Achilles: Man of Bronze – Annabel Orchard

Abstract:
In the Iliad, the Trojan hero Aeneas says of his Greek enemy Achilleus: “he claims to be made all of bronze (panchalkeos)” Iliad 20.102 The poet has apparently reserved a special term for this reference to Achilleus. The word panchalkeos or “all bronze” occurs in the Iliad only in this passage. Achilleus’ physical identity is so closely associated with his armour that he might well be described by the Trojans as a man made of bronze. Whenever he appears on the battlefield, he is encased in armour made for him by the lame smith god Hephaistos. The bronze armour that he wears represents Achilleus’ identity as a warrior and hero. This paper examines the perceptions of the armoured body of Achilleus. It considers the effect of the armour on the person inside it and on those who view the armed figure on the battlefield. Drawing on ideas about the cyborg, it examines the enhanced power of the hero due to the technological and supernatural properties of the armour. It also considers the concept of imperfect invulnerability in this myth, and considers the significance of a physically imperfect god creating armour for a physically vulnerable hero.


I expect we are all familiar with the phrase ‘the Man of Steel’[1].The metaphor of steel is used to suggest the great strength and resilience of the archetypal twentieth century superhero, Superman.  This metaphor of a man made of metal is applied much earlier in a very different culture, to the hero Achilleus in Homer’s early Greek epic, the Iliad.  Our familiarity with the superheroes of twentieth century comics and film is part of the cultural context in which a twenty-first century reader encounters this ancient epic and reads its hero.  The visual media of comics and film may seem unlikely vehicles for comparison to an ancient epic derived from an oral tradition of storytelling.  However, the Iliad creates a strong impression of the visual, physical world through vivid descriptions and motifs.  The most potent of these motifs is the armour of Achilleus.  Reynolds contends that in the twentieth century superhero genre “Costume functions as the crucial sign of super-heroism” (Reynolds 1994, 27).  In the Iliad, the motif of armour functions in a way that corresponds in this respect to the costume of the superhero, as it identifies Achilleus as a unique and peerless hero.  His heroic identity is so closely identified with his armour that he might well be described as the ‘Man of Bronze’.

The vocabulary related to the superhero, and particularly to the superhero’s costume, is potentially a valuable tool to analyse the functions of Achilleus’ armour.  Peter Coogan suggests that a superhero can be defined by his ‘iconic costume, which typically expresses his biography or character, powers, and origin’ (2002, 358).  Such costumes ‘emblamatize the character’s identity’ and express ‘the connection of inner character, biography, and identity’ (Coogan 2002, 368). Achilleus’ armour is just such an iconic costume.  The armour represents his warrior identity and character, and relates to biographical details of his origins and his destiny.  The armour has a divine provenance, and indicates his special position at the margins of human and divine society.  It is appropriate to the narrow sphere of his chosen existence and destiny, to live and die gloriously on the battlefield.  I suggest that the armour is an integral component of his heroic persona, and that he is transformed by the divine technology of the armour into a superior and more powerful being.  I further suggest that only Achilleus can truly fill his armour and thus achieve this heroic transformation.  The armour defines Achilleus as the supreme epic hero.

The Homeric Achilleus is quite different from other heroes of Greek myth, and a significant aspect of this distinction is his armour.  In contrast to the monster-slaying exploits of heroes such as Herakles, Theseus and Perseus[2], Achilleus performs his heroic feats on the battlefield.  This environment demands not only certain skills and attributes, but also specific accoutrements.  Simply put, a warrior needs arms and armour to perform his heroic deeds.  Of course, Achilleus is by no means the only warrior in the Greek mythological corpus.  The Trojan War of Greek myth can be described as an ‘ensemble piece’.  It involves the greatest warrior heroes of an entire generation from both the Greek and Trojan worlds.  The heroic roll call includes Ajax, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Paris, Hektor and Aeneas.  Yet great as their heroic performances are, in Homer’s Iliad, Achilleus surpasses them all.  In the epic, these other heroes provide a basis for comparison to define Achilleus as superior, a peerless hero.  For although Achilleus and Agamemnon squabble over who should be called ‘the best of the Achaeans’ (Il.1 91,244,412; 2.82, 580, 761, 769; 16.271, 274), there is really no contest.  Indeed, Achilleus says so himself! (Il. 1.244). Compared to all other warriors, Achilleus’ performance in battle has a superhuman, even supernatural dimension, and this will be demonstrated below.  Although his unquestioned superiority is not explicitly attributed to his divinely-made armour, the aspects that distinguish Achilleus from the other warriors are played out around the motif of the armour. 

