Was Achilles’ rage a symptom of conscious injustice or of an infantile psychopathologic disorder?

Mei – Year 12 Student & Chief Editor, Humanities Journal

Editor’s Note: Year 12 student Mei, founder and current Chief Editor of the school’s Humanities Journal, researched and composed this daunting yet enlightening extended essay on Achilles, the mythological Greek hero of the Trojan War and the central character of Homer‘s Illiad. Mei writes here in response to the Mary Renault Classical Reception Essay Prize hosted by St. Hugh’s College, Oxford. Essays can be from any discipline and should be on a topic relating to the reception of classical antiquity – including Greek and Roman literature, history, political thought, philosophy, and material remains – in any period to the present. You can read more excellent contributions from Mei in The GSAL Journal hereCPD

[Featured image: Achilles dragging the dead body of Hector in front of the gates of Troy. (Public Domain)]

‘Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one’s friends’. [1]Achilles, viewed as both the epitome of Homeric valour through his bellicose prowess, and the nadir of heinous barbarism through his insatiable rage, is a figure often propelled by the intricacies of his emotions, the prevailing sentiment being his anger. Yet did his impulsive nature and consistent fury exhibited throughout the Iliad derive solely from the injustice he consciously experienced throughout the Trojan War, or was the genesis of this rage seated in Achilles’ infancy, suggesting that he was instead afflicted with an infantile psychopathologic disorder?

It is far easier to characterize Achilles as merely a truculent, cantankerous youth than it is to explore the depth and weight of his overbearing rage, drawn upon as the opening lines of the Iliad: μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος, οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε (Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses).[2] From its conception, the Iliad makes the mênis of Achilles the thematic focus;[3] it begins in media res, depicting the ninth year of the Trojan War following the Achaean sack of Chryse and the subsequent enslavement of the maidens Chryseis and Briseis, seized as victory booty. The former is the daughter of Apollo’s priest, Chryses, who demands her, return in anguish; the hubristic Agamemnon, leader of the Achaeans, refuses, triggering a bubonic – esk plague, which would only cease once he returned Chryseis. Agamemnon does so, yet in return compels the seizure of Briseis, Achilles’ war trophy and the physical manifestation of his honour in war, thrusting Achilles into a sullen state of complex rage. [4] On a fundamental level, Achilles’ loss of Briseis to Agamemnon was a conscious injustice that was directly conducive to his rage. The disregard exhibited towards Achilles through seizing Briseis diminished his heroic timé, [5] whilst simultaneously eroding his reputation and pugnacious disposition amongst his fellow Achaeans. Through this lens, Achilles’ rage is one of impulsivity; his swift drawing of the sword, restrained by the intervention of Athena, functioning as a conduit for Hera to instil Achilles with rationality suggests an impetuous, youthful anger derived from causation. The rage with which Achilles is consumed is directly conducive to his short – term vexation at the instigation of Agamemnon, an irrational response to an unsavoury stimulus: the purloining of his concubine.

