top of page

Achilles, Amazons & Pride Through the Ages




Hello everyone, and welcome to LukeLore. A quick deep dive into a folklore topic, where I share some of the stories from around the world that have piqued my interest.


This episode we’re getting a bit topical with this being Pride month. I had an interesting primary source book for this one, light on in-depth detail but a nice engaging read that helped point me in the right direction: ‘Queer Heroes of Myth and Legend’ by Dan Jones. Ultimately I ended up focusing on Ancient Greek folklore for 2023, with there being a lot of scope to globetrot in future Pride episodes. This is perhaps unsurprising if you have even a passing familiarity with Ancient Greece, there’s quite a lot of LGBTQ+ content to dip into there. This “dip” reaching back over some thousands of years into a pre-Christian and exceptionally pagan time. Not to mention a pretty unabashedly gay one.


One small note to that, though, is that while we have a modern lens to view all this through, there wasn’t especially a distinction with gay and straight, or otherwise queer, for this time and place in human civilisation. It was just their normal.


I’m awkwardly aware this episode may lose me some listeners just by existing, but that relates to why Pride month is still so important. There are far more people with a lot more to lose than some audience reach, just for existing as themselves. This is the least I can do to support them.


But please, do, even if not directly a part of the queer community yourself, keep an open mind as we go exploring what the past has revealed through surviving stories to show about us now. We’ve got some outstanding shenanigans from the old gods to explore today!


SECTION BREAK – Just “Friends”


Okay, this leads in to a pretty amusing quirk of historians across the ages where some measure of prudence or cultural repression was needed. Victorian mainstream publishing definitely springs to mind. The full joke goes “Historians Will Say They Were just Good Friends”, and it can lead to some incredible memes. Historical figures who sent each other love letters, moved in together to raise an army of cats, slept in the same bed, and died of old age to be buried together. When faced with an undeniable amount of evidence of a relationship? Well, er, they were just good friends. Nothing salacious to see here folks.


This really came to mind with something that crossed over into pretty recent pop culture. 2004, not even 20 years ago, Hollywood wanted a stab at a good old fashioned epic with Troy. Where Brad Pitt as Achilles gets a steamy affair with a woman would-be assassin, before being begged by his cousin and protégé Patroclus not to go fight.


And, excuse me, but there’s some oh so slight inaccuracies going on there!


Let’s look at the full story of Achilles and Patroclus. It IS a controversial story, with a variety of readings across the years, but I will point out this is a culture that had no words for “straight” or “gay”, the distinction meant that little to them.


The Achilles of legend was royalty via his father King Pelius, and something of a demigod via his mother Thetis – a Nereid, or sea nymph, who is daughter of the primordial force The Old Man of the Sea. Achilles had quite the storied life involving prophecies of greatness, a couple of differing stories involving either fire or water that meant he was invulnerable everywhere but for his heel, then a brief stint living in disguise as a girl until Odysseus tricked him into revealing himself which brings us up to the war with Troy.


Achilles was something of a celebrity, and on top of that a diva. To be fair, he was mostly invulnerable and the gods were afraid he could defy fate, so there’s unfounded arrogance and then there’s knowing you are demonstrably incredible. The Trojan War lasted for ten years, with the Iliad only going into detail the final days of it. For most of this war, Achilles spent it chilling out in his tent just generally living his best life doing whatever he wanted. While up to a point he could be cajoled into turning up at the siege, he wasn’t impressed with what a wasteful and tragic war this was. He refused to do anything but lay about, no one could do anything about it because he was Achilles, and he was up to a point Troy’s secret weapon because he spent so much time moaning he wanted to sail back to Athens and kept telling everyone else to do it too. He doesn’t even want to fight for his honour, he’s Achilles and everyone else can just kiss his ass.


Up until one key moment that changed everything.


His quote-unquote “very close friend” Patroclus was a part of the war, and it hit a desperate turning point were the greatest warrior of Troy – its prince Hector – led an attack to push the Greeks out to the sea. Break the siege by completely sweeping them off the land.


Achilles wasn’t bothered, he wanted to sail home anyway.