The tradition of telling and retelling the story of a hero’s origins is common to the sources of ancient Greek heroic myth.  Similarly, the superhero genre uses origin stories to define and redefine its subjects (Coogan 2005, n.p.).  Reynolds notes a relationship between the superhero’s origin story and costume, saying that in the superhero genre “origin and costume are…closely linked in character development.  Generally speaking, a hero’s costume (the sign of superpowers) is linked in some (permanently visible) way with his origin”.  Reynolds provides the example of Superman’s costume, which is made from the blanket in which he was wrapped on his journey from Krypton to earth (Reynolds 1994, 48-9).  Similarly, the motif of Achilleus’ divine armour is inextricably linked with the hero’s definitive origin story.  As told in the Iliad and in the later mythic tradition, Achilleus is born to an immortal mother and a mortal father.  According to the Iliad, the gods forced Thetis into this marriage (Il. 18.85).  As explained in the post-Homeric Pindar’s Isthmian (8.26-47), the Olympian gods arrange this union in order to limit the threat of a prophecy that Thetis will bear a son greater than his father.  The wedding is brought about so that Thetis’s son will be born mortal, thereby circumventing his potential to overthrow the Olympian regime.  Essentially it ensures that Thetis’ son is mortal and will die. 
From one perspective, the good thing about being related to the gods is that they give great presents.  The immortals attend the wedding and bring gifts, many of which will be used by the couple’s future son Achilleus.  One rather macabre offering from Dionysus is a golden urn to hold their son’s ashes[3].  The perishable nature of his mortal body is highlighted by its ultimate destination, encased in untarnished gold.  The other gifts seem on a casual appraisal to be more innocuous.  They include a set of armour (mentioned at Il. 17.194-7), a pair of immortal chariot horses[4] and a special ash spear, a gift from the centaur Chiron from Mount Pelion (Il 16.140-44 and 18.383-391).[5]  This Pelian ash spear is highly significant, because in the Iliad only Achilleus is able to wield it (Il. 16.140-44, 18.387-91).  These gifts are the heroic accoutrements that Achilleus uses on the battlefield at Troy.  In one sense the gifts are compensations for his mortality, being superior objects with which he will earn imperishable fame as a warrior. Yet in another sense they are designed to take him into the arena in which he is destined to die.  Thus, like the golden urn of Dionysus, the arms, armour and accoutrements of battle are loaded gifts.  They form potent components of his heroic costume, yet also serve as reminders of the mortal destiny inherent in his origins.  When he appears on the battlefield clad in this armour and bearing these accoutrements, this costume symbolically represents his connection with the supernatural powers, and also the limitations placed by his own biographic history on his heroic powers and potential. 

Although Achilleus is the pre-eminent hero of the epic, like many superheroes from other eras his special status comes at a cost.  With its combination of tragic origins and the compensations of superior technology, Achilleus’ story resembles that of Bruce Wayne/Batman as (re)told in Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005).  Bruce Wayne has the misfortune to witness the untimely death of his parents at a young age.  As a result of this misfortune he inherits their great wealth, with which he equips himself with the technological accoutrements to carry out his crime-fighting crusade.  Achilleus, although the son of an immortal, has the misfortune to be destined to die an untimely death.  However, as a type of compensation he is provided with divine technology, which allows him to exceed all others in battle and to earn himself immortal fame.  However, the sentiment of the Lykian warrior Sarpedon, a mortal son of Zeus, is that one would prefer to achieve immortality by living forever (Iliad 12.322-5).  Although Wayne’s mastery of technology can help him become the superhero Batman, it hardly makes up for the loss of his parents. Similarly, as compensation for death, Achilleus’ immortal armour seems an empty gesture.

