The Birth and Youth of the Greek Warrior Achilles

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The Education of Achilles, by Eugène Delacroix, pastel on paper, c. 1862 (Getty Center, Los Angeles)

Achilles, one of the greatest of the ancient Greek warriors, was the son of Peleus of Thessaly and a sea nymph named Thetis.

According to Greek mythology, the marriage of Peleus and Thetis had been carefully arranged by two of the most powerful gods in the Greek pantheon: Zeus and Poseidon. Because of her beauty, Thetis had been highly sought after by both of these gods; however, they were warned by the fire god, Prometheus, that whoever fathered a child with Thetis would create offspring that would prove mightier than his predecessor. Not wanting to run the risk of being overpowered, Zeus and Poseidon arranged for Thetis to marry the mortal Peleus.

Peleus and Thetis

Peleus was the King of Thessaly (a region of Greece) and the leader of the Myrmidons who were very brave and skilled warriors. Thetis was a sea nymph, essentially a goddess of nature who took the form of a beautiful maiden. While there were several types of nymphs, Thetis belonged to a particular sub-set known as the Nereides (nymphs of the sea).

Thetis Attempts to Make Achilles Immortal

As legend has it, Thetis was committed to making her infant son immortal. One version of the story explains that she dipped him in ambrosia, the food of the gods, and placed him in a fire. This was intended to burn away his mortal elements and make him into a god. A later version of the story explains that Thetis dipped him in the River Styx, the river which ran through the underworld (Hades). As Thetis dipped Achilles in the river, she held him by the heel. Thus, Achilles’ heel failed to touch the magical water and he was left vulnerable in this place; it was this tiny portion of his body that would prove to be his downfall when he was shot with an arrow during the Trojan War.

Achilles Resides with Chiron

Despite her best efforts, neither attempt to make Achilles immortal was successful. In the first story, when Peleus discovered Thetis placing their infant son into the fire, he became so angry with her that she left him. Peleus then placed Achilles in the care of Chiron, the leader of the centaurs (half-man and half-horse mythical creatures), who taught him the art of war. Chiron had earlier saved Peleus’ life after he had been abandoned on a hunting trip and his sword had been hidden by a king who erroneously believed that Peleus had seduced his wife. Chiron taught Achilles all that he would need to know in order to be a successful and strong warrior.

Achilles Resides at the Palace of Lycomedes Before Entering the War

When Thetis learned from the seer Calchas that Achilles was destined to die during the Trojan War, she made an attempt to hide him in the palace of King Lycomedes on the island of Scyros. He resided there for some time before he was sought out by Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s The Odyssey, and encouraged to enter the war. It was during the war that Achilles demonstrated his great strength and ferocity, ultimately securing his position as one of the greatest of the Greek warriors.

Source:

  1. Cotterell, Arthur and Rachel Storm. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. Anness Publishing, 2003.
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