The Heroes of the Iliad as Indo-European Gods: A Mythological Rosetta Stone: Part 4 of 9

The Heroes of the Iliad as Indo-European Gods: A Mythological Rosetta Stone: Part 4 of 9


Achilles – Indra (The Thunderer)

The main example Dumezil uses to demonstrate that Arjuna is Indra's incarnation (along with the fact that he is the “spiritual son” of Indra) is that during the battle between Indra and Surya, Surya's chariot loses its wheel, leading to Indra's victory. During Arjuna and Karna's battle, Karna's chariot wheel gets stuck in the mud, leading to Arjuna's victory. As mentioned earlier, Dumezil has already discussed the parallel between Achilles and Arjuna. The most well-known sections of both the Iliad and Mahabharata feature these two heroes: these are Achilles' withdrawal from the war in protest of Agamemnon's insult to his honor, around which the narrative is structured, and Arjuna's withdrawal from the war due to his internal conflict regarding fighting his cousins, in the section known as the Bhagavad Gita. Each hero in his own way displays a particular kind of intellectual sensitivity, a brooding introversion, specifically over the question of honor or dharma. Each culture used the episode as a major jumping off point for new movements of moral and political philosophy thereafter. Thus the protest of the Thunderer-hero massively influenced the respective cultures, India more toward the dissolving of the ego in impersonal Dharma, and Greece toward a more overt conflict of the atomized individual against the collective or sovereign order. After keeping aside from the war for a certain amount of time, each hero returns to be perhaps the most important warrior for their side, slaying key enemy warriors and turning the tide of the war.

As has been mentioned as well, Achilles' pairing with Ajax as trainees of Chiron reproduces the archaic duad of Indo-European warrior gods, the “brutish” and the “chivalrous,” the wind and the thunder. When Achilles fights Hector, Athena returns his spears to him continually. This is reminiscent of Thor whose hammer returns to him or Zeus in his Thunderer aspect dealing out his endless stock of lightning bolts.

Finally, both Arjuna and Achilles are famous for their mourning over another warrior's death, a warrior who is beloved by and tied closely to them. For Achilles this is Patroclus, Achilles' comrade from youth, but for Arjuna it is actually his son, Abhimanyu. The general parallel has been noted before, but it can actually be seen that this is not merely a vague similarity, but that the same story is here being told. Both Patroclus and Abhimanyu are tasked with a sort of suicide mission, because Achilles or Arjuna are occupied elsewhere (Achilles in his tent and Arjuna is being distracted on another part of the battlefield). Abhimanyu has to enter the ranks of the enemy's infamously unassailable Chakravyuha formation alone and to fight them singlehandedly. Patroclus is urged by Nestor to lead the Myrmidon's on what becomes a mad assault on Troy's walls. Though fighting valiantly with impressive slaughter, each is unable to safely leave the enemy ranks and is killed by being attacked by many enemy heroes at once. Patroclus is killed when Apollo himself dazes him from behind, so that Hector can strike, and then Hector threatens to ignobly give his body to the dogs. Abhimanyu is killed by a gang attack of many of the enemy heroes attacking at once from all sides, which Arjuna afterward interprets as unjust. Each death highlights the dishonorable actions of those who do the killing. Upon receiving the news, the lamentation of both Achilles and Arjuna are proverbial. Each then vows revenge on the killers of his comrade/son. As Arjuna says, “Listen now to another oath of mine! If tomorrow's sun set without my slaying of that wretch, then even here shall I enter the blazing fire!” (Mahabharata, Drona Parva Section LXXIII)

