People have traditionally turned to ritual to help them frame and acknowledge and ultimately even find joy in just such a paradox of being human – in the fact that so much of what we desire for our happiness and need for our survival comes at a heavy cost. We kill to eat, we cut down trees to build our homes, we exploit other people and the earth. Sacrifice – of nature, of the interests of others, even of our earlier selves – appears to be an inescapable part of our condition, the unavoidable price of all our achievements. A successful ritual is one that addresses both aspects of our predicament, recalling us to the shamefulness of our deeds at the same time it celebrates what the poet Frederick Turner calls “the beauty we have paid for with our shame.” Without the double awareness pricked by such rituals, people are liable to find themselves either plundering the earth without restraint or descending into self-loathing and misanthropy.
― Michael Pollan, A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder
“The shoes always tell the story,” said the shoe poet.
“Not always,” I countered.
“Yes, always. Your boots, they are expensive, well made. That tells me that you come from a wealthy family. But the style is one made for and older woman. That tells me they probably belong to your mother. A mother sacrificed her boots for her daughter. That tells me you are loved, my dear. And your mother is not here, so that tells me that you are sad, my dear. The shoes tell the story.”
this is the 21st century and we need to redefine r/evolution. this planet needs a people’s r/evolution. a humanist r/evolution. r/evolution is not about bloodshed or about going to the mountains and fighting. we will fight if we are forced to but the fundamental goal of r/evolution must be peace.
we need a r/evolution of the mind. we need a r/evolution of the heart. we need a r/evolution of the spirit. the power of the people is stronger than any weapon. a people’s r/evolution can’t be stopped. we need to be weapons of mass construction. weapons of mass love. it’s not enough just to change the system. we need to change ourselves. we have got to make this world user friendly. user friendly.
are you ready to sacrifice to end world hunger. to sacrifice to end colonialism. to end neo-colonialism. to end racism. to end sexism.
r/evolution means the end of exploitation. r/evolution means respecting people from other cultures. r/evolution is creative.
r/evolution means treating your mate as a friend and an equal. r/evolution is sexy.
r/evolution means respecting and learning from your children. r/evolution is beautiful.
r/evolution means protecting the people. the plants. the animals. the air. the water. r/evolution means saving this planet.
To love is to be selfless. To be selfless is to be fearless. To be fearless is to strip enemies of their greatest weapon. Even if they break our bodies and drain our blood, we are unvanquished. Our goal was never to live; our goal is to love.
But there were some things I believed in. Some things I had faith in. And faith isn’t about perfect attendance to services, or how much money you put on the little plate. It isn’t about going skyclad to the Holy Rites, or meditating each day upon the divine.
Faith is about what you do. It’s about aspiring to be better and nobler and kinder than you are. It’s about making sacrifices for the good of others – even when there’s not going to be anyone telling you what a hero you are.
―Jim Butcher, Changes
What would you do if the love of your life was taking on something that you knew would kill them?
Homer’s Iliad is a mainstay of western culture, one of the first epics to be written down in that tradition. So why read a novel that retells part of that story when everyone knows how it ends?
Well, for one thing, as poetic and action filled as Homer’s great epic is, it is far removed from modern western thought and our desire for character development. The heroes are writ large as befits a story soaked in myth and other characters don’t get much time in the light at all. What we get are wooden symbols, splendid puppets, rather than individuals. There is space for a rich tapestry of personal stories not fleshed out in the original and Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles has fixed on a gripping one– the enigmatic relationship between the tragic Greek hero Achilles and his dearest friend Patroclus.
Achilles tends the wounded Patroclus, from a Greek Vase, ca 500 BC
You probably know that Achilles dies near the end of the Trojan War. It’s quite possible that you also remember the death of Patroclus, which returns the furious Achilles to fighting after a terrible quarrel with Agamemnon. What you aren’t familiar with are all the details and personal struggle that led up to their deaths and the aesthetic value, as opposed to the violence, of their lives. You’ve probably never thought of Achilles and Patroclus as two teenage boys faced with death, armed with honor, cunning, talent and their passionate love for one another.
