So one of the ways Greek myth imparts further detail on wisdom teachings is through looking at the family tree, as it were. All of the mythic matings and births, such as the somewhat well-known philanderings of Zeus, are symbolically descriptive of connections in our psyches between various characteristics. The harpy Podarge, as I said in the last post, was said to have mated with the West Wind, Zephyros, and gave birth to two immortal horses, Balios and Xanthos; the names refer to their coloration, piebald and bay. These famous horses ended up pulling the hero Achilles's chariot, as part of his war gear. In this family story we get connections between uncontrolled air element in the intellectual sense, the spiritual or immortal aspect of air element, war or duality consciousness or conflict, and heroism.
Don't want to get into too much mythic back story but every bit of it is informative, of course. Since the horses are seemingly birthed on the sea shore, they are appropriated by the sea itself, which was very strongly associated with horses in Greek myth. The sea waves were Poseidon's horses, Poseidon the powerful trident-wielding god of the sea. Poseidon "broke them and gave them to Peleus, so runs the legend." Peleus is another cosmic hero, like Jason (last post), another seeker after the golden fleece. He is depicted above, holding his wife-to-be, Thetis, who embodies the shapeshifting nature of the sea, of water element. In order to marry her, Peleus must manage to hold onto her while she shapeshifts; here she is becoming a lion or vice versa. Is this, then, the antidote to a runaway judgmental thought stream- the "all-is-one" power of feminine water element? After all, Poseidon did break the horses.
The theme of the shapeshifting lover is pretty cool, and from Jungian perspective it would be inner work, in this case a man experiencing his powerful female inner anima figures. The anima/animus challenge is to recognize, basically, that, though both outer world and inner imagery may take on many forms, it is all One, and so are we. One of the more famous of the Child ballads, Tam Lin, features a woman who takes a fairy lover (the designation "fairy" most generally defined refers to non-physical beings). She must do quite the same as Peleus, fearlessly hold onto her fairy lover Tam Lin while he changes form from wolf to bear to lion to naked man. Our unclaimed masculine or feminine can appear as wild because we do not know it; it can appear as fearsome because it is powerful, strange, and unclaimed or "other". Like Podarge's horses before they were broken by Poseidon, they appear unbidden and can cause trouble. But our inner wild figures also beg for love's liberation, which is the same as being recognized and embraced, as not some wild stranger to fear, but just another form of the One. Fairy tales often feature this basic storyline.
Though Peleus was given the immortal horses upon marrying Thetis, things didn't stay hunky-dory for long. At their wedding Eris, goddess of strife, threw out the Golden Apple of Discord which prompted contention between three feminine aspects (Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera). We could say this apple represents the sacred aspect of duality consciousness in human maturation processes; gold= sacred, fruit= maturation. It's like the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Judeo-Christian trad (for more apple symbolism go to blog post 9/16/13). The result of this sacred apple's appearance was war; the famous Trojan Wars, to be exact. Quite the opposite from Peleus's ability to hold on to Thetis no matter what her form, one form alone must be judged as more beautiful than the rest in order to solve the argument between the three goddesses. It's the constant judging of the intellectual mind which causes us to accept or reject, invite or suppress one or the other form of our inner (or outer!) feminine or masculine. This judgment game is the air element sword, which creates all division, all wars, within and without. It is duality consciousness.
So Achilles's immortality baths did not quite take. He remained throughout his life, like most of us, unable to fully express and embody the immortality bestowed upon him by his immortal mother (Peleus's father is mortal). In other versions of the tale, Thetis uses fire; she immerses her son in a sacred altar fire but is interrupted by Peleus. In a very similar fashion Demeter attempted to confer immortality upon her charge, Demephon, but the boy's mother interrupted. In both cases, these babes don't ever fully embody their immortality; they are not "properly baked" by the alchemical fires of transformation. Though their condition is not different from most of us, we can also guess that as story figures they will die young, never fully attaining wisdom. That is certainly the case for Achilles, right? He died near the end of the Trojan war, when Paris shot him in the mortal heel. These immortalization efforts could be interpreted as initiations- not going into that now, either. Suffice to say that these symbolic bathings, as experienced in our own literal lives, are developmentally appropriate events which urge us closer and closer to claiming our fearless authentic soul, our divinity, our destiny.
Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Peleus' son Achilles, the accursed rage that brought great suffering to the Achaeans.
-the Aecheans being a sociopolitical group, located in the north of contemporary Greece.
So Achilles's rage is his curse, and more than likely the usual curse of the unwise warrior-hero, right? Certainly the wise warrior is a rarity; warriors are stereotypically young, and imagine there can be such a thing as "righting wrongs", the objective of the Trojan wars, begun because a woman was stolen. Wisdom tells us that, though heroically righting wrongs in the sense of bringing balance to an unbalanced situation (freeing the enslaved, for example) can be part of our life work, of our destinies, such endeavours are without end as long as humans are conducting themselves as Achilles conducts himself- specifically in this case, with rage, uncontrollable anger and vengeance, the provenance of the Erinyes, closely associated with the harpies. Revenge and its rage will end up being passed on through the generations if we don't develop wisdom. When we are in the clutches of the Furies, war can never end, though the wise use of conflict is to create peace, security. Of course it's basically an impossibility to create peace with the use of conflict, but mortal human consciousness is such that most of us believe that this can be so, and this illusion is part of the human condition. It takes a broader vision to see the folly in such a conditioned but oxymoronic thought.