But Patroclus was desperate, and had a plan. He took Achilles’s armour, dressed up as the legendary warrior, and led a counterattack. It was a stroke of genius for a rallying point for the Greek side! The Myrmidons followed who they thought was their prince, repelling the attack on the camps and ships. It was also sadly a great way to paint a target on himself for the Trojan side. Hector heard the tide of war was turning, and made directly for who he thought was Achilles when the counterattacking Greeks attempted to keep chasing from the beaches and into a decisive assault on the city.


Patroclus was a renowned warrior, but he was no Achilles and Hector was very much the greatest warrior of Troy. The plan to be a figurehead was genius, it was successful, but Hector cut through the Greek army and slew who he thought was Achilles with little effort.


This should have been a warning Hector had not in fact killed Achilles, but he stripped the corpse of its armour as a trophy and returned to the city of Troy. One of the other princes of a Grecian state brought the news of Patroclus’s death to Achilles, leaving Achilles a complete wreck from overwhelming grief. His mother Thetis the Nereid came to comfort him. Just words were nowhere near enough to console him, so Thetis goes to Hephaestus – the Greek god of smithing and the forge – to make a new set of armour to replace what Hector took as a trophy. This armour was so fantastic, being actually divine, that the new Shield of Achilles alone got 130 lines of the Iliad dedicated to it by Homer.


What followed next was a bloody warpath so devastating, it almost ended the war early. Achilles knows who killed his beloved Patroclus, and he’s now geared up to do something about it.


Achilles begins an unstoppable search for Hector, personally killing an incredible amount of warriors who should probably have just gotten out of his way. This got to the point where the river god Scamander turned up to fight Achilles, because his river had gotten clogged up by corpses. It’s noteworthy that while Achilles was so blinded by grief he happily tried to fight the god, it didn’t go too well. Hera and Hephaestus had to pull Scamander off of Achilles to avert a drowning. This barely slowed Achilles down, who went right back in search of Hector, but it both worried Zeus and gave him an idea. You see, there was a problem with how literally epically angry Achilles was in his grief… Troy was destined to fall at a future point, but the rage of Achilles was so out of control it might actually break the bounds of fate to destroy the city early. Zeus goes on to send assorted gods to physically restrain Achilles, until they work out they just need to give him Hector and destiny will play out properly afterwards.


At some point, with Achilles single handedly setting out to depopulate Troy in search of Patroclus’s killer, only being slowed down by a gods physically holding him down, Hector realises he has screwed up harder than basically anyone in all of history, myth, and legend. Once Achilles does inevitably breach the walls of Troy, potentially by biting his way through them he’s so furious, Hector doesn’t even try to fight him. He runs! This leads to Achilles chasing Hector all around the walls surrounding the city three whole times before there’s finally divine intervention to get Hector to just accept his fate.


The rampage so devastating it swayed the course of the war, had physical altercations with multiple gods, and led to sprinting around the outskirts of a whole damn city three times over had done nothing to calm Achilles down. Hector begs. Not for his life, he knows that’s over, but he begs Achilles to at least treat his corpse with respect.


No deal.


Achilles replies: “My rage, my fury would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw – such agonies you have caused me.”


Hector very dies now, and Achilles leaves Troy to then ride a chariot around the outside of the city dragging Hector’s corpse along behind it until he feels a little better. This takes a while, then it further takes a god to intervene with Achilles to get him to give Hector’s corpse back for a burial. Still grieving, Achilles could not get over his devastation until in a dream Patroclus begged for a funeral to be held for him, and so Achilles held a series of funeral games in the war camps before committing to the sack of Troy.


Events unfold further to the death of Achilles, shot in his ankle by an arrow where he was vulnerable at the breach of the Scaean gates leading to Troy. Going down in myth so hard from these unfortunate events that we still have the phrase an “Achilles Heel” to describe a weak spot, and our heels contain a rather important body part officially named the Achilles tendon.


Now, you can ignore that for all intents and purposes the Ancient Greeks were culturally bisexual to the point they didn’t even have a word for it. You can ignore how “close” the two are in their depictions and retellings across the ages from Homer, to Shakespeare, to Madeline Miller pulling everything together in ‘The Song of Achilles’ in 2011. You CAN ignore how Achilles was so consumed with grief it helped end a decade long war, and he chased the killer ACTUALLY AROUND THE CITY multiple times in his rage, then come to the conclusion they were “just friends”. You can go on to ignore how the remains of both Achilles and Patroclus were committed to the same golden vase so they would rest together. But… Really?