While Achilleus’ armour expresses his supernatural connections, it also reflects the technology of his age.  As Kenneth Oakley observes, humans are fundamentally transformed by our use of technology (Oakley 1972, 1).  With the addition of weapons and body armour, a human may be transformed into a stronger and less vulnerable being.  When combined, human body plus technology equal an entity more powerful than the human body itself[6].  In the Iliad, this principle is demonstrated in the form of Achilleus the man plus his armour.  His armour has the same basic components as that of other Iliadic warriors such as Paris and Agamemnon. However, although Achilleus’ costume resembles those of the other heroes of his technological context, it also surpasses the armour of others.  His armour is distinguished from that of these other warriors because of its supernatural associations.  Indeed, the armour made for Achilleus in Iliad 19 mirrors and emblematises his own supernatural heritage, being created by the smith god Hephaistos specifically for Achilleus to wear into battle. Whenever Achilleus enters the heroic arena of the battlefield, his body is encased in immortal armour made specifically for him by the divine smith. 
Thus in battle, the hero Achilleus is a synthesis of mortal body and divine technology.  This supernatural technology elevates Achilleus above the merely mortal status other heroes by transforming him into something superior to and more powerful than a hero with mortally-made armour.  In the Iliad Achilleus’ heroic superiority is a synthesis of the supernatural and the technological. 

As the supreme hero of his genre, Achilleus necessarily reflects his culture’s attitude toward the technology of warfare.  In this combination of technological and supernatural power, Achilleus’ costume functions quite differently to those of the early incarnations of the superheroes Batman and Superman.  Batman is an ordinary mortal whose powers are based on the technology of his costume and accoutrements, while in contrast, Superman’s powers are based not on technology but rather on his supernatural heritage.  The first Superman story to appear in Action Comics #1 in 1938 explains that Superman’s powers are due to his extraterrestrial origins (Siegel and Shuster 1938, 1).  Although he wears a ‘disguise’ as Clark Kent in order to fit in with his contemporaries, his costume of tight-fitting blue with red insignia and accessories, described by Coulton Waugh as ‘the accepted interplanetary costume’ (1947, 257), reflects the exotic and supernatural source of his powers.  Thomas Inge describes Superman and “the perfect mythological figure for an age of technology in which man was methodically to step beyond every limitation on his intellectual and physical abilities and master the universe” (1990, 141). Yet rather than embodying the powers of contemporary technology, his powers respond to and even exceed that technology: he is able to ‘hurdle a twenty-storey building’, ‘raise tremendous weights’ (pictured lifting a steel girder on a construction site) and ‘run faster than an express train’ (Siegel and Shuster 1994, 11).  His ability to exceed the power of technology suggests a response to a contemporary anxiety about the potential of such technology to be used for antisocial purposes.[7]  This contrasts with the position in the Iliad, in which the supernatural figure of the smith god is in fact the source of superior technology.  Because of this, Achilleus’ costume of armour is symbolic of both the technological and the supernatural associations of his heroism, exemplifying the preoccupations of his culture. 

