Nikolaev, A., 2007. The name of Achilles. Cambridge Classical Journal, Supp. vol. 32 (= Greek and Latin from an Indo-European Perspective), p.162-173.
Abstract:In this paper a new etymology for the name of Achilles is put forth. It is argued that the name continues a compound *h2nghi-(h2)wl(H)o- 'slaying death'. The first member of the compound, *h2nghi- (> Greek akhi-, as Rix Law was not operative before nasals), is related to Younger Avestan azah- ‘desperate straits, perilous juncture’, Vedic áṃhas- ‘distress, trouble’, Latin angustus and other derivatives from the root *h2emgh- that originally referred to 'narrowness' and 'constricting space', but at least in the Indo-Iranian poetic tradition came to be used in the meaning 'peril' as a replacement of inherited words for 'death': Avestan (vī)tar-ązah- makes a perfect equation with Vedic áṃhas- tari- and the formula serves as an equivalent of PIE *nek- / *mr̥tim *terh2- (Vedic mr̥tyum tar-, Greek νέκταρ). The root *h2emgh- is therefore one of the exponents of the PIE formulaic theme «HERO SLAYS DEATH». The second member of the reconstructed compound *h2nghi-wl(H)o- continues the PIE root *wel(H) attested in Tocharian (A wäl- ‘die’), Greek (ἑάλων ‘I am seized’, but notice the older meaning in θανάτῳ ἁλῶναι ‘to be dead, slain’) and Anatolian (CLuvian walaunta); the intransitive meaning does not speak against the reconstruction of a factitive bahuvrīhi compound ‘the one, who provides death with defeat’. The new etymology provides a phonological explanation for the notorious variation /l/ ~ /ll/ in the epics, on which, it is argued, the variation /s/ ~ /ss/ in the name of Odysseus was modeled. Even though the name of Achilles was likely understood by the Greeks themselves as ‘bringing ἄχος to his host of men’ throughout the 1st milennium BCE. and potentially even earlier than that, the myth about a hero who overcomes death glimpses in the epic narrative, for instance, in the story of Thetis’ attempts to endow her offspring with immortality by putting him into the hearth and anointing his body with ambrosia (Schol. D ad Il. 16.36). It is not unreasonable to speculate that the archaic myth about an immortal hero was remastered for the purposes of heroic epic and Achilles' name (which was no longer transparent for the poets) was accordingly reinterpreted, similarly to how the name of Tristan was “etymologized” in the 12th century based on its similarity to Old French triste ‘heartsore’ (Tristan was "born in the afflictions of grief"); or the name of the foremost hero of the Irish saga, Chuchulainn, was provided with an explicit account of how young Sétanta got his name by killing the dog (Cú) of Culann the smith. Neither legend was present in respective archetypal mythological narratives. Similarly, the name of Achilles potentially preserves a precious fragment of an archaic myth of a hero who defeats the death.