Reflections on Achilles
copyright 1999 by Tracy Marks
The Rage of Achilles
In the Iliad, Achilles expresses an all-encompassing narcissistic rage, which blinds him to all human caring for many weeks or months. We may be inclined therefore to ask: What in Achilles' past could have led him to have such ruthless and overpowering rage? In attempting to answer that question and fathom the causes of rage, we might consider the psychodynamics of his relationship to his mother and her influence upon him.
Achilles' mother, the immortal nymph Thetis killed six of her sons as she thrust them into the fire, attempting unsuccessfully to make them divine. Finally, in her seventh attempt, with Achilles, she succeeded – but only in part. Because she grasped Achilles by his heels as she held him in the fire, his ankles were not sufficiently immortalized. As a result, Achilles remained vulnerable in his heels, where we could receive a mortal wound
What effect might this experience and divine parentage have had upon Achilles? Clearly, Thetis valued her own immortality and was so intent upon her children – born of a mortal father - also being immortal that she was willing to kill them in the process. Can we surmise here that she indeed disdained humanity and the facets of her children that were not immortal? Could she have imparted this shame to Achilles? Was she, in contemporary terms, a narcissistic parent, attempting to meet her own needs through her children, at their expense?
What influence might her behavior have had upon half human, half divine Achilles? Perhaps he wanted to believe that he was divine and superhuman, and experienced deep shame and humiliation in regard to his mortality and human limitations. Such shame could lead him to deep sensitivity in regard to feeling devalued – intense reaction to personal slights, difficulty letting go of violations and humiliations.
Often the narcissism of a parent leads to narcissistic vulnerability and rage in a child, who never feels valued for what he or she is, because he can not fulfill the parental ideal. Thetis' lack of appreciation and empathy for Achilles' suffering could also have influenced him developing a blinding self-centeredness, and callousness to the suffering he caused others.
Because of his rare, mixed heritage, Achilles may also have felt very separate from others, resulting in difficulty at times identifying with and caring for his comrades - except for Briseis and Patroclus with whom he formed deep attachments. In fact, his feelings for both were so profound that the threat of loss of each one sent him catapulting into maniacal rage. Here, too, we see indications of a young man who was not truly nurtured, who formed intense symbiotic bonds in an attempt to compensate for what he had never had.
Achilles, however, is not a static being in the Iliad, which is after all a narrative of his transformations – from rage and alienation to redemption and reunification with his community. Achilles was a hero by his culture's standards because of his attributes as a warrior. But Homer indirectly suggests another form of heroism expressed by Achilles, related to the giving up of hubris or pride.
What is the nature of Achilles' transformation in the Iliad, and the stages of his development? In brief, Achilles moved through the following stages:
1 – personal humiliation and loss when Agamemnon took his prized Briseis, leading immediately to rage and withdrawal from community;
2 – a lengthy phase of self-questioning, as he grappled with the purpose of this war and his role in it and commitment to it – while remaining callously disregarding of the deaths of Greeks around him for which he was partly responsible. In the process, Achilles questioned the value of honor and renewed his commitment to life, even life without honor;
3 –another intense bout of rage and loss, at the death of Patroclus. When he returned to battle, Achilles now transferred his rage against Agamemnon to Hector, as he blindly and savagely struck out at Hector, not only killing, but brutalizing his body after death;
4 - discovering again his common humanity, as he met with the Trojan King Priam, who came to him, bereft, begging for the body of his son. With Priam, Achilles finally allowed himself to experience the grief under his anger. Able to imagine the feelings of his own father in a similar circumstance, Achilles was able to empathize with Priam, and to feel his loss with him. Sharing the pain of loss with the enemy helped restore his own humanity.
Another factor that may have contributed to Achilles' eventual redemption was that he did respect and honor Zeus. Such a reverence for the King of the Gods kept Achilles from losing himself totally in his own grandiosity, and may have enabled him to eventually acknowledge the limitations of his own ego and his own place in the grand scheme of the universe.
For us today – if not for the Greeks of Achilles' time or Homer's time, Achilles' heroism was not manifested in his killing of Hector, in his embodiment of the Greek male heroic virtues. But rather, Achilles provided another model of heroism, through overcoming hubris, through softening of his rage, and reawakening to compassion and reconnection with the living.
Addendum: Achilles Today
We today cannot easily understand how Achilles felt about being dishonored by Agamemnon, since we don't have a similar concept of honor in our society. Perhaps we could better understand if we consider the definition of honor (time) in Homer's age and relate it to the forms it might take for us today.
Honor, as Achilles knew it, meant the value attributed to a person by his tribe and society. The quest for honor, and fear of dishonor, was of considerable significance in Greek society – although a cultural characteristic alien to our western world (but certainly not to such eastern cultures such as Japan). For the ancient Greeks, honor in war involved the public acknowledgement of value and glory through awarding prizes. The actual prizes themselves had meaning to the warriors, but even more important was the value which they conferred upon the recipient, the respect and public recognition which they symbolized.
In order to better understand Achilles' experience in regard to honor – which was also magnified by a personal attachment to Briseis - let's attempt to translate this concept of honor into contemporary terms, perhaps by viewing the war prizes today as the corporate paycheck.
Imagine: You, Achilles, have worked long and hard at a job for many years, and have proven yourself highly competent, earning a top salary. Then due to mismanagement of funds, an esteemed colleague, Agamemnon, from another department, experiences a financial loss, bordering on disaster. The company does not have enough funds to pay him, as well as you. Angry at not being rewarded for his own labor, Agamemnon demands your salary as compensation, takes your paycheck then demotes you to a lower status and earning level so that he alone is compensated...and no one stops him from doing so. How would you feel? How committed would you be to the job or company? Wouldn't you want to quit?
But then if you left, and he apologized later and doubled your salary, and asked you to return, would you return? Would you be able to heal the wounds of violation and forgive? What kinds of circumstances would enable you to let go of the past and reconnect with your colleagues?
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