If you’re anything like me and have a passion for stories, you probably love Greek Mythology. Inundated with noteworthy characters, drama, and epic battles, which have been re-imagined over the generations, our attention turns now to one such tale, that of heroic Achilles and his death during the battle for Troy.
Apollo, the patron god of Troy, sought to pour out his vengeance and wrath upon the armies of Greece (Achaeans) during the battle of Troy. During the war, a cycle of revenge led to the eventual demise of mighty Achilles, with Apollo guiding the arrow of Paris to the fateful Achilles’ heel.
Most legends, along with human nature, cannot be summarized in a simple answer. To truly understand “why” Apollo killed Achilles, we need to look at the “who,” the “what,” the “where,” and the “when.”
Building up to a heroic death
With each reiteration of the epic, originally laid out by Homer in the Iliad, different aspects have fleshed out the story around Achilles’ life and death. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer does not actually recount how Achilles meets his end. However, in accordance with most of the legends, not in the least bit those ascribed to the poet Arctinus, we can draw a few conclusions:
- The various Greek gods were involved in the war for Troy, on both the side of the invading armies as well as the Trojans.
- Apollo does not actually kill Achilles; he does however guide Paris (Hector’s brother) to shoot Achilles in his heel (weak spot) with an arrow, which is the cause for Achilles’ death, according to the majority of the legends.
- One of the legends surrounding Achilles is that his mother, Thetis, upon hearing a prophecy about Achilles’ death, took him as a baby and dipped him into the River Styx. This baptism resulted in Achilles becoming invulnerable, except for his ankle, where his mother held him.
- The death of Achilles was at the end of a series of unfortunate events:
- Very early in the war, Achilles, as instructed by Athena, kills Troilus, the son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. According to Myth, the boy was so attractive that he was rumored to be the son of Apollo.
- In the 10th year of the war, Apollo’s priest, Chryses, suffered a grave injustice at the hands of Agamemnon, the commanding Greek king during the battle of Troy, when his daughter Chryseis was taken as Agamemnon’s prisoner.
- Apollo, in retaliation, sent a pestilence to destroy the Greek camp.
- In response Achilles convinces Agamemnon to send Chryseis back to her father. As retribution for this, however, Agamemnon takes Achilles’ wife/prisoner (depending on the legend followed), Briseis, as his own.
- This causes Achilles to no longer fight for the Greeks but to stay in his tent. He then entreats his mother, Thetis, to pray to Zeus to cause the Greeks to lose so that Achilles’ presence would be missed on the battlefield.
- Up until this point, the war had been chiefly a stalemate. Now with Achilles no longer fighting, the Trojans began to have the upper hand.
- Still, Achilles refused to become involved; however, he did permit his close friend (and maybe lover) Patroclus to wear his armor and inspire the Greek troops during the battle.
- Apollo, aware of the ruse, led Hector to find Patroclus on the battlefield, to which a fight ensures, and Hector kills Patroclus.
- Achilles, enraged and saddened by the loss of his beloved friend, rejoins the fighting, pursuing Hector to the gates of Troy. After chasing Hector around the city, Achilles stabs Hector through the neck. As Hector dies, he asks Achilles to let his body be taken into Troy for a cremation. Achilles refuses and instead drags Hectors’ body behind his chariot to the Greek camp. Before his death, Hector prophesized that Paris, Hector’s brother, would kill Achilles.
- Only after King Priam sneaks into the Greek camp does Achilles regain some humanity and agree to give Hector’s body back. The Iliad ends here, however, according to other legends:
- The Trojans were at a disadvantage after their champion was defeated, so their allies came to help. Achilles is rumored to have continued fighting in his grief and rage over the loss of Patroclus. During the subsequent battles he killed the king of the Ethiopians, Memnon, as well as the Queen of the Amazons, Penthesilea.
- This was the last straw and Apollo instructed Paris on how to kill Achilles, as well as telling him to hide by the gates as Achilles entered the city.
Some of the Greek gods involved in the war for Troy
The gods had various roles to play in the epic, that is, the Battle for Troy. In the table below are some of the significant role players and what they added into the mix.
|Greeks||Actions and Involvement||Trojans||Actions and Involvement|
|Poseidon||He holds a grudge against the Trojans for not paying him for the help he gave while they built their wall. This was primarily the fault of a previous king, Laomedon.||Apollo||Patron god of TroyLead Hector to PatroclusTold Paris how to kill AchillesCaused a pestilence in the Greek camp|
|Athena||Paris angered her because he chose Aphrodite in the beauty contest. She gives counsel to Achilles. She also advises Odysseus to build the Trojan Horse.||Aphrodite||Paris chooses her in the beauty contest. She protects Paris and her son Aeneas during the war|
|Hephaestus||Created the armor and sword that Achilles used once he reconciled with Agamemnon. He saves the life of Achilles.||Zeus||He is held responsible for the Trojan War’s start, reducing the world’s population. This was done by having Paris judge Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite in a “beauty” contest. Each goddess offered him a bribe. Aphrodite offered him Helen of Sparta, King Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon. Causes the Greeks to start losing the war against Troy after Achilles asks his mother to ask Zeus to intervene|
Achilles was born to Peleus (a mortal man), the leader of the Myrmidons (a skilled and ferocious fighting people), and an immortal sea-nymph mother named Thetis. According to Homer, Achilles was raised by his mother in Phthia with Patroclus. (Another legend tells us that Thetis ran away after Achilles was born to rejoin the nymphs, Peleus then, at a loss on how to raise Achilles, sent him to train with Chiron, the wise centaur.
Chiron then teaches Achilles how to hunt and about music, to name two things). During this time, the river Styx myth has occurred (although this was also not in Homer’s writings). While he was still young, a prophecy was told that Achilles would die in the battle for Troy, so his parents sent him to Scyros to live with the daughters of Lycomedes. Achilles was fabled to have dressed up as one of the king’s daughters to hide, where Odysseus and Diomedes found him.
Odysseus and Diomedes tricked Achilles into revealing himself to them. The two kings disguise themselves as merchants, selling jewelry and clothing; however, they also had hidden weapons amongst the items. Achilles grabbed one of the weapons and was discovered. The reason these two had come in search of him was due to another prophesy, foretelling that the Greeks would not be able to conquer Troy without the aid of Achilles. Therefore Achilles joined the war for Troy.
We see that during the conflict for Troy, the gods played favorites. They each had their own champions and sought to elevate their own status and agendas through the use of these champions. Achilles found himself on the receiving end of Apollo’s wrath for a few reasons. Achilles was far too dangerous a threat to the Trojans to be left alive.
Still, more than that, Achilles had desecrated the body of Hector, which would have added to the rage Apollo felt towards the Greek army invading his city. We further see that even though Apollo is not the one to pull back on the bowstring and release the fateful arrow, his is the information and guidance that allows Paris to make the shot that none other could up until that point.
It is worth mentioning that Apollo is celebrated as the god of Archery, so it is fitting that Paris, a man of slight cowardice, who chose to rather use a bow than to fight with a sword, was the one to kill the great Achilles.