PTSD and a Reevaluation of Homer’s Achilles
In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles hears about the death of his dearest friend and says “Nothing matters to me now / But killing and blood and men in agony” (19.226).1 In the fit of reckless violence which follows, he slaughters so many young men that he clogs the River Scamander with their gore, slays helpless suppliants, and attempts to mutilate his chief enemy’s body after killing him. While it is impossible to deny Achilles’ compulsive and violent behavior in much of The Iliad, modern research on the effects of battle trauma on the human psyche invites us to reevaluate his behavior. In light of modern research conducted on war veterans suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), Achilles emerges as much the victim of war as its brutal perpetrator. In his violence and the events preceding it, I will identify the triggers and symptoms associated with PTSD so that readers might have a greater understanding of the complexity of Homer’s epic poem and his characterization of Achilles.2
Achilles experiences a combination of events which typically trigger PTSD, including betrayal, witnessing the deaths of comrades, and being wounded. In Book 1 of The Iliad, Achilles’ betrayal is twofold. The Greek commander Agamemnon betrays Achilles by verbally insulting him and taking possession of his war prize, the girl Briseis. The Greek army as a whole betrays him by reacting passively to Agamemnon’s insults and failing to defend the honor of their champion warrior. These betrayals are so traumatic and insulting for Achilles that he has little choice but to withdraw entirely from the war. Then, while watching from the sidelines, and after his return to the front lines in Book 19, Achilles witnesses the atrocious deaths of many of his comrades. He is even pushed to the brink of suicide, moreover, by the death in battle of his closest friend (and possible lover) Patroclus, as illustrated by the following verses: “My comrade is dead, / Lying in my hut mangled with bronze, / His feet turned toward the door, and around him, / Our friends grieve. Nothing matters to me now” (19.222-26). Finally, after the experiences just identified, Achilles himself is wounded by the Trojan warrior Agenor, right before he begins his most violent killing spree in Book 21.
While the symptoms of PTSD can vary, they typically include a feeling of invulnerability, an insatiable bloodlust and animalistic behavior, sometimes collectively referred to as “berserking.” The word “berserking” is Norse, and originally signified warriors entering battle without their bear (ber-) shirts (-serk), that is leather hides which served as armor for ancient warriors. The following passage, from an anthology of Old Norse myths called the Heimskringla, illustrates the characteristics associated with the berserk state:
In battle Odin could make his foes blind or deaf or terrified and their weapons were as nothing more than sticks; but his own men went about without armour and were mad like hounds or wolves, and bit their shields and were strong as bears or bulls; they slew men, but neither fire nor steel would deal with them. This was called a berserk’s-gang.3 In Book 21 of The Iliad, Achilles displays a similar belief in his own invulnerability that we can identify as a manifestation of berserking. In this book Achilles’ acts of reckless courage include that he takes on hundreds of the enemy troops simultaneously and without ever showing the least fear or hesitation, even when the River Scamander itself rises up to drown him.4
In the process of exercising such reckless disregard for his own life, Achilles slaughters all who cross his path. Even by the standards of the Iliadic warrior culture, his bloodlust is excessive, as illustrated by the following vivid simile. “Like a spirit from hell bent on slaughter / He struck over and over, in a widening spiral, / Hideous groans rose from the wounded, And the river water turned crimson with blood” (21.24-7). In short, he relentlessly butchers countless Trojan warriors. Later in Book 21 he also kills a hostage completely at his mercy and whose life he has spared in the past. By the end of Book 21, Achilles has slain so many Trojan warriors that the River Scamander is literally clogged with the bodies and gore of his victims and overflows its banks.
Achilles behaves especially animalistically, that is with a complete lack of human empathy, in his treatment of Hector before and after he kills him. Immediately before their climactic battle, Hector begs Achilles to honor his corpse if he is killed in combat, and Achilles refuses, saying:
Thus Achilles likens dueling warriors to predators and their prey, and in the process aligns himself with animalistic predation. His statement of intent to dishonor Hector’s corpse, and his attempts to mutilate the body following his enemy’s death, show a complete lack of human compassion. Additionally, Achilles refuses to wash off the gore from his combat with the heroic Trojan. Like a large jungle cat with its fur blood-stained after a hunt, Achilles thereby advertises his prowess as a warrior and his great victory. The final and most disturbing portrayal of Achilles’ animalistic behavior occurs when Hector’s father Priam meets with him to ransom Hector’s body. While Homer characterizes some of the encounter positively, in particular by portraying Achilles as willing to surrender Hector’s body to Priam, there is a point at which Achilles snaps at Priam for refusing to dine with him, and in doing so again reveals an almost complete lack of human empathy. To the grieving, frail and completely vulnerable old man, Achilles says impiously, “Don’t provoke me old man … / Or I might not let you out of here alive … / Suppliant though you are—and sin against Zeus” (24.605-16). Immediately after Achilles’ verbal attack on the old man, Homer further characterizes him as a wild animal, and invites the audience to view his behavior as animalistic: “The old man was afraid and did as he was told. / [And] the son of Peleus leapt out the door like a lion …” (24.617-18).
Our identification of the triggers and symptoms of PTSD in Achilles’ violent behavior and the events preceding it has broader implications for his characterization in The Iliad. Achilles, once a figure of godlike power and bravery, now appears a very mortal figure suffering from the brutality of war. His fall from heroism to barbarism is no less tragic and no less horrid, but is much more understandable when viewed as a psychological phenomenon only recently identified by modern psychology. This understanding of Achilles also serves to bridge the cultural and temporal gaps between Homeric society and our own. The Iliad provides compelling evidence that PTSD is a cross-cultural and cross-temporal disorder which warriors have experienced since time immemorial. From Troy to Vietnam and beyond, soldiers have suffered trauma from combat which has in turn caused them to inflict violence on others, as well as on themselves. Achilles almost cuts his own throat in the opening lines of Book 18, and refuses to eat, drink or bathe for most of the rest of The Iliad. Thus, he effectively makes himself the living dead (in commiseration with Patroclus). Similarly, the number of Vietnam vets who have committed suicide exceeds the number who died during and after the war from wounds, and an estimated 1.5 million still suffer from PTSD.5
1 All references to The Iliad are to Stanley Lombardo’s translation (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1997).
2 This essay takes as its starting point Jonathan Shay’s observations about PTSD in Achilles in Vietnam (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), but draws on different evidence than he does with reference to Achilles, and comes to some very different conclusions.
3 Sturalson, Snorre. 1990. Heimskringla or the Lives of the Norse Kings (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990) 5.
4 Homer makes no mention of the story found in traditions outside The Iliad according to which Achilles was in fact invulnerable since birth, except in his heel. In short, Homer stresses Achilles’ mortality.
5 See Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, On Killing. The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1996) 291.