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Achilles
Greece

Achilles

Mythological hero

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When Achilles was born, his mother, Thetis, dipped him in the river Styx, to make him invulnerable to all weapons. But as she did so, she held him by the heel, which never got wet, and there it was that the fatal arrow hit him. Others say it is not so, that Thetis plunged him into fire hoping to make him immortal like herself, but his father, Peleus, king of Phthia, came into the room and interrupted her.

Furious at his meddling, the mother took off and returned to the ocean, her former abode. Peleus, now needing a tutor for the boy, took the baby to his friend Cheiron, the wise centaur who had raised so many other heroes. The boy grew up fed on the marrow of bears to gain courage, and on the marrow of fawns, to be a speedy runner. At the age of six he killed his first wild boar, and was able to outrun wild deer at the hunts. He grew up to be the bravest, handsomest and swiftest of the heroes.

Achilles

When fair Helen was taken by Paris, the Trojan prince, and all of Greece rose up to return her to her rightful home, golden-haired Achilles led the Greek armies in the siege of Troy, and fought well for nine years, but time came when he refused to fight besides the other heroes. Agamemnon, the Greek general, had taken lovely Briseis away from him by force, the girl which had fallen to his lot as spoils of war and was his favorite slave. "Go ahead, Agamemnon, rob me of my rightful prize," said Achilles, his heart black with anger, "but know that the Greeks shall look for me in their hour of need, and shall not find me!"

And so brave Achilles sat in his tent as the fighting raged on the battlefield, and as hero after hero perished under the attacks of Hector, the Trojan general, and his troops. And the Greeks would have perished to the last man, had not Achilles been stirred by one thing and one thing only: his love for Patroklos, his bosom friend and lover. Only when his partner was torn from him by death did he return to the field of battle, to avenge him whom he cherished above all others.

They had been friends from childhood, from the days when Achilles had returned from the forest to live in the house of his father. One day Menoetius, an old friend of his father, came to the court of King Peleus to seek refuge. It seems his young son, Patroklos, had fought with a friend of his over a game of dice, and without meaning to, had killed the other boy. Menoetius and Peleus had sailed together on the Argos, and were good friends, so refuge was granted to the two weary travelers. Later Peleus held holy ceremony and purified Patroklos of his crime. The youth was appointed squire to Achilles. They soon became the best of friends, and later lovers.

Achilles and Patroclus
Achilles bandaging Patroclus after a battle
from a c. 500 BC kylix cup (now in a Museum in Berlin Germany) by Sosias Painter

His mother, being a goddess, knew that a great war was to take place between the Greeks and the Trojans. And she also knew that if her son went to fight against the Trojans he would die. So she sent Achilles to the court of King Lycomedes, where he was dressed as a girl and hidden with the king's daughters. It was a good trick, but the Greek generals were wilier still.

The seer Calchas had already warned them that they would never take Troy without the help of the young son of King Peleus. So three of them, among whom Ulysses, journeyed forth to Skyros, the island of King Lycomedes, where it was rumored the boy was hidden. The king bade them search where they liked, and they found nothing, but Ulysses thought up a ruse.

He brought a pile of gifts to the women's quarters, among which he hid a shield and a spear. While the girls were picking through the fineries he had an accomplice sound the war trumpet. Achilles, thinking the island was under attack, stripped off his women's clothes and picked up the weapons. Once he had been discovered, Lycomedes let him take his leave, and he was appointed admiral of the Greek fleet. He was still only fifteen years old. Nonetheless, while living among the king's daughters he had fallen in love with one of them, Deidameia by name, and had left her with child. Later, after the Greek fleet had set sail for Troy the ships were scattered by a storm, and Achilles took advantage of the delay to return to Skyros to marry Deidameia.

