Grasping Achilles’ Spear: Human Power and Courage in The Iliad and the Bible (Guest Post)

Grasping Achilles' Spear: Human Power and Courage in The Iliad and the Bible
Guest post by Philip Soen

Greetings everyone. My name is Philip Soen and I am Elisha McFarland’s uncle. Presently, I live in Dallas, Texas, where I have been studying to become a university professor. This last July (2020) I had the privilege of vacationing in St. Albans, West Virginia. There Elisha’s family hosted my two daughters and me. Time with the McFarlands was wonderful, and I had the special privilege of connecting with Elisha and his younger brother Noah. All three of us slept in the same room and would often stay up late talking about the day’s events, entertainment, or theology. I very much enjoyed both Elisha and Noah and their flourishing interest in knowing the ultimate things about God and his word.

After I returned from my vacation, Elisha invited me to post an entry on his blog. The topic is power for courageous action. This particular topic interests me greatly because the world is full of danger, and without any power to conquer threatening forces, valiant action is impossible. As far as I’m concerned, courageous action is the only way forward in a world that seeks to destroy life, dishonor good people, and denigrate the triune God. Where, however, can one obtain power for such action?

This is a perplexing question. Courage may be a man’s greatest desire, but such a man could go his entire life without an ounce of such a quality. So, where can anyone get power for courageous action? I stumbled upon the answer when reading through Homer’s Iliad the other day. (Have you ever read The Iliad?! If you haven’t, you should). The answer? Achilles’ spear.

You may say, “Phil, how does a mythological spear provide power for courage?” Let me explain. The Iliad is an epic poem that narrates approximately the last three months of the Trojan war. You know, that famous war between Greece and Troy (a.k.a. the Hittites as they are referred to in the Bible). The war lasted about 10 years, but The Iliad focuses on one conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon. Both Achilles and Agamemnon are Royal Kings that have banded together to form a single Greek army in an attempt to wage war against Troy. After nine years of fighting, it appears that the Greek army is about to win. However, a plague breaks out among the Greeks, which, according to Hermes, (i.e. the messenger god) can only be resolved if Agamemnon returns a princess that he captured from Troy. Agamemnon is not happy about this, but he complies with the wishes of the gods so that his army will not perish. Yet Agamemnon, out of sheer resentment, takes away Achilles’ war prize to keep it for himself. This upsets Achilles because it robs him of his honor and prestige before his men.

Achilles’ response to this circumstance is to withdraw from battle altogether. This is bad news for the Greeks because they need him if they are to obtain total victory over Troy. The Greeks are a strong and formidable force, but without Achilles fighting with them, they don’t have a chance. So, one of the main tensions of the entire story becomes: what will make Achilles go back into battle? I’m not going to tell you the answer, because I want you to learn the answer on your own. I will tell you this, though: Achilles does go back in the battle.

Before he can do so, however, he requires a new set of armor. The armor is specially made for him by the god Hephaestus (a.k.a. the god of fire, Vulcan in Roman mythology). The god crafts the armor and gives it to Achilles’ mother, who presents it to her son.

There is a lot of poetic description of this armor in The Iliad. Interestingly, there is an entire book devoted to describing the armor itself (Book, 18). Here we find the full description detailing the armor as a divinely crafted gift given to Achilles by his mother.

Achilles’ spear, on the other hand, has a different origin (Book, 19. 455-65). Four things are important about this spear.

1: This spear was made by Chiron the centaur. You know what a centaur is, don’t you? The being that is half horse and half man? You may recognize them as the creatures that roamed the wild forest that surrounds Hogwarts in Harry Potter. They are certainly in modern literature, but these creatures have a much older history in Greek mythology. The centaur was considered to be a wild and untamed creature. In other words, most of them were more horses than men. Chiron, on the other hand, was a unique centaur. His uniqueness consisted of the fact that he had learned to tame his passions and become someone so skillful in music and military arts that ordinary humans sought him out as a mentor and teacher. Chiron was a teacher to Achilles’ father and Achilles himself. He was also the one who made the spear that would become Achilles’.