The supernatural provenance of Achilleus’ armour is highly significant in the Iliad.  When she learns that Achilleus’ first set of divine armour has been lost in battle, Thetis prepares to rush to Mount Olympos to request a second set from Hephaistos.  She tells Achilleus not to enter the battle until she has brought him new armour for him from the divine smith (Il. 18.130-137).  This armour is superlative, ‘such that no man has ever worn on his shoulders’ (Il.19.11).  The significance of this armour is suggested by the lengthy description of the process of its creation, which receives 146 lines of verse (Il. 18.468-614). 
Although the messenger goddess Iris urges Achilleus to join the fighting, he asks her how such action is possible while his armour is lost, explaining at length that until Thetis returns, there is no other armour he can put on (18.130-137).  So why does Achilleus not wear Patroklos’ armour? When Patroklos took Achilleus’ armour, he must have left his own set at the camp.  As he wore Achilleus’ armour, presumably both warriors are of a similar size.  Yet Achilleus does not even contemplate wearing Patroklos’ armour.  As he tells Iris, he is waiting for his mother to bring him divine armour from Hephaistos (Il.18.191).  When he receives the armour from Thetis, Achilleus is satisfied about their divine source.  He says:

My mother, the god has given me these weapons; they are such
As are the work of immortals. No mortal man could have made them.
Therefore now I shall arm myself in them.
Il.19.21-23.

The emphasis on the divine creator in these passages suggests that the supernatural provenance of the armour is highly significant to Achilleus and his mother.  Achilleus never enters battle without armour given by the gods.  Both Achilleus and his mother seem conscious of an aspect or power in the armour that is essential to his heroic performance.  This suggests that the armour is more than merely a reflection of his heroic identity, but is indeed an integral part of his supernatural heroic power.

Achilleus’ heroic costume of bronze armour identifies him as the supreme hero of the epic.  To mortals, Achilleus’ armour represents his warrior identity.  In the mythological background or ‘origin stories’ of the epic, Achilleus identifies himself emphatically as a warrior.  By choosing to die young and gloriously in battle, rather than live a long inglorious life (Il. 9.411-416; 18.98-126), Achilleus chooses the role of warrior to the conscious exclusion of all other social roles.  When he is away from the battlefield he describes himself as ‘a useless weight on the good land’ (Il.18.104).  Indeed, this self-assessment is made just after Achilleus learns of the loss of his armour. 
Thus when Achilleus is carrying out the only social transactions that hold any meaning for him, he is on the battlefield and encased in his bronze shell.  The armour’s function parallels that of costume in the twentieth century superhero genre, as identified by Richard Reynolds.  Reynolds suggests that “a costume can be ‘read’ to indicate an individual hero’s character or powers and (incidentally) as a signal that he is now operating in his superhero identity and may at any moment be involved in violent conflict with costumes villains” (1994 27).  When he dons the armour, Achilleus’ appearance is transformed.  When other mortals look at him, they see and respond to his divine armour.  This altered perception of Achilleus is apparent from the moment he steps on to the battlefield.  To the Trojans, the armed Achilleus is a powerful, menacing figure.  The mere sight of him ‘shining in all his armour’ causes the Trojans to tremble with terror (Il.20.44-6).  The vision of the armour, gleaming like the flare of a star, causes the old Trojan king Priam to groan aloud, and to plead his son Hektor to retreat from battle (Il.22.25-36).  When Achilleus approaches Hektor for the climactic battle, it is the very sight of the gleaming armour that causes Hektor to turn and flee (Il.22.131-7).  These extreme reactions are attributed not to the sight of Achilleus the human, but to the shining of the supernatural armour in which his body is clad.  In this panoply, Achilleus is no mere warrior.  The Trojans respond to the costume of armour, which identifies him as a unique and supreme hero. 

