The Death of Achilles, the Greatest of the Greek Warriors

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Dying Achilles (Achilleas thniskon) in the gardens of the Achilleion

Achilles is a renowned figure in Greek mythology and one of the greatest of the Greek warriors who participated in the Trojan War.

Achilles was the product of a union between a mortal father (Peleus of Thessaly) and an immortal mother (Thetis, a sea nymph). After his birth, his mother attempted to make him immortal through a variety of different means, the most famous of which was dipping him in the mythical River Styx. Each of her attempts to secure Achilles’ immortality ultimately failed, however, and it was prophesied by the seer Calchas that Achilles would die during the Trojan War.

Achilles Kills Hector and Desecrates the Body

According to The Iliad, an epic poem that was written by the famous Greek poet Homer, Achilles ravaged many of the Trojan cities and eventually killed the noble Hector, a son of the Trojan King Priam. After his death, Achilles dishonored the body and dragged Hector’s corpse behind his chariot for twelve days, exacting revenge for the fact that Hector had killed Achilles’ close friend (some sources say lover), Patroclus.

Achilles’ Immortal Horse, Xanthus, Foretells Achilles’ Death

As legend has it, Achilles had an immortal horse named Xanthus which the goddess Hera endowed with the power of speech. After the death of Patroclus, Achilles rebuked the horse for allowing him to die. In response, the horse warned Achilles that he too was about to face death in the war. The horse’s magical power of speech was then revoked by the Furies, but not before this prophecy was made. This knowledge was nothing new, however, since Thetis had known since the beginning of Achilles’ life that her son would face an early death.

The Death of Achilles

Because of his mother’s attempts to make him immortal, Achilles was invincible in all but the heel, which his mother had failed to dip in the mighty River Styx. As a result, Chalcas’ prophecy of Achilles’ fate rang true when he was struck in the heel with a poisoned arrow.

The majority of sources convey that it was Paris, Hector’s brother and the younger prince of Troy, who shot the arrow which took Achilles’ life. Yet, many versions of the tale claim that it was Apollo, the god of prophecy, who guided the arrow to Achilles’ vulnerable heel. Indeed, this is the story that the Roman poet Ovid describes in “Achilles’ Death” which is taken from his Metamorphoses. Ovid writes, “If fame, or better vengeance be thy care, There aim: and, with one arrow, end the war.” He goes on to say, “The deity himself directs aright/Th’ invenom’d shaft; and wings the fatal flight.”

There are a few sources which claim that it was Apollo himself who shot the arrow, but these stories are less widely told and seemingly less popular. Either way, though, this event spelled death for the greatest of the Greek warriors and ended the slaughter and destruction that Achilles had wrought upon so many of the Trojan warriors.

Sources:

  1. “Achille’s Death” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
  2. Cotterell, Arthur and Rachel Storm. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. Anness Publishing, 2003.
  3. Homer. The Iliad. (Ian Johnston, Trans.)
  4. “Iliad” from Hellenica by Michael Lahanas.
  5. Lindemans, Micha F. “Xanthus.”
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