Pt. 1: Jesus & Achilles
Within the context of the western canon, there are two characters that come closest to Christ and his salvation of all mankind. These two characters are Achilles and Dionysus. Yet despite how close these two are to being saviors, one a God, the other a demi-God, neither had the power to shape ultimate reality. In fact the opposite was true. Both Achilles and Dionysus were themselves shaped by ultimate reality, whether that be Dionysus being killed by the Gods themselves, or Achilles being subject to their will. Either way the infinitude of reality did away with both of them.
In Christ, however, what we see is the doing away with the infinite as destroyer and the ushering in as the infinite as savior. Before Christ’s self sacrifice, man kind was eternally doomed to suffer and carry the burden of their sins for all of time; there was no heaven, no salvation. It was only through Christ that the burden of all of human sin was transferred onto his back. That is a part of the symbolism in the crucifixion. In one way, yes, Christ is nailed to the cross, but the image absolutely portrays a man carrying a burden on his back. He also had to carry the cross to the site of his sacrifice—a bit of foreshadowing.
For Achilles, the parallels to Christ are many, but he did not carry upon his back the suffering of the whole world. In fact, the only suffering he carried was his own. Even when Patroclus dies, he weeps because he himself is sad. Christ wept for us.
Achilles, too, is both man and God, but the nature of that duality is slightly different. He is not the only God’s only son, but one of the several God’s several human children. In Greek mythology, the Gods were portrayed as man. This was the moving away from the strange, beast-God hybrids of Egypt. Edith Hamilton says the Gods being anthropomorphized was the culmination of Greek rationality. These human-looking Gods had sex with human beings, often resulting in God like human children; Achilles is one of these.
Christ was not the product of a sexual encounter between divinity and mortality. The immaculate conception is what birthed Jesus. This was also the first miracle linked to Jesus. He was the miracle baby. This fact distinguished him immediately from the Gods of contemporary Rome, Greece, and Judea. This also made clear the God of the new world was not vicious and sinful like prior Gods. This new God did not have sex with human beings. He had come to transcend and forgive sin, not participate in it.
Similarly, Achilles and Jesus both knew they would die; this is true. However there are indicators that Jesus knew when and how he would die. He told Judas and Peter when they would betray him and how. Achilles’ death was foretold by his mother, hence her trying to stop him from going to war. He only knew that he was subject to the will of the Gods and that his human body would one day die, so he was not afraid. In this, both men accepted their deaths. It was actually Christ who, for only a moment, pleaded with God. Achilles knew better. He and the Greeks knew the Gods to be unforgiving, vengeful creatures. The fact that only the Gods were immortal was by then well established. No man on earth could escape death when it was his time.
On the subject of immortality, one must first remember the principle nature of Jesus death: Redemption. Christ did not need to tell man that he was fallen, the book of Genesis did that. What he did tell us, though, was that despite our original sin, our literal falling out with God, and our perpetual sin henceforth, that he would redeem us regardless. Achilles, on the other hand, did not have the power to redeem anybody but himself. He was a man obsessed with his own honor, his own immortality through the lone promise of Greek society: Remembrance.
For Christ, remembering was not necessary. He did not need people on earth to say his name so he shan’t be forgotten. His eternity did not exist in our words, but in the end of ultimate reality-where he would sit at the right hand of the father. Achilles would turn to dust. The afterlife was imminent, to be sure, but it was not in any way similar to the promise of redemptive salvation. Achilles would only live on so long as we told his stories.
Interestingly, to deny Achilles was not a slight to God, only to his own vanity. To deny Christ was not only vanity, it was to deny the ultimate substantiation of God made flesh. It was to deny ultimate reality: logos incarnate. This was not the nature of Achilles. The only ultimate reality he represented was that ultimate duality of human beings, and he embodied said duality. Christ did not. Christ was free from sin. He did not partake in the carnal pleasures of this world.
For modern man, this leads us to an interesting question: Was the crucifixion a tragedy?
If he was the perfect man and did no wrong, would we not describe his extrajudicial murder as tragic?
