The Tomb of Homer - still from Theatre of War
Still from The Theatre of War, Stanislava Pinchuk, 2024
Stories & Ideas

Tue 02 Apr 2024

Achilles didn't go to Heaven

Art Commission Exhibition History
Alexandra Gaidovskaia

Alexandra Gaidovskaia

Digital Publishing Assistant & Visitor Experience Guide, ACMI

The notion of a "glorious death" has been used to justify war for centuries – and it echoes throughout good vs evil stories in popular culture.

The Ancient Greeks hated to die. Unlike The Field of Reeds for the Ancient Egyptians or Heaven for Christians, there was no blissful afterlife awaiting devoted mortals in Greek cosmology. Dying simply meant losing all the joys of life; the dead were doomed to wallow in Hades, full of sorrow and bitter envy of the living. In rare and exceptional cases, the gods could bestow immortality upon a human, but usually those deified mortals had a divine parent or lover – nepotism was rife in the Greek pantheon.

As tempting a privilege immortality was, the values and desires of figures in the ancient Greek epics were not that straightforward: death was unwanted, but one could choose to die like a hero and gain eternal glory – immortality, of sorts. The most convenient environment for dying like a hero was the theatre of war, and Homer’s poem, the Iliad, often regarded as “the first literary masterpiece of Western culture” [1], which was created in the 8th century B.C., revolved around this setting.

The Greek hero Achilles, son of the water goddess Thetis and the mortal king Peleus, is a pivotal character in the Iliad. He faced the choice between living amongst his fellow Olympians one day, or making history in the Trojan War and ending up in Hades like mortals do. He was aware that his participation in the campaign could be fatal for him and consciously chose an early yet glorious death – at least this is the most common interpretation of his choice in popular culture, as represented in Wolfgang Peterson’s 2004 film Troy.

For kleos

The Island of Ios in the Mediterranean is where Homer is believed to be buried and where boatloads of refugees sail by, seeking asylum from global conflicts. In Stanislava Pinchuk’s video artwork reflecting on the constant presence of war in our lives, The Theatre of War (2024), a young woman surveys the island’s waters from atop the rocky tomb site. On the back of her white t-shirt is a Greek word in blue: kleos – a word that once engendered war, displacement, trauma and death.

A shot from behind of a young girl wearing a white shirt with the word 'kleos' on it in blue.

Still from The Theatre of War, Stanislava Pinchuk, 2024

In ancient Greek culture, kleos referred to the glory earned in heroic battles [2]. It was considered a good reason to fight, to be wounded and suffer from pain or even to get a one-way ticket to the underworld. Prizes won in battles also demonstrated kleos. In the Iliad, Achilles is enraged when King Agamemnon takes a trophy Trojan girl from him. Having few options to confront Agamemnon, who sits above him in the military hierarchy, Achilles refuses to fight until, he claims, the Trojans reach the Greek ships [3]. Such was Achilles power, that the Greeks were held hostage by his wrath – one of the most significant tantrums in cultural history and cornerstone of the Iliad. As stated in the Iliad’s prophecy, the Greeks knew they could only win the war with Achilles fighting on their side [4].

Grief and rage

When we read the Iliad more closely, we discover that Achilles experienced emotions beyond mere disappointment from losing a trophy slave. His interactions with Briseis, the Trojan hostage seized by Agamemnon, as portrayed in the movie Troy, appear markedly more romantic than depicted in Homer’s poem and probably differ from the attitudes held by Ancient Greek warriors towards slaves [5]. In the Iliad, Achilles remained in his tent with his warriors showing little concern for Briseis, Agamemnon, the Trojans or anything aside from his wounded kleos.

Everything changes when his beloved “friend” Patroclus is slain by Hector, the champion of Troy, and thus Achilles’s adversary. In his elegant analysis of Homer's text, Adam Nicolson states: “Heroism disconnects”. In Achilles' “great and terrible” duel with Hector, he “makes the ultimate statement of heroic loneliness”. He is “trapped in the glory of his violence.” [6] There is nothing left to lose after Patroclus's death; killing and dying is the only way to cope with his frustration and grief.

In the contemporary world, is kleos still a decisive factor in the initiation of wars?