Achilleus’ heroic performance is fundamentally transformed by his supernaturally-sourced armour, and with his armour blazing he literally outshines all other heroes on the battlefield.  Although the exact nature of the armour’s power is never clearly stated, the poet suggests certain significant effects.  Firstly, the armour physically transforms the wearer.  When people look at Achilleus on the battlefield, they see a figure of shining bronze (Il.20.44-6; 22.25-36; 22.131-7).  Secondly, the armour inspires the wearer.  When Achilleus arms himself, he is inspired with fiery rage and his eyes blaze (Il. 19.15-17, 365-6); when Hektor usurps the armour and puts it on, he becomes possessed by the spirit of the war god Ares (Il. 17.209-212)[8].  Thirdly, the armour provides protection to the wearer.  Of course, this is what armour is designed to do.  Yet the armour of Achilleus offers protection of an exceptional nature or degree.  Indeed, it may be impenetrable[9].  When Aeneas throws a spear at Achilleus in book 20, the spear cannot penetrate the shield. 
Its superior protective properties are attributed to its supernatural origins, and thus are beyond the understanding of the mortal Achilleus: he does not comprehend ‘how the glorious gifts of the gods are not easily broken/ by mortal men, how such gifts will not give way before them’ (Il. 20.265-6).  According to the poet, it is the central layer of gold, rather than the two outer layers of bronze, that has the power to stay the spear (20.268).  The superior protection provided by the gold is attributed to the craft of the divine smith, and thus the gold has a divine or symbolic power of protection, rather than a practical one.   In other words, it is superior because of its supernatural origins rather than because of any natural qualities it possesses [10].  These verses suggest that there is a supernatural and metaphysical dimension to the protection offered by Achilleus’ armour.  Yet the protection offered by the armour is limited, and is not available to all who wear it.  Within the Iliad, Patroklos, Hektor and Achilleus wear the armour of Achilleus onto the battlefield.  Of these three heroes, only Achilleus returns from battle.  His mastery of the gifts of the immortals is an important part of what makes him the supreme warrior at Troy. 

Achilleus is perceived by other warriors as fundamentally and supernaturally altered by the armour.  The Trojan hero Aeneas remarks that Achilleus ‘claims to be made panchalkeos’ (‘entirely of bronze’: Il.20.102).  Aeneas’ comment suggests the extent of this transformation, as if the divine armour has eclipsed the vulnerable human body within it.  This is the only time the term panchalkeos is used in the Iliad.  In contrast, the term chalkeos (of bronze, brazen) is used on frequently, often describing objects made of bronze that might appropriately be called panchalkeos[11]However, the poet has apparently reserved a special term for this reference to Achilleus in armour.  This special term reinforces the notion that his armour sets him apart from the other heroes.  Like the superhero’s costume, this unique term emblematises Achilleus’ heroic identity, and suggests that in his armour he is a unique type of warrior hero. 

The identification of Achilleus with his armour is integral to the narrative of the epic.  To other warriors, the armour signifies Achilleus.  For this very reason, Patroklos proposes to go onto the battlefield wearing Achilleus’ armour himself.  He wants the other warriors to see the armour and believe that Achilleus has returned to battle.  Patroklos explains that this will frighten the Trojans and inspire the weary Achaians (Il. 16.40-43).  Thus he puts on the armour in order to adopt the physical identity of Achilleus.  However, for Patroklos, the transformation is illusory and short-lived.  It seems that although others can usurp the armour, they cannot access its full power.  Only Achilleus can truly fill the armour and harness its power.  This idea can be compared to an episode in the Warner Brothers’ film Batman Forever.  Robin takes the Batmobile out for a joyride, and decides to pose as Batman and take on some heroic deeds.  Through the course of the episode, Robin learns that being a hero is not as simple as stealing the hero’s accoutrements.  While Robin survives his attempt to usurp the accoutrements of Batman, Patroklos is not so fortunate.  After Patroklos assumes the armour and attempts to assume the identity of Achilleus, the god Apollo knocks the armour off his body and, thus disarmed, Patroklos is slaughtered by the Trojan prince Hektor (Il. 16.786-855).  One way to account for Patroklos’ failure to return from battle is that he cannot completely fill the armour.  He cannot take the ash spear, that gift from the centaur Cheiron that none other than Achilleus can wield.  Those who collect or study superhero merchandise will understand the importance of ‘collecting the full set’.  In the Iliad, when a hero arms for battle, this is described in an arming scene.  Armstrong has demonstrated convincingly that this is based on a poetic formula, a ‘set piece’, yet the poet of the Iliad deviates from this formula in ways significant to characterisation and plot development (1958, 337-54).  According to the formula suggested by Armstrong, we should expect one verse to describe the hero picking up his spear.  Yet when Patroklos puts on Achilleus’ armour, the spear receives five verses of description, which place emphasis on its history and its divine origins and its status as a weapon unique to Achilleus:

