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Why Does Achilles Return Hector's Body to Priam?

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  • 0:04 Achilles Background
  • 1:10 What Happened to…
  • 2:22 The Gods' Consideration
  • 3:21 Reasons for Returning the Body
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

The poem ''The Iliad'' by Homer tells of the Trojan War, which involved both people and gods. Explore why the hero Achilles returned the disfigured body of his enemy Hector, to the dead man's father.

Achilles Background

The epic narrative poem The Iliad, by Homer, details significant events in the final weeks of the Trojan War. This war between the city of Troy and the armies of most Greek kings, collectively known as the Achaeans, lasted for 10 years. Both men and gods joined into this fight for various reasons. Some men have come to get revenge, while others long to find glory. Some gods punish wickedness and disrespect, whereas others honor heroic deeds.

People often get carried away during an argument or a fight. Things are said or done that they wouldn't normally do. No one exhibits this more than the Achaean hero Achilles, who is the focus of this story. Achilles is the son of Peleus, the mortal king of the fierce warriors known as the Myrmidons. Achilles was an incredible fighter and leader who went to the Trojan War to win glory through his valor. Achilles' rage is one of the major themes or recurring ideas in The Iliad.

Let's explore how Achilles' rage led to him killing Hector and claiming his body. Then, we'll turn to what encourages Achilles to return Hector's body to Priam, Hector's father.

What Happened to Hector's Body?

Fueled by his anger, his combat skill, and his goal to gain glory in battle, Achilles rampages through the Trojan army. Every battle Achilles is in, he leads his men to victory. However, after having a hot-tempered argument with King Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaeans, Achilles refuses to fight anymore and stays in his tent.

Losing confidence, the Achaeans begin to lose battles. Hoping to drive the Trojans back, a good friend of Achilles named Patroclus persuades Achilles to let him borrow the great man's armor. Patroclus asks to borrow the armor to fool people into thinking he is Achilles, so the Achaeans will be inspired and the Trojans will be demoralized.

The plan works for awhile, with the Achaeans pushing back the Trojans. Then, Apollo helps the Trojan hero Prince Hector who identifies and kills Patroclus. When Achilles hears that Patroclus died, he fills with rage. He rejoins the fighting, crushing Trojans who are in his way, then demands to face Hector. The one-on-one combat ends with Achilles killing Hector. Still pulsing with anger and needing to satisfy his revenge and grief for having lost Patroclus, Achilles allows Achaean soldiers to stab and mutilate Hector's corpse. Then Achilles ties the body to his chariot and drags it behind.

The Gods' Consideration

This desecration of Hector's corpse is one of the most vulgar instances of disrespect in ancient Greek culture. Ancient Greeks believed that if a body is not prepared correctly, the recently deceased would not find peace in the afterlife. Achilles' actions stressed how enraged he was and how deeply he grieved for his lost friend.

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