To answer that question, let us first dissect the death of Achilles. Achilles death was undoubtedly a tragedy. There are many angles from which we can dissect that statement. For one, Achilles was the ultimate warrior. Faster, stronger, and more agile than any living man, Achilles seemingly could not be defeated in battle. Plus he was given impenetrable armor by the Gods themselves, thus making him even more invincible. However perfect Achilles did seem, his greatness led to his lone, and ultimately fatal, flaw.
In comparison, Christ was flawless. So, how could he be considered a tragic figure? After his rising from the dead on Easter Sunday, he ascends into heaven. This is a happy ending. Thus it is a comedy. If there was no risen Christ, he would be a tragic figure in that his love for man would have led to his ultimate downfall, this is true. But his rising and ascent into heaven marked the beginning of Christian comedy, and the transition away from Greek tragedy.
As a child, Achilles was dipped into a mystic river, giving him divine powers. While dipping him into the water, though, his mother held him by his Achilles tendon, thus leaving him with one vulnerable portion of his human body. This is what makes Achilles a tragic figure. It is a tragic figure whose greatness and fatal flaw are one and the same. To be brought down by one’s own greatness is tragic. Sisyphus flew as high as high could go, but he flew too close to the sun. Oedipus was abandoned by his father, thus leading him on the path to become a great king, but also his own father.
Jesus’ death, if not followed by the glory of the resurrection, would have had yet more room for tragedy. Christs method of execution was the lowest form of punishment reserved for the most vile of criminals. Martin Hengel referred to it as, “…The Son of God died a criminals death on the tree of shame.” Take a look at the phrasing of that: tree of shame. It was truly meant to be a shameful death. Slow and excruciatingly painful, the public nature of the cries of pain and agony was indeed meant to draw attention, meant to shame the criminal.
The deaths of Achilles and Christ share yet another similarity which encompass detail that makes them different. The Neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry had this to say on a certain woman who wished to worship Christ in the waning days of the Roman Empire: “Let her continue as she pleases, persisting in her vain delusions, and lamenting in song a god who died in delusions, who was condemned by judges whose verdict was just, and executed in the prime of life by the worst of deaths, a death bound with iron.”
This death, a death bound with iron, again links the two figures. Furthermore iron struck both men in the foot or the heel area. Achilles was struck by the iron tip of an arrow, while Christ was struck in his hands and feet by an iron nail. Bound by iron is another way of saying bound by the eternal. Iron was wrought, forged to be unbreakable, thus it was used in forging weaponry. The iron nails were meant to hold Jesus to the cross, in the moment symbolizing the permanence, the staying power of his sacrifice. While Achilles death was indeed permanent, Christ the hero could not be subject to this symbolism, but specifically his sacrifice. Christ the hero would overcome the permanence and unbreakable nature of those iron nails to defeat death, to defeat permanence.
As stated earlier, both deaths were, in a way, prophesied to be. Jesus himself knew of his own death. Achilles’ mother knew of his death as well. However one truly remarkable, albeit understated, aspect of Jesus’ death came centuries before his birth. “Plato’s Republic” contains a dialogue in which Jesus’ death was prophesied about:
“Drawing a distinction between righteousness and unrighteousness, Glaucon postulates that, instead of beings who are both righteous and unrighteous as most of us are most of the time, there would arise one unrighteous man who is entirely unrighteous and one righteous man who is entirely righteous. Let this one ‘righteous man in his nobleness and simplicity, one who desires, in the words of Aeschylus, to be a good man and not merely to give the impression of being a good man,’ now be accused of being in fact the worst of men. Let him, moreover, ‘remain steadfast to the hour of death, seeming to be unrighteous and yet being righteous.’ What will be the outcome? The answer, for whose gruesomeness Glaucon apologizes in advance to Socrates, must be…nothing other than the following: ‘He shall be scourged, tortured, bound, his eyes burnt out, and at last, after suffering every evil, shall be impaled or crucified.’”
Both men, Achilles and Jesus, were the main characters in their own respective stories that changed the world. Despite this truth, only one story makes a promise to all of mankind. Therein lies the eternal difference between the two men: Achilles was a man who tried to change his own world through the blade of a sword, while Jesus came to change the universe with a promise. In the end, that is why Achilles can only ever captivate the minds and imaginations of Western man, but Jesus will continue to captivate our hearts and souls of all who hear his word.