MYTH MAN'S HOMEWORK
Part I - Thetis
Achilles was the great hero of the Trojan War. His mother was the Nereid Thetis, who is known for her many interventions in the affairs of both gods and mortals. For example, when Hephaestus was cast by Zeus (or Hera, as some say) from Heaven, and fell into the sea, he was saved by Thetis. And when Dionysus was persecuted by King Lycurgus of the Edonians, he found refuge in the sea with her. And when the Argonauts, after having met the Sirens, encountered Charybdis and Scylla and the Wandering Rocks, Thetis, along with the other Nereids, put them out of danger by steering their ship through those threats.
Thetis helped even Zeus, the king of the Olympians - Once a palace revolt took place in Olympus and the deities Hera, Poseidon and Athena plotted against Zeus, planning to chain him, and taking away his awesome thunderbolts. Thetis averted it by calling to Mount Olympus the Hecatoncheire (One-Hundred-Handed) giant Briareus who squatting down by Zeus and displaying his force frightened the other gods away and undid Zeus's binds, freeing him.
Zeus and his brother Poseidon, the god of the sea, both were in love with Thetis and tried to win her hand in marriage. But the respected Titaness Themis made a prophecy that the son of Thetis would grow up to become mightier than his father, so quickly they changed their minds about her. Instead she married a man named Peleus.
Others say that Hera had raised Thetis as a child, and out of respect for her, Thetis herself refused the offer of Zeus, and to punish her he decided that she would not marry a god but instead a mortal man. Zeus did not stop pursuing Thetis until he learned the prophecy from Themis. And Hera in recognition for what Thetis had done, or rather not done, chose Peleus as Thetis' husband, for according to her, he was the best man on earth at that time.
Still, Thetis was not happy to wed a mere mortal and complained that it was an insult to her status. So when Peleus tried to claim his bride she refused him and changed her form, first into a bird, then a tree, and finally into a tigress, scaring Peleus into letting go of her. But Proteus, a son of Poseidon, instructed Peleus to not let go of Thetis no matter what form she took. When Thetis turned into fire and water yet Peleus still held on, in admiration of his perseverance she finally grudgingly relented and agreed to be his wife.
It's worth noting that the wedding of Thetis and Peleus indirectly brought on the Trojan War. All the gods and VIPs had been invited by Zeus to the wedding, except for the goddess of Discord, Eris. To get even, Eris tossed a golden apple in the midst of the gathering, and labeled it "To the Fairest". A fight soon ensued between the beautiful goddesses Hera, Aphrodite and Athena, as to who the rightful recipient of the golden apple should be. The decision was left to a shepherd named Paris, who awarded the apple to Aphrodite on the promise of winning the hand of Helen, the most beautiful mortal. Aphrodite caused Helen to fall in love with Paris, and when he abducted her and they ran away to Troy, the Greeks launched the Trojan War.
Part II - Young Achilles
Since Achilles was half god (from Thetis) and half mortal (from Peleus) his mother wished to make him immortal. When he was young she dipped him in the waters of the infernal river Styx, found in the Underworld. Thus he became invulnerable, save for the spot on his heel where she held him. Still others claim that to make Achilles immortal Thetis would nightly hold him over the fire to get rid of the mortal elements inherited from Peleus, and that in the daytime she would anoint his body with Ambrosia. Peleus chanced upon his infant son in the fire one night and freaked out on Thetis. In disgust she tossed down the child and left both him and Peleus, rejoining her fellow Nereids. Thetis never stopped caring for her son, however, and always kept an eye out for his welfare.
In time Peleus took the child to be reared by the Centaur Cheiron, who was a famous mentor and teacher of many heroes. On Mount Pelion Achilles was fed meat from lions and wild boars, and the marrow of bears, to give him courage. A diet of honey-comb and fawn's marrow made him a swift runner. Cheiron taught Achilles the arts of riding, hunting, archery, pipe-playing, healing and more. The Muse Calliope taught him to sing. Achilles exemplified the best qualities of a warrior, coupled with the soul of a poet.
He killed his first boar when he was only six years old and every day brought wild animals back to Cheiron. Athena and Artemis gazed in wonder at this handsome golden-haired child, impressed at his swiftness and skill - Achilles could overtake and kill stags without the help of hounds.
