29 December 2014

Legendary Heroes and Feats: Achilles

Achilles receiving divine armor from his goddess mother
Achilles, as depicted in Homer’s Iliad, is a legendary hero. You might even say a mythological one since his mother was said to be a goddess—a goddess strong enough to protect Zeus when all the other gods ganged up against him. Some mom! And some son.

He’s an interesting bundle of contradictions. In the Iliad, he asked uncomfortable questions of the Greek leadership in the Trojan War. Why are we fighting? What is the meaning of a warrior’s life if we all die, both the one who fights in the forefront and the one who hangs back? For what end should our fathers, mothers and wives suffer such losses? He had the moral courage to be a thorn in a powerful but greedy leader’s side and defend the men of the fighting ranks. Homer’s depiction of this questioning dimension in Achilles’ character makes him an appealing hero to a modern world, weary of war. Achilles would be great in a democracy—just the kind of gadfly every open society needs. Through Achilles Homer lets us explore the big questions about life and war, family and loyalty, love and hate. There’s something so irresistible about a man who has all the physical power and none of the answers but is willing to ask the questions anyway.

On the battlefield at Troy
But also in the Homeric tradition Achilles was the Best of the Achaians, a formal title that meant everyone saw him as the pre-eminent warrior without question on the battlefield. If he sometimes questioned why they fought, he still excelled at the fighting.

One battle in particular showed his semi-divine excellence. The Greeks and other ancient people imagined that every river was a god, and appropriately enough, the rivers that embraced Troy on either side were controlled by divinities who supported the Trojans. At one particularly fierce moment in the war, Achilles slaughters Trojans right and left in order to get to Hector, the greatest of the Trojan warriors. Hector has killed Achilles’ best friend, and Achilles is driven by both grief and fury. He kills so many Trojans on the bank of the River Scamander that the divine river decides to enter the battle and finish Achilles off. Huge waves rear up to drown the hero. Zeus sees what is going on and brings a fiery wind to help drive away the water. Eventually Achilles fights his way free and dashes across the plain killing Trojans as he goes. Revenge is a powerful motivator. To succeed against a godly river is an extraordinary feat—even if we rationalize the tale it’s still impressive. Almost nothing is more powerful than the onslaught of tons of water. But when the tradition remembers your battle as a victory over a god, well, that’s a pretty legendary feat.

I’ve been intrigued at where the tradition behind such a hero might have arisen. It’s as likely as not that some “real” human warrior provided the beginning of the Achilles legend. Some version of a Trojan War did historically happen (I discuss this in articles entitled  “Troy History or Myth?” and “Did the Trojan War Really Happen?”) But any historical warrior received several generations of mythologizing before he became the Achilles we hear about in the tradition.

We think of Achilles as part of the Greek tradition because Homer composed in Greek, but it’s also the case that the poetic/mythological tradition of the Trojan War, including the stories of the heroes on the Greek side, arose in the region around Troy, the western coast of what is now Turkey. The peoples there, in the era in which any “Trojan War” would have occurred, were culturally and religiously closely related to the powerful Hittite Empire just to the east. Troy was formally allied to the Hittites through much of this period.

Among the Hittite myths there is one about a young, angry god, Telipinu, and I think his myth influenced the way Achilles’ story formed. Homer and the other oral bards would have heard the Telipinu cycle of myths, and they could have incorporated it into their understanding of this hero.
Hittite gods carved into an open air sanctuary
As the Hittite myth describes it, Telipinu, son of the Stormgod, attends the assembly of the gods one day only to find they have offended his honor so vilely that he rushes out in fury and refuses to have anything to do with the gods or mankind. He runs around burning rivers and hiding from his friends. His absence from the company of the gods causes great harm. Eventually he is brought back into harmony with the gods. This mythic plotline calls up pieces of Achilles’ story with remarkable precision, including burning up a river. I think this young warrior god, Telipinu, whom the armies of the Hittites and Trojans described as “running before them” in battle, became intermixed with a human warrior. I think this literal combination of man and myth gave rise to a hero slightly disjointed with his world, one who could ask big moral questions as well as fight.

I’ve expressed this understanding of Achilles through fiction in my novel of Briseis and the Trojan War, Hand of Fire. While my readers need never have read the Iliad or any Hittite myths, those influences guided my writing. Here’s my description of Achilles burning up the river, with some appropriately ambiguous help from Briseis and the gods. (For my sources of inspiration, you’ll find the relevant “battle in the river” verses in Homer in Iliad Bk 21, the first 400 lines or so, and the Telipinu myth is published in English translation in Hittite Myths, by Harry Hoffner, Jr., published by Scholars Press.)

“There—Briseis saw a golden flash. Achilles stood in the river surrounded by the dead bodies of his victims. The water crested above him like a lion pouncing on its prey. Boulders and bodies, carried by the water’s force, knocked his feet from under him. Troy’s immortal river itself engaged him in battle. Achilles reached for a branch of an overhanging elm, but the whole tree wrenched from the riverbank, its dense roots dragging the river bluff with them into the water, nearly burying Achilles.
Surely this was not his fate, to lie folded under mud and stones in the hostile waters of Scamander, but how could even he escape such raw power?
To reach for Troy he had fought against the city’s gods for so long; she could not tolerate this river god rising against him also and drowning his beauty in its murk, no matter how many dead he had thrown into Scamander’s waters. She strained forward, willing him to escape the river’s hold. A wind rose up, hot and blasting. It caught her hair and pulled it toward the river. When she tried to gather her hair in her hand, it scorched her fingers and escaped her hold.
The banks of the river burst into flames. The dead burned in a sudden pyre. The water boiled. The fish leapt upon the scorched banks in a vain attempt to flee the flames that had replaced their watery homes. The tamarisks and elms along the river’s edge became monstrous torches.

In the midst of this inferno, she saw Achilles lift his massive shield and spear in victory. Her heart surged. Not even the divine river could stop him. She heard his shout of joy as he raced across the plain, blasting Trojans like a bolt of lightning. Invincible warrior god, unstoppable fire.”