My book, Becoming Achilles: Child-sacrifice, War, and Misrule in the Iliad and Beyond, offers an account of what is involved in producing hero-sons who excel all others. Following a snippet of the Introduction, the ensuing discussion illustrates how the book is anchored in psychology, mythology, the Iliad, and Plato’s dialogues of Socrates’ last days.
From the Introduction.
Like much else in human life, the Iliad’s defining myths begin with childrearing. Divine mothers attempt to immortalize sons but are interrupted. The resulting sons are superior to ordinary mortals, but fall short of divine power and perfection. They are heroes.
Remarkably, the myths that depict these forms of childrearing contain critiques of them. Mortal parents view divine mothers as having covert agendas that preclude loving nurture and harm infants. Insulted by mortals’ impertinent questioning of their childrearing practices, goddesses proclaim that they provide superior nurture; critics are witless fools. Faced with goddesses’ anger, critics quickly recant.
The analysis presented here is rooted in research into attachments that infants form with their primary caregivers, usually mothers. The type of bond differs according to the quality of care. Attachment theory suggests that perceptions of parents sacrificing children’s needs to their own, which the Iliad’s myths discount, may be accurate. In order to avoid further alienating unreliable or rejecting caregivers, children disavow or repress their own perceptions of the relationship and adopt caregivers’ versions. Sons’ defensive exclusion of information about maternal failings avoids provoking angry maternal reactions like those dramatized in myth.
The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a recent installment in a continuing debate about parents pushing children to excel. Viewed psychologically, ancient Greek literature and myth have a lot to say on this subject.
The Iliad, with its focus on the iconic Greek hero, Achilles, is a particularly informative. Part of what makes the Iliad so illuminating are myths depicting special forms of childrearing that make children superior to ordinary mortals.
Viewed through the lens of modern psychology, what can these myths tell us?
Family psychology focuses on parent-child boundaries. When these boundaries are intact, they define a benign parent-child hierarchy. Parents provide for children’s needs, rearing them to adulthood. But parents can use children to meet their own needs. One form of sacrificial childrearing involves fathers who turn from wives to impressionable, dependent daughters for validation; another, parents who use children’s competitive success to validate their own claims to superiority.
Attachment theory’s forte is explaining how children respond to non-nurturant care. (Rather than dubious retrospective reconstructions of childhood experience, attachment research begins with observations of parent-child interactions; it uses theory to predict effects on behavior; then it tests predictions with follow-up observations. The process can extend over years or even decades.) In the examples I’ve cited, parents reverse roles with children, making them into de facto caregivers. For their own protection, children suppress perceptions of parental unresponsiveness or hostility and idealize the parents who exploit them.
Divine mothers’ attempts to immortalize sons are a distinctive feature of Achilles’ and the Iliad’s mythology. These myths are important because, in an incredible way, they dramatize the process by which spouses (and children) respond to harmful parenting for what it is; but, in the face of caregivers’ anger, they distance themselves from their own experiences and perceptions, and adopt views preferred by caregivers, who wish to be perceived as providing loving nurture.
The following passages use attachment theory to analyze myths in which the goddesses Thetis and Demeter attempt to immortalize mortal sons.
Once Achilles’ mortal father, Peleus, overcomes the resistance of the goddess, Thetis, the gods celebrate their wedding. Forced to share Peleus’s bed, Thetis gives birth to the glorious and dangerous son whose prophesied superiority to his father caused Zeus and his brother Poseidon to break off their pursuit of her.
Myths contradict Thetis’s idyllic picture in the Iliad of her “best of childrearing.” In myths, Achilles does not spontaneously manifest his divine superiority. He requires special maternal fashioning that appears to violate norms of maternal love and care. Barely alluded to in the Iliad, Thetis’s attempt to immortalize Achilles suggests that sons must undergo harsh postnatal fashioning by mothers in order to become emblems of maternal superiority.
Thetis tries to immortalize her son in a variety of ways. Most revealingly, she anoints her infant with ambrosia by day to make his flesh immortal. By night she places him in a fire in order to, as one mythographer puts it, “destroy the mortal element which the child inherited from his father.”
Peleus leapt up from his bed and saw his dear son gasping in the flame; and at the sight he uttered a terrible cry, fool [mega nêpios] that he was; and she heard it, and catching up the child threw him screaming to the ground, and herself like a breath of wind passed swiftly from the hall as a dream and leapt into the sea, exceeding wroth [chôsamenê], and thereafter returned not again. Wherefore blank amazement fettered his soul.