2: This spear was made of ash wood. The ash tree is a hard, heavy, and durable wood, so the spear itself was made to be both heavy and durable. This spear was said to be so heavy that ordinary humans cannot wield it. Homer himself says that the spear was designed so that “only Achilles had the skill to wield it well… [So as] to be the death of heroes,” [Book 19. 465, Robert Fagel’s translation].

3: This spear was forged on the peak of a mountain. In mythology, mountains frequently represent the dwelling place for the gods. Even today, mountains are places of transcendence and great importance. Think about, for example, Mount Sinai, where Moses receives God’s word for Israel. Another example might be Jesus delivering his sermon on a mountain or being crucified on a hill. In a manner almost Biblical, Chiron made this spear not just on a mountain, but on the peak of the mountain. This means that the spear was forged in the boundary between heaven and earth. The spear represents not an ordinary object, but a heavenly transcendent object.

4: This spear was made particularly for Peleus, Achilles’ father. Chiron made this spear as a gift originally for Achilles’ father, but by the time of the Trojan war, Peleus is an old man and he bequeaths the spear upon Achilles.

Again you may ask: why is this important for obtaining power for action? Firstly, The Iliad is mythology. Mythologies are stories that represent human ideals. A human ideal is a set of noble values that all humans ought to seek and obtain. So, Achilles as the main character represents the ideal man. According to Homer, the ideal man is the warrior who fights for and with his people. He is someone who suffers personal injustice but is willing to set aside such injustice for the greater good of fighting for one’s country.

“According to Homer, the ideal man is the warrior who fights for and with his people.”

Second, if Achilles represents the ideal man, then his armor and spear represent the instruments necessary to perform the task of being an ideal man. The armor, of course, is a gift from his mother. This means that Achilles received protection from his mother. As he grew into a man, he protected himself with skills learned from his mother.

The spear, on the other hand, is not for protection or defense, but offense. The spear is the principal instrument used to vanquish enemies in battle. This is a skill given by the father, but the instrument itself is a gift given by a mediating figure. The mediating figure is someone who has all the potential wild power of a horse and the ordered skill of reason to give the untapped power shape and direction.

You may say, “Phil, this is great and all, but my mom has never given me a suit of armor and my dad certainly won’t let me have a spear!” Yes, that’s very likely true. Many of us have not been raised to be warriors with the literal expectation that we will exercise skill within battle. However, many of us do have mothers who have protected us, women who have taught us something about being responsible for our own safety, keeping away from strangers, making good friends, etc. Additionally, many of us have been raised by fathers who expect us to respect others, to stand up for ourselves, to protect others in danger, to honor the good name of God. If any of these things slightly describe your parents, then you’re in a position that’s very similar to Achilles’.

But even if you, unlike Elisha and myself, have not had good parents, there is still the basic fact that God as the creator of the universe is Father to all humans (Genesis 1:1; Psalms 24:1; Matt 11:26). The Father brought us into being and has given us breath, life, and food. He has sent His unique Son to live, to obey, and to suffer for mankind that we may become royal sons and daughters (Matt 11:26-27). This unique son is a mediator between God and men (Ephesians 1:7-10), which makes our adoption to God possible (Matt 11:27; Eph 1:4-5). Furthermore, as sons and daughters of the Father, we are equipped for royal service to wage war against transcendent cosmic powers (Ephesians 1:13-14; 6:10-17).

“As sons and daughters of the Father, we are equipped for royal service to wage war against transcendent cosmic powers.

Does all this sound like a myth? Yes, I tell you it’s a myth and its more than a myth. This is the world that stands before your eyes whether you see it or not. God is real, but so is the enemy. Be on your guard, and fight with courage.

-Philip Soen

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4 thoughts on “Grasping Achilles’ Spear: Human Power and Courage in The Iliad and the Bible (Guest Post)

  1. That’s great bro👏👏

    On Thursday, September 3, 2020, Elisha McFarland wrote:

    > Elisha McFarland posted: ” Guest post by Philip Soen Greetings everyone. > My name is Philip Soen and I am Elisha McFarland’s uncle. Presently, I live > in Dallas, Texas, where I have been studying to become a university > professor. This last July (2020) I had the privilege of vacat” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Monday Heckling: The Ballad of the Songbirds and the Snakes – Elisha McFarland

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