However, on more complex level, the depth of Achilles’ rage evoked through the stripping of Briseis is symptomatic of a deeper mental infliction; an infantile psychopathologic disorder. His withdrawal to his tent was not a sulk, as misconstrued by history; rather, it was a symbolic manifestation of the schizoid defence, suggesting it wasn’t a direct derivative of a conscious injustice and ran far deeper. [6]This is a psychiatric – derived term, which, at its crux, is a defence against inadequacy; it involves both physical and emotional isolation, evinced through deep withdrawal which symbolises the safety of an objectless state.[7] Achilles’ loss of Briseis was perhaps an evocation of the loss of his mother’s breast during infancy; [8]even his name, translated as ‘lipless’, emphasises how he had never been suckled, becoming marred with neonatal trauma through malnutrition which lay buried within his subconscious. As a result, the subsequent loss of Briseis caused an emotional regression for Achilles, drawing these powerful emotions of abandonment from his subconscious into his explicit memory and resulting his adoption of the schizoid defence as a mechanism though which he could prevent the physical realization of his rage through isolation. Thus, Achilles’ rage as an evocation of the neglect he experienced as a child, pointing to a psychopathologic disorder triggered through this episode, suggests that it ran deeper than simply an immediate response to the conscious injustice he experienced under Agamemnon. This is supported by the following events depicted in the Iliad; following decisive loses to the Trojans, Nestor urges Agamemnon to attempt a reconciliation with Achilles. The embassy try to tempt Achilles through lavish gifts, the return of an untouched Briseis and Agamemnon’s own daughter, yet to little avail; Achilles is still enveloped by rage, and incensed by the lack of a direct apology from Agamemnon. Regardless of his belligerent nature, he announces his intention to return to Phthia, where he could live a long and prosaic life instead of pursuing his passion for warfare in Troy.[9] This rejection and the continued festering of Achilles’ rage is symptomatic of a prenatal and infantile psychopathologic disorder on two accounts. Firstly, his distinct rejection of Agamemnon’s daughter as an olive branch, despite his awareness of the ever – increasing Achaean death toll can perhaps be attributed to his personal familial structure; it exposed his mother Thetis’ rage at Zeus, who similarly forced her into marriage with Peleus, the product (through rape, according to Ovid) was Achilles himself. Thetis ‘burned, drenched, mauled, stung’ and ‘covered [Peleus] with sticky sepia ink’ so that he’d free her from his grasp, bitterly resenting her match with a moral, enduring ‘a mortal warrior’s bed many a time, without desire’. [10]The absence of consent, and the obvious rage of Thetis at her coupling surely translated as a subconscious rage towards Achilles, the manifestation of her violation; this was exhibited through her abusive treatment of him in infancy, exemplified through submerging a neonatal, gasping Achilles in flames in order to burn away his mortality and her subsequent abandonment of him, rendering her child alone with Cheiron the Centaur. [11]Thus, the trauma experienced in Achilles’ infancy through Zeus’ forced match, again prowling his subconscious, likely materialised once again in his declarative memory with Agamemnon’s offer of his daughter, almost mirroring that of Zeus and Thetis and evoking the adversity of his juvenescence meaning that his rage subsisted and perhaps even intensified, rooted in the anguish of his infancy.

A further indicator of Achilles’ rage being symptomatic of a more profound condition than cocious injustice during the Trojan War can be viewed from a Jungian perspective.[12] His emotional and enduring anger towards Agamemnon could suggest that he is overwhelmed by an anima mood, leading him to reject reconciliation and remain sensitive and rancorous, evidenced through his sustained withdrawal from battle. The anima is both a ‘personal complex and an archetypal woman in the male psyche’, an unconscious mechanism existing within every male child identified primarily with his mother. [13]It is linked with the Eros principle, thus the development of the anima in males is inherently derived from their interaction and relatability to women. Achilles’ relations with his mother, the principle and overarching female figure in his life were perhaps so distorted that they severely hindered the development of his anima; the conscious injustice of the situation with Briseis merely went to exacerbate the situation, evoking memories of his mother’s abuse meaning that Achilles became possessed by his under – developed anima.[14] This forced the anima into the ‘inner world where she functions as the medium between the ego and subconscious’,[15] translating outwardly as Achilles becoming fettered with rage and emotion, consequently explaining his overbearing anger. Thus, both possession by an anima mood and the resurfacing of Achilles’ prenatal, neonatal and infantile trauma into his declarative memory, as well as the schizoid defence provoked by the actions of Agamemnon are symptoms of a deeper psychopathologic disorder rooted in his boyhood, evoked into his explicit memory by the conscious injustice he faced in the removal of Briseis depicted at the start of the Iliad and translating outwardly into an unrelenting rage.