You get a lot more context from this part of the Trojan War if you don’t sweep the queerness under the rug. This wasn’t only a war story for the ages, it was a tragic love story for more than just the principle players of Trojan War.


SECTION BREAK – The Island of Warrior Women


I’ve mentioned already that same sex relationships were so culturally acceptable for Ancient Greeks they didn’t even bother to name a distinction in relationships, but it wasn’t just the men having all the fun. Women have such legendarily noteworthy relations that a lot of our terms for feminine attraction to femininity have their terms codified from these times. The Island of Lesbos is a little on the nose here, leading to the L in LGBTQ+. The poet Sappho of Lesbos led to the term Sapphic attraction, and I swear I’m not making up a Sappho of Lesbos who wrote poetry about lesbians. Then, there’s a very significant idea that managed to tantalise and endure across aeons of pop culture, the Amazonian Warrior Women of Ancient Greece.


The Amazon Warriors are in a strange position for folklore. There’s not so much solid evidence of their society existing… Warrior women, oh yes! Everywhere, all over so many different cultures. They keep getting dug up by archaeologists to further enrage academic misogynists who think history somehow proves women are an inferior sub-species of some description. But the idea there was a society closed to men, exclusively populated by warrior women with a culture of military power? That’s a little more debatable, but also pretty interesting.


Ancient Greeks had no doubt in their mind that if Amazon warriors did not exist, they at least definitely used to. Amazons turn up in a lot of stories even if they aren’t the focus, they even turn up in the Iliad after Hector’s death and nearly break the Greek forces but for the fact Patroclus dying committed Achilles to total war. So the stories go they were body builders who elevated archery, cavalry warfare, and armed combat to levels of art. Messing with an Amazon warrior was a guaranteed way to get a muscle mommy to pop your head like overripe fruit in a vice.


They were probably easily spotted if you met one, on top of a culture of bodybuilding at least some were supposed to surgically remove one breast to help with drawing a bow over their incredible pecs, and there’s a fair chance they selectively bred for height. Selectively, as the Amazons only interacted with men outside of killing them on the battlefield to use them as breeding stock. Daughters were raised as more Amazons, sons were given away to be raised by other tribes.


One funny thing I found, looking into these stories, is that for a lot of the time they’re not being fetishized by male scholars recording and passing the tales on. It instead seems they’re a cautionary tale or kind of bogeywomen, something to be afraid of. To add to their terror, the Amazons were apparently avid consumers of pot, something that somehow ended up a part of the mythos since they all smoked weed instead of getting drunk. I don’t doubt that behind closed doors the stories were being devoured as a Death by Snu-Snu fantasy by a long line of sheltered academics across the years, but at least openly the idea of incredibly swole mankillers sweeping their way onto the battlefield in a stoned haze was mostly considered monstrous. Muscular warrior women seems to be an idea people are more open to at different points in history, and certainly seems to be something a lot of people are Team Amazon about in modern times.


This, then, is where folklore becomes a bit of a continuum leading us through to modern day depictions.


By the 1940s, a radical household comprising of a polyamorous throuple saw a problem in Western society. Psychology researcher Olive Byrne, attorney and psychologist Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and psychologist/inventor/writer William Marston saw a problem with role models for girls. They basically didn’t have any, or at least none presented prominently in pop culture. Can’t say they were wrong, either, as The American Dream was on course to isolate women inside suburban purgatory drugged up to their eyeballs on opiates to survive the boredom, with no legal recourse to take control of their own life.


So the Marston-Byrnes decided to make use of comic books as an educational tool. Not to make a dull new comic, but to join in with the rise of superheroes, only do it their own way. They pooled together their ideas, their experiences, aspects of stories they enjoy, and their hopes to make a new kind of superhuman costumed adventurer who is more about love than smash-‘em-up power fantasies.


They made Wonder Woman.


Princess Diana of the Amazons, made from clay and brought to life by the gods, who discovered the existence of men when war reached their isolated shores and chose to lead The World of Man into a better future.


