The Grief of Achilles
Very few dispute that his mother dipped him
in the River Styx to ensure immortality, the spot
on his heel she held left vulnerable and soft.
Nor do many dispute Achilles as an outstanding
warrior, capable of killing even the great Hector.
No, the disputes arise when the name Patroclus
is mentioned in relation to Achilles. We know
from Aeschylus and Plato that they shared
the same tent, and that each had a love for the other
unrivaled by common lovers. But for many,
the very idea two skilled warriors could have
loved each other is unthinkable: friends, close friends,
like brothers, they say. I don’t mean to be crass,
but Achilles and Patroclus fucked. There is no
getting around this. Warriors or not, they fucked.
When Patroclus died in battle, slain by the great Hector,
Achilles’ grief was severe and larger than any man
could bear, even a man who was a demi-god.
He was warned. He was told that to avenge his great love
meant risk of death, but his grief was deep and powerful,
and he put on his armor and eventually killed Hector.
Round and around Troy he dragged Hector’s dead body.
And the prophecy came to pass, a single arrow piercing
his heel, the one spot on which his mortality rested.
Love takes many forms. And when the beloved is taken,
the grief is one few can survive. Achilles did not survive it.
He bawled, he put on his armor; he died for Patroclus.
The Salvation of Patroclus
Because he was angered during a game and killed
a boy, because his competitive side could not be
reined in, the son of Menoetlus was deemed
unsalvageable and then discarded, given at a young age
to Peleus, father of Achilles. The boy was incapable
of being raised by a man untrained in war. Menoetlus
knew the boy could not be saved. Patroclus was only
two years older than Achilles, and people saw them
as brothers, as twins. They studied together, trained
together, laughed together, bathed each other,
and when their bodies began to change, each put his
mouth to the other. It was inevitable. Each boy saw
the other as a god, as something worthy of praise.
Each of them wanted to be part of the other and,
with time, each accepted the other’s seed inside him.
They found themselves bound to the other. When the war
turned against the Greeks, the Trojans threatening
to destroy everything, Patroclus convinced Achilles
to let him lead the army into battle. Only Patroclus could
have done this. In what was an unthinkable act, Achilles
took off his famed armor and placed it on his beloved,
the armor feared by all and a symbol of the man himself.
We know what happened next. Patroclus is killed despite
the divine armor of Achilles. The armor did not save him.
It never could. You see, Patroclus was already saved,
not by armor but by a boy named Achilles who loved him,
gave him the most precious thing he possessed, himself.
In the less turbulent waters found near the river’s
bank, in the dark shallows of the Styx, she lowered
her son and waited for his small body to be infiltrated
by the sea god she knew was there, the river touching
the sea after all. It begins this way, the mortal body
forcibly made more divine, made to become half.
Thetis could not bear the fact her union brought forth
an ordinary child, so steps had to be taken,
the infant fortified to become almost a god.
Demigod, they say, with emphasis on the “god.”
But we all know that half never receives the same
rights, is never seen as one thing or the other, the child
living out his life as neither. You may as well just
say it, just use the awful term others do: halfbreed.
Half. The child should have been at least half,
his mother a Nereid, a sea nymph, a goddess.
But the child entered the world without the glow
the gods can see in each other. For Thetis, this situation
was one she determined to overcome by whatever means,
no matter the cost. She could not afford an ordinary son.
She made the mistake we all know well,
held on to her son by his heel for fear he be swept
down river, held on as she dipped him in waters
that swallowed all light as if an ink. She held on,
granting him the sole spot that rendered him mortal.
Do not pity the man named Achilles. Do not lament
the fact an arrow caught him in his vulnerable heel.
I say there is a quiet beauty in mortality, and one should
not pity the beautiful. Pity Patroclus, instead, the ungodly
man who bruised Achilles’ heart and left it burning.
C. Dale Young is the author of The Affliction, a novel in stories (Four Way Books 2018) and five collections of poetry, most recently Prometeo (Four Way 2021). His next collection of poems Building the Perfect Animal: New & Selected Poems is forthcoming in 2025 from Four Way Books. He practices medicine full-time and lives in San Francisco.
Image By: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sosias_Painter_ARV_21_1_Achilles_tending_Patroklos_-_Herakles_entering_Olympus_(02).jpg