There is a notable shift in body of Achilles’ rage at the advent of book sixteen; the death of his beloved companion Patroclus shifts Achilles from a choleric anger to a wholly vengeful one. This rage can be seen purely as a symptom of conscious injustice at the hands of the gods and the absence of free will on Patroclus’ behalf as a victim of the overarching divine plan, yet also as a self – inflicted injustice on Achilles’ part, as he also holds culpability for the death of his beloved. [16]Whilst this raises one of the most pertinent questions of Homeric ideology, that is, the interconnection of the volition of mortals and the will of the gods, Achilles’ rage perhaps sits directly with Apollo, and even the overarching political will of Zeus. The former’s actions were directly conducive to Patroclus’ death; Apollo instructed him to retreat from breaking the walls of Troy, whilst simultaneously taunting Hector into driving towards him, disguised as the warrior Asisus. He subsequently disarms and temporarily bewilders Patroclus, serving as the divine agent of his death, whilst the collective efforts of Eurphorbus and Hector function as the mortal agents, finalising his fate through a spear to the stomach. [17]Achilles’ acrimonious rage at this death, utterly void of honour, is not solely indicative of the manifestation of an infantile psychopathologic disorder; rather, it is derivative of the gaping loss he has experienced as part of the conscious injustice of war and, according to the modern Kübler – Ross model,[18] the second stage of grief. The depth of his rage isn’t necessarily symptomatic of a deeper trauma. Instead, the profundity of his anger is a natural human instinct reflecting the intimacy of his relationship with Patroclus, whether in friendship or pederasty.[19] There is a sense that with the death of Patroclus, Achilles’ life has also ended, powerfully portrayed by Homer: grief overcomes him like ‘a black cloud’ as he lies helpless on the floor, clawing at the ground and ripping out his dirtied hair in tragic lamentation.[20] His emotions are unruly and desperate, comparable even to modern soldiers on hearing of the death of comrades in arms; Vietnam War soldiers in a study carried out by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay and published in 1994 similarly fell into the heavy depression depicted by Homer, forgoing food and even pondering suicide,[21] reflecting the universality of Achilles’ grief, cultivated through his experiences in war and not necessarily through pre – existing mental affliction.

Yet Achilles’ rage is not constrained to the gods; the bulk of his anger is directed towards himself, and the conscious injustices that he willingly committed which culminated in Patroclus’ death. His egotistical obsession with his own kleos [22]and heroic timé is what led to the inevitable destruction of Patroclus, who almost appropriates the paradigm of Meleager; he saves the Achaean ships from Trojan destruction so that Achilles isn’t forced to re-join the battle without full compensation of his honour, which he relents to by the apex of book nineteen. [23]If Patroclus didn’t take up arms to push back the Trojans, their breakthrough would have compelled Achilles to fight without the restoration of his honour, thus meaning that his death was almost necessary for Achilles to enjoy the reinstatement of his integrity and re-join the Trojan War at his own instigation. Thus, it can be inferred that Achilles’ rage is a symptom of the exertion of his self – inflicted injustice upon Patroclus through giving him express permission to fight, and by extension of grief, himself; Patroclus became a victim of Achilles’ fit of pique over Agamemnon’s injustice, caught up in the intricacies of his plan and his bout of inactivity as a consequence of rage. Achilles is clearly blinded by até,[24] allowing his dear friend to effectively go to his death, consequently filling him with rage as he witnesses the futile loss of life he has inadvertedly orchestrated for the mere preservation of his own honour. As a result, he seeks retribution through the murder of Hector, his rage manifesting itself in the expected behaviour of a Homeric hero; this cannot be deemed indicative of a pre – existing psychopathologic disorder, rather it is a natural symptom of immediate grief and a fundamental characteristic of the Greek hero. What can, however, be deemed as symptomatic of an underlying infantile disorder is Achilles’ desecration of Hector’s body, in a violent act of heinous barbarism.

