Home » The Ancient Greek Hero » The Ancient Greek Hero- Hour 6 – Patroklos as the other self of Achilles

The Ancient Greek Hero- Hour 6 – Patroklos as the other self of Achilles

English: Picture 47 of the Ambrosian Iliad, Ac...

Achilles sacrificing to Zeus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Notes taken from the source book and lectures of Gregory Nagy on the course – The Ancient Greek Hero -Harvard edx.

The key passage this week is from a climactic moment when Achilles is praying to Zeus that Patroklos should be successful and come home safely. He uses the word therapōn in referring to his nearest and dearest friend. This word can b used to mean ritual substitute such as animals sacrificed in the place of a noble.

We are exploring the concept of the body double. Petrokles dresses in the armour of Achilles and meets his death. Then Hector take Achilles armour and becomes a second body double for him.

Key words

 therapōn  meaningattendant or assistant such as a chariot driver or a person who prepares food. The deeper meaning is ritual substitute this meaning can be found in the ancient Hittite language.

In Hittite ritual texts dating from roughly 1350 to 1250 BCE, we find these two relevant words: tarpanalli- (or tarpalli-) and tarpasšša-, these words were used as synonyms, and both meant ‘ritual substitute’. Such a meaning, ‘ritual substitute’, must be understood in the context of an Anatolian ritual of purification that expels pollution from the person to be purified and transfers it into a person or an animal or an object that serves as a ritual substitute; the act of transferring pollution into the victim serving as ritual substitute may be accomplished either by destroying or by banishing the victim, who or which is identified as another self, un autre soi-même. According to the logic of this Hittite ritual of substitution, the identification of the self with the victim serving as the other self can take on a wide variety of forms: the victims range from humans to animals to figurines to ceramic vessels.

The Meaning of therapōn

 Text A

|233 “King Zeus,” he [= Achilles] cried out, “lord of Dodona, god of the Pelasgoi, who dwells afar, |234 you who hold stormy Dodona in your sway, where the Selloi, |235 your seers, dwell around you with their feet unwashed and their beds made upon the ground – |236 just as you heard what I was saying when I prayed to you before, |237 and did me honour by sending disaster on the Achaean people, |238 so also now grant me the fulfilment of yet a further prayer, and it is this: |239I shall stay here at my assembly [agōn] of ships, |240 but I shall send my comrade [hetairos] into battle at the head of many Myrmidons, |241 sending him to fight. Send forth, O all-seeing Zeus, a radiance [kudos] to go before him; |242 make bold the heart inside his chest so that Hector |243 may find out whether he [Patroklos] knows how to fight alone, |244 [Patroklos,] my attendant [ therapōn ], or whether his hands can only then be so invincible |245 with their fury when I myself enter the war struggle of Arēs. |246 Afterwards when he [= Patroklos] has chased away from the ships the attack and the cry of battle, |247 grant that he may return unharmed to the swift ships, |248 with his armour and his comrades [hetairoi], fighters in close combat.” |249 Thus did he [Achilles] pray, and Zeus the Planner heard his prayer. |250 Part of it he did indeed grant him – but the other part he refused. |251 He granted that Patroklos should thrust back war and battle from the ships, |252 yes, he granted that. But he refused to let him come safely [ex-apo-ne-e-sthai] out of the fight.
(Iliad XVI 233-252) 

Patroclus in battle.(credit : web.uvic.ca)

Achilles refers to Patroklos as his own personal therapōn. Achilles was wrong and Patroklos couldn’t fight alone and defeat Hector alone. He could only succeed if he fought alongside with Achilles.  This is where Achilles refers to Patroklos as his personal therapōn. Patroklos is doomed to die as the other self of Achilles.

Earlier  Patroklos is referred to as ‘the nearest and dearest’ comrade of Achilles. He is subservient only to Achilles . Achilles orders Patroklos to mix and to pour wine and  Patroklos serves Achilles by preparing a meal for him and his guests, performing most of the tasks required for the preparation, especially the task of cooking the meat that will be served.  Automedon helps Patroklos with these tasks Automedon is an understudy of Patroklos. Later on when Patroklos is dead, Automedon is described as a therapōn of Achilles and he takes on all those duties such as distributing the bread.

Anatolian origins of the word therapōn

The word therapōn  once meant ‘ritual substitute’. It was borrowed  from Anatolian languages of Indo-European origin sometime in the later part of the second century BCE, when the two major Indo-European languages of Anatolia were Hittite and Luvian. The major political power in Anatolia at that time was the Hittite Empire. 

