Queer Mythos of Achilles and Patroclus

Mythology: The Queer Myths of Ancient Greece

For many people, the phrase “queer myths” might bring borderline offensive conspiracy theories or unrealistic stereotypes to mind. In this case, however, the phrase is meant in the historical sense.

Ancient Greece has cultivated a bit of a reputation in recent years for its society’s relationship with homosexuality. Same-sex relationships did not suffer from the same constricting taboos that they would in later periods of European history.

The central belief system in ancient Greece reflected this, with multiple myths and legends including gay relationships or characters. This article has collected overviews of some of the more well-known queer myths of this time period.

Before moving along to the myths, it is crucial to discuss same-sex relationships as they were in the actual day-to-day life of ancient Greeks.

Same-sex Relationships in Ancient Greece

Bust of Plato
“Herm of Plato. Vatican Museums, Pio-Clementine Museum.” by Sergey Sosnovskiy is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Homosexuality in ancient Greece is a topic with enough depth to be its own essay. This section serves only as an overview. If you are interested in the queer history of Greece from ancient times to the modern-day, this article by another writer on Yoair covers the topic in depth.)

Words like gay, lesbian, bisexual, homosexual, etc., do not have a direct equivalent in ancient Greek. While concepts like same-sex attraction have existed for thousands of years, these specific labels that we use today are modern inventions.

What the ancient Greeks did have, however, were different categories of same-sex relationships that varied both in how commonplace it was and how society perceived it. These categories were: two adult women of similar age; two adult men of similar age; two women of different ages; two young men; and two men of different ages – typically a youth and an adult. Of these relationship categories, relationships with two men of different ages, known as pederasty, were the most common.

In pederastry, the older partner would be over the age of 20, and the younger would fall somewhere in the age range that we would consider a teenager in the modern-day. This relationship acted as both a romantic one and a mentorship. The older partner would teach the younger about things like politics or society. While a relationship like this would raise serious alarm bells today (and for a good reason!), the Greeks did not see it as exploitative. While these relationships would be subject to criticism or mockery, there was little discussion about how harmful this practice could be to the younger partner.

Finally, it is important to note that myths in ancient Greece vary wildly. Unlike many modern religions, the ancient Greek religion did not have a singular source of written religious stories and beliefs. Stories would change over time and vary further depending on the region the narrator hailed from. So, elements may not be consistent in all versions of a myth. This inconsistency is only made more prevalent for queer myths since later recordings would sometimes omit those elements due to homophobic biases.   

Apollo and Hyacinthus

Queer Myth: Sculpture of Apollo and Hyacinthus
“File:Giambattista Tiepolo – La morte di Giacinto (1752-53) – Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza Madrid.jpg” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

While there are myths aplenty of Apollo chasing beautiful women, both divine and mortal, he is also no stranger to the company of men.

Hyacinthus is Apollo’s most well-known male lover. Hyacinthus’ parents change depending on the version of the myth, but he is most frequently associated with Spartan royalty. The Spartan prince’s beauty attracted the sun god to him, and the pair began a relationship.

One fateful day, however, Apollo was teaching Hyacinthus how to throw a discus. Apollo tossed it with great strength, and eager to impress the god Hyacinthus attempted to catch it. The discus, however, struck Hyacinthus in the head, and the force Apollo had put behind the throw was enough to kill the mortal instantly. The god was distraught. To honour his beloved, Apollo created a flower called hyacinthos from the Spartan’s blood.

In other versions of the story, Hyacinthus’ death was not an accident. Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, had attempted to court Hyacinth. But the Spartan prince chose to pursue a relationship with Apollo instead. In a jealous rage, Zephyrus manipulated the direction of the wind when Apollo threw the discus so it hit the unsuspecting Hyacinthus in the head.

Achilles and Patroclus

Queer Myths: Depiction of Achilles Bandaging Patroclus
“Achilles bandaging Patroclus’s wounded arm. Ink drawing after an Attic cup by the potter Sosias, c. 500 B.C.” is licensed under CC BY 4.0

People have been debating the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus since Homer first wrote the Iliad.  To many readers, the bond the warriors share has a clear romantic subtext, although Homer never explicitly states so in the text of the Iliad. This interpretation, however, has existed for thousands of years. Plato’s Symposium has a character that explicitly refers to the two heroes as lovers.

In the Iliad, Achilles is the son of Thetis, a sea nymph (known as nereids) and Peleus, the king of the Myrmidons. With his unbelievable strength, he was the most fearsome warrior of the Greek army and an integral part of the war against Troy. During the ninth year of the war, the leader of the Greeks, Agamemnon, had a significant disagreement with Achilles and insulted the warrior. Angered by the slight, Achilles refused to fight any longer and remained inside his tent.

Almost immediately, Agamemnon’s side began to lose the war. The Trojans pushed the Greek force back and set fire to one of their boats. Patroclus came to Achilles, who still refused to return to the fight. He was too stubborn to rejoin without an apology from Agamemnon despite being concerned for their fellow soldiers. Along with a man named Nestor, they come up with a plan. Patroclus would wear Achilles’s armour to boost morale and turn the tides of fighting.

The plan, however, ended in tragedy. Hector, a Trojan prince, killed Patroclus in battle. When news of this returned to Achilles, he was distraught with grief and rage. Achilles rejoins the fight, directing his anger towards Hector. He confronted the Trojan prince in battle and killed him to avenge Patroclus. As the funeral rites for Patroclus are ongoing, his dead companion appeared in Achilles’ dreams. He asked Achilles to have their bones buried together when the other warrior died so that they would never again be apart.

