Title: Son of Peleus
Position: Greek Warrior
Location: Somewhere outside Troy
City of Residence: formerly, Thessaly, where his father was king
Born to Peleus, a mortal king, and Thetis, a sea nymph (or Nereid) Achilles was very strong, and very heroic. The story of how his father came to marry his mother is rather interesting, although I doubt that Ann Landers would have run it in her cute "How We Met" stories.
Peleus, who was, as I said, mortal, had fallen madly in love with Thetis, who was, as I said, immortal, which of course caused some problems. Generally it was unwise for mortals to fall in love with immortals, or even vice versa, unless your selected immortal happened to be Zeus, who did it all the time. And if you don't believe me, look at the numbers.
Poor Eos, goddess of the dawn, was the first to learn that falling in love with a mortal causes problems. On her way across the morning sky, she became enamored of Tithonus, a handsome young MORTAL prince. In fact, she decided that she wanted to spend her life with him-- eternity, that is. She ran excitedly to Zeus and asked him to grant her love eternal life. Being in love can make you so thoughtless-- she forgot to ask also for eternal youth. Poor Tithonus lived on and on and on, but as he grew older he shriveled and shrank up, sadly for Eos, who hadn't chosen him for his conversation alone. Soon he was so tiny that she could no longer hear anything he was saying, just a (rather annoying) chirping noise. So, in pity, she turned the fellow into a grasshopper. (Ah, love, it never lasts, does it?)
Selene, goddess of the moon and sister of Eos, fell in love with a handsome (and mortal) shepherd, Endymion. Fortunately she was somewhat brighter than her sister and had learned from Eos's misfortune. Thus, when she went running to Zeus, she asked that Endymion be granted not eternal life, but ETERNAL SLEEP. (Nope, she didn't even pretend that she was marrying him for his personality.) Although this raises a question-- don't you grow older while you sleep?-- it seemed to work quite well for Selene, who bore Endymion fifty children-- WHILE HE SLEPT. (Don't ask me how that managed to happen.)
But, back to our story. Peleus was in love with Thetis, and he was perseverant. He leaped into the water, grabbed her (that's one way to get a woman, er, nereid) and hung on for dear life. Because Thetis was capable of changing shape, this proved rather more difficult than it might seem. She turned into all kinds of sea creatures and various other beasts, but he managed to stay on, and at last she relented (having gotten to know him rather well in the process) and agreed to become his wife.
Ah, marital bliss. The wedding turned out to be a nasty affair (that's how the dispute over the apple started; see Judgement of Paris) but nine months later, Achilles entered the world. As he would later be regarded as the second most handsome man in the world (second to Paris) he must have been quite a baby. Seeing her infant son, however, Thetis realized that he was mortal, and decided to take this matter into her own hands. No one was going to hurt her baby Achilles, no sir. She went and dipped him in the river Styx to make him invulnerable to human weapons. In one of the most famously stupid passages in all mythology, she held him by the heel while dunking. So, Thetis, let's recap.
1) The waters will make Achilles invulnerable.
2) You are holding Achilles by his heel.
3) Thus, the water is not getting on his heel.
4) Thus, his heel will be vulnerable.
5) Thus, you will not be making Achilles invulnerable by dipping him in the river. You will just be making him cold and wet.
6) Thus, you ought to switch and hold his other heel. Anyone reasonable should be able to tell you this.
But NOO!! Thetis didn't realize what you realized in about...three seconds. She pulled Achilles out of the river and took him home.
Achilles grew up tall, strong, and handsome, skilled in all the arts of war, tutored by Chiron, the famous and wise centaur. Patroclus, another young warrior, joined his training after having accidentally killed a boy he was playing with and having been forced to leave the country. They became friends. The best of friends, in fact. VERY, VERY GOOD friends. REALLY. WE will deal with this later. However, they both were trained and increased in knowledge and skill until-- BANG! The Trojan War began.
Knowing of Achilles's skill as a warrior, the Greek host realized that without him, their cause would be lost. However, Thetis, ever the protective mother, realized that if Achilles went to Troy, he would die an early death. Not only was this logical (what generally happens when you go to war?) but there was a prophecy concerning Achilles: he would either live long and be forgotten (no, not prosper) or have a short life but live forever in memory. Interesting choice...
Thetis wanted her baby to live, and decided to use drastic measures. No, she didn't imprison him. No, she didn't ban him from going. She did worse-- she forced him to cross-dress! (Most mothers do not go this far.) She sent him to the court of King Lycomedes and hid him among the king's daughters, calling him Pyrrha. (You can imagine the explanation for this. "If you were a girl, we were going to call you Pyrrha. But you were a boy, so we called you Achilles. Now you're a girl...") Probably Lycomedes and his daughters were somewhat concerned about the "new girl" who wouldn't use the common showers, impregnated the others, and despite the fact that she was several heads taller than any other others, still was surprisingly...undeveloped.