Kleos was likely Achilles' solace, perhaps not entirely effective, but undeniably addictive. “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug,” [7] writes the US-born war correspondent Chris Hedges, who covered, among other conflicts, the 1998–99 events in Yugoslavia (also seen in The Theatre of War). In his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002), Hedges continues: “Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. [...] It allows us to be noble.” [8]

The hero figure and their motives have been reinterpreted in popular culture since Homer's times by Christian values, European feudal ethics and – later – the ethics of nation-states, but Hedges' lines read equally applicable to both Bronze Age and post-carbon wars.

According to Catherine Nichols, folk stories and epic poems like the Iliad did not originally contain the “good vs evil” opposition, where people would “fight over who gets dinner, or who gets Helen of Troy” [9] (or, in the case of elite warriors, who gets all the kleos). Instead of the glory and trophies, the contemporary hero is eager to die for his values. Usually this means “for his faith or his suzerain” [10]. The gulf between “us, the good guys” and “them, the bad guys” widens as devotion to the ruler morphs into devotion to the fatherland in general.

Caroline Alexander, a contemporary translator of Homer, comments in her book The War That Killed Achilles (2009): “[...] later ages marshalled The Iliad's heroic battles and heroes' high words to instruct the nation's young manhood on the desirability of dying well for their country.” [11] Modern propaganda has in its arsenal both the ancient kleos of Achilles and the Heaven promised to the crusaders. Vladimir Putin's 2018 answer to the question about the probability of a nuclear conflict is a notorious example: “They [the enemies] will just croak, and we will go to heaven as martyrs” [12] – as simple as that.

Meanwhile, contemporary pop culture narratives contain more traces of the Achilles–Patroclus pattern. In war films like Enemy at the Gates (2001), The Last Samurai (2003), and 1917 (2019), a soldier turns their grief for a deceased friend into an unbroken will to battle and win. In vigilante action films such as Death Wish (1974), Kill Bill (2003, 2004), Law Abiding Citizen (2009), Peppermint (2018), Promising Young Woman (2020) and Wrath of Man (2021), the protagonist loses their loved ones, (usually partner and/or children), may consider a suicide but finds motivation in revenge, fights the enemies, kills some or all of them and reaches catharsis at some point.

What makes these modern stories different from Achilles', is that in most of them the protagonist stays alive. Justice and a restored peaceful life have become more valuable than destroying as many enemies as possible and obtaining a reputation as the greatest warrior of all time right before proceeding to Hades. In the Iliad “no warrior, whether hero or obscure man of the ranks, dies happily or well. No reward awaits the soldier’s valour; no heaven will receive him.” [13]

He spoke, and as he spoke the end of death closed in upon him,
and the soul fluttering free of the limbs went down into Death’s house
mourning her destiny, leaving youth and manhood behind her. [14]

These lines are repeated in the Iliad to describe the deaths of both Patroclus and Hector. And they represent a universal and inevitable scene in any theatre of war, no matter if a war's justification is kleos or Heaven.

– Alexandra Gaidovskaia

See Stanislava Pinchuk's The Theatre of War at ACMI


[1] 'The Wrath of Achilles', Washington Post, January 2, 2024

[2]'The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours [Electronic Resource] / Gregory Nagy', accessed March 14, 2024

[3] Homer, The Iliad; Translated with an Introd. by Richmond Lattimore. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951).

[4] Homer.

[5] Adam Nicolson, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters / Adam Nicolson. (London: William Collins, 2014), pp 150–151, 189.

[6] Nicolson, pp 142–143.

[7] Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning / Chris Hedges., 1st ed. (New York: PublicAffairs, 2002), 3.

[8] Hedges, p3.

[9] Catherine Nichols, 'Why Is Pop Culture Obsessed with Battles between Good and Evil?', Aeon Essays, Aeon, 2018.

[10] like Roland in the French Song of Roland (11th cent. AD poem, ), Tariel in the Georgian Knight in the Panther's Skin (12th AD poem by Shota Rustaveli, 2022 animated film), the Prince Igor in the East Slavic Tale of Igor's Campaign (12th AD poem, 2014 the Met Opera live performance of A. Borodin's "Prince Igor"), El Cid in the Spanish Lay of My Cid (13th AD poem, 2020 series), and others, as well as numerous stories about the crusaders.

[11] Caroline Alexander, The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War (New York, N.Y: Viking, 2009), xvii.

[12] 'Vladimir Putin Announces “Russians Will Go to Heaven as Martyrs', Daily Mail, YouTube, 2018

[13] Alexander, The War That Killed Achilles, p 120.

[14] Lattimore, pp

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