21 October 2015

Myth & Folklore: Where Did Mighty Achilles Get his Start?

By Judith Starkston

When I wrote my novel, Hand of Fire, set within the Trojan War, I thought a lot about Achilles, that troublesome hunk of a hero first mentioned in Homer’s Iliad, but popularized in countless stories and media. He was the greatest of the Greek warriors in the Trojan War. My novel focuses on Briseis, the woman Achilles took captive after sacking her city. Their relationship is at the core of my story. I used my imagination to bring Achilles to life, but I also did some historical digging.

The ruins of Troy with the plain
In the last couple of decades, we’re finding more reasons to see some accurate history in the legends of the Trojan War (Here is one link on that topic and here's another). It’s not such a leap that the heroes who fought on the plain of Troy were originally real men who lived and breathed. But there’s also been an infusion of myth and legendary grandeur into these heroes. For example, Achilles’ mother is said to be the powerful sea goddess Thetis who freed Zeus, King of the gods, when the rest of the Olympians ganged up on him. That’s some parentage. So where did Achilles’ mythological tradition originate?

Myth and legendary heroes are a lot like archaeological digs. They have many layers of complex elements that they acquire over time. I think the Hittite myth of the warrior god Telipinu accounts for part of the Achilles tradition—perhaps its starting point in the shift from man into myth.

Much of “Greek” mythology actually has its origins in various Near Eastern traditions, so it isn’t surprising to find portions of Achilles’ story arising on the eastern side of the Aegean. Moreover, the Hittites were the dominant empire surrounding Troy (in what is now Turkey) during the time when the Achilles legend would have started. The Greeks of Achilles’ time had major interactions with the Hittites. The oral tradition that reworked the stories of the Trojan War and Achilles developed over a thousand years and came to a final form around 750 BC in this same region and spans both the rise and fall of the Hittite Empire. I think the oral bards were influenced by the myth of Telipinu as they gradually took the historical reality that lies behind the Trojan War and turned it into a spellbinding tale that eventually became the Iliad we know today. 

So why do I think this? Listen for the correlations between the Greek and Hittite stories.

Here are the relevant key pieces of the Achilles’s story as we have it from the Greeks:
Achilles as healer, Attic red figure vase
1. As I noted, Achilles has divine parentage, a semi-divine status greater than that of other sons of gods, who are strong but not preeminent over all others in battle

2. Achilles becomes angry at an insult from one of the other Greek kings, Agamemnon, and withdraws from the battlefield

3. The Greek word Homer uses for Achilles’ anger means cosmic, divine anger, not the ordinary sort. When Achilles withdraws from the battle the Greeks die in droves

4. Achilles’ presence brings well being for his men, his absence destruction. The Greeks send a delegation to persuade him to come back to the fighting so they don’t all die.

5. When Achilles goes back into battle after the death of his friend, he battles a river and burns both it and its riverbanks up in the process (with some divine assistance)

6. Besides his killing prowess, Achilles is known as a healer, one who preserves life

Here are some parallel elements taken from Harry Hoffner’s translation of the Telipinu myth in Hittite Myths (Society of Biblical Literature, Ancient World Series, 1998)

Hittite Warrior god, Telipinu type
1. Telipinu is the divine son of the Stormgod. His divine skill involves making the crops grow and rains come, as well as being a warrior. He has a particularly powerful role in the well being of humans

2. Telipinu is offended by either one or more of the other gods' "intimidating words" and withdraws in anger. His father says, "My son Telipinu became enraged and removed everything good."

3. Once Telipinu withdraws, the damage is cosmic in reach. "The mountains and trees dried up, so that shoots do not come forth. The pastures and springs dried up, so that famine broke out in the land. Humans and gods are dying of hunger."

4. The gods send different delegations, including a bee and an eagle, to entice Telipinu back so that everyone doesn't die. 

5. In one version of the myth, once the gods try to bring Telipinu back, he becomes "even more angry" and he destroys springs, rivers, brooks and riverbanks.

6. When Telipinu returns, plenty, abundance and fecundity also return. The human and sheep mothrs bear offspring and the king has longevity. Telipinu heals all the damage. 

I think this infusion of a tragic Hittite god helps explain the evolution of Achilles into the torn and anguished hero we find in Homer. By nature, Achilles is all-powerful and protective, and yet he causes devastation and dies engulfed in grief.

So the next time you hear someone celebrating “Western Civilization,” you might remind yourself that, in fact, from the beginning, our most iconic heroes and ideas arose from an active interaction between all parts of the ancient world. The notion of an east/west split is an anachronism we’d do better to leave behind.

Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. She is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Her debut novel is Hand of Fire.
Find an excerpt, book reviews, historical background, as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on www.JudithStarkston.com
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Mary Preston said...

Achilles does fascinate. I love the sound of this. The research alone must have been most interesting.


rolandclarke.com said...

The links seem to make such sense. And I feel there are other myths and legends that have become merged over time, which is often used by conquering forces to absorb populations.

Judith Starkston said...

Thanks, Mary. The research was and continues to be tons of fun. The area of what is now Turkey has been one of the most archaeologically active in the world over the last couple decades and we know so much more about this world than we used to. I had so much fun bringing all those discoveries to life in fiction.

Judith Starkston said...

Roland, I'm glad you enjoyed the two articles about the historical reality behind the Trojan War. Your point about conquering forces is often true, although not so much in this case. The influence of Near Eastern myths and religion on the Greeks happened mostly through trade and positive contacts, largely invisible to us now. Despite the iconic Trojan War and the much later war with Persia, for the most part the interaction between the Greeks and the great Near Eastern empires at this early stage wasn't conflict oriented. Mostly because the Greeks were separated by water and didn't have a whole lot to offer the much more powerful and grand empires of the east. The Hittites, Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians were the big guys in the region.