Achilles’ Second Self in The Iliad by Homer
Host (YOU): Ancient epics describing great heroes’ life events are full not only of many details that reveal the personalities of these characters but also of a deep meaning that reflects the inner motives of their actions. In Homer’s The Iliad, Achilles, as one of the main characters, is shown as a fearless and valiant warrior who fights for the benefit of his people. However, when analyzing the events of the Epic, one can note that his visible personality can intersect with another, which is called the second self. The events of The Iliad show that Achilles’ second self can be considered Hector, his main antagonist, in whom the Greek hero sees himself as in a mirror. The Trojan warrior, who fell at the hands of Achilles, is the personification of the Greek hero’s freer and more openly aggressive personality. The interaction between them reveals to Achilles a complete understanding of how important close interaction with his community is. The murder of Hector allows the Greek hero to realize the partial loss of life’s meaning and does not bring proper consolation.
Today, our guest is Achilles himself, the great Greek warrior. Together with my co-host Thomas Van Nortwick, we will discuss how Hector’s death influenced Achilles, how he himself assesses his comparison with the Trojan leader, and what his views on the situation are. This conversation can help get an objective perspective on their famous confrontation. We have questions ready, and we are delighted to welcome our guests.
Achilles, Hector is considered by scholars to be your second self. In what ways are you and Hector different in your worldview and perspective on life?
Achilles: Thank you, Thomas, for this question. First, I cannot but point out that Hector was a brave and fearless warrior, but what distinguished us significantly was the connection with the people. I was not as attached to my community as he was, and, as we could see, he was driven by the desire for victory much more than I was. As a result, he gave all of himself in the battles for the Trojans. Even in conversation with his mother, he demonstrates his passion for battle by telling her the following: “Don’t offer me mellow wine, mother, not now-you’d sap my limbs, I’d lose my nerve for war” (Homer 312.204). He was ready to join the battle at any moment, while I was not so hot-tempered and did not intend to defeat my potential enemies at any cost.
These properties of his were manifested in Hector’s attitude towards his enemies, including me. After I had to leave my people for a while, Hector attacked our camp and intended to destroy the entire Greek fleet while wounding Odysseus. All of this was carefully planned, but I know that it was one of his main goals. I, in turn, never considered him as my main enemy. Nonetheless, I changed my attitude towards him after my best friend Patroclus was killed by Hector’s hand, and my armor became his property. I do not think that I would go to this to prove my strength and defeat my enemies. I also want to note that “Priam’s family, and in particular Hector and Andromache, represent an alternative to the explosive competitive relationships between warriors” (Van Nortwick 63). Moreover, I am sure that I would not have shown excessive cruelty towards Hector if not for his blind rage. Therefore, I consider the boundless passion for fighting and the attachment to the community to be our main differences.
Thomas: Thank you, Achilles. However, killing Hector and desecrating his corpse was supposed to bring you relief and yet you found yourself without consolation. Can you explain this?
Achilles: I have to note that killing should not be joyful or satisfying. Preserving honor or protecting one’s people are good reasons to take the life of another person, but doing it solely to get satisfaction is unworthy of a Greek warrior. In addition, until his death, Hector remained true to his ideals. He asked me, “I beg you, beg you by your life, your parents – don’t let the dogs devour me by the Argive ships!” (Homer 399.552). At that very moment, I was totally blinded by rage over the killing of Patroclus. Nevertheless, after Priam asked me to give him the corpse of his son, who remained untouched by the will of the Gods, I realized the senselessness of my anger at that moment. I could not get my friend back, whether Hector was alive or not. Another death in my arms did not mean that I could feel relief. The warrior, in this case, “must live through his grief” (Van Nortwick 64). As a result, having gotten rid of one of my main enemies, it did not feel better for me since I only paid a debt to Patroclus.
Thomas: Thank you, Achilles, for your sincere response. We want to recall the moment when Priam entered your tent and found you in deep despair. You had lost yourself. How did Priam call you to transcend the warrior’s code?
Achilles: This was not an easy meeting. Priam begged me to give him the body of his son, and I, as a warrior and leader of my people, was not to have to meet him. However, in his requests, Priam pleaded with me to transcend the warrior’s code by offering me a reward: “Accept the ransom I bring you, a king’s ransom!” (Homer 652.606). Moreover, he asked to show mercy to the Trojan people because, being left without their main warrior, Priam’s people were vulnerable. This request ran counter to the idea of a fair fight in the current conflict as well.
Finally, the Trojan king asked me to forget about my military duty and recall those who survived. When citing his words, he noted that I was to “think of Peleus and himself together, as fathers grieving for their sons” (Van Nortwick 64). Initially, I was not ready for this, but after hearing his pleas and seeing how sincere he was in his request, I had to give up my principles. In addition, I think this partially helped me overcome the despair I faced after Hector’s death.
Thomas: Thank you, Achilles, we have one more question. Considering your development from the opening scene to the last sentence of the Epic, what wisdom would you like to share with us in the 21st century?
Achilles: I believe that many of the values that were relevant during my life have survived to this day. I am convinced that truth, mercy, and compassion are essential qualities that distinguish a gallant warrior. When giving the body of Hector to the Trojans, I believe that I acted not only wisely but also justly in relation to his people. I knew that they were afraid of attacks, but I did my best for them to accompany their warrior with all honors on his last journey: “Now, you men of Troy, haul timber into the city! Have no fear of an Argive ambush packed with danger” (Homer 915.614). Disposing of someone’s destiny is the task of the gods, not people. I could have done otherwise; however, I know that my friend Patrokul would not have approved of it. Moreover, I myself would have felt a pang of conscience, forbidding the father to take the body of his son. Therefore, I would advise modern people to show compassion and mercy because these qualities emphasize humanity, which is often invisible among many vices and sins.
I would also point out the fact that, regardless of their status, this is crucial for people to remember that they are all mortal, and any of their actions during life will be remembered by their descendants. You have already mentioned my differences from Hector, but I am sure we were similar in the anger we demonstrated during our battle. I have to admit that “anger is often what we call a “secondary emotion,” generated in response to some other expressed feelings” (Van Nortwick 65). In their desire to prove their worth and truth to the world, people are often ready to go to great lengths, and in case of failure, they do not hide their anger. Nevertheless, only the person oneself is responsible for what successes they achieve and what failures they are forced to accept. Therefore, I urge people to be wiser and restrain their anger because this emotion is the manifestation of inner weakness, and patience, conversely, reflects resilience.
Host (YOU): We are grateful to Achilles for his honest answers and attention to detail. Our conversation confirms that even a victory can leave a feeling of bitterness in its wake. The fact that the murder of Hector did not bring consolation to Achilles largely confirms that the son of the Trojan people could be his second self, in which the Greek warrior saw a reflection of his own feelings and fears. The wisdom that Achilles has mentioned is valuable to modern society, and the values of mercy, compassion, and patience are the ones that many people lack today.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Books, 1990.
Van Nortwick, Thomas. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic. Oxford University Press, 1991.