What makes the substitute in ritual seem so intimately close to you is that he, she or it must die for you. Here is a quote, from a Hittite text about royal ritual substitution, a most explicit formulation expressed in dialogic format:

Text B. From a Hittite tablet.

Hittie tablet : (Credit historicconnections.webs.com)

And for you [= the divinity], here are these ritual substitutes [tarpalliuš] | … And may they die, but I will not die.

(Keilschrifturkunden aus Boghazköi XXIV 5 I lines 15-16 )
The person to be purified is often a  king. As Nadia van Brock argues, the ritual of substitution is “périodique,” ideally annual. A common idea of myths and rituals around the world is that the king is an incarnation of the body politic, of society itself, which needs to be renewed periodically by being purified of pollution. A related practice is the ritual of the ‘scapegoat’ described in the Hebrew Bible, Leviticus 16:8, where a designated goat (who is thetragos pempomenos of the Greek Septuagint and the caper emissarius of the Latin Vulgate) is not killed but expelled into the wasteland.
Summary by van Brock: “the mentality of substitution rituals requires that someone who is notionally close to the king must die or be in some other way eliminated so as to preserve the king”.

Early Greek uses of the words therapōn, theraps and therapeuein.

The Hittite words tarpanalli-tarpalli- and tarpasšša-, as van Brock has argued, were borrowed by the Greek language sometime in the second millennium BCE, and the corresponding Greek words were therapōn (θεράπων) andtheraps (θέραψ), both of which can be translated as ‘attendant’. Like the  Hittite words the  Greek words were once synonyms.

There is a lot more about these words in Gregory Nagy’s article “Achilles and Patroklos as models for the twinning of identity.”

The therapōn as charioteer. 

Patroklos serves as the personal charioteer or hēniokhos of Achilles and  Automedon describes Patroklos as the best of all charioteers. Automedon is also a charioteer which is relevant to his own role.  Automedon served as the charioteer of Patroklos.  Patroklos died fighting Hector in a fight which started when  Patroklos leapt out of his chariot.

Text C

Then Patroklos, from one side, leapt from his chariot, hitting the ground.
(Iliad XVI 733)
Patroklos picked up a rock and threw it at Kebriones, Hector’s charioteer, hitting him on the forehead and smashing his skull (Iliad XVI 734-754). Then Hector leapt out of his chariot:

Text D

Then Hector, from the other side, leapt from his chariot, hitting the ground.
(Iliad XVI 755 )
Patroklos and Hector fought on the ground  Hector won. In this chariot fight Automedon  served as chariot driver for Patroklos and Patroklos was the chariot fighter.  Automedon yokes the horses of Achilles to the chariot. When Achilles finally rejoins the Achaeans in battle, his chariot is driven by Automedon. After Patroklos was killed by Hector  Automedon said that he wanted to be a chariot fighter and he asked another comrade, Alkimedon, to take his place as the chariot driver.

Text E

Automedon with Achilles Horses (credit : mlajanas.de)

But you [= Alkimedon], take this whip and these splendid reins, | take them, while I [= Automedon] step off [apobainein] from the chariot, so that I may fight.

(Iliad XVII 479-480)
Alkimedon leapt into the chariot, landing on the chariot platform and took hold of the whip and the reins.  Automedon leapt out of the chariot and landed on the ground to fight.  Here is a functioning dyadic relationship between Automedon as a chariot fighter and Alkimedon as a chariot driver, both of whom are secondary substitutes for the primary substitute Patroklos.

Battle of Kurukshetra (Credit ; Wikimedia)

Chariot drivers traditionally notice things and point them out. An example that Gregory Nagy gave in his lecture was that of the Bhagavad Gita which is the Sanskrit word for a part of the Mahabharata (book six). In this book Krishna, the charioteer gives lessons to Arjuna the chariot fighter.

