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  • Bernard Frank

Achilles and The Healing Power of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a very misunderstood concept and even stigmatised in todays society where forgiveness is often associated with weakness, being nice, undeserved kindness, condoning or excusing crimes, and a kind of "letting off the hook" of the person or thing being forgiven. This is probably partly due to Christianity's emphasis on forgiveness and therefore it being seen as synonymous with "turning the other cheek" and pacifism. However none of this is true, and the importance of practicing forgiveness is not a teaching Christianity solely has the monopoly on.

Even pre-Christian warrior cultures taught forgiveness. A good example of this is found in Ancient Greek paganism in Homer's Iliad. This poem is famous for telling the story of the Greek heroes fighting in the Trojan war, but the Iliad is actually not about the war at all. In fact the most memorable part of the war, the winning of it using the famous Trojan horse, isn't even mentioned! Nor does the Iliad begin talking about how the war started.

The Iliad starts and takes place in the middle of the war and begins with Achilles becoming enraged after he is wronged and dishonoured by the Greek King. However his rage reaches new heights with the death of his best friend Patroclus, who fights in place of Achilles and is killed by the warrior, Prince Hector of Troy. Achilles avenges Patroclus' death by killing Hector, but this doesn't assuage his rage. He drags Hectors body along the ground behind his chariot, humiliating Hector for all Troy to see, and drags the body back to his tent at the Greek camp where he holds it hostage, further dishonouring and humiliating Hector and Troy. But after all this revenge, it still doesn't assuage his rage.

The Iliad doesn't end with a great, climatic or pivotal battle. It actually ends in a more subtle way. Priam, the elderly king of Troy, father of Hector, sneaks pasts the entire Greek army and into Achilles' tent to ask him to give back Hector's body, so that he may have a proper dignified funeral. In this moment Achilles sees Priam demonstrate great courage and honour, which takes Achilles aback and humbles him.

In their conversation, Achilles begins to see Priam no longer as a de-humanised enemy, but as a fellow human being, worthy of respect. He starts to emphasise with Priam and feels compassion as he sees himself and his own father in him and they cry together. Achilles is then able to forgive Priam and Hector. In doing so, lets go of his anger and finds peace. They both still remain enemies and the war continues on, but a temporary truce is arranged for 12 days so that Hector can be given a proper funeral and be mourned. This is where the story of the Iliad ends, in remembrance of Hector. The movie Troy has many flaws but it does this scene with Priam and Achilles very well. (To watch this scene click the video below).

Ultimately Forgiveness isn't about being nice, kind, pacifistic, reconciling or forgetting. It is simply the letting go of anger, which we do for our own benefit, to regain inner peace and giving us the ability to move on and start over.


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