If I had to pick one favourite character in the Iliad, it would be Patroklos. His story is the most poignant, marks a turning point in the epic, and as a Hellenic polytheist, there is much to learn from it.
Patroklos first appears in the Iliad in Book 1, handing Briseis over to Agamemnon, and he retains a passive role in the next few chapters. He is seen preparing food, making beds for Agamemnon’s embassy, acting as Akhilleus’s messenger; it’s only in Book 11 that Patroklos becomes an important character, one whose actions will change the course of the war.
In the greater picture, Patroklos is an innocent. He begs Akhilleus to let him fight in his place not because he is bloodthirsty, or because he wants Troy to be taken, but because he can’t bear to watch his countrymen die and the Trojans burn their ships. Interestingly, he is the only character that Homer addresses directly, adding to his poignancy.
Despite his lack of experience on the battlefield, Patroklos is a talented swordsman. Had it not been fated, he would not have died. But Akhilleus was destined to kill Hektor, and Troy was destined to fall, and so Zeus decreed that Patroklos would not return from his first and only battle. This instigates Akhilleus’s grief and revenge, which mark a turning point in the Iliad.
As a Hellenic polytheist and worshipper of the Gods, I believe Patroklos’s story teaches us several valuable lessons, beginning with Akhilleus’s prayer for his safety in Book 16. In this passage, Akhilleus asks Zeus for two things: first, that Patroklos’s endeavour may be successful and full of glory; second, that he may return safe from the battlefield. Zeus grants him the first, but refuses the second.
This situation is one that still raises questions today. Why would a God – Zeus, Odin, Allah, Jehovah or any other – refuse to keep a loved one safe? This echoes Epicurus:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
From a Hellenic perspective, my interpretation is simply this: the Gods are not omnipotent. There is something above them: Fate. No matter how much the Gods may want to save a mortal, if Fate has decreed that he must die, he will die, and the Gods cannot change that.
There is a reason why your prayers are not always granted. For the Trojan War to come to an end, Patroklos had to die. Perhaps your fate is not as great as his, but it is fate nonetheless, and none of us can go against it.
Even after his death, Patroklos has still much to teach us. Akhilleus, overcome by grief that will claim the life of Troy’s best soldier, delays his friend’s funeral. As someone who has experience helping the Dead cross over, I know how vital this process is. By denying a deceased person the honours they deserve, by refusing to mourn them properly, you are keeping them from moving on.
Ghosts exist because something is holding them back. Death is a difficult process, and it is our duty, as those left behind, to help our loved ones into the Underworld as best we can. This is what Patroklos tells Akhilleus when he appears to him in a dream:
You sleep, Akhilleus, and have forgotten me; you loved me living, but now that I am dead you think of me no further. Bury me with all speed that I may pass the gates of Hades; the ghosts, vain shadows of men that can labour no more, drive me away from them; they will not yet suffer me to join those that are beyond the river, and I wander all desolate by the wide gates of the house of Hades.
When the Dead come to you and ask for help, listen. Do as they ask you, then help them cross over. It may seem like a strange thing to pay so much attention to those who died while there are people left behind, grieving; and I’m not telling you to ignore those people. But remember that the Dead have power too. As the Delphic Maxim #140 advises: do not wrong the Dead.
The days when Patroklos walked the Earth are long gone, but what you can learn from his story is still valid today. Respect your Fate; and when the time has come, honour the Dead.
Those are Patroklos’s lessons.
(This post is my P submission for the Pagan Blog Project.)