The therapōn as a ritual substitute

Text B in Hour 4 is when Patroklos is killed in battle. He is visualized as atalantos Arēi ‘equal [atalantos] to Arēs’ . This description marks Patroklos as a ritual substitute for Achilles.
When a warrior is killed in war, he becomes a therapōn or ‘ritual substitute’ who dies for Arēs by becoming identical to the war god at the moment of death; then, after death, the warrior is eligible to become a cult hero who serves as a sacralized ‘attendant’ of the war god. Patroklos is calledatalantos Arēi ‘equal to Arēs’ at the moment when he is killed in war. And, as we will now see, Patroklos is actually called īsos Arēi ‘equal to Arēs’ at the moment when the story of his fatal impersonation of Achilles begins:

 Text F

Nestor (Credit : Wikimedia)

|599 He [Nestor] was seen and noted by swift-footed radiant Achilles, |600 who was standing on the spacious stern of his ship, |601 watching the sheer pain [ponos] and tearful struggle of the fight. |602 Then, all of a sudden, he called to his comrade [hetairos] Patroklos, |603 calling from the ship, and he [Patroklos] from inside the tent heard him [Achilles], |604 and he [Patroklos] came out, equal [īsos] to Arēs, and here, I see it, was the beginning of his doom. |605 He [Patroklos], mighty son of Menoitios, was the first to speak, and he said [to Achilles]: |606 “Why, Achilles, do you call me? what need do you have for me?”

Iliad XI 599-606

Patroklos is being equated with Arēs and Apollo. In texts A and B of Hour 5,  Patroklos is called daimoni īsos ‘equal to a daimōn‘,  or ‘superhuman force’ there is the god Apollo himself.  In those contexts, Patroklos is ‘equal’ to Apollo. As one who is equal to Apollo at the moment of his death, Patroklos participates in a specialized god-hero relationship. By being equal to Arēs at the moment of his death, on the other hand, Patroklos participates in a generic god-hero relationship that is typical of heroes who are warriors.  In identifying with both Arēs and Apollo, Patroklos is experiencing something that will later be experienced by Achilles himself, who will also be identifying with both Arēs and Apollo at the moment of his own  death.

Text G = Hour 5 Text D

|7 Achilles, while routing the Trojans and |8 rushing into the citadel, is killed by Paris and Apollo. |9 When a heated battle starts over the corpse, |10 Ajax picks it up and carries it off to the ships while |11Odysseus fights off the Trojans. (plot-summary by Proclus of the Aithiopis by Arctinus of Miletus p. 106 lines 7-11)
 This plot-summary does not indicate whether Arēs is understood to be the generalized ritual antagonist of Achilles only that Apollo is the specialized ritual antagonist of that hero. There is no explicit role of this war god in the death scene of Patroklos as narrated in the Iliad.  A generic warrior is called a therapōn of Arēs. Generically, then, heroes as warriors die for Arēs. More specifically, however, a special hero will die for his special divine antagonist. Generically, Achilles would qualify as a therapōn of Arēs; specifically, he is a therapōn of Apollo, because Apollo kills him using Paris, just as Apollo kills Patroklos using  Hector.

What of Achilles’ Heal?

This plot summary above is attributed to Proclus who we know nothing about. It describes the death of Achilles in a very pedestrian way. There is nothing on the death of Achilles in the Iliad at all. In one legend there is the story of Paris shooting a poisoned arrow into Achilles’ heal. That is one of many versions but it does not come from the Iliad. The story comes from later stories. There are various stories about how Achilles had the weakness in his heal from being dipped in the River Styx to the Ambrosia burning.

Arēs as divine antagonist of Patroklos and Achilles.

Death of Patroklos (Credit : uark.edu)

There is no doubt that Apollo is the direct and specific cause of the deaths of both Patroklos and Achilles, Arēs is the indirect and generic cause of these deaths.  Achilles in his moments of rage, is described asīsos Arēi ‘equal to Arēs’ . Achilles as well as Patroklos is programmed, to die a martial death that is caused at least generically by Arēs.

 Arēs is the god of war, but  more specifically, the god of martial fury. A warrior wpossessed by  Arēs experiences this kind of martial fury, which is typically bestial. The Greek word for martial fury is lussa, meaning ‘wolfish rage’. Comparable to the Old Norse concept berserkr and the Old Irish concept of ríastrad ‘warp spasm’ or ‘distortion’. To experience such a martial rage or warp spasm or distortion is to be beside oneself, which is to be possessed by Arēs. This state of possession is expressed by the word lussa ‘wolfish rage’.
A prime example of lyssa is the description of Hector, when he gets into a state of martial fury, as a ‘rabid dog’, a lyssētēr kuōn (κύνα λυσσητῆρα VIII 299). After Hector kills Patroklos and puts on Achilles’ armour , Zeus seals Hector into the armour and then Arēs enters him, possessing him completely.When Achilles finally kills Hector he is in effect killing the embodiment of Arēs.
The hero is “extreme” both positively and, on special occasions, negatively. Achilles is extreme mostly in a positive sense, since he is ‘best’ in many categories and since he is even the ‘best of the Achaeans’ sometimes he is extreme in a negative sense, as in his moments of martial fury.

