Douglas Frame, The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic: 5. Achilles

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  • Douglas Frame, The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic, 5: Achilles, Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, DC. September, 2005

5. Achilles

The two preceding chapters have dealt with a pair of Homeric figures who show in a very positive way the connection between nóos and néomai. As far as the verb is concerned, it is Nestor in whose name the very root of néomai is contained, and it is Odysseus who was celebrated beyond all others for his “return home.” Both of these figures, moreover, were renowned for their nóos. Nestor, as seen in the last chapter, is the very symbol of nóos whenever he appears in the role of the wise counselor; Odysseus, too, was famous for his counsel, although his role was less to symbolize nóos than to make it effective. Nestor himself, in harkening back to the Trojan War, makes the following appraisal of Odysseus (iii 120 ff.):

?νθ? ο? τ?ς ποτε μ?τιν ?μοιωθ?μεναι ?ντην
?θελ?, ?πε? μ?λα πολλ?ν ?ν?κα δ?ος ?Οδυσσε?ς
παντο?οισι δ?λοισι.

No one there wished to compete against him in shrewdness, since shining Odysseus was by far the best with his tricks of all kinds.

Odysseus, in recounting the virtues of Neoptolemus, ranks himself and Nestor as the foremost Greek counselors (xi 510 ff.):

? τοι ?τ? ?μφ? π?λιν Τρο?ην φραζο?μεθα βουλ?ς,
α?ε? πρ?τος ?βαζε κα? ο?χ ?μ?ρτανε μ?θων·
Ν?στωρ ?ντ?θεος κα? ?γ? νικ?σκομεν ο?ω.

Whenever we took counsel around the city of Troy he always spoke first and he never failed in his words; only godlike Nestor and I surpassed him.


Achilles, the subject of this chapter, is a very different figure from Nestor and Odysseus. For one thing, his reputation has nothing whatever to do with wise counsel. Achilles himself admits this at one point, after first drawing attention to his own particular virtue (XVIII 105-06):

το?ος ??ν ο?ος ο? τις ?χαι?ν χαλκοχιτ?νων
?ν πολ?μ?· ?γορ? δ? τ’ ?με?νον?ς ε?σι κα? ?λλοι.

Being such in battle as no one else among the bronze-clad Achaeans; in the assembly, however, there are others who are better.

One may justly infer from this that the virtues of Achilles do not include nóos.


At the same time Achilles is more emphatically barred from a “return home” than any other hero. Thus, he is as much dissociated from the verb néomai as from the noun nóos.

In the Odyssey it becomes clear that Achilles cannot “return home” because he cannot “return from death.” This is the dramatic point of the confrontation between Achilles and Odysseus in the Nekyia. Odysseus remarks that even in the underworld Achilles is a king (xi 485-86); but Achilles responds bitterly that he would rather be a serf among the living than the king of the dead (xi 488 ff.). Unlike Odysseus, he cannot “return to life.”

The antithetical fates of Achilles and Odysseus could not be more strongly contrasted than in this meeting. Their difference with respect to nóos is also immediately apparent from the words with which Achilles greets Odysseus (xi 473 ff.):

Διογεν?ς Λαερτι?δη, πολυμ?χαν’ ?δυσσε?,
σχ?τλιε, τ?πτ’ ?τι με?ζον ?ν? φρεσ? μ?σεαι ?ργον;
π?ς ?τλης ??δ?σδε κατελθ?μεν, ?νθα τε νεκρο?
?φραδ?ες να?ουσι, βροτ?ν ε?δωλα καμ?ντων;

Zeus-born son of Laertes, resourceful Odysseus, how will you, incorrigible man, devise in your mind a still greater deed than this? How have you dared to come down to the house of Hades where the mindless dead dwell, the ghosts of men who have perished?

Odysseus is immediately characterized by his “wits,” while Achilles numbers himself among the “mindless dead.” [1]  


The essential point of this chapter is contained in the foregoing analysis. Hitherto we have encountered three figures (Nestor, Odysseus, and Sisyphus) whose nóos is intimately connected with a “return from death.” We now meet another figure who, by his lack of nóos and his failure to “return from death,” demonstrates what might be termed the negative corollary to this relation.

