Pen Ultimate / Soft Spot for Feet

A great opportunity has arisen: to find out whether the Achilles tendon has anything to do with a Greek mythological hero's heel.

One of my Achilles heels is finding something to write a column about. Actually, I sometimes see myself as a caterpillar, stumbling along on its many legs, each one with its own Achilles' heel.

Once, when I was a fledgling columnist at the weekly magazine of Davar, the editor of the supplement, Ohad Zmora, was more than helpful in providing me with subjects to write about. With time I became an editor myself, and devoted my time to finding ideas for other writers. As the saying goes, all shoemakers go barefoot - which exposes their vulnerable heels - and I still have to grasp at straws for subjects today because the editor in chief of the paper has many other things on his mind. Still, that does not mean that he can't provide me, albeit unintentionally, with an excellent topic to write about. And as the aforementioned editor in chief tore his Achilles tendon while playing soccer with his staff team not long ago, a wonderful opportunity presented itself: to find out whether this particular tendon has anything to do with Achilles' heel, and to determine who deserves the credit - besides Achilles himself - for christening (if that is the right term) the tendon thusly.

First thing's first: The tendon that bears the name of the mythological Greek hero is the thickest and the strongest (although not the longest) in the human body. It connects the heel bone with the calf muscle, and has to carry the whole weight of a walking human being, and even more if the person in question runs or jumps. It is a vulnerable spot in the human body and it can get torn quite suddenly, as if all by itself, causing a lot of pain, usually requiring surgery and immobilization of the heel's owner for six weeks at least.

About a tendon

But with Achilles the story was not about the tendon, but about the heel, and it had to do with his birth and death. The details are not outlined in the "Iliad" or the "Odyssey" of Homer, although the first does recount the story of our hero's wrath.

There are two reasons for the vulnerability of Achilles' heel. According to the "Bibliotheka" of Pseudo-Apollodorus (1st century C.E.) Thetis, Achilles' demi-goddess mother, was far from happy in her marriage to King Peleas, a mortal. Trying to purge her infant's body of its mortal parts, she used to wash him with ambrosia during the day and set him on fire at night. Once Peleas caught her in the act and snatched the child from the flames, holding him by the heel, which remained human.

In Statius' poem "Achilleid" (first century C.E.), Thetis immersed the child in the Styx to make him immune to death, and because she held him by the heel, it remained the only mortal spot in his body.

There is no doubt that Achilles had a soft spot when it came to heels. After he killed Hector in combat, he inserted a rod between both his feet and his ankles, and dragged the corpse through the battlefield. Small wonder that Achilles died soon afterward, killed by an arrow shot by Paris and transported to its target by Apollo. But only in Quintus Smyrnus' (fourth-century C.E.) poem "The Fall of Troy" are we told that the arrow pierced Achilles' heel.

When did it happen and who was it that made the connection between the heel and the tendo calcaneus, via Achilles? The credit goes to Philip Verheyen (1648-1710), a Flemish surgeon. He studied to be a draftsman and a priest, but had to change careers when his leg was amputated due to infection in 1675. Not wanting the leg to be buried without him, he insisted on having it preserved. After experiencing what is termed today "phantom pains" (sensations in the missing limb), he turned to studying medicine, and became a professor of anatomy and surgery at Leiden, and thereafter in Leuven. He published a popular textbook, "Corporis Humani Anatomia," where he wrote that the tendon is commonly called "the chord of Achilles."

In his latter years Verheyen retired from public life. At that time he wrote, in his "Letters to My Amputated Leg": "The excruciating pain you cause me, it is a wonder (when I look) and find you are not there. I removed you myself, carefully cutting each nerve, ridding myself of your putrefying presence. And still you linger invisible, intractable. You float in formaldehyde, severed like a memory. I see you separated from me by my reflection in the glass vitrine. Yet I feel you, awkward and contorted, sometimes clutching, sometimes stretching too far, my absent muscles about to burst. Even an inanimate weight dangling useless, dragging behind me would be more welcome, a luxury even. What are you? A phantom? I will dissect every inch of your disjunct body in search of these displaced sensations. If I have to subdivide each nerve into its elements and each element further still, I will. I will search the least part of the least cell of blood until finding that poison, I may destroy it. Separate it from the dangerous relationship it has formed with some aspect of you ..."

One of his students described in his memoirs that, during a visit to his teachers' study in 1710, he found Verheyen gazing distractedly out of his window, with his amputated leg on the surgery table, dissected and in many parts, all of them properly labeled. There is even an untitled 18th century Flemish painting depicting this scene (above).

More can be said about another tendon, that of our patriarch Jacob, who also had a thing about heels. But his tendon was definitely not Achilles' tendon, and anyway all of this discussion does not make the pain of a torn one any easier. The most one can hope is that it provides some distraction.