It is interesting to attempt to draw a parallel between this episode and the Irish version of the Thunderer's myth, the Fate of the Children of Tuireann. Tuireann, like Arjuna and Achilles, is best known for his heart-rending lamentation at the death of his sons. There are three sons this time, but the doubling in the names Iucha and Iucharba and the fact that only Brian speaks, except one time when they speak among themselves, suggests that they are a triplication of a single figure. In addition, these deaths and lamentation happen as a result of, and repeat, the conflict between the Thunderer and the Sovereign of Justice, which we see in Agamemnon and Achilles' conflict and which may also be present in the conflict of Veles and the Thunderer Perun in Slavic myth. It's possible Lugh here has inherited a “Varuna” role, suggesting that the Celtic Lleu/Lugh may have tended in the direction of combining Mitra and Varuna elements into one god, though again remember that Mitra did carry out justice. In both the Irish and Greek stories, justice is being exercised by the god of justice in what is arguably an overzealous manner. Agamemnon exacts Briseis from Achilles because Chryseis is taken from him and as king and commander-in-chief he feels he is owed and is able to take compensation. This kingly justice of course is unjust and insulting from the perspective of Achilles, and it ultimately causes Achilles to be absent when Patroclus has to undertake his mission, leading to Patroclus' death. Lugh exacts a series of difficult-to-obtain objects in repayment from the sons of Tuireann because Lugh's father has been taken from him, killed at their hands, and as king and as son he feels he is owed – and is able to take – compensation. His demanded recompense is extravagant, but is still in the realm of reason, as he easily could have simply killed them. The fact that the final task leads to their mortal wounding walks the line between justice and excessive punishment. Lugh knew they would be seriously wounded from this task and when they ask him to be healed by one of the magical items they had obtained, he refuses it to them, and they perish. His justice is not absurdly unfair, but it is terrible in its absoluteness, a drawn out execution where mercy is refused, despite the fact that Lugh had told them they could live if they retrieved these items, giving them false hope that a non-fatal recompense was possible. Theirs is indeed a suicide mission too.

Both Agamemnon and Lugh's actions can be said to follow a logic of compensatory justice, and yet they also have a dimension of harshness. This harshness of applied power leads ultimately to the death of the Thunderer's son(s) or friend. Of course Tuireann then weeps and laments, and dies of grief. This may be, as in some other Celtic tales, because this tale has been removed from the context of the war. Whereas Arjuna says he will throw himself on the fire if he doesn't kill his son's killers by the end of the next day, Tuireann figuratively does just this and perishes from his grief, unable to take revenge. (As both the Vedic and Irish cases involve the sons of the Thunderer, it is plausible that Patroclus being only a close comrade and not a son may have been a Greek alteration of the myth. It has also been suggested that the close friendship of Duryodhana and Karna on the other side of the war, and the lamentation of Duryodhana at the death of Karna is more of a match to that of Achilles and Patroclus, that the two similar parallel relationships and deaths were combined into one in the Greek epic.)

So who is Abhimanyu/Patroclus/The Sons of Tuireann? Abhimanyu is the reincarnation of the moon god Chandra’s son. His main epithets are “son of Subhadra,” “son/successor of Arjuna,” and “son of Chandra.” Patroclus’ name means “glory of the father,” and his father’s name Menoetius could speculatively be related to the stem meno- which means “month,” from mene-, meaning “moon.” As Abhimanyu is the reincarnation of the Moon God's son, given to Arjuna to raise as a son, so Patroclus is also given to Achilles by his father Menoetius as a mentor and friend (this is because Patroclus had committed the sin of killing another youth. Murder is Patroclus' sin, just as murder is the sin of Tuireann's sons.) Each figure is a manifestation of the duty of a son (this much is true of the Sons of Tuireann as well), and they are the sons of potentially moon-related figures.

The name “Achilles” means “"he who has the people distressed," which relates him to the frightening storm, but also to the concept of distress generally which manifests in his stormy brooding. The fact that he is known as the swiftest Greek is an expression of his connection to the lightning.


-Is the central and most skilled warrior

-Retires from battle for a period of time due to sensitivity regarding an issue of honor/dharma

-Has justice harshly exacted on him by the Terrible Sovereign, leading to the death of his favorite or son

-Laments over the death of his favorite or son and may die in the resulting events
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