“The Iliad”: Achilles and Hektor

In classical mythology a hero is a person of great strength and courage celebrated for bold exploits and is often the offspring of a mortal and a god (Lecture 9.2). Heroes usually rise from a divine heritage, from the elite, not like regular folks who rise the ranks. In Homer’s Iliad heroes are defined by mankind. Although there are many important figures in the Iliad most of the characters are just warriors while two distinct combatants stand out as heroes: Achilles and Hektor. The Iliad opens with the rage of Peleus Son Achilles and ends with the “funeral rites of the Hektor (Iliad 594).” They lead parallel lives as the leading fighters in their respective armies and as the poem progresses their lives and deaths are increasingly connected. Each one struggles to fulfill the heroic ideal and both contend with temptations that distract them from heroism. Achilles interferes with Hektor ‘s struggle to manage his own mortality by recognizing himself in his enemy. Hektor represents Achilles ‘ humanity, against which Achilles is rebelling and which he tries to destroy in his desire to be immortal. Therefore, their fate is connected, and the death of one requires the death of the other. Only after Achilles accepts his destiny and accepts his own mortality can he regain his humanity and only then can he be regarded as a hero. When he finally “yields the body of Hektor” to Priam, Achilles is most heroic, because in this action he accepts his destiny, his mortality and his humanity (Iliad 586). Both men are drawn away from heroism in opposite directions; Hektor, because of his connections with home and family, and Achilles, because of his god-complex.

Being a hero means sacrificing one’s personal and family ties in favor of confronting death and seeking glory. Hektor is repeatedly tempted in the poem to abandon the front lines of struggle against the Achaeans and to defend his town from within its walls. He also attaches great importance to his wife, Andromache, the rest of his family, and the whole city of Troy. When he travels to Troy to get Paris, he makes a deliberate detour to visit his family and they beg him to stay in the walls of the city. Although he deeply loves his family, he resists the urge to stay with them. He attempts to calm his wife by saying “unquiet soul, do not be too distressed by the thoughts of me (Iliad 157).” He’s determined to remain on the hero’s path, but it’s hard for him to resist his family members. Just before his fatal encounter with Achilles, his family almost swept him into the walls of Troy. This can be seen when he says “why even put the question to myself” as “then and there he’ll kill me (Iliad 519).”Hektor is torn between heroism and personal relationships, but at last he chooses the path of glory when he turns to his murderer Achilles.

On the other hand, Achilles distances himself from the persona of hero by denying his mortality and fantasizing himself as a god. Even though he is the son of a goddess his mother Thetis could not endow her son with immortality. When battles are taking place just outside Achilles ship his attitude is representative of how the immortal gods react to the battles. For the majority of the poem, he sits back from the fighting and observes it without interfering as his pride his still hurt. When the embassy members come to persuade Achilles into the battle, they “found him taking joy in a sweet harp of rich and delicate make (Iliad 209).” He is enjoying this peaceful activity as there is a brutal war going on. The way with which Achilles commands his mother to ask Zeus a favor and have him “take the Trojan side and roll the Akhaians back to the water’s edge“ is reflective of a god-like lack of respect for human life, even his comrades ‘ lives (Iliad 25). Hera shows this same kind of indifference when she deals with Zeus.

Achilles becomes inhuman in his attempt to become superhuman. In his rampage against the trojans, Achilles tries desperately to deny his mortality. He arms himself with a new armor made especially for him by Hephaestus, which can only be worn by him. His hatred for mortality is shown by the fact that he only wears armor created especially by a god. Achilles acts immortal to the point that he challenges Apollo. After Apollo question why Achilles is running after god being a mortal, Achilles responds by saying “you saved my enemies with ease and stole my glory, having no punishment to fear so I’d take it out of you if I had the power (Iliad 516).” Achilles shows a misguided attempt to approach godliness in his actions and his words by denying his humanity.

When Achilles faces Hektor in a single fight, he seems to fight himself, because he sees Hektor in his own armor. Achilles ‘ fury in Hektor is therefore an abusive rage against his own mortality.Hektor represents all the human relationships, such as the family and citizenship, against which Achilles rebels. Killing Hektor is the last desperate attempt by Achilles to destroy his own mortality. However, his humanity can not be killed because it is an important part of him. Even after Hektor’s death he still tries to kill his humanity. Immediately after killing Hektor, Achilles has desires to further torment Hektor. “He had in mind for Hektor’s body outrage and shame. Behind both feet he pierced the tendons, heel to ankle. Rawhide chords he drew through both and lashed them to his chariot, letting the man’s head trail (Iliad 528).” He defiles the body of Hektor relentlessly. He continues to abuse the body of Hektor many days after his is gone, because he still tries to conquer the mortality it represents. Achilles finally gives up the body of Hektor on the occasion of Priam’s visit and thus gives himself to death. Since Achilles identifies with Hektor, he finally accepts his own mortality in the funeral pyre. “Achilles ordered the body of Hektor to be bathed and rubbed with oil (Iliad 587).” In addition, Achilles took part in “lifting the body where Priam could not see his son for seeing Hektor he might in his great pain give way to rage (Iliad 587).” When Achilles gives Hektor’s body for a proper funeral, he gives himself up for his own funeral. As a result of giving himself up to mortality and stops attempting to be divine, he suddenly becomes very human as he engages human necessities such as food, sleep, and sex. When Achilles is last mentioned, we are acutely aware of his humanness, as he sleeps “deep in in palisaded lodge, beside him lovely in her youth Briseis lay (Iliad 590).”

The cost of heroism is devastating for both Achilles and Hektor. Hektor’s embodies the characteristics of a true hero with his countless sacrifices for Troy and being the only one brave enough to stand in front of Achilles. In the surrender of the Hektor’s body, Achilles finally recognizes his humanity, because this action is a symbolic surrender of his rebellion against his own death and mortality. The funeral of Hektor can be seen as a representation of the funeral of Achilles, because the fates of these two heroes are linked. By accepting his death, Achilles ends up being a hero. Hektor’s murder is not Achilles greatest moment, but it results in him attaining his heroism.  

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