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Achilles Rehumanized?

By Book 24 of The Iliad by Homer; Achilles has known that he has two fates: either he can either die with glory while fighting in Troy, or live a long life after the war, but have no glory for people to remember him by. (9. 500) Thetis, his mother warns him that he will die shortly after Hector dies,  but he is not concerned with his death, only that he let many of his compatriots be slaughtered by mighty Hector and that he just stood back and watched it happen.( 18.120) “ But now I’ll go and meet that murderer head –on , that Hector… For my own death, I’ll meet it freely when… the gods would like to bring it on.”(18. 135-137) Because  Achilles taunts the gods and openly welcomes people to battle him, it would seem that he is already feeling dead , and he is just going through the motions. However, once Achilles finally did kill Hector, that was when he became less human and more like a god.

The way Achilles cuts Trojans down in the fights after he dear friend’s death is more than human, but not quite god-like. To prove that he was inhuman, Achilles goes up against a river, Xanthus commonly known as the Scamander by mortals. (20.89) Achilles was ruthlessly killing men and throwing their bodies into the Scamander just because he could, but the river spoke to him and asked that he stop clogging up his waterways. Because Xanthus is a god Achilles had no chance of winning that fight by his self, he needed Hera and Hephaestus’ aid to defeat the mighty river “sprung of immortal Zeus.” (20.2) While fighting by the river, Achilles has the appearance of being a deathless god, “he leapt like a frenzied god- his heart racing with slaughter … he devours all he catches… insane to hack more flesh.”(21.20-30)

It appears that Patroclus was Achilles moral compass and without him he is an animal searching for something to kill.” Before Patroclus met his day of destiny it warmed my heart a bit to spare some Trojans… But now not a single Trojan flees his death. (23.115-118) Patroclus as a ghost speaks to Achilles and he says” godlike as you are, Achilles – to die in battle beneath the proud rich Trojan’ walls! Never bury my bones apart from yours, Achilles let them lie together.”(21.98-100) Even the immortal horses that Achilles uses in battle lament Patroclus’ death,” … they stand there, mourning trailing those very manes along the ground. They both refuse to move, saddled down with grief.”(23.329-331)

When Priam gets the orders from Zeus to go retrieve Hector’s body, Hermes the giant – killing god escorted him down to the Achaean ships. (24.402)  Even Hermes sees that there is something missing  from Achilles ,“ That man without a shred of decency in his heart … his temper can never bend and change – like some lion … Achilles has lost all pity” (24.47-50) but he encourages Priam to find the shred of decency in the Greek.” Dead man though he is – the gods love him dearly…implore him by his father, his mother with lovely hair by his own son – so you can stir his heart! (24. 499 and 548) Before Zeus sends Hermes off, he summons Thetis, immortal water nymph and mother to Achilles. She must warn her son that he must comply with Zeus’s wishes. While telling Achilles that he must back down, and she announces he does not have long to live,”You don’t have long to live now, well I know: already I see them looming up beside you – death and the strong force of fate.”(24.159-161)

When Priam gets to the Myrmidon encampment, he is welcomed by Achilles. He gets down and “kissed his hands, those terrible, man- killing hands that slaughtered Priam’s many sons in battle…’ no one on earth has done before – I put to my lips the hands of man who killed my son’”(24.560 and 591) Priam then proceeds to persuade Achilles by having him think of his own father, Peleus.” Priam then prayed his heart out to Achilles:’ Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles- but at least he hears you’re still alive and his old heart rejoices, hopes rising, day by day.’”(24.570-572) He then tells his story; “Fifty sons I had when the sons of Achaea came … Many most of them violent Ares cut the knees from under. But one, to guard my walls, my people- the one you killed the other day” (24.579-581) Somehow Priam makes Achilles see the importance of family, and Achilles agrees to give Hector’s body back to the Trojans.” Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire to grieve for his own father… overpowered by memory both men gave way to grief” (24.593.-594) The least likely person for Achilles to relate to was Priam and yet somehow they end up bonding with each other of the loss of someone close to them. For Priam it was his sons, and for Achilles it was his father and Patroclus; Achilles wept now for his father, now for Patroclus once again.”(24.595) It was then that Achilles was rehumanized, maybe not for long but he was able to really grieve without most of the anger clouding his heart gone.” Then, when brilliant Achilles had had his fill of tears and the longing for it had left his mind and body…” (24.602)

19 Responses to “Achilles Rehumanized?”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Emily,

    Achilles long knows of his fate(s). As you point out, he knows it long before Book 18, and perhaps even before he started fighting at all. Should Achilles choose to fight Hector, it will be the end. Although what kind of choice is it really for someone like Achilles? Phthia, where Achilles is from, means something like “wither.” So he either chooses immortal fame or a withered life back home, away from battle–away from everything he knows. Maybe Odysseus would have chosen that. In Odyssey 11, Achilles seems to lament the choice he made.

    I like the point about Patroclus being the “moral compass” of Achilles. Without Patroclus, Achilles is unhinged. I also like the point about Xanthus; it is striking that a minor deity (a river) can put Achilles in his place–even a divinely angry Achilles who is wearing brand new, Olympian armor. This surely speaks to the gulf between mortals and immortals, however close the heroes sometimes seem to bridging it.

    This is a solid piece. I think the writing could have flowed a little better; maybe read the next one aloud before you submit. I find that useful.

    KH

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