Since the horses are immortal, they "channel" the truth in a poignant moment following Patroclus's death. Returning to Achilles, the two horses had been unable to move, weeping in grief, a lovely depiction of the man Achilles as horse (he was raised and educated by a centaur). Achilles is given an awesome new set of armor by Athena (or Minerva, in Latinized versions). Achilles begins to rouse himself to battle, and he "speaks loudly" to the immortal horses.
From the Illiad:
"Xanthus and Balius, famed offspring of Podarge- this time when we have done fighting be sure and bring your driver safely back to the host of the Achaeans, and do not leave him dead on the plain as you did Patroclus."
Then fleet Xanthus answered under the yoke- for white-armed Juno had endowed him with human speech- and he bowed his head till his mane touched the ground as it hung down from under the yoke-band. "Dread Achilles," said he, "we will indeed save you now, but the day of your death is near, and the blame will not be ours, for it will be heaven and stern fate that will destroy you. Neither was it through any sloth or slackness on our part that the Trojans stripped Patroclus of his armour; it was the mighty god whom lovely Leto bore that slew him as he fought among the foremost, and vouchsafed a triumph to Hector. We two can fly as swiftly as Zephyrus who they say is fleetest of all winds; nevertheless it is your doom to fall by the hand of a man and of a god."
When he had thus said the Erinyes stayed his speech, and Achilles answered him in great sadness, saying, "Why, O Xanthus, do you thus foretell my death? You need not do so, for I well know that I am to fall here, far from my dear father and mother; none the more, however, shall I stay my hand till I have given the Trojans their fill of fighting."
So no matter how powerful we may be as we battle to right wrongs, as we strive in a heroic sense, it can never be enough. We may win, but that's a temporary situation. It's informative to note that the hero who dies in battle doesn't stick around for the accolades, for the triumphal march, and this tale is meant for us to contemplate this truth, among many others. The ultimate purpose to conflict is as a stage upon which to discover who we really are; to experience this unique human experience of both mortal and immortal being, and see who we might become within the story of our own destiny.
It seems the Greek and Roman mythic imagination was well aware of this nature of the hero as half mortal and animal, and half divine soul, divine being. They were aware that the very crux of human experience is encountered in the hero's journey,as Joseph Campbell put it. No matter what gods and armor and horses are on your side, human life is designed to end. That heroes such as Achilles and Patroclus die young describes their fearless nature well; they don't prioritize mortal concerns of longevity and safety, or they would not be entering the battle field over and over. Anger or fury (fire element) and its fearlessness does confer a certain measure of superhero-ness in conflict situations, and it works for Achilles- as long as he controls Podarge's horses and confines the rage to the battlefield. But the seasoned warrior who experiences loss after loss and must rise above his or her grief is the wise one. As it was for Odysseus, whose tale (the Odyssey) follows that of the Illiad, the brash, driving, animal fury of youth is increasingly difficult to call forth when our perspective widens, when we see both sides of the story. Achilles's life describes the life of anyone who develops wisdom through meeting death, loss, and conflict with a willingness to transform.
This is very like the famous bit from the Bhagavad Gita, when Arjuna wishes to refrain from battle, from causing grief, and his teacher Krishna likewise brings in the immortal perspective; "The wise grieve neither for the living or the dead..." Krishna goes on to remind Arjuna his true being transcends death, implores him to see beyond the senses; "The person who is...the same in pleasure and pain, wise, he is fit for immortality.". This is the very same lesson taught by all mythic heroes. In fact the avatar Krishna, his blue skin denoting his relative immortality, is a chariot driver, too. He's driving Arjuna's chariot here, acting as Arjuna's higher self in the scene.
Achilles's heel-piercing demise is hardly to be taken literally, no more than is the kryptonite in the story of Superman. Who dies from a pierced heel? We must enter the mythic zone and receive the message Achilles embodies; this Trojan war is the place of inner conflict we humans took on when we came to inhabit human lives, in this place seemingly so far from whence we came (the Greeks fight in Troy, modern day Turkey), "So far from my dear mother and father", as Achilles puts it. It's far from home because our true homes are eternal, whether that might be in the lands beyond the Styx, or in some more expanded experience of consciousness like that depicted by Apollo or Krishna. In any case, it's a place where the wind-driven, air element Erinyes and harpies haunt us no longer, for they are certainly born of our inability to let go, to move beyond our grief and its anger, whether the loss is of a wife or a friend or some armor, health or strength or victory itself. The mind and its ability to grasp must be judiciously guided, as the charioteer Achilles learns through his experiences of loss and grief.
Pretty dense poetry by Radical Face (Ben Cooper) in places, but... I leave you with it. Imagine it as Achilles's experience after losing his beloved Patroclus.
Sleep don't visit, so I choke on sun, and the days blur into one
And the backs of my eyes hum with things I've never done
Sheets are swaying from an old clothesline
Like a row of captured ghosts over old dead grass
Was never much, but we've made the most
Ships are launching from my chest
Some have names but most do not
If you find one, please let me know what piece I've lost
Peel the scars from off my back
I don't need them anymore
You can throw them out or keep them in your mason jars
I've come home
All my nightmares escape my head
Bar the door, please don't let them in
You were never supposed to leave
Now my head's splitting at the seams
And I don't know if I can
Here, beneath my lungs
I feel your thumbs
Press into my skin again