But Achilles also offers a more specific kind of evidence for the connection between nóos and néomai. In the Iliad, Achillies refers three times to the fact that he will not “return home”; it is very significant that in each case he also alludes to a loss of “mind” in one form or another. In the second and third speeches, the words nóos and nó?ma actually appear, and these speeches therefore have the greatest probative value. In the first speech, only the idea of a loss of “mind” is present; the interest of this speech will therefore lie in seeing how Homer has reinterpreted a traditional motif to suit his own ends.

All three speeches occur in the context of the death of Patroclus and the vengeance Achilles takes against Hector. By the time of the final two speeches, Achilles realizes that by killing Hector he will lose his own “return” – hence he may refer to this loss as a certainty. The third speech is in fact delivered following the death of Hector, when Achilles’ fate has been forever sealed. The setting for the speech is the funeral of Patroclus; Achilles has cut from his own head a lock of hair that was formerly dedicated to the river Spercheius in his homeland, and, in rededicating the lock to Patroclus, he begins by addressing the distant river (XXIII 144 ff.):

Σπερχε?, ?λλως σο? γε πατ?ρ ?ρ?σατο Πηλε?ς,
κε?σ? με νοστ?σαντα φ?λην ?ς πατρ?δα γα?αν
σο? τε κ?μην κερ?ειν ??ξειν θ’ ?ερ?ν ?κατ?μβην,
πεντ?κοντα δ’ ?νορχα παρ’ α?τ?θι μ?λ’ ?ερε?σειν
?ς πηγ?ς, ?θι τοι τ?μενος βωμ?ς τε θυ?εις.
?ς ?ρ?θ’ ? γ?ρων, σ? δ? ο? ν?ον ο?κ ?τ?λεσσας.
ν?ν δ’ ?πε? ο? ν?ομα? γε φ?λην ?ς πατρ?δα γα?αν,
Πατρ?κλ? ?ρω? κ?μην ?π?σαιμι φ?ρεσθαι.

Spercheius, in vain did my father Peleus pray to you, vowing that if I returned to my dear fatherland he would cut off this lock of hair for you and offer up a holy hecatomb, and that he would sacrifice fifty uncastrated sheep to your springs, there where your holy ground and smoking altar are. So the old man prayed, but you have not brought about his intention. Now, since I will not return to my dear fatherland, I would give this lock to the hero Patroclus to bear.

This passage should be directly compared with Achilles’ second speech, which is delivered shortly after the body of Patroclus has been retrieved from battle; at this point Achilles is already intent on slaying Hector, and thus on forsaking his own “return” (XVIII 324 ff.):

? π?ποι, ? ?’ ?λιον ?πος ?κβαλον ?ματι κε?ν?
θαρσ?νων ?ρωα Μενο?τιον ?ν μεγ?ροισι·
φ?ν δ? ο? ε?ς ?π?εντα περικλυτ?ν υ??ν ?π?ξειν
?λιον ?κπ?ρσαντα, λαχ?ντα τε λη?δος α?σαν.
?λλ’ ο? Ζε?ς ?νδρεσσι νο?ματα π?ντα τελευτ?·
?μφω γ?ρ π?πρωται ?μο?ην γα?αν ?ρε?σαι
α?το? ?ν? Τρο??, ?πε? ο?δ’ ?μ? νοστ?σαντα
δ?ξεται ?ν μεγ?ροισι γ?ρων ?ππηλ?τα Πηλε?ς
ο?δ? Θ?τις μ?τηρ, ?λλ’ α?το? γα?α καθ?ξει.

Alas, I uttered an empty word that day when I encouraged the hero Menoetius in his house. I said that I would bring back his famous son when he had sacked Troy and received a share of the spoil. But Zeus does not bring about for men all their intentions. For both of us have been fated to pour out our blood on the same ground here in Troy, since I too will not return home to be received by the aged horseman Peleus in his house, or to my mother Thetis, but will be held fast by the earth in this place.

That the two speeches above follow a very similar pattern is evident. In both passages Achilles refers to a nóos (or nó?ma), which consists in his own nóstos, and which will remain unaccomplished precisely because he will not “return.” Within this general pattern the details may vary: in one speech Spercheius, in the other Zeus, fails to accomplish the nóos; and in one speech Peleus, in the other Achilles himself, is the party to whom the nóos belongs. What does not vary is the negative collocation of nóos (or nó?ma) with néomai (or nosté?); this collocation is therefore to be regarded as the traditional core within the two speeches. Once again Homeric traditionality, when isolated and identified, points to an original connection between nóos and néomai.

