Trojan Epics: 5 Achilles recovered and a stinky snakebite

Gerard van der Kuijl (1604–1673), Philoctetes on Lemnos (1647), oil on canvas, 137.7 x 110.8 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Zeus’s planned war between the Greeks and Troy was well in motion. Possibly after a false start, the thousand ships of the Greek expeditionary force had finally sailed in fair winds from Aulis, heading for the shores of the Troad, Trojan territory surrounding the great city. At some stage, either before the fleet departed or shortly afterwards, it was discovered that their lead warrior Achilles was missing.

Achilles’ mother Thetis was aware of the prophecy that her son would die before the fall of Troy. So to protect him, she had sent Achilles to the court of King Lycomedes of Skyros, where he lived in disguise as Pyrrha, an adopted daughter of the king. Odysseus and other leaders knew another prophecy, saying that they wouldn’t triumph over the Trojans without Achilles, so visited Skyros to reclaim him.

During his time at court, Achilles had raped Deidamia, one of the king’s daughters, and she became pregnant as a result. Her son was named Neoptolemus, and later went to join the Greek forces at Troy.

There is of course a chronological problem here, in that Achilles must have already reached the age of twenty by this time, making this event at least twenty years after the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. The period between Achilles’ stay on Skyros and Neoptolemus joining the Greek forces at Troy must have been another twenty years or so, but time often doesn’t proceed linearly in epics.

Odysseus used a cunning trick to get Achilles to reveal himself: he offered jewellery and other gifts to the women of the court. When they were distracted by this, his companions made noises of the island being attacked, including a trumpet call. At that, Achilles instinctively drew a sword from among the gifts, then admitted his real identity when Odysseus challenged him.

Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Achilles Discovered by Ulysses and Diomedes (1617-18), oil on canvas, 248.5 x 269.5 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

A collaboration between the young Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens, Achilles Discovered by Ulysses and Diomedes (1617-18) shows Odysseus’ trick, as Achilles, looking very fetching in a red dress, holds a sword aloft, as others sort through the gifts brought by Odysseus.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1654), Ulysses Finding Achilles at the Court of King Lycomedes (1641), oil on canvas, 167 x 234.8 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Artemisia Gentileschi painted Ulysses Finding Achilles at the Court of King Lycomedes late in her career, in 1641. Its narrative isn’t as clear, although it appears that Achilles is second from left.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Discovery of Achilles on Skyros (c 1651), oil on canvas, 97 x 129.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Nicolas Poussin was another latecomer, painting Discovery of Achilles on Skyros in about 1651. There’s no doubt about who is Achilles here: that left foot looks like that of a warrior, and aren’t those arms well-muscled?

Adrien Dassier (1630–1688), Achilles Amongst Lycomede’s Daughters (1669), oil on canvas, 117 x 127 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Adrien Dassier’s Achilles Amongst Lycomede’s Daughters (1669) chooses the same moment of peripeteia.

Gerard de Lairesse (1641–1711), Achilles Discovered among the Daughters of Lycomedes (c 1685), oil on canvas, 138 x 190 cm, Galerij Prins Willem V, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s hard to tell which of the figures in Gerard de Lairesse’s Achilles Discovered among the Daughters of Lycomedes (c 1685) is the warrior.

After the fleet had left Aulis it called at several islands on its way to cross the Aegean Sea. On one of these, possibly Lemnos, a master archer Philoctetes, who was travelling with Heracles’ bow, was bitten on the foot by a snake. His wound disabled him and festered, causing a pervasive stench, so he was abandoned on the island of Lemnos.

Gerard van der Kuijl (1604–1673), Philoctetes on Lemnos (1647), oil on canvas, 137.7 x 110.8 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In Gerard van der Kuijl’s Philoctetes on Lemnos from 1647, he is bathing his foot in a small river, his bow and arrows at his side.

Nicolai Abildgaard (1743–1809), The Wounded Philoctetes (1775), oil on canvas, 123 x 175.5 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst (Den Kongelige Malerisamling), Copenhagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

Nicolai Abildgaard’s Wounded Philoctetes (1775) is an intense figure study, of the archer clutching his right foot.

Achille Etna Michallon (1796–1822), Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos (1822), oil on canvas, 69.5 × 119 cm, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Achille Etna Michallon’s Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos from 1822 shows him hunting birds by the shore in an idyllic landscape, Heracles’ bow in his right hand, and the wound on his left foot bandaged.

Pierre Cabanel (1838–1918), Philoctetes Abandoned on the Island of Lemnos (date not known), oil on canvas, 154 x 244 cm, Le musée Paul Valéry, Sète, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In Pierre Cabanel’s undated Philoctetes Abandoned on the Island of Lemnos, the archer is seen successfully hunting seabirds, with his foot swathed in rags.

Unfortunately, according to yet another prophecy, the bow of Heracles was an essential weapon to the Greeks if they were to defeat Troy. Years later, Odysseus had to return to Lemnos to recover it from Philoctetes.

Before arriving on the mainland of the Troad, some of the Greek fleet landed on Tenedos, the modern Turkish island of Bozcaada, where they faced a hostile reception. It may have been here that Achilles fought Cycnus and achieved the first victory of the war. This story was borrowed by Ovid for his Metamorphoses, in which the defeated Cycnus was transformed into a swan, cygnus in Latin.

Virgil Solis (1514–1562) Achilles Challenges Cycnus to a Duel (c 1560), engraving for Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book XII, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Virgil Solis’ Achilles Challenges Cycnus to a Duel from about 1560 shows Achilles and Cycnus swinging their swords at one another in the midst of this opening battle of the war.

When the fleet reached the shore of the Troad, Hector and his army had been expecting them. One of the first of the forces to disembark there, Protesilaus, became the first Greek death of the war, spurring Achilles and Agamemnon’s army to establish control over the Troad and isolate the city of Troy, where they were to spend the next decade.