Only he did not take the spear of blameless Aikiades,
Huge, heavy, thick, which no one else of all the Achaians
Could handle, but Achilleus alone knew how to wield it;
The Pelian ash spear which Cheiron had brought to his father
From high on Pelion to be death for fighters.
Il. 16. 140-144

Following this extensive description, and indeed in spite of it, Patroklos does not take the spear into battle.  The emphasis thus placed on the spear suggests that it is a significant omission to Patroklos’ armoury, creating a sense of foreboding for the ensuing battle.  When the god Apollo knock the armour off Patroklos, it suggests the supernatural rejection of the usurper of his iconic costume.  The supernatural armour is not a good fit for Patroklos, because although he is a great warrior, he cannot master the hero’s iconic costume, and thus demonstrates that he is no peerless hero, no Achilleus.

The question of who has the right to wear the iconic costume continues to be played out in the epic narrative following the death of Patroklos.  The armour of a fallen warrior is a prized trophy in this heroic milieu.  During the battle over Patroklos’ body, Hektor seized the armour of Achilleus and puts it on his own body.  If the death of Patroklos in the armour were not sufficiently foreboding, at Hektor’s action Zeus remarks:

Ah, poor wretch…
death stands close beside you as you put on the immortal armour
of a surpassing man…
Now you have killed this man’s dear friend…
and taken the armour, a you should not have done, from his shoulders
and head.(Il. 17. 200-206)

This passage emphasises the narrative role of the exchange of the armour, mentioning it three times and linking it to the doom of both Patroklos and Hektor.  It suggests the arrogance and folly of Hektor’s attempt to usurp the armour of Achilleus, specifically because of Achilleus’ superior status, for Zeus calls him a ‘surpassing man’.  This reinforces the notion of the armour having a specific connection to Achilleus because of his superiority, and of the armour as a component of his heroic identity.  In effect, Hektor dons a costume that represents the heroic identity not of himself but rather of his opponent Achilleus.  In the climactic battle in book 22, Achilleus and Hektor face each other, both clad in glorious armour made for Achilleus by the smith god.  Yet it is clear that Achilleus has the advantage.  Firstly, he has an intimate knowledge of the armour that Hector is wearing, and the poet describes him searching the armour for a vulnerable spot.  Secondly, Achilleus alone has the full complement of arms.  Unlike Hektor, who has the equipment that Patroklos took into battle, Achilleus has his ash spear, that spear that no other of the Achaians could wield except Achilleus himself (Il.19.387-91).  Although Hektor is clad in stolen armour his is missing the spear.  However, he gets the spear in the end, or rather, he gets it in the neck, when Achilleus spies the vulnerable point in the armour near the throat, and plunges in his unique weapon (Il.22.321-9). The lack of the spear in Hektor’s costume is emphasised by this ultimate union of the spear with the armour.  This highlights Hektor’s inadequacy to wear and bear the armoury of Achilleus, the ‘surpassing man’.  Whether it is worn by himself or by his enemy, Achilleus asserts his ownership and mastery of his armour in order to perform the heroic feats that affirm his identity as the supreme hero.

