Becoming Achilles: Child-Sacrifice, War, and Misrule in the Iliad and Beyond

Richard Holway

Viewing the Iliad and myth through the lens of modern psychology, Richard Holway shows how the epic underwrites individual and communal catharsis and denial. Sacrificial childrearing generates but also threatens competitive, glory-seeking ancient Greek cultures. Not only aggression but knowledge of sacrificial parenting must be purged.

Just as Zeus contrives to have threats to his regime play out harmlessly (to him) in the mortal realm, so the Iliad dramatizes threats to Archaic and later Greek cultures in the safe arena of poetic performance. The epic represents in displaced form destructive mother-son and father-daughter liaisons and resulting strife within and between generations.

Holway calls into question the Iliad‘s (and many scholars’) presentation of Achilles as a hero who speaks truth to power, learns through suffering, and exemplifies kingly virtues that Agamemnon lacks. So too the Iliad‘s cathartic process, whether conceived as purging innate aggression or arriving at moral clarity. Instead, Holway argues, Achilles (and Socrates) try to prove they are not what at bottom they experience themselves to be—needy, defenseless children, who fear to acknowledge, much less speak out against, parents’ use of them to meet parents’ needs.

What emerges from Holway’s analysis is not only a new reading of the Iliad, from its first word to its last, but a revised account of the family dynamics underlying ancient Greek cultures.

Richard Holway has a PhD in Political Science from the University of California at Berkeley. The History and Social Sciences Editor at the University of Virginia Press, he teaches in the Politics Department and the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies Program at the University of Virginia.

“Fascinating psychological analysis of the Iliad’s heroes . . . an interesting and provocative work that offers a fresh way of thinking about warrior psychology.”

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

“A profound and timeless study of the psychological consequences of being raised in a martial society that values the defense of honor—personal and collective—above all else.”

Randolph Roth, Ohio State University, author of American Homicide

“By applying the current psychology of attachment theory to the Iliad, Becoming Achilles illuminates Homer and Greek myth. What we see is a culture that depends on and perpetuates child-sacrifice and destructive family dynamics.”

Grace Ledbetter, Swarthmore College, author of Poetics before Plato: Interpretation and Authority in Early Greek Theories of Poetry

“This book is not only good to think with: it is also good, very good, to talk about.”

Gregory Nagy, Harvard University (from the Foreword)

“An excellent resource for numerous fields of study.  Highly recommended.”

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Available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and (at a 20% discount) from Lexington Books (Use code LEX20FEB12 when ordering.)

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