I know I’ve been griping a lot about my broken laptop lately (and, to be honest, there’s still a lot of gripe left there) but I thought I should stop griping for a while and instead post something someone might actually want to read. This is one of several posts I’ve written in the broken-laptop-downtime, which have just been accumulating, waiting a chance to get online. (Probably the best of them, too, but…well, actually, the one about Tiresias is pretty good, too…) Anyway, on to the part of the post I pre-wrote!
So earlier I promised to talk about how one of James Davidson’s points in The Greeks and Greek Love provided a new possible meaning for an Aischylos fragment that redefined the relationship between Achilles and Patroclos, thus possibly shattering some of my writing, right?
Uh, okay, starting over. And trying to make sense this time.
Unlike Sophocles and Euripides, Aischylos almost always wrote and presented his plays in neat trilogies. (No, Sophocles did not present his Theban trilogy at the same time, bizarrely enough.) One of Aischylos’ many lost trilogies is his so-called “tragic Iliad” which presents the second half of the Iliad on the tragic stage, one of the rare instances of the major Athenian tragedians tackling the subject matter of the Homeric epics. The Odyssey was covered slightly more often than the Iliad, including in Euripides’ surviving satyr play, The Cyclops, but even it was rare compared to other Trojan War topics, presumably because Homer was viewed as peerless, and any attempt to compete with him was seen as sheer hubris. (Hesiod was held in similar regard, which probably accounts for the lack of other written accounts the ancient Greek theogony other than his.)
Anyway, the first of the plays of Aischylos’ tragic Iliad was the Myrmidons, which featured the death of poor Patroclos, and Achilles’ lament over the corpse. It must have been one heck of a lament. Two quotes survive, from numerous sources, Plutarch’s moralia and various philosophers and such. At the time, they were used to show the depth, intensity and importance of friendship. However, their stark eroticism—it’s hard to interpret someone rebuking a corpse for ‘wasting my many kisses’ without assuming they were lovers—they were eventually held up as proof of just how unabashed and even decadent the ancient Greek men were in their pursuit of, well, each other.
And you did not respect the sacred honour of the thigh-bond, ungrateful that you were for those countless kisses! (trans. Alan. H. Sommerstein)
I’ve quoted that translation before, and not been terribly pleased with it, ‘cause, you know, was it really so sacred for one man to rub his erection between another man’s thighs? Obviously, as a woman, I can’t really imagine what that would be like, but it just doesn’t sound to me like it would be very satisfying to either party, so I’ve always looked askance at the whole thing and felt like there had to be something that we’re just plain missing there.
And it looks like there may well be.