Monday, August 20, 2007

A completely irrelevant history of Achilles' heel and Duryodhana's thigh....

As a child I heard the story of Duryodhana's thigh, and as I grew older, Achilles and his association with the heel was something one read about and wondered. One tends to think very respectfully about folks after whom things are named.

But Achilles was different. And Duryodhana still needs to have a thigh muscle named after him, I should think.

Duryodhana , who can be described as a wild, wilful, brave, spoilt prince of the Kauravas , maybe found in the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Achiiles , it turns out , has a similar background, only it is based in the various Greek Islands, and his activities were chronicled by Homer (not Simpson) in the Iliad, which was probably written, as a way of remembering folks with all lenghty, unpronounceable, Greek names and their multifarious activities with and without Gods. Truly humbling, and my sympathies to all the Greek school children of those days who had to learn to spell.

Both Duryodhana and Achilles had births, which, would leave all the world's doctors gaping in wonder, with their mouths ajar, almost permanently. In both cases, women were prominently involved in communicating with the then current Gods, and basically getting them to do what they wanted to do themselves.

The Mahabharata is all about the fight between the Kauravas and Pandavas, the former the evil, and the latter, well, not evil. The Kauravas were a hundred, the Pandavas, five. The Pandvas were born to Queen Kunti, in the usual way, except for one episode , where , unlike the female fratricide practiced today, Kunti let go , one of her sons, into a basket in the river, as the child was not fathered by her royal husband, but by the Sun God. (Where was the husband when all this was happeneing ?)

The Kaurava 's King Dhrutarashtra was blind, and his queen Gandhari was in competetion with Queen Kunti . Frustrated about not delivering before Kunti, she beat her womb , and really messed up her delivery ; what emerged was a hard grey mass. Well, excessive prayers to various sages, resulted in the mass being broken up into a hundred pieces, each being buried in a pot of clarified butter or ghee, for a year, after which , someone cracked the pots open, and a hundred sons emerged from them, the eldest being Duryodhana.

Well, a year and nine months of development , in such a high cholesterol, high fat environment,certainly made Duryodhana a strong child. He was also a thoughtless, yet scheming, disrespectful, greedy person. Legend has it, that he was made up of thunder, and was very very strong. He spent his entire life, scheming, cheating, playing people off against each other, granting material favours to people he liked, and insulting and abusing the Pandavas, to the extent, that their wife Draupadi (five Pandavas had 1 wife, but that is another story), was dragged into his court and disrobed as part of his celebration of winning a bet against the Pandavas, as well as also to greviously insult them . He further sealed his own fate, and showed his lack of class, by slapping his thigh and inviting Draupadi to sit there.

Draupadi , of course was stronger , mentally, than all the guys, and she called upon Lord Krishna to come save her honor. Lord Krishna did his part by programming the thing inbto an infinite loop, by converting her clothes into an endless saree, which Duryodhana kept pulling gleefully, till his facial muscles got fatigued, his triceps and biceps drooped, but the saree went on and on!

The Mahabharata is the story of the fight between Kauravas and Pandavas, and the avenging of this insult of Draupadi, kind of moderated by Lord Krishna, one of the most people-friendly and popular Gods, who sometimes displayed human values....

Towards the end of the war between the two, when all kinds of great and decent warriors on both sides were killed off, Duryodhana vowed to kill Bhima , his counterpart at the Pandavas , who was similar to him in attitude and strength, but not evil. Duryodhana's mother, true to her willful and irrational way of looking at things, following the dictum ,"my son right or wrong" , decided to do her stuff to make him invincible. Duryodhana's father the king, was blind. In an act of super dedication, Gandhari went through life with her eyes covered with a bandage, and in the process achieved some great powers of sight. Every thing she "saw" became invincible.

She told her son , that prior to the next day's war session, that he should have a bath and appear before her, "au naturel" , so that she could look at him, and every square , or should I say, cubic centimetre of his body could get immunity and become invincible.

Well, there went Duryodhana, fresh after a bath, mace in hand, slowly and proudly, as they say, streaking around, when he ran into Lord Krishna, who managed to give hima complex, just ridiculing him no end for walking around and facing his mother like this, given that he was a grown up man now. Duryodhana, with his high fat birth circumstances, had probably so clogged his neuronal synapses, that he lost sight of his mother's main objective. In an attitude and lack of application of thought, reminicent of typical politicians today, he simply covered himelf around his hips and faced his mother, who was, simply stunned speechless by his denseness, but ended up making him invincible everywhere , except in the hips and thighs area.

Lord Krishna, made this handicap known to Bhim of the Pandavas, who finally killed Duryodhana by simply beating his thighs to pulp with his mace; and, as legend has it, drinking his blood.....

And so it was all about knowing a persons susceptible points.

Achilles, had he known Duryodhana , would have probably understood all these happenings and even approved, so dramatic was his own birth history.

One abiding strain that runs through the Hindu and Greek mythology is the participation of Gods in routine human events. Where as in the Mahabharata, Gods have participated in a tricky advisory capacity, in the history of Achilles, Goddesses seem to be ruling the situation. In addition Gods routinely came down to participate in wars , intrigues and weddings on earth, sometimes interfering in things defying all logic.

Achilles was the son of a person called Peleus and a divine sea nymph called Thetis. One of the conditions of Achilles's parents' marriage (the union of a mortal with a divine sea nymph) was that the son born to them would die in war and bring great sadness to his mother. Thetis, was greatly ambitious and wanted Achilles to be immortal and invincible.

