, Research Paper
Heroes are defined by their humanity. Only after Achilles accepts his fate and comes to terms with his own mortality does he regain his humanity, and only then can he be considered a hero.
The Iliad opens with the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, (Iliad 1.1) and closes with the burial of Hector breaker of horses (Iliad 24.944). The bracketing of the poem with descriptions of these two men suggests both their importance and their connection to one another. They lead parallel lives as the top fighters in their respective armies, and, as the poem progresses, their lives and deaths become more and more closely linked. They each struggle to fulfill the heroic ideal, and they both grapple with temptations that lure them away from heroism. While Hector embodies the human heroic ideal, Achilles strives to surpass human heroism to achieve some identification with the divine. These delusions of grandeur diminish Achilles greatly; despite his efforts he can never be immortal, and a mortal god, besides being an oxymoron, would be decidedly pitiful.
Achilles heroism, therefore, is incumbent on his acceptance of his humanity. Achilles entangles Hector in his struggle to come to terms with his own mortality by recognizing himself in his enemy. Hector comes to represent the humanity of Achilles, against which Achilles rebels and which he tries to destroy in his desire to be immortal. Their fates are therefore linked, and the death of the one necessitates the death of the other. In finally giving over Hector s body to Priam, Achilles is at his most heroic; for in this action he accepts his fate, his mortality, and his humanity.
The two men are lured away from heroism in opposite directions; Hector, by his connections to home and family, and Achilles, by his connections to the gods. To be a hero is to sacrifice one’s own personal and familial ties in favor of facing death and striving for glory. In the poem, Hector is repeatedly tempted to abandon the front lines of battle against the Achaeans and to defend his city from within its walls. He is also very attached to his wife, Andromache, the rest of his family, and the entire city of Troy. When he travels into Troy to fetch Paris, he makes a deliberate detour to visit his family and they bid him to remain within the city walls. But although he loves his family intensely, he resists the temptation to remain with them. He says that he must answer the call to fight in the front ranks of Trojan soldiers, winning my father great glory, glory for myself (Iliad 6.527-29). He is determined to stay on the path of the hero, but it is very difficult for him to resist the pull of his loved ones. Just before his fatal encounter with Achilles, he is almost swayed by his family to stay within the walls of Troy. Why debate, my friend? Why thrash things out? he asks himself (Iliad 22.146). Hector is constantly torn between heroism and familial ties, but he finally chooses the path of glory as he turns to face Achilles, his murderer.
Achilles, on the other hand, strays from the way of the hero by denying his mortality and fancying himself a god. He is, after all, the son of a goddess. But Thetis could not endow her son with immortality, only with greatness. Achilles attitude towards the battles taking place just outside his ship is reminiscent of how the immortal gods react to the battles. For most of the poem, he sits back from the fighting and observes it from afar. When the members of the embassy come to entice him back into the battle, they find him delighting his heart now on the fine lyre (Iliad 9.223-24), which is a very relaxed and decadent activity considering that there is a war going on. The way that Achilles asks Zeus, through his mother, to pin the Achaeans back against their ships, trap them round the bay and mow them down (Iliad 1.486-87) is indicative of a god-like lack of reverence for human life, even the for the lives of his comrades. Hera exhibits this sort of indifference when she makes her deal with Zeus. She gives Zeus permission to raze the walls (Iliad 4.65) of her three most favorite cities in return for letting her destroy Troy.
In his attempt to become superhuman, then, Achilles instead becomes inhuman. Achilles most desperately tries to deny his mortality in his rampage against the Trojans. He arms himself in new armor specially made for him by Hephaestus, which can be worn and gazed upon only by him. The other Myrmidons, Achilles own men, were afraid of it, none dared to look straight at the glare, each fighter shrank away (Iliad 19.17-18). Achilles says, only immortal gods could forge such work, no man on earth could ever bring it off! Now, by heaven, I ll arm and go to war (Iliad 19.25-27). His disdain for everything human, then, is exhibited in the fact that he will only wear armor commissioned especially for him by the gods.