So while there is no mention of romance in Homer’s famous version of the myth, the actions of Achilles before and after Patroclus’ death offer fuel to that interpretation’s fire. The legend of Achilles and Patroclus has seen numerous variations by different authors over the centuries, and many bring that romance out of potential subtext to the forefront.

Zeus and Ganymede

Queer Myths: Painting of Zeus and Ganymede
Drawing, Zeus and Ganymede, ca. 1802; After Raphael (Italian, 1483 – 1520); Italy; brush and tempera on heavy paper; Drawing: 32.5 × 28.2 cm (12 13/16 × 11 1/8 in.) Mount: 43.3 × 42.4 cm (17 1/16 × 16 11/16 in.); Gift of Anonymous Donor; 1957-61-5

Zeus is infamous for his constant affairs with women, mortal and immortal, and how he would employ devious tricks to force himself onto them. The god did, however, also have eyes for men as well.

A notable example of this is the myth of Zeus and Ganymede, son of King Tros of Troy. Ganymede was exceptionally beautiful. His looks are what made him catch Zeus’s eyes. Zeus transformed into an eagle and kidnapped the young man, carrying him off into the heavens.  Once there, he made Ganymede immortal and gave him the position of cupbearer to the gods. To appease the Trojan’s father, Zeus sent Tros a gift – either immortal horses or a golden vine, depending on the version. Later retellings of the myth made Zeus’s kidnapping of the mortal more explicitly fueled by desire.

Zeus and Ganymede represent a pederasty relationship. Zeus takes on the older mentorship role as he ascends Ganymede to immortality, while the prince takes on the younger mentee role. Suppose one was to look at this legend through a modern lens. In that case, the brushing off of Ganymede’s kidnapping could also be representative of pederasty. Ancient Greek society did not seem to pay much attention to how these relationships affected the younger partner. Similarly, in the story, Zeus does not consider Ganymede’s opinions.


Queer Myths: Sculpture of Hermaphroditus
“Statue Group: Satyr and Hermaphroditus, Altes Museum Berlin” by Following Hadrian is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The child of Hermes and Aphrodite, Hermaphroditus was an immortal of striking appearance. According to the Roman Poet Ovid in his work Metamorphoses, Hermaphroditus was travelling the mortal world when he came across a beautiful lake. Unknown to him, a nymph named Salmacis lived in the waters. She was awestruck at the sight of his beauty and immediately fell in love. As Hermaphroditus swam in the lake, Salmacis forced herself onto him. She prayed to the gods to unite the two of them forever. The gods answered her and merged the pair into one being: half man and half woman.

The ancient Greeks did not consider Hermaphroditus an important figure to worship, but they frequently depicted them in art. Typically, artists would paint them as a feminine figure with masculine genitalia.

The term Hermaphrodite ( which Merriam-Webster defines as “an animal or plant having both male and female reproductive organs, structures, or tissue”) is derived from Hermaphroditus.

What Makes These Myths Relevant?

Society should not seek to emulate the ancient Greeks – that is obvious. We have a much more nuanced understanding of how relationships between minors and adults, can deeply harm the younger partner. It would be dangerous to promote the idea of emulating or romanticizing pederasty.

But these queer myths are an important part of gay history. The stories and art of these Greek legends are some of the oldest known mentions of LGBTQ people. It is a flawed and dark chapter of said history, but one that should be remembered and studied. Some people are of the opinion that the LGBTQ community sprung up in the 20th century – but these stories and the centuries-old art that depicts them are firm evidence that disproves that claim.

Queer myths ( and the mythology of Greece and Rome in general) also played an essential role in early gay literature. James Jenkins of Valancourt Books explains in an interview with HuffPost that mentions of Greek and Roman mythology signalled gay themes or sympathies in novels.  The knowledge that those civilizations were more open to same-sex relations was common. References to the mythology of either would help get books into the hands of LGBTQ readers while still being subtle enough to protect the authors from criminal charges.

This chapter of LGBTQ history should not be placed on a pedestal nor glorified. But the myths that originated from this period are still worth discussing as relics of early queer stories and life.

Resources and Further Reading

Sources for “Same-Sex Relationships in Ancient Greece”

Hubbard, Thomas K. “Historical Views of Homosexuality: Ancient Greece.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, 29 May 2020, doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.013.1242.

Only the abstract of Historical Views of Homosexuality: Ancient Greece was used as a source for this article.

Sources For The Myths

“Hyacinthus.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/topic/Hyacinthus.

Homer, and Peter Green. The Iliad. University of California Press, 2015. EBSCOhost, search-ebscohost-com.eztest.ocls.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat01001a&AN=algon.655851&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Sparknote Editors. “The Iliad: Study Guide.” SparkNotes, SparkNotes, 2005, www.sparknotes.com/lit/iliad/.

Hubbard, Thomas K. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome : A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. University of California Press, 2003. EBSCOhost, search-ebscohost-com.eztest.ocls.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=90501&site=eds-live&scope=site.

“Ganymede.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/topic/Ganymede-Greek-mythology.

Hermaphroditus and Salmacis.” History Today, vol. 70, no. 11, Nov. 2020, pp. 4–5. EBSCOhost, search-ebscohost-com.eztest.ocls.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=146566756&site=eds-live&scope=site.

“Hermaphroditus.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/topic/Hermaphroditus.

Leave a Reply