The Wolf of Wilusa

Neoptolemos (also known as Pyrrhos on account of his ruddy complexion, red hair and fiery temper) was the son of Achilles and a ferocious warrior in his own right. Despite being only 13 or 14 at the time he fought at Troy, slaying Priam, Eurypylus, Polyxena, Polites and Astyanax as well as other great heroes. He was among those who hid in the wooden horse (and according to Homer was the only one of them who had no fear of being discovered) leading the charge that would bring the decade-long battle to its violent climax and leave the ancient city once known as Wilusa smoldering rubble.

According to Madeline Miller he is “a person with no ability to pity or empathize with others” and “the first depiction of a sociopath in Western literature.”

Once inside the palace, Pyrrhus chases down the Trojan prince Polites, killing him in front of his father, the aged King Priam, who has taken shelter at the household alters.  The old king, in one of the most moving moments in the Aeneid, rises, trembling with grief and age, to deliver a ringing speech that calls down the wrath of the gods upon Pyrrhus for his double blasphemy: killing a son in front of his father, and defiling a sanctuary.  As a further reproach, he compares him to his father, unfavorably: “Not even Achilles behaved so to me.  He knew how to respect the laws of the suppliant; he returned my son’s body to me, and sent me safely home again.”  This is a reference to the famous scene in the Iliad where Priam goes to Achilles’ tent to beg for Hector’s body, and Achilles relents–a shining moment of mercy and hope in an otherwise bloody work.

But you cannot shame a man like Pyrrhus. His response is sneering contempt: “You can go tell my father about my disgraceful deeds yourself. Now, die!”

He seizes the old man by his hair, and drags him, slipping in the blood of his son, to the altar to dispatch him. Later we hear that Priam’s body has been left on the shore, missing its head, for the animals to eat. It is not enough for Pyrrhus to have killed him, he must also dishonor him—mutilating his body and depriving his soul of its eternal peace. The hope kindled in the meeting between Achilles and Priam is snuffed, utterly, by the son.

And that’s just the beginning of the horrors he wrought, as Miller relates:

After killing Priam, Pyrrhus goes in search of Andromache, Hector’s wife. When he finds her, he seizes from her arms her infant son, Astyanax, and smashes his brains out against the wall. (In fact, in some lurid versions of the story, he uses the baby’s body to club the grandfather Priam before killing him.) Andromache herself he takes captive, as his slave-wife. It is a horrifying cruelty: forcing her to share the bed of the man who murdered her son, and whose father murdered her husband. Then, before returning to Greece, Pyrrhus sacrifices the princess Polyxena on his father’s tomb.

Bludgeoning a man to death with his infant grandson is fucking hardcore, bro.


As I mentioned in my piece on Víðarr, Snorri presents Neoptolemos as an Úlfhéðnar and even the personification of the Fenris wolf who is responsible for the death of Óðinn:

Pyrrhus they compared with the Fenris-wolf. He slew Odin, and Pyrrhus might be called a wolf according to their belief, for he did not spare the peace-steads, when he slew the king in the temple before the altar of Thor. The burning of Troy they called the flame of Surt. (Prose Edda: Skáldskaparmál Epilogue 8)

This differs from the conventional Greek account, where it is the Dionysian hero Orestes who ended his wolfish rampage:

Neoptolemus, son of Achilles and Deidamia, begat Amphialus by captive Andromache, daughter of Ēëtion. But after he heard that Hermione his betrothed had been given to Orestes in marriage, he went to Lacedaemon and demanded her from Menelaus. Menelaus did not wish to go back on his word, and took Hermione from Orestes and gave her to Neoptolemus. Orestes, thus insulted, slew Neoptolemus as he was sacrificing at Delphi, and recovered Hermione. The bones of Neoptolemus were scattered through the land of Ambracia, which is in the district of Epirus. (Hyginus, Fabulae 123)

But Snorri’s take has a lot to commend it. Or at least it’s prompting some interesting thoughts, such as his comparison of the burning of Troy to the flame of Surtr.

More on that later.

3 thoughts on “The Wolf of Wilusa

  1. My son and I just discussed tonight what we’d be willing to do to do to protect our family.


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