One version about how she tried that says that she smeared him with ambrosia and held him over the fire, to burn away his mortal properties , so to speak. Peleus, was properly aghast and he dragged the poor kid away. The father then put the young kid under the care of the Centaur Choron , who educated the boy.

The second version says that Thetia held Achilles upside down (by the heel), to get him to immerse in the sacred river Styx. It seems everything that the sacred water touched became immortal ; and poor Achilles was left with a mortal heel, where his mother had held him.

In the meanwhile, some Goddesses got interested . Eris, the Godess of discord (yes, there is such a department), got cheesed off as she was not invited to the Peleus-Thetis wedding. She landed up anyway, and angrily threw a golden apple into the proceedings, which a lot of other greedy goddesses reached out for. (It is amazing how the apple , a proletarian fruit, appears again and again in crisis situations, whether in gardens or weddings....).

In a set of steps that defy logic, one of the influential Gods, Zeus, landed up and said the judge would be Paris, the prince of Troy. The goddess who would be basically able to bribe Paris well, would win. Turns out , that one of the goddesses , promised this guy Paris, someone else's wife , called Helen. Both Paris and Helen were visions of beauty , and this completely arbitrary and irresponsible behaviour on the goddess's part makes you realise where todays powerful people get their ideas from.

Helen was actually married to Menelaus, King of Sparta. Paris set out on a so called polite visit to Sparta. Menelaus treated him with great honor, (similar to , say, how the Queen of England would treat, say, George Bush). Then the King went off to attend a funeral somewhere, which gave Paris an opportunity to run off with Helen, and take her to Troy. (Shame on you, Helen).

The entire Trojan War, was the result of all kinds of supporters of Menelaus getting together to fight Paris , attack Troy, and get back Helen. People made all kinds of predictions; a seer, some Calchas , said the war would be lost unless Achilles fought . Achilles mother, Thetis, then dressed him like a girl, and spirited him away to Scyros, another place, to keep him from being drafted into fighting a pointless war. While there he met Deidameia, and they had a son Neoptolemos. Various people with completely unpronounceable names like, Odysseus,Palamedes,Cinyras,Agamemnon, and others, managed to manoevre around , trick Achiiles into revealing his presence and get him to come and fight Paris at Troy.

Several customs come to light here. It was usual for someone to predict something arbitrarily, and suggest solutions if you did not want something to happen. The gullibility of the general population was shocking, but that of the rulers was just disgraceful. (It happens even today ...).

The solutions were mostly about sacrificing beautiful women at some altar, to appease , supposedly some God, but probably to satisfy someone's secret enimity with someone else. Sacrificing one's daughters was not uncommon.

The siege of Troy and the Torjan war lasted ten years, in which many folks died. Paris and Menelaus (stealer and husband respectively of Helen), fought a duel, and just when Paris was about to be killed, the Godess Aphrodite saved him. Guys called Cycnus, and Troilus, were killed by Achilles. In the ninth year of the war, one Agamemnon got into a fight with his colleague Achilles, and Achilles went off in a huff. With the best fighter having semi-retired , one of the Troy fighters called Hector had a dream run in the war, and became powerful. Achilles in the meanwhile had a bunch of affairs with, Patroclus, Troilus, Polyxena, daughter of Priam, Helen, and Medea, not all of them female. (How Helen appears in this list, simply boggles the mind. Guys, that was the end of the trojan war right there !) . But no. Agamemnon got panicky and begged of Achilles to return.

Thetis, once again had a goddess prepare a suit of armour for Achilles, and Achilles more or less ran through the Trojans, basically slaughetring everyone including an Amazon Queen and an Ethiopian King, and of course Hector. Hector's dead body was tied to Achiiles' chariot and dragged all over. Achilles held funerals for his loyal soldiers, blithely sacrificed a bunch of ladies at the altar, and held funeral games in honor of the departed.

Achilles's career as the greatest warrior came to an end when Paris, with the help of the God Apollo (once again making you wonder about the standards of morality amongst gods), killed him with an arrow which pierced him in the heel, the one vulnerable spot, which the waters of the River Styx had not touched because his mother had held him by the foot when she had dipped the infant in the river.

No amount of godly interference, pious prayers of strong minded mothers, and direct communication with an assortment of highly wilful gods, could save either Achilles or Duryodhana from their respective fates.

Homer wrote the Iliad in honor of all the Greek going ons and the Mahabharata was pennd by Vyasa . What is amazing is that despite the lack of any hugely outstanding qualities, a great amount of fuss is being made of Achilles. He was brave , but so were some thousand other folks with highly unpronounceable names defined by Homer. Standards and ethicswise, he was not at the top of his class.

As if this was not enough, the term “Achilles’ heel” was first used by a Dutch anatomist, Verheyden, in 1693 when he dissected his own amputated leg. Before him, some anatomical afficiando, decided to honor Achilles, by naming ater him , the strong tendon that connects the muscles of the calf of the leg with the heel bone : the “Achilles’ tendon”.

India has its own system of medicine , Ayurveda, and ancient Sanskrit texts refer to the scholarly books ("Sushrut Samhita " ), by Suhsrut, the father of Indian Medicine, outlining surgical procedures, anatomy , medicine and various treatments. Maybe, religion was so much a part of everyones spiritual and material life then, that no one named any thigh muscles or tendons after, say Duryodhana or any other nasty person from the scriptures.

Maybe if Hippocrates had had something to do with naming muscles, Achilles wouldnt have got his heel, so to speak.

But what can you say ? After all one man's thigh is another man's heel.

And thigh or heel, we need to remember, that at the basic level, the susceptibility is all up there, in the head.....

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