The slaughter of Hector is the most evident sign of an infantile psychopathologic disorder exhibited by Achilles throughout the Iliad. It marks the nadir of his psychological state, the crest of his rage and the pinnacle of his murderous cruelty. The death of Patroclus perhaps evoked the unconscious fear of annihilation that had plagued Achilles throughout the duration of his neonatal and early infancy periods, cultivated through the simultaneous physical and mental abuse he experienced at the hands of Thetis.[25] In this instance, unable to revert to the vices that displaced this repressed fear in his youth, namely the torture of animals, Achilles’ rage is enacted through the slaughter and subsequent outraging of Hector’s body, so odious in its brutality that the gods were forced to intervene.[26] It is in this episode that the prospect of an underlying disorder is most eminent. The death of Hector isn’t enough; Achilles’ rage was not sated. He slits Hector’s tendons, slips ox – hide thongs through the veins of his feet, ties him to a chariot and drives it around Patroclus’ pyre, heaped up with the fresh sacrifice of twelve Trojan youths. [27]Symptomatically speaking, this erratic and overtly violent behaviour is a manifestation of the repetition compulsion; [28]an inherent, primordial tendency seated deep within the subconscious that compels the repetition of certain actions, especially those which caused the most pain or were the most destructive.[29] Here, Achilles re- enacts the infantile trauma he faced through dragging Hector by his Achilles tendon, mimicking his mother igniting him with flames whilst she held him by the ankle. In this repetition compulsion, he aligns himself with the original aggressor, his mother. He effectively becomes her, whilst a dead and helpless Hector is continually violated; it is interesting to note how both Thetis and Achilles, mirroring his mother’s behaviour, use natural elements in their respective abuses – Achilles is burned by fire, whereas Hector’s body is profaned through being dragged on the dirt. Thus, the abominable treatment of the latter’s body, utterly indignant of ancient Greek culture and ritual points to an underlying psychopathologic disorder that extended far beyond vengeance for a dead companion.

Extending beyond the Iliad, this point is exemplified through Achilles’ murder and subsequent rape of Penthesileia after the return of Hector’s corpse to King Priam; [30]his treatment of the Amazonian Queen is certainly symptomatic of an infantile psychopathological disorder, which has distorted his notions of proper, flourishing relationships cultivated through the looming threat of infanticide which beset his childhood. [31]The rage he exhibits in defiling Penthesileia is certainly not borne from conscious injustice; Hector is back with the Trojans, Patroclus’ body has been put to rest – Achilles acts out of innate brutality and anger, resulting in a wanton, necrophilia lust inherently linked to his maternal psychopathological trauma. To Achilles, necrophilia may have been the only safe way to engage in sexual relations with a woman; his mother, the overarching female figure in his life, generates ‘the threat of infanticide and castration’,[32] thus warping the morality of relationships for Achilles. It is evident that once again, the crux of the issue is Thetis; she even facilitates Achilles’ rape in this episode, placing the slain warrior beneath an olive tree so that her son can abuse her corpse. Through this action, the scars of Achilles’ infantile trauma become overtly visible – the corruption he experienced in the neonatal and infantile phases has contorted his notions of healthy sexual relationships, to the extent that he involves his mother in this iniquitous, carnal experience, which she actively promotes through her aid in enabling Achilles’ perverse behaviour reflecting the cycle of depravity which both mother and son are enslaved within, perhaps pointing towards a shared psychopathologic disorder.

No man or woman born, coward or brave, can shun his destiny’.[33] Whilst conscious injustice served as a trigger in evoking the turbulent memories lying dormant in his subconscious, Achilles’ rage certainly derived from an infantile psychopathological disorder, brought to the forefront of his declarative memory through the great suffering of the Trojan War, namely the undermining of his timé and the death of his beloved, Patroclus. Specific retrospective diagnosis is anachronistic and inappropriate; recognising that the rage stimulated through these injustices only culminated in such heinous barbarism, specifically the torture of Hector’s corpse and necrophilia with Penthesileia, was only due to a pre – existing psychopathologic disorder is imperative to understand Achilles, his own death on a micro level and the termination of the Trojan War on a macro level. A rage so berserk and acute simply couldn’t have translated into the harrowing war abuse undertaken by Achilles if it was not driven by a deeper, psychological qualm, thus suggesting that he was afflicted by an infantile mental disorder, cultivated most likely through the trauma associated with his mother.


[1] Pimentel, Richard. https://www.philosophynews.com/page/WWAD-(What-Would-Aristotle-Do).aspx/. Accessed May 27 2020.

[2] Loeb Classical Library. https://www.loebclassics.com/view/homer-iliad/1924/pb_LCL170.13.xml (Harvard University Press). Accessed May 27 2020.

