Many of us know the story of the Greek hero Achilles, if not through The Iliad, stories or the internet, then possibly through the film Troy, portrayed by Brad Pitt. As far as I knew, his story was limited to The Iliad, where the great warrior chose death and eternal glory over a long and peaceful life, albeit without fame. He achieved what he wanted. My interest in mythology has always made me put him on equal footings with an Indian epic warrior, Karna, from Mahabharata. I know there cannot be an exact comparison between the two but I have the same awe and respect for both. Anyhow, back to the topic at hand…
In The Odyssey, another great hero, Odysseus, has a chance of going to (and returning from) the underworld, land of the dead. There he meets the ghosts, or shades, of many near and dear ones and converse with them all. What rattled me completely (and caused undue attention, since I was reading in the middle of a class lecture) was what the shade of Achilles told Odysseus. I quote from Robert Fagle’s translation:
“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man-
Some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive-
Than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
Despite getting what he wanted, the hero longed to change his decision! I can’t understand why. I think Bill Watterson put it in a rather amusing one line – “How can something seem so plausible at the time, and so idiotic in retrospect?” Seems the so-called modern dilemma of the grass being greener on the other side has ancient roots.