May 032012

One of the things that I love about Classic Greek Culture is that Guys were supposed to hook up with other Guys. As told by Andrew Calimach, in Lovers’ Legends: the Gay Greek Myths (Haiduk Press, 2002), the list of Classical Male Deities, plus Classical Male Heroes, who enjoyed Male Lovers, was extensive (encompassing basically everyone). Yet: while the “ideal, official” Greek Male-on-Male relationship was that of an older (more dominant) Male, with a (younger, more publicly passive/ retiring) Boyfriend- as Mr. Calimach shows in many examples, the Greeks could accommodate themselves to “other arrangements.” A really famous example is that of Alexander the Great and his (more publicly passive, but equally) peer-in-arms boyfriend Hephaestion.  Another is that of the uber-famous Greek Hero Achilles, and his (in an example of the “ideal” Greek paradigm being thrown upside-down) older, but more “wife-like” partner Patroclus. For however much the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is described nowadays as “controversial,” the Greeks assumed them to have been Lovers (according to Mr. Calimach, p. 144); hence, the 5th Century Kylix (shown below), of Patroclus (as the Wife/ Nurse), bandaging his husband Achilles’ war-wound.

One of the most dynamic and complex characters in European Literature, Achilles (as portrayed by Homer in The Iliad) is both the pre-eminent warrior of the Greeks, as well as a passionate, somewhat arrogant, and petulant individual. Deprived of a Trojan war-slave by the Greek commander Agamemnon, Achilles (in a famously metaphoric instance) repairs to sulk in his tent, while the Trojans press the Greeks against their own beached ships. Desperate at seeing their comrades in peril, Patroclus begs his paramour Achilles to lend him Achilles’ own armor, to lead a rout against the Trojans. Unable to resist Patroclus’ pleas, and against his easy conscience, Achilles acquiesces- and is beside himself with misgiving, grief, rage, and regret, when he learns that the Trojans (mistaking Patroclus for himself) have struck Patroclus down. In a famous episode of the Trojan War, Achilles takes down Hector (the Trojan prince who slew Patroclus), dragging Hector’s body behind a chariot, around the walls of Troy.

All of which makes for the fascinating back-story to Madeline Miller’s just-released The Song of Achilles (Ecco/ HarperCollins Publishers, 2012), reviewed by the New York Times Book Review (“Mythic Passions,” by Daniel Mendelsohn, Sunday, April 29, 2012, p. 18). Apparently struck by that Mary Renault thing to “bring the archaic Past to Life once again,” Ms. Miller (so the Times reviewer notes) is obliged to start her book very much before the Trojan War, establishing just exactly who Patroclus is; making us identify with him as an adolescent in adolescent-angst (both Judy Blume and Dawson’s Creek are referenced in the Times review, in regards to this part of the book); before he meets Achilles, and they begin that flirtatious dance-of-desire (the section from Ms. Miller’s book selected by the Times describing the first consummation of their love reads a little like soft-porn)- THEN they get on to the Trojan War (and here the NY Times seems to feel that Ms. Miller’s sense of the epic is not quite up to that of either Homer, or Ms. Renault, for that matter). Be that as it may: I want to call out serious props and congrats to Madeline Miller, for having constructed a novel around a major Homoerotic relationship of the Western Culture canon- so famous were Achilles and Patroclus as Lovers, they shared a tomb at Troy, where Alexander and his boyfriend Hephaestion paused on their way to Persia, to offer sacrifice: Alexander to Achilles, Hephaestion to Patroclus.