As this episode shows, the role of the immortal armour is ambiguous.  Two heroes die in battle while wearing Hephaistos’ creations, and the god himself says that although he can provide armour for the son of Thetis, he regrets that he cannot save him from death:  ” I wish that I might so surely be able to save him from dolorous death, when dread fate comes upon him, as surely fair armour will be his.” (18.464-7) Thus while the armour appears to have many supernatural properties, ironically it cannot perform the function for which armour is designed, that is to save the wearer from death.  This speech precedes the creation of the armour which Achilleus will wear into battle, and thus in a sense this armour foreshadows and highlights Achilleus’ vulnerability to death.  Although the death of Achilleus occurs outside the temporal scope of the narrative, it is frequently prefigured throughout the epic.  There is a revealing contrast between the perceptions of the mortal characters and those of the immortals.  While the mortals see Achilleus on the battlefield as a man of bronze, the immortals perceive the mortal within the armour, and repeatedly refer to his pending death.  The impression of Achilleus’ corporeal fragility is created in speeches by Achilleus’ goddess mother Thetis (Il.1.505-6, 18.95-6, 18.59-60), the divine smith Hephaistos (Il.18.464-7) and even Achilleus’ immortal horse Xanthos (Il.19.408-417). While the armour around Achilleus’ mortal body seems to evoke a strong impression of the non-human, the immortals express their awareness of the perishable, mortal components of the armed warrior.  The juxtaposition of the two aspects, of immortal armour and mortal body, is the foundation of Achilleus’ heroic ‘origin story’ and defines the nature of his heroic persona. 

The divine armour is a pre-eminent symbol of Achilleus’ heroic statusIt defines him as both unique and supreme, and marks him out as a superior hero.  The armour has many significant functions in the narrative.  Like the ‘iconic costume’ of Coogan’s superhero, it ‘expresses his biography or character, powers and origins’ (2002, 358).  Derived from Achilleus’ mythic ‘origin story’, it symbolises his family heritage and defines his position in the cosmos in relation to both mortals and immortals.  It indicates his superiority to other warriors.  In these ways it emblematises his identity as the supreme hero of the epic.  Yet although it fulfils these narrative functions, ironically it is not designed to perform the ostensible function of armour, to save the wearer from death.  While it defines his heroic superiority, it also measures the limitations of his heroism.  So just as the Man of Steel has his Kryptonite, the Man of Bronze has his Achilleus’ Heel. 

Bibliography:

Armstrong, James. 1958. “The Arming Motif in the Iliad,” In American Journal of Philology 79 1958: 337-54.

Coogan, Peter. 2005. “The Definition of the Superhero”, Conference Paper, Presented at Holy Men in Tights!: a Superheroes Conference, University of Melbourne, 10 June.

Coogan, Peter. 2002. ‘The Secret Origin of the Superhero: The Origin and Evolution of the Superhero Genre in America’, 1, Ph.D. dissertation, Michigan State University.

Evelyn-White, Hugh. 1967. Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Fleisher, Michael L. 1978. The Great Superman Book, New York: Warner Books.

Gantz, Timothy. 1993. Early Greek Myth: a guide to literary and artistic sources,Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Homer. 1999.  Iliad, 1 & 2, 2nd ed. trans. A.T. Murray, rev. W.F.Wyatt, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Homer. 1951. The Iliad of Homer, trans. Richmond Lattimore, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mueller, Martin. 1984. The Iliad, London: Allen & Unwin.

Oakley, Kenneth. 1972. Man the Tool Maker, 6th edition. London: British Museum.

Reynolds, Richard 1994. Super Heroes: a Modern Mythology, Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi.

Siegel, Jerome and Joe Shuster. 1938. ‘Superman’, Action Comics #1, June.

Thomas, Inge, M. 1990. Comics as Culture, Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi.

Waugh, Coulton. 1947. The Comics, Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi.


