Jonathan S. Burgess


On his book The Death and Afterlife of Achilles

Cover Interview of March 10, 2009

In a nutshell

In ancient myth, Achilles is killed by Paris as he tries to invade the gates of Troy.  After being buried in a magnificent mound by the sea, his shade enjoys an afterlife at White Island.  So go most ancient traditions about the death and afterlife of Achilles, at any rate.  But the Iliad and the Odyssey do not directly tell the story of Achilles’ death, and disagree with other sources about his afterlife.  So one must move beyond the Homeric poems to get the whole story.

The Death and Afterlife of Achilles tells the mythological story of Achilles by looking at all ancient sources—archaeology, iconography, and the Homeric poems.  In ancient myth Achilles meets his most formidable opponent, Memnon, king of the Aethiopians, after the time span of the Iliad.  Memnon has arrived with his army to defend Troy, armed with divine armor and supported by a divine mother (Eos, goddess of the dawn), much like Achilles.  After an intense duel, Achilles prevails, though Memnon is granted immortality.  Soon after, however, Paris kills Achilles.

The book provides an extensive examination of the “Achilles’ heel” motif in antiquity, concluding that the story as we know it, with a dipping of the infant Achilles in the Styx, probably did not exist in early Greek myth.  But there is intriguing evidence that a similar story existed, involving the incapacitating of Achilles by a lower wound.  The hero was famous for his swiftness, and this initial wound may have been necessary to kill him.  Also, in early Greek myth, Achilles was granted immortality at Leuke, “White Island.”

Then the book goes back to the Iliad to see how it reflects, contests, or rejects traditions about Achilles.  The death of Patroclus in the Iliad is remarkable just like the mythological death of Achilles, and surely is employed by Homer to foreshadow it.  Further foreshadowing is provided by the way that Achilles himself foreshadows his coming death in various ways—like a “dead man walking.”  However, there is no foreshadowing of immortality, which is not favored in Homeric epic, and in the Odyssey we find Achilles in Hades.  An extended discussion of the afterlife in early Greek myth shows that there was a connected spectrum of afterlife possibilities, from Hades to paradise islands.  Homer’s placement of Achilles in Hades is an alternative but not a rejection of earlier traditions.  And no one should think that Achilles’ immortality is a “late” invention: Homer is the odd man out, since no other source agrees in the placement of Achilles in Hades.  In fact, starting in the Archaic Age, Greeks worshipped Achilles as an immortal hero, and his afterlife island “Leuke” was localized in the Black Sea.

Ancient audiences would have contextualized the Homeric view of Achilles within non-Homeric traditions.  They would have come to the Homeric poem with the information I recover, and perceived the full significance of the poem.  But modern scholars have lost track of the non-Homeric traditions, thereby missing much of the meaning of the Iliad.