Achilles & Patroklus; Painted by Sosias c500 BCE
Achilles & Patroklus;
Painted by Sosias c500 BCE

Show me a conflict and I’ll show you a fence to sit on, though I like to think it’s a good point from which to acquire the strengths of both sides. In the debate between whether the meaning of a text resides in the text itself or in the readers’ response, my view is: use both.

Using the familiar to get a handle on a very different culture is a good way to go, as I suggested in the last HIP Classics where I used Blade Runner as a way of getting an insight into the Iliad. However, in looking at a text from another culture there are special results to be had from being prepared to jettison our own cultural assumptions. Put bluntly, the balance I prefer uses more connectivity and less appropriation.

The Iliad describes ship-building, weaponry, weaving, farming, gardening, hunting, fighting; human and divine relations, the unpredictable working of fate, all in rich detail. Yet not once is homosexuality mentioned. The Iliad isn’t the product of one person choosing to be selective about certain aspects of life, but as a product of some 2,000 years of public performance, it stands as a cultural record of a whole society over time. In 5th century Athens there is abundant evidence of homosexuality, but it doesn’t seem to be part of epic culture.

So, what was the nature of their connection? Both have female lovers in the tent they share. Achilles falls in love with captive Briseis (whom Agamemnon steals). Patroklos and Briseis, endearingly, form a friendship of their own. Achilles and Patroclus are each described constantly as ‘philos hetairos’, a companion who is nearest and dearest.  They sing and play the lyre together in turn, they talk things through with each other, Patroklos is always at Achilles’ side; they know each other so well, Achilles only has to signal with his eyebrows for Patroklos to know what to do. He is a ‘therapon’ to Achilles. This word means attendant: one who organises a warrior’s domestic life, or drives his chariot, but is also freighted with its original Indo-European meaning of ‘ritual substitute’. The chariot driver often takes the hit for the warrior; Patroklos goes into battle in Achilles’ armour and takes the hit for him, dying in his stead.

The word carries, in this context, a concept of deep affinity: close enough to swap identities. When Patroklos dies, Achilles says “of all my friends he was ‘ison eme kephale’: equal to my head”, so, rather like our phrase ‘equal in stature’ with all its connotations, and the physicality of this word here is very moving.

The loss and responsibility temporarily, but utterly, destroys Achilles’ sense of self, his moral compass. This same phenomenon is described in The Body Keeps the Score – Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma by Bessel Van der Kolk about the traumas of US veterans. Contemporary society lacks the means to process these experiences, so veterans cope by cutting off large portions of their psyche, but Achilles is re-socialised and returned to sanity through long community rituals of burial.  The subtle description of his psychological trajectory is one of the most wonderful things about the Iliad.

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