[1] This article was originally presented at Holy Men in Tights!: a Superheroes Conference, University of Melbourne, 10 June 2005.  I would like to thank Refractory’s reviewers and also Djoymi Baker for their helpful suggestions.  Throughout the text, all line numbers in the Iliad refer to the Loeb edition:. Homer, Iliad, vols. 1 and 2, second edition ed. and trans. A.T. Murray, revised W.F.Wyatt, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999).  English quotations from Homer’s Iliad are taken from the translation by Richmond Lattimore: Homer, The Iliad of Homer, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951).
[2] The details of these myths are outside the scope of this paper; however, a list of myths and sources relating to the feats of these heroes can be found in Timothy Gantz, Early Greek Myth: a guide to literary and artistic sources (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, c1993).
[3] On the François Krater Dionysus carries an amphora, which Gantz suggests is a wedding gift corresponding to the golden jar with handles mentioned at Odyssey 24.73-79.  This jar is made by Hephaistos and given by Dionysos to Thetis, and Thetis brings it to the funeral of Achilleus to hold the bones of her son and his companion Patroklos.  Cf. Stesichoros, who says the amphora is a gift from Dionysos to Thetis for saving him from Lykourgos, (234 PMG) Gantz, (1993), p. 230.  Gantz suggests that it could serve both purposes, p.230.
[4] This is first referenced as a gift from Poseidon in a late source, the mythographer Apollodorus’ Biblioteca (3.13.5). 
[5] The ash spear used by Achilleus is described as a gift to Peleus from Cheiron.  In the Kypria, according to a scholiast on Iliad 17.140, the spear is a wedding gift: “Cheiron gave him a stout ashen shaft which he had cut for a spear, and Athene, it is said, polished it, and Hephaestus fitted it with a head. This story is given by the author of the Cypria.”: Kypria fr.5,  in Hugh Evelyn-White, ed. and trans., Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1967). 
[6] In recent film and fiction the idea of transformation by technology has been explored through the figure of the cyborg, a synthesis of organic and technological elements. 
[7] It is interesting to note that Superman has a comic book foe called  John Achilles, a gangster who claims to be descended from the ancient hero Achilles: he claims also to have inherited Achilles’ supernatural near-invulnerablity, and wears a metal box around his heel to protect his only vulnerable point. 
However, in fact his powers are purely technological, in the form of a powerful magnet encased in the box.  This repels metal weapons and thus renders them powerless against him.  Yet technology is ultimately his undoing, as the weight of the metal box causes him to sink and drown in a river.  Thus it is supernatural rather than technological powers that mark out the true hero of the text: Superman No. 63/1: “Achilles versus Superman”, (March-April 1950), cited in Michael L. Fleisher, The Great Superman Book (New York: Warner Books, 1978), p.1.  

[8] These ideas are explored further in my paper ‘The Aegis and the Armour of Achilleus’, presented at Hecate at the Crossroads: Magic in the Ancient World, Armidale (September 2001). 
[9] Griffin regards the poet’s comment that the shield of Achilleus is not easily broken (20.265-6) as “pregnant irony” that falls short of actually stating that it is impenetrable: Jasper Griffin, Homer on Life and Death (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980) p. 33; although Mueller disputes the idea that the armour of Achilleus is magical, he considers that it may be impenetrable by virtue of Hephaistos’ workmanship: Martin Mueller, The Iliad (London: G.Allen & Unwin, 1984) pp. 127-8.
[10] It is tempting to assume that because actual gold would be comparatively weak, it can only be a supernatural power that holds back the spear.  Of course, it cannot be assumed that the poet has observed or considered the comparative density of metals.  However, observation of untarnished gold could account for the poet’s choice of this metal for the divine armour.

[11] See for example Il. 5.859, 13.372, 13.30, 8.15.  There are many similar examples.

 

Author Biography:

Annabel Orchard is currently enrolled in a PhD in Classical Studies at the University of Melbourne. She is currently researching the role of metal-craft in myth, and the effect of contemporary technology on mythic form and content. Other projects include the development of interactive media for education, research and entertainment. A recent project, www.wingedsandals.com , is an interactive website for kids 6-12 which uses digital storytelling to expand the means of retelling Greek myth. Annabel is also a co-founder of the Sword and Sandal Reading Group, an interdisciplinary group based in Cinema Studies and Classics, University of Melbourne. Further details at http://www.ahcca. unimelb.edu.au/ CCA/People/PostGrads/A-Orchard/