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Achilles who?

Years ago, when I was traveling in Morocco, I was fascinated by the story tellers who plied their wares in the souks of the ancient cities. It was radio, television and the news all rolled into one bright, vivacious package.

The story tellers would begin something formulaic, and gradually work in current events and other things the audience would be familiar with.

They worked for tips, and if you were generous, you could get your name added to one of the stories in the teller’s repertoire. If you were particularly generous, you could get a story custom made, with you as the main character.

Years later when I was studying Homer’s epics, it occurred to me that what I had seen in Morocco was directly descended from that tradition. There’s a long-standing debate about who Homer was, or if he even existed, but what’s clear is that the poems attributed to him were written down in the early 8th century BCE, just about contemporaneous with the development of writing itself in ancient Greece. Before that they were a part of the rich tradition of story telling in the agoras of Greece. Analysis of Homer’s poems reveals his use of standard structures and characters from older traditions. The stories themselves relate to the Trojan War, which seems to have happened near the end of the 12th century BCE.

This all got me thinking about Achilles, the hero of the Iliad, and the most fearsome of all the Greek warriors. For a hero, he was not much of a bargain. The story is that, on the way to lay siege to Troy on a trump-up grievance, the Greeks sacked a few minor cities here and there, apparently just to pass the time. In one of these attacks, Achilles kidnapped a woman with whom he became enamored. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae and the commander-in-chief of the Greek expedition, decided to take her for his own.

Achilles was furious, and, in revenge, spent almost the entire war, which lasted ten years, sulking in his tent while his comrades were getting slain and wounded. It was only after his friend and probable lover, Patroclus, was killed that Achilles roused himself and joined the fray, killing Hector, crown prince of Troy, and the killer of Patroclus.

For my money, Hector was a much more admirable character for a number of reasons; go read the Iliad for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean. I recommend Stanley Lombardo’s translation.

So why focus on Achilles? True, he was a formidable fighter when roused, but mostly he’s portrayed as a pouting adolescent nursing his pride.

Unless, of course, a contemporary of Homer, co-incidentally named — drumroll — Achilles, promised to fork over a generous fee to get put into the Iliad as the main character.

Perhaps this Achilles promised more than he ended up paying. Never cross a poet!

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