In these myths, Peleus’s intervention is represented as folly, for which he and his son pay dearly. Peleus loses his divine wife and lives in bleak solitude (18.434f.). Yet the goddess’s interrupted ministrations leave their mark. Virtually invulnerable, Achilles is superior to all mere mortals and wins imperishable glory.
A parallel set of myths recount how Demeter unaccountably interrupts her search for her daughter Persephone to hire on as a nursemaid in the household of king Celeus of Eleusis. She attempts to immortalize the king’s son—in a similar way with similar results.
Both sets of myths present the hero as a product of maternal fashioning. Both are similar to narratives in which children idealize rejecting or unresponsive caregivers.
Psychologists distinguish defensive idealization of a parent from innocuous exaggeration of parental virtues on the basis of “seemingly unconscious discrepancies between positive general descriptions of the mother or the relationship and actual negative experiences of the parent as described in specific episodes.”
These myths freely acknowledge the lack of ordinary maternal nurture, love, and care involved in the mothering of heroes. Some also register the son’s suffering. But the myths invert these inversions: not only does lack of nurture count as superior nurture, but the nursemaid is counted the real parent while the mortal siblings and mother are reduced to “inferior nurses and handmaids.” The goddess is rightly indignant at being held to ordinary standards of nurture, which, for mortal mothers, would accord with themis (order). She is kourotrophos, a nurturer and protector of her hero-son.
The conclusion seems inescapable: by representing hero-making mothers as divinities and bestowing the epithet kourotrophos on them, while subtly alluding to their shocking inversions of nurture, the mythic and epic traditions afford a striking example of defensive idealization at the level of culture.
If care-giving is as much an evolutionary inheritance as care-seeking, why would parents pursue childrearing agendas that entail the sacrifice children’s needs?
It is not only sons whose needs for care go unmet. Viewed through the lens of family psychology and attachment theory, the stories of mothers of heroes suggest that they are subjected to similar forms of exploitative care as they engage in with their sons.
The central example for the Iliad is the story of Thetis.
Zeus amorously pursues Achilles’ future mother, Thetis while she is being raised as a daughter in his house. Despite preferring her to his wife, Zeus marries her off to an inferior husband, in order to avert a threat to his regime. Thetis reestablishes the superiority she enjoyed as Zeus’s favorite by rearing a son whose superiority to ordinary mortals.
In a parallel myth, a daughter for whom Zeus conceives a similar passion suffers a similar fate. Although Zeus desires his daughter, Persephone, more than his wife, he nonetheless appeases his brother Hades, who is unhappy with his inferior domain, by allowing him to abduct and forcibly marry her. This time it is the girl’s mother, Demeter, who is discovered trying to immortalize a mortal son by burning away his mortal part—and who castigates the intervening mortal parent as a fool for believing that the goddess is harming her son.
As with myths of divine mothers rearing superior sons, psychology can help us to assemble, from jumbled fragments in the Iliad and myth, a narrative of the lives of daughters who become mothers of heroes.
The full story of how Thetis comes to be the mother of Achilles is complicated and confusing. It involves prophecies and counter-prophecies about powerful sons who can save or threaten fathers. But disentangling it explains a lot. Not only why daughters like Thetis need glorious sons, but how lowly Thetis comes to command the power of a son “greater than his father in might” who can overthrow—or save—Zeus.
Unfortunately that story is too long and convoluted to tell here. The most I can do is summarize.
Basically it goes like this: fathers favor daughters over wives but exchange them for the services of other men in strategic marriages—for example, Zeus giving Persephone to Hades to placate him for his inferior domain. These evidently superior daughters surmount the humiliation of their marriages by rearing superior sons. In this way, they prove that the superiority they experienced as daughters favored by their fathers over their mothers was real, not a laughable pretense. These daughters’ air of superiority and their destiny to rear powerful sons epitomize feminine allure in the Iliad and it’s myths. But husbands who want strong sons to ‘ward off devastation’ from them (as Thetis and Briareus do for Zeus), are liable to come into conflict with the extraordinary wives and sons on whom they depend for protection (as Agamemnon does with Thetis and Achilles).
Here’s a (hopefully tantalizing) snippet of the full analysis:
Although the myth of Thetis’s forced marriage throws some light on Thetis’s and Achilles’ claims to honor from Zeus, it raises questions about the precise nature of the threat that they represent. It is easy to see how Zeus, like Agamemnon, could be threatened by a proud queen insulted by his philandering, who enlists a powerful son as her avenger—as Hera enlists Apollo in the in the coup attempt foiled by Thetis and Briareus, and as Klytemnestra enlists her lover to murder Agamemnon on his return from Troy. Demigod Achilles and his divine mother might make any mortal father or king insecure. The goddess’s anger at being forced to marry a mortal might make her and her son even more dangerous. But Thetis’s marriage to a mortal is supposed to neutralize her threat, not cause it. So the question remains: How could marriage to a lowly goddess—his formidable wife’s antithesis in power, aggression, and status—threaten Zeus?