Soon thereafter the ships gathered again, and sailed for Troy, which they reached after many hardships. Achilles was not unaccompanied: Patroklos had been sent to watch over him, and from then on they were inseparable. In praying to the gods, Achilles would ask them to rid the world of all mankind, except for Patroklos and himself. Even so, Achilles kept on falling in love: as soon as the Greeks reached the Trojan shore, they joined battle with the defenders. Among them was Troilus, the nineteen year old son of Priam, the king of Troy.

It had been foretold that if he lived to the age of twenty, Troy would not fall, but that was not to be. Achilles was overtaken with desire for him as they were fighting. "I will kill you, unless you yield to my caresses," threatened the hero. The youth refused, and ran to hide inside a temple of Apollo, but Achilles barged in, offending the god, and since the young man still resisted, beheaded him upon the altar.

Achilles

After landing at Troy the Greeks found that the citadel was too strong to attack, so they spent the next nine years sacking the surrounding cities. Achilles was always in the forefront of the battles, and time and again he and his men, the Myrmidons, led the Greeks to victory. With him in command, the Greeks took more than twenty towns, and towards the end of the ninth year of battle the city of Lyrnessus fell.

Briseis, a royal princess, was taken captive, and when the spoils were parceled out she fell to Achilles. She was not his for long. When Agamemnon had to give up his own concubine to appease the gods his fury knew no bounds, and he took his rage out on Achilles by seizing Briseis. From then on Achilles swore he would have no part of the war, and pulled his men out of the ranks. Now the Greeks' luck turned, and the Trojans had the upper hand.

Agamemnon bitterly repented, and sent men to beg Achilles to return to battle, and to promise him the return of Briseis. Achilles would have none of it, and things looked grim for the Greeks. With the Trojans about to set fire to the Greek ships, Patroklos asked Achilles to borrow his armor, so that being seen in it he might strike fear into the hearts of the Trojans.

Achilles consented, but warned Patroklos to come back as soon as he had driven the Trojans away from the ships. In the heat of battle Patroklos did not heed his friend's advice, and pushed the enemy back to the very walls of Troy. Apollo, patron of the Trojans, had to step in and knock Patroklos back, and then Hector finished him off with a single blow.

When Achilles heard the bitter news he cried and rolled in the dust with grief. His friends brought back Patroklos' body from battle field, but he would not let them bury it. He lay down on top of it, holding it in his arms, sobbing helplessly. His own mother, Thetis, came to comfort him: "My child, how long will you keep on crying your eyes out in sorrow, forgetting food and sleep? It is a good thing to lie in love with women too."

But Achilles could think of nothing but his lost companion, and bitterly he reproached him for squandering his life: "You had no consideration for my pure reverence of your thighs, ungrateful after all our frequent kisses."

And then Achilles rose up, donned the new armor that his mother had brought, fresh from the forges of the god Hephaistos, and plunged back into battle, routing the Trojans and slaying Hector, their general and the oldest son of King Priam. Soon thereafter it was his turn to die, at the hands of Paris, Hector's brother, who pierced his heel with a poisoned arrow guided by Apollo, who had not forgotten the death of Troilus. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled, and Achilles' ghost rejoined his friend's in the Elysian Fields. Their ashes were mixed together in a golden urn, and the Greeks buried them in a common tomb.

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Athenaeus names as the first famous play on the erastes/eromenos love's theme Aeschylus' Myrmidons. The text has vanished, but enough fragments remain for us to guess at the plot. The play takes its title from Achilles' armed Thessalian followers at Troy, the Myrmidons, who presumably made up its chorus; its subject is Achilles' love for Patroclus.

Achilles & Patroclus
Achilles and Patroclus - Created by artist Malcolm Lidbury for 2016 LGBT History & Art Project Cornwall UK

The climax was the death of Patroclus, who had died fighting in Achilles' armor, and its most quoted speech was Achilles' lament over the body of his dead lover. In it, he referred to their "many kisses" and to "the holy union of our thighs," a phrase that must have startled the Athenians.

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