Tuesday, February 1, 2011

On Love and Friendship

Patroclus' arrow-injury bandaged by Achilles
Achilles bandages Patroclus (picture courtesy of Oedipusphinx)

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is by far the most emotional connection we see among the Greeks in The Iliad.  It is hard for us as modern readers to make sense of exactly what this meant to the characters or to Homer.  Are they friends?  Are they lovers?  Does it make a difference?

There are some people who reject the idea that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers.  They argue that such a claim is just part of a political agenda by modern gay activists.  But the idea is not just a modern one: both Aeschylus and Plato believed the two men had a sexual relationship.  And Shakespeare agreed. 

Arguing that such a relationship meant that the two men were gay is a much trickier business.  Among the Greeks, such a relationship seems to have been fairly common--and not one that would define the men as "gay" or "homosexual" or anything else.  Those words are not only labels but entire categories created in a later era. 

There are some indications that Homer might have been playing off the man-boy pederastic relationships common at a slighty later period of ancient Greek culture.  I find this argument fairly unconvincing since Achilles and Patroclus are more or less equals (with each being dominant in some categories and subordinate in others).

Although many readers since those ancient days have believed that Homer portrays a sexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, it is not stated directly in the text.  Perhaps Homer was working under a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. 

What is clear from the text, however, is that the two men loved each other deeply, and that they had been close since they were young.  Before Patroclus is killed, Achilles says to him (in the Lombardo translation):

   Once you have made some daylight for the ships,
   You come back where you belong.
   The others can fight it out on the plain.
   Oh, Patroclus, I wish to Father Zeus
   And to Athena and Apollo
   That all of them, Greeks and Trojans alike,
   Every last man on Troy's dusty plain,
   Were dead, and only you and I were left
   To rip Ilion down, stone by sacred stone.

Achilles sees Patroclus as more than just a loved one.  He is almost a part of himself.  His friend's death leaves him grieving and guilty.  "My friend is dead, Patroclus, my dearest friend of all.  I loved him, and I killed him."  He continues, "I no longer have the will to remain alive among men."  As he talks with his mother and tells her of his pain, he comes to a decision: "I'm going now to find the man who destroyed my beloved."  He will kill Hector, the man who drove his sword into Patroclus.

After his discussion with his mother, Achilles returned to camp and "began the incessant lamentation," as Homer said.  His grief took a physical form,

   Laying his man-slaying hands on Patroclus' chest
   And groaning over and over like a bearded lion.

The next morning, the mother of Achilles came to see him at the camp--here quoted from the Fagles translation.

   She found her beloved son lying facedown.
   embracing Patroclus' body, sobbing, wailing.

He is unwilling to leave the side of his beloved, unwilling to let Patroclus be buried until Achilles has brought Troy to its knees from his vengeance. 

I'll talk in coming posts about how he begins to emerge from this deep grief into both a new heroic stance and, eventually, a newly human one.

*  *  *

I was shocked at how significant I found the parallels between Gilgamesh's relationship with Enkidu and Achilles' relationship with Patroclus.  In both cases, one heroic man (who is both cases is part god) loves another man, someone who is in many ways a mirror-self, whom he watches die.  The death causes the hero great pain, but through his grief, the hero is eventually able to accept his own mortality--and rejoin the life of the community in a more profound way.

Do you see this theme in other literature?  It seems to me that is the inspiration for so much, even for the "buddy movies" of late twentieth century Hollywood.


  1. I recently read and posted on a Japanese work from 1680, "The Tragic Love of Two Enemies" by Ihara Saikaku in which he portrays the love of two Samurai warriors for each other-it was the expected custom at the time and long before that a junior warrior would service the needs of older warriors, especially in times when they had no contact with women for long periods-the feeling shown in this story did show a romantic attachment between men-just like in Homer, these were warriors who could be ordered to die at any time and needed to know they could trust their fellow warriors, clearly the culture meant their devotion to their fellow warriors and their overlords were the most important emotional relationships in the lives of Samurai warriors-

  2. Sometimes I wonder how different life would be if we simple accepted same-sex relationships as normal for everyone, whether or not they chose to participate in them, the same way we accept opposite-sex relationships. To have that fluidness of attraction, to be able to be attracted to someone no matter their gender and not have it amount to an "issue." My most recent review (If You Follow Me) treats bisexuality this way and I adored it just for that reason.

  3. Mel U: What a fascinating comparison. It sounds quite parallel to ancient Greek thinking. It has been argued that Ancient Greece thought of male-male relationships as somehow purer than male-female relationships--perhaps for exactly the reason that you say.

    Amanda: Wouldn't it change things?! Obviously we all love people of both genders--and the idea that it normal and natural for love to be expressed physically would be transformative.

    We have an image of this hyper-sexualized romantic love that wasn't how the Victorians viewed romantic love at all. The idea that romantic love existed between women and was expressed through touch was thought of as normal--although of course "touch" doesn't mean "sex" as such. Fascinating how things change over time, isn't it--especially when the things that change are things we often think of now as biologically rooted and immutable (like sexuality and gender).

    BTW, I love your review. Jason has a great post about this general idea recently, too, if I remember correctly.

  4. Our society has become so sexualized that "porn talk" is the norm these days, even on network television. We have woman going into have work done so that they might resemble the typical porn actress. So, sex is an issue, almost the centerpiece for all pop culture, whether we are heterosexual or gay. It would be nice if we could stop defining ourselves in this manner, period.

  5. This reminds me, also, of the relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion, although that relationship was much more openly homosexual in nature - clearly lovers rather than "man-friends," as Whitman might have put it. :)

  6. I had never thought of the similarities between Achilles/Patroclus and Gigamesh/Enkidu. It is truly gut-wrenching to experience their losses with them...thanks for this post!

    1. I did an essay on the friendship of Enkidu and Gilgamesh, and there are SO many comparisons!

  7. Jenny: Yes--and when we hypersexualize one kind of relationship, it becomes all the harder to view love and sex in a more flexible way. I must say I am relieved to be a little older than young (almost mid 40s) and partnered for a long time--and also without a television--so I'm not as affected by some of what you are talking about than some. How hard it must be to be a teenager now!

    Adam: The Whitman quote is interesting. Made me start thinking about language. Straight men don't have boyfriends, do they? Women call their male romantic partners boyfriends, and they call their straight female friends girlfriends, too. Thanks for the mention of Alexander!

    Read the Book: It is fascinating how similar their stories are. And I don't believe we have reason to think Homer knew the Gilgamesh story at all (other than these abstract echoes). Do any commentators know?)

  8. AnonymousMay 17, 2016

    alexander and hephaestion

  9. Are they not still considered gay? Two men who love each other are gay. That is a fact. I'm not saying its wrong or bad, but in the third paragraph you said, "and not one that would define the men as "gay" or "homosexual"", when speaking of Achilles and Patroclus's relationship. Honestly, Achilles would probably be labeled as bisexual, so...... yeah.


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