In light of the above, it will now be interesting to observe what Homer does with the first speech in which Achilles declares that he will not “return.” This speech, in fact, occupies a crucial place in the struggle, which is kept alive throughout the Iliad, between fate and Achilles’ own will as the determining factor in his failure to “return.” Homer attempts to have this issue both ways, and his method of doing so is to have Achilles lose his own “mind” to return.

Before this speech Homer has left the issue of free will and fate in an ambiguous state. Early in the poem Achilles reveals that he knows he is fated to have a short life; cf. I 352:

μ?τερ, ?πε? μ’ ?τεκ?ς γε μινυνθ?δι?ν περ ??ντα

Mother, since you bore me to be short-lived. . . .

But in Iliad 9 he is still undecided whether to remain in Troy and achieve kléos, “glory,” or to forsake kléos in return for a nóstos (IX 412 ff.).


The speech occurs early in Iliad 18, and it is here that Achilles appears to “decide” to remain and fight. But his speech follows upon and reflects another speech, that which Thetis delivers to her sister Nereids before going to her son; and from her speech it is clear that fate has already decided Achilles will not return. Let us compare what Thetis says with what Achilles says.

When Achilles learns of his dearest companion’s death and cries out in grief, his mother hears him. In her speech to the other Nereids she says the following (XVIII 59 ff.):

                         τ?ν δ’ ο?χ ?ποδ?ξομαι α?τις
ο?καδε νοστ?σαντα δ?μον Πηλ??ον ε?σω.
?φρα δ? μοι ζ?ει κα? ?ρ? φ?ος ?ελ?οιο

No more will I receive him coming home to the house of Peleus. But even while he lives and sees the light of the sun he grieves.

One may schematize the sequence of ideas in these lines as follows: (1) Achilles will not return because (2) (implicit) this is his fate; (3) even while he is alive he grieves. In the third part it is well worth noticing the verb ákhnutai, “grieves,” which has a special relevance to Achilles by virue of its connection with his name; [2]   in the scene to follow, “grief” plays an important role.


In the following lines (XVIII 89 ff.) Achilles speaks first and Thetis responds; the passage repeats part of the passage above, but the implicit second point is now made explicit. More importantly, the second point now occurs last, in the response by Thetis to what she hears from her son:

                         τ?ν δ’ ο?χ ?ποδ?ξεαι α?τις
ο?καδε νοστ?σαντ’, ?πε? ο?δ’ ?μ? θυμ?ς ?νωγε
ζ?ειν ο?δ’ ?νδρεσσι μετ?μμεναι, α? κε μ? ?κτωρ
πρ?τος ?μ? ?π? δουρ? τυπε?ς ?π? θυμ?ν ?λ?σσ?.
Πατρ?κλοιο δ’ ?λωρα Μενοιτι?δεω ?ποτε?σ?.”
τ?ν δ’ α?τε προσ?ειπε Θ?τις κατ? δ?κρυ χ?ουσα·
“?κ?μορος δ? μοι, τ?κος, ?σσεαι, ο?’ ?γορε?εις·
α?τ?κα γ?ρ τοι ?πειτα μεθ’ ?κτορα π?τμος ?το?μος.

No more will you receive me coming home, since my heart does not bid me to live and to be among men unless Hector first be smitten by my spear and lose his life, and thus pay back the spoiling of Patroclus, the son of Menoetius.” Then Thetis, shedding tears, addressed him: “Your fate will be swift, my child, from what you say; for immediately after Hector’s doom your own will be at hand.

For the sake of comparison, one may schematize the sequence of ideas in these lines as follows: (1) Achilles will not return because (2) his heart feels such grief that he no longer wishes to live; (3) Thetis reveals that Achilles is fated to die if he kills Hector. The change in the sequence of ideas makes it appear that Achilles himself has chosen what had already been fated for him.