To find out the answer to that question, you’ll have to read the book.
My subtitle, Child-sacrifice, War, and Misrule in the Iliad and Beyond, links sacrificial parenting with warfare. There is much to be said on this topic; here is a start.
Children whose bids for love and care are welcomed by responsive caregivers experience themselves as valuable and deserving of love. Heroic nurture involves the rejection of ordinary, needy, care-seeking children. Although purportedly superior mothers may favor sons over mortal fathers, sons learn a devastating and outrageous lesson: their real, needy, care-seeking selves are unwelcome, worthless, and insignificant. This engenders an aspiration to mete out rather than suffer devastation; to prove themselves glorious and worthy, not shamefully weak and defenseless.
The association between war and sacrifice persists to this day. Hopefully this book on ancient Greece will encourage us to take a hard look at the purposes for which we ask (especially young) men and women to sacrifice their own and others’ lives.
In Becoming Achilles I argue that heroic childrearing underpins not only the competitive, martial values exemplified by the peerless fighter, Achilles, but also the philosophic pursuit of truth as exemplified by Plato’s Socrates. How can that be?
The real puzzle is why Achilles, a virtuoso of lethal force, is also a proto-Socrates. As Plato’s Socrates will do, Achilles says what he thinks, questions traditional verities, and speaks truth to power. As a result, he is falsely accused of disrespecting legitimate authority and encouraging others to do the same, and he is unjustly punished—or so it seems.
Attachment theory suggests that Achilles’ self-presentation as a speaker of truth to power is fundamentally misleading.
The following passages suggest some of the ways that the Iliad—and Achilles’ example— function to deny character traits produced by heroic childrearing.
The Iliad and its background myths are structures of denial. They foster individual and collective denial of traumatic features of mother-son relationships that are fundamental to the formation of heroic character and to the reproduction of heroic culture. Representations of these traumatic experiences, and of sons’ fear- and dependency-based responses to them, are front and center in the Iliad and myth, but in disguised and displaced forms. They are hidden in plain view. At the same time, the Iliad is a cathartic narrative. It mimics the behavior of children not only in excluding knowledge of sacrificial care but in redirecting anger and shifting responsibility from child-sacrificing parents to third parties and finally to the self. Thus it facilitates purging not only anger at parents’ outrageous devaluation of care-seeking children, but the accurately perceiving, appropriately responding self. It is a structure of denial to cathartic effect.
The confrontation between Achilles and Agamemnon has all the elements of an exploitative parent-child relationship, but at key points the narrative diverges from what attachment theory would lead us to expect.
Achilles’ call for responsible care infuriates Agamemnon because it highlights the disparity between Agamemnon’s behavior and kingly norms that are extensions of parental ones. Although he is an adult, not a dependent child, and Agamemnon is not his parent, Achilles experiences the king’s anger as a total negation of his value, against which he is utterly defenseless. Outrageously, it reduces him to a “dishonored vagabond.” His life as a loved and respected member of a community in accord with themis is effectively destroyed.
These elements correspond to but also diverge from the formative experiences and psychology hypothesized for hero-sons.
For one thing, it is not Achilles’ mother whose angry response to his bids for care deals a crippling blow to his self-esteem. It is not even Achilles’ mortal father, threatened by his son’s superiority. Rather it is Achilles’ would-be pseudo-father Agamemnon.
Achilles is equally uncooperative (with my thesis). He refuses to gloss over or suppress knowledge of the parent figure’s offenses. Rather, he braves Agamemnon’s anger by protesting the king’s violations of themis.
The way Achilles tells it, the Achaians act like dependent children. They avoid provoking their parent-figure’s anger by suppressing information of his offenses. As far as they are concerned, all is themis and dikê, order and justice. In this way they maintain their relationship with an abusive caregiver on whom they depend.
What is going on here? From the standpoint of heroic psychology, we have the “right” actions, effects, and responses, but they are assigned to the “wrong” people. The son of Thetis alone has the independence and self-respect to call attention to parental failings.
It is as if the narrative of Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon is constructed to establish that the paradigmatic hero, Achilles, is totally different from the dependent, fearful hero-son predicted by attachment theory.
That is precisely the argument I make in Becoming Achilles.