Luckily for the Greeks, however, Odysseus (who knew that Achilles must go to Troy if they wanted to win, and who had a brain or two himself) was able to see through the disguise. He brought a basket of trinkets to the court, disguising himself as a peddler, and offered them to the girls-- with a sword at the bottom. Poor Achilles, er, Pyrrha. He/she couldn't help him/herself! When Odysseus sounded a war horn, he flung off his girl's clothing, brandished the blade, and all was, shall we say, revealed. Poor Thetis. Not only had she failed twice to save her son, but she had also completely humiliated him. He'd never live THAT one down...
When they arrived in Troy, Achilles proved his valor, doing many mighty deeds and really spooking the Trojans. He was accompanied by the Myrmidons, whose name has become synonymous with the kind of followers they were, and they too were fearsome fighters. Things were looking good for Greece-- but Agamemnon had to make trouble. You see, among the booty taken from the cities around Troy were two girls, Chryseis and Briseis. Chryseis happened to be the daughter of a priest of Apollo, and, naturally, when she was ignominiously taken off and given to Agamemnon (along with Briseis, who went to Achilles) he was somewhat annoyed. He caused great pestilence to fall upon the Greek host. The soldiers died like flies from a mysterious disease. At last they got an inkling of what was going on, so Agamemnon gave Chryseis back.
But NOO!! That wasn't the end of it. Agamemon wanted another slave girl to replace the one he'd lost, and he wanted Briseis. (Patroclus was probably glad about this, as Briseis and Achilles were making him a little jealous... No. We will deal with that LATER.) Since Achilles did not want to give up Briseis, a great confrontation took place between the two great Greeks. However, after a rather nasty hissy fit, in which he brandished his blade and threatened to kill Agamemnon, Athene made him see the light of reason, and he handed her over. Agamemnon was, after all, the commander, even if he was a pushy idiot. Achilles told him this in no uncertain terms, and then proceeded to spell the doom of many Greeks: he said that he and his Myrmidons would refuse to fight. (He and Patroclus were going to have some...quality time.)
The remaining nine years of war went rather quickly. The Greeks were losing to Hector. They kept trying to persuade Achilles to rejoin the battle, and kept failing. At last, when the Greeks were pushed back to their ships, Patroclus caused Achilles to see the light of reason. To a point, that is. Achilles agreed to lend Patroclus his well-recognized armor to wear into battle and spook the Trojans with. He made Patroclus promise to stop once he had pushed back the Trojans from the ships...
Unfortunately, once Patroclus put on the remarkable armor and spooked back the Trojans, he decided to start doing deeds of valor and pushed the Trojans to THEIR walls, killing Sarpedon (a famous Trojan) in the process. Then Hector killed him. What a bummer. (Don't you hate it when that happens?) But Hector wasn't satisfied with just killing Patroclus. No. He took the armor too, and was about to start doing improprieties to Patroclus's corpse when the Greek forces managed to get it away from him and, after a great effort, bring it back to where Achilles was.
After the death of his *FRIEND.* Achilles was absolutely heart-broken, er, distraught. (We'll deal with that later.) Thetis managed to persuade him to hold off from going into battle until Hephaestos had forged him a new set of heavenly armor, but after that, it was all vengeance. He and his Myrmidons rejoined the fray, and he killed Hector in revenge. Not only did he kill him, but he stripped Hector's corpse and dragged it around behind his chariot, threading leather thongs through Hector's ankles. Ouch. (Of course Hector was dead already, so it didn't hurt very much.) Although the Greek forces were appalled by his treatment of this other hero's corpse, he was unrelenting. Priam, king of Troy, had to come and kneel at Achilles's feet and offer him Hector's weight in gold before he could convince him to give up the body. Once the body was gone, Achilles had time to ponder the fact that it was prophesied his own death would come soon after Hector's. "How could that be?" he wondered. "My mother was very careful to dip all of me in the Styx so that I would be invulnerable to mortal weapons." Oops.
Poor Thetis. Her oversight when dipping came back to haunt her. While going about in front of the walls of Troy, Achilles was met by a rogue poisoned arrow in his vulnerable heel, shot from the bow of none other than Paris. Achilles did the only sensible thing to do when you have a poisoned arrow in the heel. He died.
There are several other theories about his death. Some sources record a temporary attachment between Achilles and Polyxena, a Trojan princess. According to them, he was going to be married to her when, at the ceremony, Paris and Deiphobus murdered him. Other sources merely provide variations on the arrow-in-the-heel, suggesting that Apollo, not Paris, fired the shot.
Regardless of the manner of his death, however, the prophecy had been right about him. While he did not live very long, he did live to be remembered forever in history and myth. This very tale is proof of it.
After Achilles's death, he was said by some sources to reside on the White Isle with Polyxena, Medea, Iphigenia, Deidamia, and Helen for all eternity. This is highly unlikely, as it tended to occur whenever the author of a myth wished to reward his heroine. Certainly some of this is a bit far-fetched, even for mythology-- Medea was a notorious sorceress who killed her children to punish her cheating husband, Jason, and anyone as sane as Achilles would not have wanted to spend eternity with her. ("Medea, put down the meat cleaver. You hear me, Medea, put it down. We're both immortal now, remember--") Besides, Achilles probably would not have enjoyed being stuck with 5 women for eternity. (But we'll have to ask Patroclus about that.)
Wait-- Achilles was GAY?