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We also know the stories of Thetis dipping her son in the river Styx to make him nigh-invulnerable, but there is conflicting evidence.

Those who have read the Iliad may remember the incident with

the warrior Asteropaeus hurled with both spears at once, for he was one that could use both hands alike. With the one spear he smote the shield, but it brake not through, for the gold stayed it, the gift of the god and with the other he smote the right forearm of Achilles a grazing blow, and the black blood gushed forth; but the spear-point passed above him and fixed itself in the earth, fain to glut itself with flesh. Hom. Il. 21.161

But even here, there is the implication that the weapon itself was disinclined to do serious damage.

It is Euripides, the great iconoclast of Greek Drama that makes a big deal of it:

Achilles: A fearful cry is heard among the Argives.

Clytemnestra: What is it? tell me.

Achilles: It concerns your child.

Clytemnestra: An evil omen for your words.

Achilles: They say her sacrifice is necessary.

Clytemnestra: And is there no one to say a word against them?

Achilles: Indeed I was in some danger myself from the tumult.

Clytemnestra: In danger of what, stranger?.

Achilles: Of being stoned.

Eur. IA 1347

Euripides was surely playing off of the myth of Achilles' invincibility. In this scene, the hero who fights whole armies single-handedly feels himself in danger when faced with armed conflict with the Argives. This moment is pretty shocking to those raised with the Thetis story.

So what gives? Was Achilles nigh-invincible or not?

  • It depends a lot time of writing; in Homer he is not assumed "invicible" per se. Even when he will fight Hector the Gods are deciding his fate (so you assume he could lost...). And Homer never said anything about a heel. Fact is in Homer he is just a tremendeous warrior. – Gibet Nov 23 '16 at 20:29
  • So what gives? Was Achilles nigh-invincible or not? No, I'm pretty sure there was a heel involved. Good question on the source check overall. – bleh Nov 23 '16 at 20:31
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The Styx story in the literary sources is very late. Nothing like it occurs in Homer or throughout Classical Greek antiquity. In fact, as Gantz (1993: 625–627) points out, we don't have a solid attestation for it until the Roman period.

This is complicated by the artistic tradition, though. Gantz identifies four vases which show Achilles with an arrow in his heel, killed by Paris, all very early. It's likely that the Thetis story was one of the several traditions concerning Achilles' birth and death circulating at the time. The Iliad appears to be a separate tradition, one where the armor, not the skin, of Achilles was invincible. The scholia too know of a story where Achilles was cut down by Paris, not shot with an arrow.

Source: Timothy Gantz' Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources (JHU Press, 1993).

  • 1
    Note that Ovid does not say anything about a heel: he turned Paris’s bow towards him, and guided the unerring shaft with deadly hand (Book XII). When one of Achilles's foe, Cycnus, son of Poseidon, is invicible and taunt Achilles openly "I will fight with you unhurt. It is a privilege that I was born not as you, of a Nereid but of him whose powerful rule is over Nereus, his daughters and their ocean". First mention I know is in Statius "I fortified you with the waters of Styx". – Gibet Nov 24 '16 at 15:47
  • @Gibet Check out 1995 Burgess article "Achilles' Heel: The Death of Achilles in Ancient Myth" (Classical Antiquity 14.2: 217–244). He cites some opinions that place the dipping into the Hellenistic era, but yes, indeed, Statius is the earliest extant source that contains the story. – C. M. Weimer Nov 24 '16 at 21:07
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I would argue that despite Achilles identity as a demi-god, his true Achilles heel lay not in the exposed area of his foot that meant the coward Paris could poison him with but rather, the deep-seated, love he had for his page and friend, Patroclus.

Indeed, whilst he was nigh on invincible to PHYSICAL attack, the attack on his emotional and mental welfare, the loss of his friend; drove him into such a stage of frenzied abandon that one cannot help but wonder if the parallel of dichotomy would accentuate rather than diminish his latent humanity imo.

  • Welcome to StackExchange! While I agree with your answer (though I'd posit the armor, not his skin, as the origin of his invincibility), these sorts of neat observations typically belong in the comments, since it's not a direct answer to the question. I'm not thoroughly happy with that policy, and I upvoted your post anyway since I think a case could be made for its contribution, but SE frowns on tangential discussions in answers. You should try to spark a conversation on this in the chat, though; it's not every day that people like to get down and dirty with literary analysis of the Iliad! – C. M. Weimer Nov 26 '16 at 19:08
  • I agree with @C.M.Weimer that commentary is worthwhile. There definitely seems to be an intent in the Iliad where the frivolity of the gods is juxtaposed against the dignity of man. (Some see a precursor to Christian mythology in Achilles willing sacrifice of himself by taking part in the war. Both figures have split divine/human parentage.) It is interesting that when Achilles finally commits, it is not for the glory of the Greeks but for the love of a friend. – DukeZhou Nov 26 '16 at 21:27

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