When Achilles was nine years old the prophet Calchas declared that Troy would never be taken without the help of Achilles. Thetis knew that her son would either die young as a hero at Troy, or live an inglorious life at home. She did her utmost to preserve the life of Achilles, even going so far as to disguise him as a girl and sending him away to Lycomedes, king of Scyros. There he lived under the name of Cercysera, Aissa, or Pyrrha, it is said. Achilles wanted nothing to do with dressing like a girl but he realized that it was the only way to get close to King Lycomedes's beautiful daughter. This affair with the king's daughter, Diedameia, produced a son named Pyrrhus, later called Neoptolemus.
Thus disguised as a young woman Achilles lived quietly at Scyros until the leaders of the Greek expedition against Troy, who were Odysseus, Nestor and Ajax, arrived and asked to speak to Achilles. They wanted him to join them in the Trojan War. King Lycomedes insisted that he wasn't there, and offered the men a search of the palace. The search failed to expose Achilles, so Odysseus resorted to trickery.
The Greeks had brought a pile of gifts to Scyros, mostly jewels, girdles, fancy embroidered dresses and colorful cloth. Odysseus asked the ladies to pick their choice of any gift, but instructed his men to sound a sudden trumpet blast and clash of arms outside the palace. All the girls had gathered around the gold and finery, ooohing and aaahing, but one girl showed absolutely no interest in the jewels, but instead seemed fascinated by the swords, spears and arms that were part of the gifts.
So when the trumpet blew and the sounds of fighting were heard, one of the "young girls", the disguised Achilles, instinctively stripped to the waist and grabbed the sword and shield, readying for battle. Thus Achilles was exposed, and he promptly agreed to join the Greek expedition, and lead to Troy his army of Myrmidons, which was what his warriors were called.
Before he left Achilles married his sweetheart, the pregnant Deidameia. Then he brought a fleet of fifty or sixty ships to join his fellow Greeks at Aulis. He was fifteen years old at the time.
ACHILLES GOES TO WAR
The winds were not favorable for the fleet to sail and much time was wasted, making the gathered armies restless. The seer Calchas then lied, using Achilles's name - He told the Greek leader Agamemnon that the gods would only co-operate if he was to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. He tricked his daughter by telling her to sail to Aulis, as she was to be married to Achilles, who naturally was unaware of the Agamemnon's scheming. Just as Iphigenia was about to be sacrificed, however, the goddess Artemis substituted a deer in her place and she escaped. The Greek fleet was then able to sail to war.
Thetis had warned Achilles that the first Greek to land on Trojan soil would die so Achilles was able to avoid that. It was unlucky Protesilaus who was first to land and he soon died, but not before first dispatching a number of Trojans.
The walls of Troy were heavily fortified and the Trojans had stocked up tremendous stores of supplies so the siege lasted ten years. During that time Achilles sacked and pillaged a large number of surrounding cities, including the islands of Tenedos and Lesbos, and the cities of Thebe, Antandrus, Adramyntium, Lyrnessus, reaching very far to the south and taking also Cyme, Phocaea, Smyrna, Clazomenae and Colophon.
King Agamemnon insulted a seer of Apollo, who had come to claim his daughter Chreisis, who was kidnapped by the Achaeans (Greeks). To punish the king Apollo brought a terrible pestilence upon the army and many Greek warriors died, until the seer Calchas claimed that it was Agamemnon's pride which brought this evil upon the Greeks. Still Agamemnon chose to insult this seer also, but announced that he would give up claim to the girl. To show who was boss, however, he took away Briseis, who was Achilles' current sweetheart.
This put Achilles into a deep funk and he refused to fight, instead wasting away in his tent while his army of Myrmidons idled their time away. When the Trojans realized that Achilles and his Myrmidons had withdrawn from battle they became emboldened by the great warrior's absence and they launched a series of raids against the Greeks, inflicting severe losses. At Thetis's urging, Zeus permitted this to happen, in order that the Greeks would once again honor Achilles and realize how indispensable to them he truly was.
As time went on and the Trojans became more and more dangerous, Agamemnon came to his senses and agreed to appease Achilles' wrath. And it is for that purpose that he offered him the seven tripods, the seven women, the seven cities, and many other gifts including the (according to Agamemnon) untouched Briseis. But Achilles was too hurt and no gift of wealth would sway him to rejoin the battle. The Greeks appeared lost.