The same ambiguity continues in the lines following the passage above. In response to his mother’s words autíka . . . pótmos heto?mos, “at once your doom will be at hand,” Achilles says autíka tethnaí?n, “at once may I die,” and again vents his feelings of grief without in the least relating his lack of desire to live to the decrees of fate. Following this second expression of grief, Achilles seems to take notice of what his mother has revealed. This is the first impression given by line 101:

ν?ν δ’ ?πε? ο? ν?ομα? γε φ?λην ?ς πατρ?δα γα?αν

Now, since I will not return (ou . . . néomai) to my dear fatherland . . . .

But the conclusion to this thought, after a long and disjointed passage, is the following (l. 114):

ν?ν δ’ ε?μ’, ?φρα φ?λης κεφαλ?ς ?λετ?ρα κιχε?ω.

Now I shall go that I may find the slayer of that dear head.

Achilles has in effect said, “Since I will not return home, I will now go and slay Hector.” From the point of view of fate, the sequence of thoughts would be just the reverse: “Since you are going to go and slay Hector, you will not return home.” Only after asserting his own decision to die does Achilles acknowledge – grudgingly – the role of fate (ll. 115-16):

                 κ?ρα δ’ ?γ? τ?τε δ?ξομαι, ?ππ?τε κεν δ?
Ζε?ς ?θ?λ? τελ?σαι ?δ’ ?θ?νατοι θεο? ?λλοι.

I will accept my death whenever Zeus and the other immortal gods wish to bring it about.


These observations make the line:

ν?ν δ’ ?πε? ο? ν?ομα? γε φ?λην ?ς πατρ?δα γα?αν

Now, since I will not return (ou . . . néomai) to my dear fatherland . . . .

an expression of Achilles’ resolve to die, which he has asserted forcefully in the lines preceding (autíka tethnaí?n); from the point of view of tradition, this resolve to die surely represents Achilles’ own lack of “mind” to go on living. This is what a comparison with the third speech clearly suggests (XXIII 149-150):

?ς ?ρ?θ’ ? γ?ρων, σ? δ? ο? ν?ον ο?κ ?τ?λεσσας.
ν?ν δ’ ?πε? ο? ν?ομα? γε φ?λην ?ς πατρ?δα γα?αν . . .

So the old man prayed, but you have not brought about his intention. Now, since I will not return to my dear fatherland . . . .


Homer’s handling of the first speech of Achilles is thus a subtle working out of traditional elements, the original intent of which he has been able to approximate closely by abandoning part of the traditional vocabulary (the word nóos). [3]   It should be noted that the loss of nóstos which is at stake in the first speech does not only refer to an eventual death in Troy through the workings of fate; Thetis does represent fate, but Achilles himself says, autíka tethnaí?n, “may I die immediately.” By subordinating the notion that Achilles will not “return home,” Homer has closely equated a “loss of mind” with “death.”

 1. In XIX 216 ff., where Odysseus addresses Achilles before the final battle of the Iliad, there is a pointed contrast between Odysseus’s nó?ma, “wisdom,” and Achilles’ strength:

? ?χιλε?, Πηλ?ος υ??, μ?γα φ?ρτατ’ ?χαι?ν,
κρε?σσων ε?ς ?μ?θεν κα? φ?ρτερος ο?κ ?λ?γον περ
?γχει, ?γ? δ? κε σε?ο νο?ματ? γε προβαλο?μην
πολλ?ν, ?πε? πρ?τερος γεν?μην κα? πλε?ονα ο?δα.

Achilles, son of Peleus, far greatest of the Achaeans,
you are stronger than I am and greater by not a little
with the spear; but I in turn might surpass you by far in wisdom,
since I was born before you and have learned more things.

In XI 786 ff. there is a similar contrast between the bí?, “strength,” of Achilles and the greater age and superior counsel of Patroclus.    back

 2. For the derivation *Akhi-l?wos, where akhi– is related to ákhos, and the whole compound has to do with “grief of the war-folk,” see L. R. Palmer, The Interpretation of Mycenean Greek Texts (chap. 4, n.1), p. 79, and, in support of Palmer, Gregory Nagy, Festschrift L. R. Palmer (Innsbruck, 1976), pp. 209-34.    back
 3. For a similar situation, see chap. 3, sect. 3 on the relation between mÊtis and Oûtis in the Cyclops adventure.    back

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