeral and its games.
The only thing that is clear by the end of Book 24 is that Achilles is capable of feeling human emotion. However, the way he experience these emotions is very much divine. It never become clear, how human Achilles is, simply because he always embraces his divine side. Maybe that is the thing that makes Achilles so great, that he takes advantage of his literally god given abilities, but never thinks he is anything other than a extraordinary mortal.

20 Responses to “Achilles-human or god”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Lindsey,

    This is a solid account of whether Achilles is rehumanized or dehumanized. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that Achilles once again feels emotions besides grief and wrath by the end of the essay; but also that he feels them as a god does, not as a human does.

    This raises the question of what the difference is between mortals and the Homeric gods. The gods are “deathless” and can take guises, etc. But they seem to be noble and petty, honorable and jealous just as humans can be. The gods may be deathless, but they do change, i.e., undergo passions. Maybe the difference is that passions (even, or perhaps especially, ones like anger or jealously) take on a different tone for mortals because they are mortals. The gods get over the loss of their children pretty quickly (e.g., Zeus, Ares). Achilles does not get over Patroclus so quickly, though they are not related or lovers (there is no evidence for this in Homer, at any rate).

    I like your point about Achilles watching the battle; this is especially evident when Machaon is wounded and Achilles sends Patroclus to inquire about him. Achilles, like the gods, watches the war, watches the other heroes. He is apart from them partly because he is beyond them.

    But is he beyond them because he is a god or because he is dead? I like the stuff about the lions and Mt. Ida. But remember the “funeral scene” when he is grieving for Patroclus; remember how Hermes conducts Priam to Achilles’ tent at the end. Maybe Achilles does experience passions like a god by the end. But maybe this is because his human part is already dead–because he, thus, is already dead.

    KH

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