The therapeutic functions of the therapōn

The word therapōn was borrowed into the Greek language from Anatolian languages in those Anatolian languages it meant ‘ritual substitute’, someone who may have to die in place of the king. Such a death has the effect of healing society by way of healing the king, who is viewed as the embodiment of society, of the body politic. The principle of purification has been described by van Brock as the transfer of evil, “le transfert du mal.”
In Greek visual art the dead hero Patroklos can be represented as a sacrificial ram, who is shown with his throat slit open and with blood streaming from the gaping wound: such a picture is painted on an Attic vase executed by the “Triptolemos Painter,” dated around 480 BCE. Similarly in Hittite rituals of substitution rams can be sacrificed in place of kings.
 The meaning of the Greek word therapōn as ritual substitute and the function of such a therapōn as a healer helps explain why the related Greek word therapeuein means not only ‘be a therapōn‘, as we can see at Odyssey xiii 265, but also ‘heal, cure’; we still see such a meaning embedded in the English-language borrowings therapy and therapeutic.

Patroklos as the other self of Achilles

Another word  closely linked to Patroklos as the ritual substitute of Achilles is philos, meaning ‘friend’ as a noun and ‘near and dear’ or ‘belonging to the self’ as an adjective.  This word philos defines identity by way of measuring how much you can identify with someone else: the more you love someone, the more you identify with this special someone – and the closer you get to your self.  This is why Patroklos is truly the other self or alter ego of Achilles. In the Life of Pythagoras tradition, the wise man is asked the question ‘what is a friend [philos]?’ and answers that a philos is allos egō ‘another I’ (scholia for Iliad XVIII 82). This terminology helps explain the use of the pseudo-scientific Latin term alter ego in translations of the works of Freud into English.

Ramifications of the idea of another self.

The therapeutic function of caring for someone as a patient in mythical contexts of healing can be linked with the emotional function  for someone who is philos in these same contexts. That is because therapeuein in the emotional sense of ‘care for’ is linked with philos in the sense of ‘near and dear’;and, further, therapōn in the sense of ‘ritual substitute’ is linked with philos in the sense of ‘belonging to the self’.
Patroklos wears the epic identity of Achilles, as expressed by the epithets they share. These heroic epithets, such as the ones that makes them both ‘equal to Arēs’, will predestine both of them to live the same way and to die the same way.

Simone Weil on sacrificial substitution


Simone Weil (1909-1943) a French philosopher, thought that evil happens when the suffering of one person is passed on to another person. The mentality is this: I want you to suffer exactly the way I have suffered. The problem is, everyone suffers differently. So the transfer of suffering does not make things better. It makes things worse. And that is evil. So, evil itself is the transfer of suffering. In French, it is “le transfert du mal,”. To stop this chain of evil, an existential hero must refuse to transfer the suffering to the next person. The hero must absorb the suffering. For that to happen the hero will have to die for the next person in line and for everyone else who is in line. Such a death can be described as an act of sacrificial substitution.

In her essay “Human Personality” (1943), Weil says:

When harm is done to a man, real evil enters into him; not merely pain and suffering, but the actual horror of evil. Just as men have the power of transmitting good to one another, so they have the power to transmit evil.

In “Void and Compensation” (published 1947), Weil says:
“The wish to see others suffer exactly what we are suffering. It is because of this that, except in periods of social instability, the spite of those in misfortune is directed against their fellows. That is a factor making for social stability.”
We read in the same work:
“The tendency to spread the suffering beyond ourselves. If through excessive weakness we can neither call forth pity nor do harm to others, we attack what the universe itself represents for us. Then every good or beautiful thing is like an insult.”
If we apply Weil’s thinking , we may think of Patroklos as a hero who refuses to pass on the suffering to the next person. He absorbs the suffering and dies in the act of doing so. He short-circuits evil.
Such a way of thinking about Patroklos may lead us to a rethinking of this hero’s status as the one person who is highest in the ascending scale of affection felt by the hero Achilles.


  1. voupsy says:

    Nice summary of the central ideas. Intresting links and excellent choice of images! Very helpful!

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