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Classical Mythology  
 
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Achilles, Patroclus, and the Love of Heroes

Does Achilles make love with Patroclus in the Iliad? The text does not expressly say so, and that settles the matter for most classicists and mythologists. Yet there are dissenting voices, some holding that the love of the heroes is tacitly sexual, and others persuasively arguing that their attachment is in the sense of loverlike feelings without carnal intimacy.

For nearly all Hellenic writers and commentators, however, the question was not were they lovers--they were; rather it was which one took which sexual role. Achilles, the younger but dominant one, was commonly deemed the erastes.

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In Myrmidones, a lost play by Aeschylus that survives only in two brief fragments, Achilles, contemplating Patroclus dead, recalls "our frequent kisses" and dotes on the eromenos's thighs, for it would have been between them that he derived his genital pleasure.

In the Symposium, Plato has Phaedrus disagree with Aeschylus and contend that Patroclus, as the older one and less fair, should be the erastes. The Greeks of the classical period had to assimilate the relationship of the archaic heroes to their own pederastic categories, however inappropriate these were when the lovers were both past adolescence.

Narcissus and Same-Sex Love

The exquisite Narcissus was the desired of many, male and female alike, but was sexually unmoved by one and all. In a Greek myth, he sent a sword as a gift to Ameinias, a young man who wooed him and was spurned. The would-be erastes plunged the blade into himself outside the house of the cruel Narcissus and died cursing him.

A little later Narcissus looked into water and was captivated, at last, by the person he found therein. But it was, alas, himself, and so in frustration he committed suicide. Out of the bloodshed, the first narcissus bloomed.

In Ovid's later and far better known version, (Metamorphoses 3.341-510), Narcissus, at sixteen, was again indifferent to suitors of both sexes. His most pathetic victim was the nymph Echo who, on being repudiated, wasted away to a mere voice. When Narcissus lay beside the pool and, looking in, fell in love with the face he beheld, he thought it was someone else's, that of a youth of his own age who appeared to be returning the love.

He could not comprehend why the two of them, though they stretched out their arms to each other, could not embrace. Then all at once it dawned on him that he and the other were one and the same. This recognition made him so despondent that he pined away with thwarted desire and succumbed. His corpse metamorphosed into the narcissus.

It is a pity that Narcissus, when self-infatuated, never found the obvious outlet of autoeroticism. Was it because male masturbation was too grossly satyric to be tolerable to Ovid and his Roman readers? Then again, when Narcissus says, "What I desire I have" (quod cupio mecum est), the words would seem to denote satisfaction, which is what he should attain, if one listens to Freud.

Freud makes narcissism a major factor in homosexual orientation. Accordingly, inverts "are plainly seeking themselves as a love-object," and a narcissist may love "what he himself is (i.e. himself)." Just so with Narcissus; he does in fact have the male love-object he seeks, does possess what he loves (himself).

But that possession of the loved self does not bring the fruition anticipated in the theory, bringing instead despair and self-repudiation: "O that I might be parted from my own body." Narcissus, then, at best but partially exemplifies Freudian narcissism.

The Relative Infrequence of Same-Sex Love in Greco-Roman Myth

This survey, though not exhaustive, covers most of the homoerotic myths of antiquity and the principal ones. Among some notable omissions are Virgil's mythoheroic young lovers Nisus and Euryalis in the Aeneid (9.176-449) and his mythopastoral Corydon whose love-complaint fills the second Eclogue.

Yet what may surprise, in light of the ubiquity of boy-loving among the Hellenes, is not how many but how relatively few of the myths tell of same-sex love. About half of the major gods of the Greek pantheon have no intermale involvements, these being Ares, Hephaestus, Hades, and apparently Hermes, even though one obscure myth does suggest otherwise. Moreover, the heterosexual love stories of gods and heroes are far more numerous and on the whole better known than the mythic homosexual stories.

None of the extant Greek tragedies with their mythological plots dramatizes single-sex loves although some lost ones did, including Euripides's Chrysippus as well as Aeschylus's Myrmidones.

If we had no other evidence than the myths themselves to go on, we would have quite an inadequate sense of how extensive the practice and approval of pederastic erotics really were.

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