The debate regarding Achilles’ sexuality and the nature of his relationship with Patroclus has been long discussed, from the ancient world until today. This debate, however, has made an impact beyond the academic and enthusiast world. Popular culture has embraced the possibility of this tragedy-filled relationship and has created iconic artistic representations of its own. Australian Indie Rock Band, Gang of Youths, released the song, “Achilles Come Down,” in 2017, that weaves the listener into an intimate discussion between Achilles teetering on the edge of death and an unknown narrator urging him to come down off the roof and save himself. The poetic song is believed by some to be featuring the perspective of Patroclus, quoting:
“You’re scaring us and all of us, some of us love you, Achilles, it’s not much but there’s proof… Remember the pact of our youth, Where you go, I’m going, so jump and I’m jumping. Since there is no me without you.”
The song talks of tragic themes, such as the danger that love holds, the mental battles in which we fight or lose our lives; themes which riddle the Homeric story of Achilles.
New York Times bestseller, Madeline Miller, in her 2011 book, “The Song of Achilles”, tells the story of Achilles and his relationship with Patroclus as youths until their time during the Trojan war. The story dives into the depths of this debate, exemplifying the queer relationship of the protagonist, finding itself in the hearts of many readers. In a Q&A on her website she outlines that “the central inspiration behind the book is the terrible moment … when Achilles hears about Patroclus’ death.”
READ MORE: Achilles is our first existentialist hero
Her decision to define their relationship as queer was informed by her study of Plato and classics at university. Aside from that, she has found that within the Homeric text itself, there are indicators to support the theory of a romantic relationship. Although, what really convinced Miller, is the grief of Achilles, in particular the depth and how he grieved, refusing the burning of Patroclus’ body, instead housing the corpse in his tent, weeping and mourning. Miller says, “that [the] sense of physical devastation spoke deeply to [her] of a true and total intimacy between two men.”
These are simply two examples of the modern presence of this debate in popular culture but what is more pressing to consider is the importance of the effect of this love story in modern life, particularly for the younger generations consuming this content. There is a trifold effect that needs to be discussed here.
The presence of ancient retellings through artistic mediums, while not always aiming to be accurate representations, do spark an interest, a curiosity and a comfort within those consuming these stories and guides them to the ancient world. We are in a society that, thankfully, continues to maintain its interest in the ancient world, but for youths what is particularly important is finding connections, being able to see parts of yourself within the story. Mythology has a place for queer people and all people alike to find themselves amidst the stories but songs like “Achilles Come Down”, as well as novels like “The Song of Achilles”, provide the gateway to this exploration of the ancient world.
Beyond identifying with characters, these artistic mediums and their exemplification of a homosexual relationship helps reimagine the heroic ideal. Heroism across many historical periods painted the picture of the strong, brutal-within-reason, saviour male who fought the impossible for a cause. Another component of this heroic icon is their sexual virility as well as their ability to attract women, to have a surplus of choice, to be envied and admired by the men, to be desired by the women. The depiction of Achilles in the 2004 movie “Troy” is a perfect example of this, one of the first scenes that introduces the character, is the hero waking up amidst naked, beautiful women. Achilles’ story is arguably heroic, he possesses many characteristics that fall into the ideal of a hero however, presenting him as queer presents a multi-dimensionality to his character that allows the patriarchal notion of a heroic man to be challenged, to evolve and to grow.
This isn’t a case for the advocacy of presentism, we are not simply trying to project our modern embrace of the LGBTQI + community onto a historical time and story whereby homosexuality either did not exist or was frowned upon, we are aiming for quite the opposite in fact. The stigma and disapproval of homosexuality, according to historians David F Greenberg and Marcia H Bystryn, did not arise until late antiquity when all sexual pleasures were looked upon negatively, practically a millennia after the creation of “The Iliad” in the 8th Century BC. Prior to this shift in societal views, many Ancient Greek writers considered male and female lovers as having equal merit. Greenberg and Bystryn outline in their paper, “Christian Intolerance of Homosexuality”, that “male homosexuality has been regarded commonly as having arisen as an expression of the comradeship of arms, among noble warriors of the Heroic Age”. Albeit the dynamics and the manifestation of homosexual desires were known to be quite different in the ancient world than they are today, but the attraction between same sexes was present.
In speaking with a member of the LGBTQI + community, Ivana Polizos, she shared that mythology for many queer people is a safe space, it is a place of refuge whereby many of those written about defied boundaries and binaries of gender. Ivana outlined how many of the characters across many cultures’ mythologies branched out beyond what would be considered as masculinity (in reality, is more like toxic masculinity) and rather explored their feminine side, for example, Loki and Dionysus. Modern-day Hollywood, according to Ivana, has often turned characters and stories of mythologies and exemplified modern ideals of “man” and “woman” burying many of the queer themes present in their origin stories.
These representations of Achilles and Patroclus are important and will remain important for ever-growing reasons and popular culture is an opportune place for mythology and the ancient world to flourish.