In a world where human bias has led to lies and usurping of ancient heritages, Black people have been at the receiving end of centuries of cultural appropriation, heritage theft, and other forms of whitewashing of Black history.
European scientists, writers, and scholars have made it a point of duty to usurp the identity of Black ancient civilizations, such as ancient Kemet/Egypt. They have made all attempts to uphold the warped ideology that white people are superior and so are responsible for the spectacular heights attained by humans over the course of history.
The average white person does not agree that ancient Europeans learned at the feet of Egyptian priests; neither do they agree that blacks dominated many regions of the ancient world. The ideology of white supremacy does not allow for such teachings to be understood or accepted. So when historians started to reveal that Achilles was Black, it was met with fierce resistance by a majority of white people.
The BBC aired an eight-part drama called Troy: Fall of a City in February 2018 that portrayed the events of the Trojan War. The miniseries was eventually published on Netflix in the United States. The casting of David Gyasi, a British-born Ghanaian actor, as Achilles sparked a barrage of racist backlash on social media and racist websites. Other characters represented by black actors, such as Zeus, Athena, Aeneas, Patroclus, and Nestor, have sparked less criticism.
In a Forbes piece last year, Classics historian Sarah Bond of the University of Iowa sparked a firestorm by pointing out that many of the Greek statues that appear white to us now were once painted in color. This is an uncontroversial and plainly accurate position, yet Bond suffered a barrage of internet vitriol for daring to imply that some people’s preference for marble-white Greek statues might have something to do with their views. This year, the BBC’s new television series Troy: Fall of a City (2018-) drew criticism for using black actors in roles such as Achilles, Patroclus, Zeus, Aeneas, and others (as if using anglophone northern European actors were any less anachronistic).
The notion of Greeks as paragons of whiteness is profoundly ingrained in Western culture. This agenda has been supported with zeal by portions of the alt-right who consider themselves as heirs to (a putative) European warrior masculinity, as Donna Zuckerberg shows in her book Not All Dead White Men (2018).
WAS ACHILLES BLACK OR WHITE?
The debate about the race of Achilles is one that has no definite conclusion, depending on your school of thought; you may regard him as having being black, white or colourless. Many scholars posit different theories about the racial identity of Achilles and the scholarly world is yet to come to an agreement. The depiction of Achilles as black in the movie adaptations of Homer’s Iliad (the epic poems retelling the battle of Troy) has raised many eyebrows.
Who is Achilles?
According to the British museum, the warrior, Achilles is one of the great heroes of Greek mythology. According to legend, Achilles was extraordinarily strong, courageous and loyal, but he had one vulnerability–his “Achilles heel.” Homer’s epic poem The Iliad tells the story of his adventures during the last year of the Trojan War.
Achilles’ most notable feat during the Trojan War was the killing of the Trojan prince Hector outside the gates of Troy. Although the death of Achilles is not presented in the Iliad, other sources concur that he was killed near the end of the Trojan War by Paris, who shot him with an arrow. Later legends state that Achilles was invulnerable in all of his body except for one heel, because when his mother Thetis dipped him in the river Styx as an infant, she held him by one of his heels. Alluding to these legends, the term “Achilles’ heel” has come to mean a point of weakness, especially in someone or something with an otherwise strong constitution.
The western narrative dominates the world and the white race is viewed as being dominant and superior to other races, thus any superhero character, trait or attribute is attributed to white skin. But if we adopt an open mind and start asking questions, we might shed light in certain grey areas. The Greek mythology is a rich blend of tales and characters and in understanding them, we need to understand the ancient Greeks.
One of the questions that we need to ask is, ‘were some ancient Greeks black?’
Tim Whitmarsh is a Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge and in examining the racial identity of the ancient Greeks, he has this to say:
“Our best estimate is that the Greeks would be a spectrum of hair colours and skin types in antiquity. I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt they were Mediterranean in skin type (lighter than some and darker than other Europeans), with a fair amount of inter-mixing”.
We can infer that not only were the historical Greeks unlikely to be uniformly pale-skinned, but their world was also home to ‘Ethiopians’, a vague term for dark-skinned North Africans. The Ethiopians are mentioned in Aethiopis, the story after Homer’s Iliad (), where Memnon of Ethiopia joins the fighting.
The world of the ancient Greeks was an adventurous world with a lot of travel and movements across different regions. People were moving from Egypt to Greece, east to west. It was an interconnected world without borders and national states. So in this scenario, it is highly probable that the ancient Greeks were blacks and thus the possibility of a black Achilles cannot be ruled out.
This flux of movement was ethnic as well as geographic. According to Whitmarsh, “The Greeks didn’t carve up the world into black and white. They didn’t see themselves in those terms. All of our categories – black and white, for instance – are formed by a very modern set of historical circumstance.”
This begs the question, ‘if the ancient Greeks didn’t see the world from a black vs White perspective, why is the modern world carving out the world into black and white?’ So the idea of a white Achilles is a creation of the western world.
There are other scholars who share this line of argument. Dr Rachel Mairs is Associate Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Reading, reacting to the casting of a black actor as Achilles in a BBC movie had this to say: “I’m delighted that the BBC have gone for a more diverse cast. Modern racial categories aren’t always helpful in looking at the ancient world, but there were certainly people we today might think of as both ‘black’ and ‘white’ in the ancient Mediterranean, and many variations of colour and identity in between”.
The truth is that we don’t definitely know what ancient Greeks would look like, but we are sure that they wouldn’t look like the ‘white’ actors we normally see.
This debate wouldn’t have come up in the first place if Homer had described the skin colour of Achilles in his poem but because the Greek society then wasn’t particular about colour, he only gave a description of Achilles’s hair.
In the Iliad, Homer describes Achilles as having blonde hair, and that’s only a rough translation. The actual term he uses, xanthē, could mean ‘golden’ or a variety of words. Whitmarsh opines that “Greek colour terms are quite strange and don’t map out well on ours”.
“In the Odyssey, Odysseus is said to be ‘black-skinned and woolly-haired’ – at one point we’re told that Athena makes him beautiful by restoring his natural black skin colour [see, Odyssey 16.175],” says Whitmarsh.
The naysayers won’t give up, in online forums and boards; many cling to a white Achilles. A Quora user is quoted as saying that a black Achilles is a figment of imagination and a conspiracy theory. According to the user:
“No, quite the contrary, Homer’s ideal Greek is a tall, muscular, blonde hero. The very ideals of ancient Greek appearance had always been fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair. No, Achilles wasn’t African, his looks fit him to be more of a Slavic or Nordic, but he was Greek. Don’t buy into SJW propaganda, blackwashing history is as criminal as 1930s-1970s whitewashing, this is an insult to Greeks.
There’s an active race-related and well funded propaganda material happening in USA and UK, designed to repaint European history differently, so that it appeals to wider set of races living in these countries. According to liberal non-government organizations, European culture is too Euro-centeric, or in other words, too white.”
This view illustrates the fact that the idea of a black superhero is disconcerting to many people, and they would fight tooth and nail to kill off such idea. But the truth stands that Achilles was black.