Now, Achilles had a best friend called Patroclus. When the Trojans became so bold as to begin setting fire to the Greek ships, Achilles consented to send his pal Patroclus to fight, giving him his own famous armor to wear. The Trojan prince Hector killed brave Patroclus in battle and took the armor for himself. The death of his best friend devastated Achilles and spurred him into action. He was angry and wanted revenge!
Realizing that he had wasted his time and skills bitterly sitting by his ships, Achilles asked his mother to fetch him new armor from the god of smiths, Hephaestus. His old armor had been taken by Hector, son of Priam, King of Troy, when he slew Patroclus.
When Thetis delivered the new armor Achilles called a council of war and reconciled with Agamemnon, both agreeing that they had acted foolishly. It was payback time!
None could stand before the wrath of Achilles. At the sight of him the Trojans broke rank and scattered, dividing into two bodies. Achilles drove one part across the plain towards the city of Troy and penned the other in a bend of the river. The River-god tried to subdue him but Hephaestus came to the aid of Achilles and dried up the waters with a scorching flame. The stunned Trojan survivors hastened back to behind their walls like a bunch of scared rabbits.
Now it was Hector's turn. The two men met and both armies stood back and watched amazed. Hector's plan was to run around the city walls, hoping to tire Achilles who had been long inactive. Wrong. Three times Achilles chased Hector around the walls and each time Hector ran for the safety of a gate, Achilles would cut him off. At last Hector stood to fight and at once Achilles drove his sword through him, gaining revenge for the death of Patroclus.
Achilles ignored Hector's dying wish to have his body returned to his father Priam for ransom. Instead he fastened leather straps to the body of Hector, secured them on his chariot and whipping up his immortal horses Balius, Xanthus and Pedasus, dragged the corpse three times around the walls of Troy, much to the dismay of the devastated Trojans.
Achilles now buried Patroclus and sacrificed horses, two of Patroclus' own hounds and twelve noble Trojan captives, several sons of Priam among them. Still beside himself in grief, at dawn every day Achilles would drag Hector's body three times around Patroclus' tomb. Finally at the command of Zeus, Hermes led Priam to the Greek camp one night and he beseeched Achilles to ransom his son's body, throwing himself at the warrior's feet begging.
Oddly enough Priam found Achilles asleep and could have easily killed him but chose not to. They agreed to exchange the corpse for Hector's weight in gold and a pair of scales were set up outside the city walls. Hector's body was laid in one pan and the Trojans were invited to heap their gold in the other until the scales balanced. When at last Priam's treasury was empty and still Hector's burly corpse was heavier, Polyxena, a Trojan princess, threw down her bracelets to provide the missing weight. Impressed at her courage Achilles offered to exchange the gold for the beautiful woman and Priam told him that she was freely his if Achilles persuaded the Greeks to depart without Helen, ending the war. No deal.
Achilles and his warriors continued their rout of the Trojans and pursued them towards the city. But Poseidon and Apollo had pledged to punish certain deaths and also some insolent boasts uttered by Achilles over the corpse of Hector. Apollo sought out Paris during the battle and guided his hand. The arrow of Paris found the only vulnerable spot on Achilles, his right heel, and the great hero of the Trojan War died in agony. Others say that it was Apollo himself, disguised as Paris, who struck the fatal shot.
A great battle raged over the corpse until finally the Greeks carried dead Achilles through the midst of the enemy and back to their camp, dismayed at the loss of their greatest warrior. To make amends with Thetis, Poseidon promised to bestow on Achilles an island where he would be worshipped and receive divine sacrifices for eternity. The Nine Muses sang his funeral dirges while a host of Nereids offered solace to his mother Thetis.
His corpse was burned upon a pyre on the eighteenth day and his ashes mixed with those of Patroclus, laid in a golden urn made by Hephaestus and buried at Sigaeum. But Thetis snatched Achilles' soul from the pyre and brought it to the island of Leuce, where he rejoined his dead friends, including Patroclus. Helen, the cause of the war, was his bride there, by some accounts.
Yet others claim that Achilles went to Hades where he complains bitterly of his lot in life as he stomps about the Asphodel Fields. And other ancient writers say that he married Medea, of Golden Fleece fame, and that they live like king and queen in the Elysian Fields, or the Islands of the Blessed.
By the way, soon thereafter the Greeks won the Trojan War, utilizing the Trojan Horse to sneak their warriors into the city and sack it. It's a great story, well worth studying.
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