Achilles’ and Heracles’ Portrayals by Homer and Euripides

Subject: Literature
Pages: 3
Words: 614
Reading time:
2 min

In the Iliad, Homer depicts how Achilles, being upset that Agamemnon took his beloved Briseis, falls into wrath, renouncing his intention to fight on the Greeks’ side. Over time, his anger subsides, but when he learns that Hector killed his friend Patroclus, Achilles again falls into a rage bordering with madness and kills Hector. Reconciliation and reassurance come to Achilles only with the appearance of Hector’s father, Priam, who asks Achilles to give him the body of his son for a worthy burial.

Simultaneously, in Hercules by Euripides, the hero’s madness is caused by the divine intervention of the goddesses Iris and Madness and the revenge of goddess Hera. After returning from Hades, where he performed his last labor and kidnaped Cerberus, Hercules comes to Thebes. Here, the new king Lycus killed the legitimate king Creon and held Creon’s daughter Megara, Hercules’ wife, and his children as hostages. Hercules kills Lycus, but after Iris and Madness approach him, he decides to take revenge on King Eurystheus. Hercules takes his children for the children of Eurystheus and Megara for Eurystheus’ wife and kills them as well. Hercules’ father, Amphitryon, saves his life after Athena intervenes.

These two stories of anger are fundamentally different from each other. First, Achilles appears to be not a hero but rather a mortal since Homer endows Achilles with a complex inner world, forcing him to experience suffering familiar to ordinary people. Achilles cannot justify his participation in the Trojan War for the sake of heroic behavior since he needs more compelling reasons. He is also searching for self-identification, choosing between the desire to live an ordinary life or the life of a warrior who dies to gain eternal glory.

Hercules is a semi-god and has a better chance of immortality. He is also a typical hero who can easily cope with inhuman trials, and it is the main difference between the characters. Besides, after Hercules kills his wife and children, he takes full responsibility for what happened. This decision shows him as a mortal, and this similarity balances the difference between the characters. It is noteworthy that Hercules, like Achilles, experiences pangs of conscience and even wants to commit suicide, although Theseus discourages him. Achilles also has suicidal impulses when he refuses to participate in the war in a fit of self-abasement and resentment, being dissatisfied with Agamemnon’s behavior. While these two situations are vastly different, they present the heroes as vulnerable human creatures.

It is also interesting that Achilles, like Hercules, is fenced off from the world and leads long internal monologues. This trait indicates that both Homer and Euripides wanted to present their characters as prone to reflection. It can be assumed that Euripides presented his personage as a mature and humanlike person. In contrast, traditionally, in myths, heroes are portrayed as omnipotent and invulnerable creatures who, although they face difficulties, can always count on their patrons’ support. Therefore, reflection and vulnerability to mental anguish put Achilles and Heracles on a par with mortals.

Hercules does not dare to condemn the gods, unlike Achilles, who is unhappy with his fate predicted by Thetis. Hercules has a high sense of duty and conscience and demonstrates even higher spiritual qualities than the gods. Therefore, Hercules again shows himself more like a hero than a mortal. Interestingly, Hercules’ earthly path ended with immortality; gods accepted him on Olympus, unlike Achilles. Thus, both heroes exhibit human traits such as vulnerability, self-flagellation, and uncontrollable anger. However, Hercules is more of a hero than a mortal, and his image is somewhat more primitive than Achilles’.