I’ll finish with a few paragraphs that view Socrates’ emulation of Achilles’ example in the light of attachment theory.
When Socrates braves the anger of the leaders of Athens to heed a divine command that he save his fellow Athenians, he follows in the footsteps of Achilles, who risks the anger of a powerful king in a divinely prompted attempt to save his community (1.178–83). Like those of Socrates’, Achilles’ actions in service of the community assert Apollo’s claims to honor in the face of the hubris of mortal authorities. (The Achaians had urged Agamemnon to honor Apollo by acceding to his priest’s supplication, but Agamemnon abused the old man and mocked the god’s ability to protect his servant [1.21, 1.25–32, 1.28; hubris: 1.203, 1.214]. Achilles, by contrast, was “the first to urge the god’s appeasement” [1.386].)
Achilles’ altruism and piety, like those of Socrates, are brushed aside as mere pretense. His innocent claim to be discovering the cause of the divine anger that threatens to destroy his community does not fool Agamemnon, who tells him not to “strive to cheat, for you will not deceive.” According to Agamemnon, unbridled ambition lies behind Achilles’ posture of disinterested concern for his fellows’ well-being. Does Achilles wish to strip Agamemnon of honors and give him orders (1.131–34)? The question is rhetorical. Achilles “wishes to be above all others, /. . . to hold power over all and to be lord of / all and give them their orders” (1.287–99). Like Socrates’ accusers, Agamemnon justifies Achilles’ punishment as necessary to deter youthful imitators: “so that another man”—most likely another hotheaded youth like Achilles—“may shrink back from likening himself to [Agamemnon] and contending against” him (1.186–87).
Since Socrates’ noble efforts to save his community are unjustly maligned in much the same terms as Achilles’, we might expect him to sympathize with a fellow victim of outrageous slander. Yet Plato’s Socrates condemns Achilles in terms that echo Agamemnon’s. Seeing through the smokescreen of Achilles’ feigned innocence to the illicit ambitions underneath, Socrates charges him with “youthful impertinences” (neanieumata) toward his sovereign and with setting an example that corrupts the young (Rep. 390a).
Whatever may be true of Achilles, or of Socrates in other respects, is there any doubt that Socrates is autonomous? In Plato’s account, the philosophic hero who follows arguments wherever they lead, who commits himself to abide by the conclusions of rational inquiry, and who absolutely refuses to commit wrong, or to abandon his philosophic vocation, even under threat of execution, epitomizes independence of mind and autonomy. In contrast to him stand stolid democrats like Socrates’ accuser, Anytus, who unquestioningly accept traditional ideas of wisdom and virtue.
Yet our analysis cautions against uncritical acceptance of what by Socrates’ time had become a traditional idea of the defiant independence of the hero versus the herd mentality of the mass of men. The Achillean hero who makes a show of fearlessly speaking his mind, even if it contradicts received wisdom or angers powerful authorities, may be trying to prove he is something he is not. Dependent on a mother’s image of him as an extension of her superiority, he is afraid to own up to his ordinary aspirations and his dismay at her failure to provide ordinary nurture. Desperate to appear superior in her and others’ eyes, he makes a show of indifference to appearances. The disclosure of his hidden self would alienate a superior mother; he presents himself as transparent, hiding nothing. On this reading, scholars—and lay readers—who accept Achilles’ and Socrates’ self-presentations, and their praise poets’ representations of them, at face value mistake hero-sons’ defensive self-constructs for reality.
If it is true that the personae of Socrates and Achilles serve to deny realities of heroic character, what difference does that make for political thought and philosophy?
Heroic childrearing produces philosophic blind spots. Heroic wisdom lacks a foundation in adult competences, gradually acquired with the help of parental nurture, guidance, and models. Such parenting is unavailable or discredited for hero-sons and for the daughters who become mothers of heroes. As a father-favored daughter is apparently superior to her mother, so the favored son of a ‘divine’ mother is apparently superior to his mortal father. These inversions of parent-child hierarchies instill deep confusion about crucial questions for political thought and philosophy: What constitutes legitimate authority? When should authorities’ actions be deemed unjust? When do they forfeit their claim to obedience? What sort of wisdom, sophia, should philosophers—and citizens—lovingly to pursue? Knowledge of the divine? Or something more down to earth? A major consequence of heroic childrearing is an inability to recognize the capacities of ordinary human beings to govern themselves.
All this may be true.
Achilles and Socrates may protest—and project—too much. But when modern psychologists describe children’s responses to harmful care in terms that echo those Achilles uses to chastise his fellow Achaians, they build on cultural foundations set in place almost three millennia ago in the Iliad.