Who is Achilles? - Greek Mythology
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Who is Achilles?

Achilles on a vase
Achilles, on a
Greek black-figure vase
from around 530 BC

Achilles was the son of Peleus and Thetis: Peleus was a king in Greece, and Thetis was a nymph.

When Achilles was still a little baby, his mother tried to protect him from harm by dipping him into a river that had special magic water. And it worked; he could not be harmed, except for one heel that his mother held him by as she dipped him in the water. Now when someone is very strong but has one weak spot, we call that their "Achilles' heel." (This story is related to an Indian story from about the same time of Krishna and Duryodhana from the Maharabata, and to the later medieval story of Siegfried. Maybe all three stories come from an earlier Indo-European story, or maybe these people just heard each others' stories.)

Achilles and Ajax
Ajax carrying the dead Achilles

When he grew up, Achilles heard a prophecy. It was this: he could make a choice to live quietly and without fame or honor, and live a long time and die in bed, or he could choose to be famous in his lifetime and remembered always, but to die young. What would you choose?

Achilles chose to be famous and die young. He lived through the events of Homer's Iliad, but then (according to some stories), killing the Trojan prince Hector, but then Hector's youngest brother, Paris, shot Achilles in the heel with an arrow and killed him.

Later when Odysseus met Achilles in the underworld, Achilles was maybe not as happy with his decision. He said it was better to be alive, even if you were poor and miserable, than to be dead.

Learn by Doing - a debate
More about the Trojan War

Bibliography and further reading about Achilles:

The Iliad of Homer (Oxford Myths and Legends), by Barbara Leonie Picard. A retelling of the story.

The Iliad (Penguin Classics) by Homer. Translated by Robert Fagles. A great translation!

Approaches to Teaching Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, by Kostas Myrsiades (1987).

Achilles, by Mike Chapman (2004). A brief biography of Achilles, with details that aren't in the Iliad about Achilles' childhood.

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, by Jonathan Shay (1995). A best-seller, about the relationship between the rage of Achilles and PTSD in Vietnam vets.

Or check out the Encyclopedia Britannica's article on Achilles.

More about the Trojan War
Ancient Greece
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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