The Myth of Achilles
The myth of Achilles, the great Greek warrior of the Trojan War, is focused on his awesome power and destructive capabilities. The opening line of The Iliad begs, “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles and its devastation” as if his exploits needed an introduction (Homer 1.1-2). However, there lies a deeper story within the epic poem, which I found to be more impactful than any account of Achilles’ talent. Evidently, many artists and poets share my opinion, having responded to this aspect of the myth both in ancient and modern works. Of course the topic in question is the relationship between the hero Achilles and his dear companion Patroclus. Nothing brings out the tender, sensitive side of the hero but his love for Patroclus. This softer side of Achilles is noted not only by Homer in The Iliad, but also in ancient works of art, modern paintings, and more recent poetry. If it weren’t for the intensity of Achilles’ devotion to Patroclus he hardly would have become the myth he did, for he would not have fought at all in the Trojan War. Therefore, due to the vast quantity of artistic response, I think it fair to conclude that the story of Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship is more impressive and provocative than the epic as a whole.
The first ancient source that illustrates or even examines this dynamic is a kylix, or drinking cup, attributed to the Sosais Painter sometime between 510 and 500 BC, a few hundred years after the writing of the Iliad. This drinking cup depicts a sitting Patroclus, who has a wound on his arm, being bandaged by Achilles who seems to be pleased by the interaction, as shown by the grin on his face. The scene is likely portraying a story that took place before the Trojan War since both men are in armor together. Although the scene is not part of the epic, it is mirrored in much of the dialogue in Homer’s work. For example when Achilles declared “It is I, Patroclus, who follow you underground” we sense the same closeness between the two men as is shown by the artist (Homer 18.333). What is truly interesting about this work is the medium on which the image is painted. A drinking cup like this would be used in the case of a symposium or for some similar purpose where the cup would be filled with wine and therefore the image would not be revealed until it was emptied. For this type of function, it was expected that the image be excitatory to the users hence cups were often decorated with scenes that would appeal to a man’s sense of humor or sexual desire. In the context of this information, we can look at this illustration of Achilles and Patroclus in a new light. Perhaps the mythical relationship between the two men was more intimate than Homer acknowledges; this would be a logical conclusion considering the purpose of the work.
The second of the ancient artworks is a large oil flask called a lekythos attributed to the Eretria Painter in 420 BC. There are three sections to the work, the upper portion being an image of a chariot surrounded by indistinguishable men and women and the bottom being the battle of the Greeks and Amazons. These illustrations are not individually relevant to this discussion of Achilles, but they help identify the theme of the vase as one of the destructiveness of war. What is key about this work is the middle section, which displays Achilles mourning Patroclus and receiving his new armor. This is a huge moment in The Iliad since it not only marks Achilles’ entrance into the war but also because it shows the deep sorrow the hero was feeling at the loss of his comrade. At this moment in the epic, Achilles laments to his mother Thetis; “My dear companion has perished, Patroclus, whom I loved beyond all other companions…I have lost him, and Hector, who killed him, has stripped away that gigantic armor, a wonder to look on” explicating how he has been left bereft of both partner and instrument (Homer 18.80-83). Oil vases such as these were often found in tombs for their primary use was at the anointing of dead bodies, especially those of unmarried men. Scenes of loss and sorrow were regular focuses for the painters of these vases so this moment of Achilles’ grieving is thematically fitting. What stands out to me is that the artist chose to paint Achilles in a passive moment rather than a fighting one even though the other segments of the flask are action-based. This work is yet another piece of evidence supporting the idea that ancient and modern audiences responded to the affectionate relationship of Achilles and Patroclus more passionately, perhaps, than the violence that characterizes the myth.
