Both born of the lineage of nymphs, Achilles (the main character of ‘The Iliad’ by Homer) and Oedipus (the main character of ‘Oedipus the King’ by Sophocles) both possess the quality of supernatural strength as warriors. The destinies of both men were foretold even before they were born. True enough, no matter how the characters around them tried to escape the bad predictions, these two characters always arrived at the demise they were destined to have.
Both men knew and got what they wanted. They knew the divine predictions. It is easy to conclude that Achilles knew himself better than Oedipus did based on how much each character knew of their background. Achilles knew who his biological parents were – Thetis and Peleus. For this, he very much knew his background, his lineage, and of course his self in terms of his strength and his weaknesses. His knowledge about himself made him the greatest warrior there was in Greek mythology. Not so much dependent on prophecies set before him, he exercised his will freely. This was clearly manifested when he left the Achaeans which was under the leadership of Agamemnon. He was not afraid to go out of his way and bravely fight and defend himself. He was firm on his decisions that when Agamemnon sent ambassadors to Achilles offering rich prizes and the hand of his daughter in marriage (if Achilles returned to the fighting line) he was firm on refusing the offer. His keen decisions always brought him victory when he fought.
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In some point, Achilles seemed to respect old men and bowed down to their pleas. An example of this was when Phoenix (an older man who belonged to Achilles’ household and one of the ambassadors sent by Agamemnon) plead him to go back to return to the assembly, Achilles withdrew his threat to leave the following day. Another example was when King Priam of Troy begged for the body of Hector. Achilles’ decision was built around the thought that his father who was also an old man, will never see his son again. Achilles knew that his death was to come after Hector’s. His compassion for the old man made Achilles decide on releasing the body of Hector – so that Priam might see the body of his son. This case in point brings ambiguity to the person of Achilles – a brave man yet frail in one point.
Meanwhile, the clear-eyed Oedipus was blind to the truth about his origins and inadvertent crimes. He was so much dependent on the oracle, making up decisions that could crumble his very own existence. It is this detachment from the truth that made Oedipus so dependent on other people to show him and lead him in his decisions. When he unknowingly killed King Laius, his own father, Oedipus vowed to find the murderer and cursed him for the plague that he had caused. Summoning the blind prophet Tiresias for help, he had not even believed the prophet that the murderer who he lashed a curse on was he himself. Every move he made was always based on his quest for knowledge of his biological parents. Always, he respected the prophecies and even tried to evade the things that would destroy him. One of this was the prophecy that he would soon incest his own mother. When he learned of this, he traveled far but was soon to be sent by destiny still to wed his own mother.
As we go deeper on the interpretation of Oedipus’ being, we will notice that always, he gained farther knowledge in search for truth. When the Oracle told him that he is destined to “Mate with [his] own mother, and shed/With [his] own hands the blood of [his] own sire,” Oedipus knew and was desperate to avoid his foretold fate. Oedipus left Corinth in the belief (he had a deeper understanding of himself that is humane) that Polybus and Merope are indeed his true parents and that, once away from them, he will never harm them. Little had he known that following this decision would only lead him to make the prophecy come true.
At one point of the poem, Oedipus proved his deeper understanding on the nature of man when he was able to answer the riddle of the Phoenix which went. “What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?” He knew that a man when still a baby (indicative of morning), crawls on two legs and two arms. When fully-grown (indicative of noon), man walks on both legs. When old (indicative of evening), man walks on two legs but with the help of a third leg – a cane.
When everything was revealed to him, Oedipus cursed himself and fate. He had not wanted it but it happened. He knew of himself as one who would never kill his own father, but fate (with him not knowing) brought his father to his hands. He knew of himself as one who would never commit incest to his own mother, but fate had it (with him not knowing) that he wedded his own mother.
In a rage, Oedipus wanted to commit suicide. This clearly speaks of Oedipus’ pain of knowing that he had failed on the one thing he wanted – to protect his parents. He even lamented on the fact that his two daughters were born on such a cursed family.
Though a mere puppet controlled by fate, Oedipus was able to exercise his own freewill. He was a man crushed by the gods and fate for now good reason – to which he so lamented on. Free will and predestination played a major role on the existence of Oedipus. These two led him of a better understanding of himself and on what he wanted.
Achilles, though fortunate to know his origins, was in a sense barbaric responding only to the provocations of his opponents. Upon his disagreement with Agamemnon, he responded with rebellion by leaving the assembly and threatening to leave together with his men. Upon the death of Patroclus, he fought and mercilessly killed Hector in revenge. He mercilessly dragged Hector around like an animal just because he wanted to avenge Patroclus. He had, in other words, responded to the “instinctive tendencies of man.” He had no deeper understanding and ideology of what was humane. He had to be told on the rightful thing to be done. To reiterate, when Phoenix (an older man who belonged to Achilles’ household and one of the ambassadors sent by Agamemnon) plead him to go back to return to the assembly, Achilles withdrew his threat to leave the following day. Another example was when
King Priam of Troy begged for the body of Hector. This was when Achilles realized that his father, who was also an old man, will never see him again based on the prophecy. His compassion for the old man made Achilles decide on releasing the body of Hector – so that Priam might see the body of his son. Achilles was a brave man, the greatest warrior but his decisions and actions were both based merely on “winning” and not “achieving his ideals.”
Meanwhile, Oedipus had ideals. When a person has ideals, he had a deeper and keener understanding of himself. When he left Corinth, he wanted to “achieve a goal” which was to protect his parents from the prophecy. His responses to occurrences were not instinctive. They were always based on his beliefs.
In conclusion, Oedipus knew himself better than Achilles on the grounds of how deep each of them knew life to be and on their respect for it. Oedipus knew what it is to live a good life. He knew that when he finds his biological parents, he would somehow change the prophecy and allow a better life for his parents. He wanted a good life. Meanwhile, Achilles was after of winning a war, of defending himself and the ones close to him. He had no deep understanding on the effects of his actions. He only wanted results – and always it is to “win the battle, no matter how it was done.” Oedipus knew better. Only, he was at the mercy of predestination in the story. Predestination and fate had not allowed him to reach his ideals no matter how he exercised his free will in order that he might achieve what he believed to be good for him and his family.