Achilles’ rampage is also decidedly inhuman (Iliad 20.555). It is described in these terms over and over again, as he fights like a frenzied god (Iliad 21.21), like something superhuman (Iliad 21.256). The nature of the rampage is indeed very inhuman and unheroic. Instead of approaching each opponent with respect and honor for their lineage, Achilles kills indiscriminately insane to hack more flesh (Iliad 21.37). Here again he shows a disregard for the value of human life. He kills so many people that he clogs up the movement of the river Scamander. His motto during this time is Die, Trojans, die till I butcher all the way to sacred Troy (Iliad 21.146-147). This sentiment is reminiscent of the killing style of Ares, the god of war. Human life means little to him, and he revels in the joys of killing. In striving to be immortal, Achilles even boasts to Apollo, I d pay you back if I only had the power at my command (Iliad 22.24-25). Achilles thus shows in his actions and his words a misguided attempt to approach godliness by denying his humanity. But alas, his attempts are in vain.
As Achilles’ initial, mortal armor changes hands from Achilles to Patroclus to Hector, so shifts the representation of Achilles’ humanity. This armor represents his family ties and his conception because it was given to his father, Peleus, on the day of his marriage to Thetis. Achilles endows Patroclus with his humanity, then, when he gives Patroclus his armor. Achilles is comfortable with bestowing this representation of himself on his comrade because he feels that Patroclus is almost a reflection of himself. The two grew up together as brothers in Peleus house; they spend their lives together, and they will be together in death, for Patroclus shade tells Achilles, let a single urn, . . . hold our bones together (Iliad 23.109-110). Achilles sees his friend as a fully human reflection of himself, while Achilles has a touch of the divine. Achilles is trying to distance himself from his humanity, and therefore his mortality, by sending his friend out to battle in his armor.
When Hector kills Patroclus, strips him of his armor, and dons it himself, Hector takes on the representation of Achilles humanity. In mourning for the death of Patroclus, Achilles mourns not only for the loss of his friend, but also for the theft of his armor. He says I ve lost him Hector s killed him, stripped the gigantic armor off his back, a marvel to behold my burnished gear (18.96-98). When Achilles faces Hector in single combat, it appears as though he is fighting himself, for he sees Hector in his own, human armor.
In this way, Achilles fury at Hector is a misplaced rage against his own mortality. Hector embodies all of the human ties such as family and citizenship that Achilles rebels against. Achilles rages against the prospect of mortality, which has become embodied in his enemy, a very human hero. Killing Hector is Achilles last desperate attempt to stomp out his own mortality. His efforts are, of course, in vain; his humanity cannot be killed because it is an essential part of him. He still tries to kill his humanity even after Hector s death. He was bent on outrage, on shaming noble Hector (Iliad 22.466) almost immediately after he kills his enemy. He defiles Hector s body almost obsessively. He continues to abuse Hector s body many days after the life has left it because he is still trying to conquer the mortality that it represents.
On the occasion of Priam s visit, Achilles finally gives over Hector s body, and therefore gives himself over to death. Since Achilles identifies himself with Hector, in putting Hector on the funeral pyre he is finally accepting his own mortality. Achilles lifted Hector up in his own arms and laid him down on a bier (Iliad 24.691-92). He does not leave this job for one of his servants or friends, but personally makes the decision to give the body to Priam. In giving Hector up for a proper burial, it is as if he is giving himself up for his own funeral. Once he gives himself up to death, and ceases to reach for the divine, he suddenly becomes very human. He engages in such basic human necessities as food, sleep, and sex. In the last mention of Achilles, we are acutely aware of his humanness, as he sleeps with Briseis in all her beauty sleeping by his side (Iliad 24.793-94). Achilles finally recognizes his humanity in the surrender of Hector’s body because this action is a symbolic surrender of his rebellion against his own mortality.
Hector’s funeral, then, can be seen as a representation of Achilles funeral, for the fates of these two heroes are linked. We do not see Achilles death in the poem, but we are certain of its prompt occurrence, for we see the burial of Hector who has become a reflection of Achilles. By accepting his own death, Achilles finally becomes a hero. His heroism is so great because, unlike other men, the measure of his heroism does not lie in the status of the people he kills, but in the action of giving up Hector s body. The murder of Hector is not Achilles greatest moment, but only one step in attaining his heroism. He diverges so greatly from the heroic, that in the moment when he finally accepts his mortality, his heroism is immense.