Examining the particular passage of The Iliad wherein Achilles mourns and receives Hephaistos’ newly wrought armor in its own is interesting in its own. After Thetis begs her son “do not yet go into the grind of the war god” she returns, new armor in hand, to find “her beloved son lying in the arms of Patroclus crying shrill.” (Homer 18.134, 19.4-5). Homer’s choice of diction is here striking; the image of the powerful Achilles lying with his dead partner weeping is particularly affecting. I firmly believe that this episode is responsible for much of the attention that has been and is paid to the bond of the hero and his friend. Additionally, this moment functions as the turning point, as discussed before, where Achilles decides to take up arms against the Trojans and certainly Hector. When he was presented with these new godly gifts, a change took place within Achilles as Homer describes it: “A clash went from the grinding of his teeth” and “the anger came harder upon him and his eyes glittered terribly under his lids, like sunflare.” (Homer 19.365, 16-17). Through these accounts Homer portrays the hero Achilles as one driven by passion and love seeing as he had no desire to do battle with the Trojans until the beloved Patroclus had to be avenged. Another noteworthy detail is that Achilles knew that by entering the fight, he would certainly die. Because Achilles was willing to sacrifice himself to the cause of his dear friend he is more likely to be perceived as a tormented, reluctant hero; another reason that I, as well as artists and writers, respond to the sensitive side of the hero over the violent.
As previously stated, artists responded to this scene of Achilles mourning and receiving new armor, in a very similar fashion to the painting on the oil flask modern painters attempted to capture this moment on canvas. Benjamin West was able to do so in paintings titled “Thetis Bringing Armour to Achilles” one of which was created in 1804 and the second in 1806. The paintings depict Achilles, in very despairing yet romantic form, at the side of dead Patroclus while the goddess Thetis delivers his new amazing armor. The main difference between the two works is that the later includes the Myrmidons who look fearful whereas its predecessor does not. West’s illustration of Achilles captures the hero in a moment of torment and brooding, as his mother appears to be appealing to him. This coincides nicely with Homer’s phrase “she [Thetis] spoke so, and drove the strength of great courage into him [Achilles]” for after all it was she who convinced him to engage in battle (Homer 19.37). In The Iliad, Homer also specifies “Trembling took hold of all the myrmidons. None had the courage to look straight at it [the armor]. They were afraid of it.” a sentiment that is portrayed very well West in the later of his paintings (Homer 19.13-15). The fact that West forwent the violent battle scenes of Achilles’ glory and chose to paint the man in his time of vulnerability and intimacy with Patroclus attests that their relationship adds deeper meaning to the myth as a whole.
Another response to the manifestation of loss in The Iliad was a poem titled “The Horses of Achilles” by C.P. Cavafy. In a literal sense, the poem discusses the sorrow felt by the immortal horses Xanthos and Balios and the regret of Zeus upon the death of Patroclus. The story behind the horses themselves is that they were a gift from Zeus to Peleus at his wedding to Thetis. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the horses are to metaphorically represent Achilles himself. For example in the poem Zeus ambiguously states, “I shouldn’t have acted so thoughtlessly at the wedding of Peleus” then continues, “Men have caught you up in their misery.” (Cavafy 13-14, 20). Additionally, in response to Patroclus’ death “they [the horses] reared their heads, tossed their manes, beat the ground with their hooves, and mourned”, a volatile reaction comparable to that of Achilles in The Iliad. Also in the epic, Hera momentarily granted Xanthos the ability to speak and subsequently he prophesized Achilles’ death, reflecting the sad entanglement in mortal affairs brought up by Cavafy in his work. The immortal horse declared, “we two [horses] could run with the blast of the west wind who they say is the lightest of all things; yet still for you there is destiny to be killed in force by a god and a mortal” (Homer 19.415-17). Cavafy was another such creator who like both his ancient and modern counterparts chose to focus on the instances of susceptibility in the myth rather than the more exciting conflict. Like me, Cavafy seems to perceive that Patroclus’ death in the myth was not only highly unfortunate and saddening but also avoidable. The poet remarks that he was “so brave” and “so young” giving the sense that Patroclus did not belong in battle while I personally feel as though Achilles should not have allowed Patroclus to take his place (Cavafy 2).