The novel is narrated by Patroclus, a very minor character in the Iliad, and is preoccupied with fate and the avoidance of fate, a theme that runs through Greek literature and theater. Miller is a scholar in addition to being a gifted writer (who also attended Yale drama school) and has done her homework in building characters true to the original and imbuing them with startling humanity. Her effort would surely have delighted the ear of ancient Greece while teasing out things into which they would not have delved.
Bust of Patroclus, William Henry Fox Talbot, ca 1846
Patroclus is the son of a minor Grecian King, and has been exiled to the court of Peleus, Achilles’ father, for accidentally killing another boy. He is spellbound by the ravishingly beautiful, intelligent and multi-talented Achilles, who is beloved and sought by everyone. Patroclus is gangly and awkward beside Aristos Achaion, best of the Greeks. But who wouldn’t be?
Despite the tendency of Patroclus toward self deprecation, which is repeatedly apparent during the novel, Achilles reciprocates his feelings. An intense relationship buds between these two young men that becomes a sexual one. It wasn’t unusual for Greek men of this era to have homosexual relationships, especially soldiers who spent so much time together. It was also fairly common for young men to “grow out” of these relationships, marry and raise children. Over the course of the novel, we see this tension move through the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, but they remain devoted to one another. Thankfully they have more time than they expect. Achilles does have a child, the monstrous Pyrrhus who appears at the end of our story, but has precious little interest in Deidameia, whom he marries in secret to please his mother and produce an heir.
Thetis with a triton, Roman copy of Greek Marble Statue, 2nd Century BC
Perhaps the most vivid personage in the novel is Thetis, Achilles’ terrifying and powerful mother. Her shining white skin and raspy voice are inhuman for she is a goddess. She bears no love for Patroclus, whom she considers an unfit companion for her superhuman son. It is she, however, who reveals to the two boys the dire prophecy. If Achilles goes to Troy to fight he will be a great hero. He will also die there after killing the Trojan prince Hector. If he does not go to Troy he will live a long, undistinguished life. Like most mothers, Thetis tries to protect her child, but she cannot keep him from his destiny. Even Patroclus, whom Achilles loves more than anyone, cannot do that. The decision is finally made to go to Troy together. Achilles will stay away from Hector, who, after all, has done nothing to him personally. Not yet.
Watching the wheels of fate slowly roll over this couple is heartbreaking. We are mute bystanders with foreknowledge, unable to cry out a warning. It is in the moment that Patroclus, who has always been more of a healer than a warrior, goes to battle wearing Achilles’ armor, sacrificing himself to uphold his lover’s honor, that we see with shocking clarity how destiny will play out. We knew the moment would come, but nothing prepares us for how tragic it is. It is in protecting and thereby assuming equality with Achilles that Patroclus, steered by forces beyond his control, finally seals their fate. He becomes for a short time the best of the Greeks.
The death of Patroclus, Etruscan Alabaster Urn, 2nd Century BC
If Achilles brings out the noble and godly in Patroclus, it must be said that Patroclus brings out the merciful and human in Achilles. One cannot make choices for another, but the influence friends and lovers have over each other can change worlds. The choices Achilles and Patroclus make have repercussions for Trojans, Greeks and gods alike. They are much more than pawns pushed across a chessboard.
We all fear being separated from our loved ones by death. Sometimes this brings out our noble qualities and sometimes it makes us bitter and hateful, but it cannot cheapen the value or beauty of the lives we have been given together. There is something lasting there, even if we can’t quite name what it is, something that rings across the ages.
I conjure the boy I knew. Achilles, grinning as the figs blur in his hands. His green eyes laughing into mine. Catch, he says. Achilles, outlined against the sky, hanging from a branch over the river. The thick warmth of his sleepy breath against my ear. If you have to go, I will go with you. My fears forgotten in the golden harbor of his arms.
The memories come, and come. She listens, staring into the grain of the stone. We are all there, goddess and mortal and the boy who was both.
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
―Howard Zinn, The Optimism of Uncertainty