[3] Donnet, Daniel. L’Antiquité Classique, vol. 75, 2006, pp. 262–263. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41665301. Accessed 28 May 2020.

[4] GREEN, P. (2015). Book 1. In The Iliad: A New Translation by Peter Green (pp. 25-41). University of California Press. Accessed May 28, 2020.

[5] Translated as ‘honour of recognition for accomplishment’. This is often in the form of material spoils, such as Briseis in this example. https://sites.google.com/site/thegreekhonorcode/the-honor-code. Accessed May 28 2020.

[6] DeLia D. (2004). The Achilles complex: preoedipal trauma, rage and repetition. Psychoanalytic review91(2), 179–199.

[7] The Diamond Approach. https://www.diamondapproach.org/glossary/refinery_phrases/schizoid-defense. Accessed May 28 2020.

[8] DeLia D. (2004). The Achilles complex: preoedipal trauma, rage and repetition. Psychoanalytic review91(2), 179–199

[9] Tsagarakis, O. (1971). The Achaean Embassy and the Wrath of Achilles. Hermes, 99(3), 257-277.Accessed May 28, 2020.

[10] DeLia D. (2004). The Achilles complex: preoedipal trauma, rage and repetition. Psychoanalytic review91(2), 179–199

[11]History.com Editors (2011). Achilles, https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/achilles. Accessed May 28 2020.

[12] https://trans4mind.com/jamesharveystout/anima.htm. Accessed May 28 2020.

[13] Sharp, Daryl, C G. Jung. Jung Lexicon: A Primer of Terms & Concepts. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, 1991

[14] DeLia D. (2004). The Achilles complex: preoedipal trauma, rage and repetition. Psychoanalytic review91(2), 179–199

[15] C. G. Jung, Alchemical Studies (London 1978) p. 180

[16] KARAKANTZA, E. F. I. M. I. A. (2014). WHO IS LIABLE FOR BLAME? PATROCLUS’ DEATH IN BOOK 16 OF THE ILIAD. Proceedings of the 12th International Symposium on the Odyssey.

[17] Ibid

[18] Kübler-Ross E, Kessler D (2014). On grief & grieving : finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. New York: Scribner.

[19] Clarke, W.M. 1978. “Achilles and Patroclus in Love.” Hermes 106.3 pp. 381-396.

[20] Stickley, Patrick R., “Grief in the Iliad” (2014). Undergraduate Honors Theses. Paper 205. https://dc.etsu.edu/honors/205. Accessed May 28 2020.

[21] Brouwers, J. https://www.karwansaraypublishers.com/awblog/the-grief-of-achilles/ (2013). Accessed May 28 2020.

[22] Translated by Lattimore as ‘glory’. All translations are by Lattimore unless otherwise stated.

[23] KARAKANTZA, E. F. I. M. I. A. (2014). WHO IS LIABLE FOR BLAME? PATROCLUS’ DEATH IN BOOK 16 OF THE ILIAD. Proceedings of the 12th International Symposium on the Odyssey.

[24] Translated most fittingly here as ‘rage’.

[25] DeLia D. (2004). The Achilles complex: preoedipal trauma, rage and repetition. Psychoanalytic review91(2), 179–199

[26] Ibid.

[27] Bassett, S. (1933). Achilles’ Treatment of Hector’s Body. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 64, 41-65. Accessed May 28 2020.

[28] DeLia D. (2004). The Achilles complex: preoedipal trauma, rage and repetition. Psychoanalytic review91(2), 179–199

[29] Khan, Nadia. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/personality-disorders/what-is-repetitive-compulsion-how-to-overcome-it/. Accessed May 28 2020.

[30] The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1987/12/27/books/l-the-savage-greeks-of-firebrand-779087.html. Accessed May 28 2020.

[31] DeLia D. (2004). The Achilles complex: preoedipal trauma, rage and repetition. Psychoanalytic review91(2), 179–199

[32] Ibid.

[33] http://famousquotefrom.com/homer/. Accessed May 28 2020.

Mei 620640

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