Achilles Was Not Black: Why Cultural Distinctions Still Matter

The archetype of struggle and reconciliation is uniquely Western.

The BBC is teaming up with Netflix to release a new show: “Troy: Fall Of A City.” The lead character Achilles is portrayed by a black actor. This is bizarre. Achilles was not black, just as Shaka Zulu was not white. For that matter, Rumi was not an Arab.

Someone asks, “why does this matter?”

Answer: in Rumi’s case, because he was a Persian subjugated beneath a Muslim tyrant and forced to live under an Islamic name. He was forced to write his immortal poetry in Arabic on pain of death. Rumi was a dhimmi, little more than a slave to the Caliph. It matters that his conquered homeland was Persia, his stolen religion was Zoroastrian, his stolen language was Persian — and that he was not of the race of his conquerors.

It matters. How could it not? All cultures matter.

Rumi was not a vacuous nothing, an empty vessel to be arbitrarily filled with any interpretation. Why should Rumi’s memory lie like a pacifist in the face of annihilation? He was a man with a family and a lineage, a whole history in his physicality. Why wouldn’t Rumi’s Persian culture deserve as much recognition and distinction as we currently give to the culture of his conqueror?

Moreover, there is the matter of practical conservation — Persian culture is perilously near-collapse. There are only a few million people of Persian heritage remaining in the world. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Culture is not a nightgown, it’s not an ethnic dish, it cannot be transplanted from one people to another.

If I were talking about, say, the Dakota Indians, nobody would find the above statement to be controversial. Nobody would suggest that Dakota culture survives as long as its food survives. We all know Dakota culture is more than a type of clothing. We all acknowledge in an instant that a figure like Sitting Bull was not the same as his conquerors.

Why, then, is this controversial about the Persians? Rumi was not Arabic. The ancient Greeks, of which lineage Achilles and Homer and Socrates all belong — they weren’t Arabs either, nor were they Africans.

The story of the Iliad is a story of struggle and reconciliation — fundamentally western, fundamentally Greek, fundamentally proto-Christian archetypes. Achilles’ wrath nearly dooms the Greeks, but his reconciliation with Priam, the aged father of Hector, mends his heart.

Today, many westerners are possessed by broken-heartedness and nihilistic fatalism. They have forgotten the archetype of Achilles — they have also forgotten the example of Christ. The message of Christ is often confused as blind pacifism — this is absolutely wrong.

Sacrifice and forgiveness — these are the eternally recurring western archetypes. Christ and Achilles. Struggle and reconciliation. Western culture is founded on this sort of wrestling match between anger and wisdom. Without the wrestling, struggle, there can be no reconciliation, which means there can be no growth. Pacifism robs us of our strength.

Christ was never pacifistic in a blind sense, he was selectively aggressive. He would not strike at the Roman soldiers, but he certainly struck at the money-changers. Christ’s message is of struggle and reconciliation —it is the same as the message of the Iliad.

It matters that these archetypes were not created in China and it matters that they were not created in Africa. Without understanding these distinctions, it is impossible to understand the histories of peoples — Chinese, Greek, Persian and African alike.

Look at Greece today and one will not find many Chinese — and why should we pretend that Greece would be the same even if it were nothing but Chinese? Of course Greece wouldn’t be the same — it would be a satellite of China.

Achilles wasn’t black. Rumi wasn’t Arabic. Confucius wasn’t Nordic. Sitting Bull wasn’t Anglo. If we hope to continue any of these cultures into the future, these distinctions are relevant. Each has a contribution that exists so long as its people do, otherwise its a dead thing, something for archaeology. If we exist, we struggle for continuation, otherwise we are thrown into the dust bin of history and replaced by our conquerors.