Similar to the works previously discussed, in 1803 John Henry Fuseli reacted to the intimate relationship of Achilles and Patroclus in a modern painting of the myth entitled “Achilles Grasps at the Shade of Patroclus”. Its title is quite literal; the picture shows a very distressed looking Achilles reaching up at the escaping shade of his lost friend. Fuseli was known for his fondness of the supernatural and use of shadows, both of which are represented thematically and visually in the work. The sense of anguish indicated by this painting is paralleled in The Iliad such as when Achilles remarked “there is nothing worse than this I could suffer” (Homer 19.321). Fuseli and West, who were contemporaries, both express the intimacy between Patroclus and Achilles and also very clearly portray the hero as left completely bereft in his lamentation. Mythically this idea is supported in Homer’s work, Achilles cries “There will come no second sorrow like this to my heart while I am still one of the living.” (Homer 23.46-7). Yet still, for most, the first thought that comes to mind when the myth of Achilles is referenced is power and brutality. However looking at this portrait and seeing the sincerity of Achilles’ passion is moving and the juxtaposition of tenderness with rage really enhances the myth itself. Furthermore, I feel that it is this sort of emotion embodied by Fuseli’s painting that exists in the epic and has been so effective in eliciting response from Homer’s audience.
Louise Glück wrote a poem maintaining the idea that the connection of Achilles and Patroclus is meaningful than the accounts of bloodshed at Troy. The work is titled “The Triumph of Achilles”, an interesting choice of words seeing as not all would agree that the myth’s ending is triumphant. Given the disparity between title and content, perchance in her poem Glück is suggesting that for Achilles triumph has nothing to do with battle but rather achieving immortality. The contents afford a reflection on the Trojan War but the tone is one of resignation. In the first two stanzas Glück reduces Achilles to an abandoned dependent, a view that isn’t necessarily unfounded, through her evaluation of his and Patroclus’ frienship. Glück remarks “In his tent, Achilles grieved with his whole being and the gods saw he was a man already dead” in a literal sense referencing the hero’s destiny to die in battle but also suggesting that the loss of Patroclus was a fatal blow (Glück 15-18). Homer deals with this moment similarly testifying “But he, brilliant Achilles, walked along by the seashore crying his terrible cry, and stirred up the fighting Achaians.” (Homer 19.40-1). Both accounts acknowledge the profound effect that Patroclus’ passing caused. The last two lines describe Achilles to be “a victim of the part that loved, the part that was mortal” (Glück 19-20). Because the last lines of a poem generally have the most intense effect on the audience it is safe to assume Glück aimed to emphasize the gentler side of Achilles, exhibiting once more how this aspect of the myth is appealing to artists. This phrase plays on the fact that Achilles was born of the gods but condemned to labor then die like a human and ties in the thematic allusions to fate from the myth as told by Homer. By asking “What were the Greek sips on fire compared to this loss?” Glück places more value in the emotional aspect of the myth than the dramatic worth of its events, as I have as well (Glück 13-14).
No analyst of The Iliad or alternate accounts of the hero Achilles would dare deny the excitement and glory that came through his doings. However as proven by the multitude of artistic responses depicting tenderness, adoration, and even fragility, to define the Achilles myth solely by his conquests would be a serious misinterpretation. Narratives of fighting and warring are simply less emotionally provocative than bereavement and torment; feelings that are universal. The hero himself demonstrates, by verbalizing his anguish in this beautiful oration, that there is much more to the myth than entertainment There is a dead man who lies by the ships, unwept, unburied: Patroclus: and I will not forget him, never so long as I remain among the living and my knees have their spring beneath me. And though the dead forget the dead in the house of Hades, Even there I shall remember my beloved companion. (Homer 22.386-90)
It is precisely this sort of touching moment in The Iliad that caused me as a reader to connect with the story of Achilles and evidently I am not alone in my experience. The myth of Achilles will always be marked by action but comprehending the impact of his and Patroclus’ bond affords a deeper understanding of the myth as a whole. Moreover, without the inclusion of passion and hurting we would have an unfinished, hollow war story.