What was interesting about their intent here, is that the three did not set out for a revolution. They didn’t want to break down ideas of cultural femininity, they wanted to tap into the strengths of it and bring out its best. They WERE radicals themselves, only privately so. Polyamory is a tricky subject to broach now, let alone in the 1930s when they all committed their lives to each other. What they wanted was for girls to have a role model to get them to embrace being an exceptional woman. William was quoted explaining this as:


“Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world. Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power.”


As private as the throuple were in life, for obvious reasons (sadly sometimes people need to stay closeted to avoid their lives being ruined), as their own stories are investigated by later biographers it looks like the idea of Wonder Woman was very personal to them. Olive Byrne may be the direct basis for the appearance of Princess Diana. While William and Elizabeth were the legally married couple, the three held a special ceremony were Olive took to wearing a thick bangle on each arm to show her commitment to her partners, something that ended up visually coded into the Wonder Woman character. This leads to some questions about the Lasso of Truth, and how Wonder Woman can have her powers bound if a man ties her up… All this rope stuff that came with the character? That’s not a folklore thing. We’re not getting into all the rope stuff, that’s a very different podcast. Go ask your parents, or Google it.


But what we do now have is an enduring legacy of an iconic superhero who continues to inspire a lot of children to this day, that is steeped in Greek mythology. Wonder Woman carries a lot of ideas from a lot of sources forwards into the ongoing pop culture consciousness. Comic books get looked down on a lot, especially superheroes, for something that is effectively the modern form of the long term heroic epic that makes up some of our most enduring stories. But they have an undeniable impact, especially among children.


Now, one final piece of food for thought on whether there were historical Amazons or not. Based on ongoing discoveries of graves filled with multiple warrior women in Eastern Europe, there’s a very good chance there WERE Scythean tribes heavily featuring warrior women, and this was who the Ancient Greeks came across on the battlefield. The Scytheans were equestrian nomads of the Pontiac steppes, and this could even explain their love of weed as marijuana came from Asia – filtering outwards from the East across some 12,000 or so years of people discovering this was a super fun plant to indulge in.


SECTION BREAK – Mythically Intersex


Okay, let’s get a very brief amount of science out of the way as a public service, then it’s back to the folklore. The hard science of this definitely isn’t my speciality, but I pick up a few things here and there and it’s all interesting context. “Intersex” is one of the letters that come after the Q in LGBTQ+, part of the plus. The very short version is that genetic sex is weird, because humans are incredibly complex beings that share vaguely the same genetic blueprint. We just get Ikea’d together by nature out of the available parts as we develop from conception. Some hints of this are just everywhere if you stop and think about them, like why the hell do fully cisgender men have nipples? But in complexity lies variation, and in Intersex lies a lot of differences beyond a gender binary.


It can be people who are a bit of both. It can be people who are androgynous to the point of neither, at least not on an easily identifiable cosmetic level. It can be on a genetic level even if it doesn’t present physically. Not only is it possible to have three, four, or even five chromosomes instead of the usual two, having the usual two can go in strange directions. I think you can even have a single chromosome, but that may have been theoretical and my poor story focused brain is overheating from all the biology facts it’s trying to organise and present. You badly need an expert for more details than this, but it comes down to something very simple. There is enough variation in gender that a significant number of people can be either visually obviously off of the binary, or else could be a rare genetic anomaly and not even realise it.


Which is something people have always known for as long as there are people. The Talmud, for example, expressly refers to two types of possible androgyny in Jewish law: People who may have aspects of both sexes, and also people who have neither. There’s a slightly out of date reference to intersex conditions now which came directly from a figure of Greek mythology. The tale of Hermathroditus, which for the longest time gave us the term hermaphrodite.


Hermathroditus is an odd figure of myth, to put it lightly. An incredibly celebrated and fascinating one in artistic circles! But it’s a rather strange tale.


No mere demigod this time, Hermathroditus is the child of Aphrodite and Hermes. They managed to inherit the physicality of the messenger of the gods, combined with the beauty and appeal of their mother. While an absolute physical specimen of desire, Hermaphroditus was shy and just wanted leaving alone for the most part. Quite possibly because they were an instant desire magnet for anyone who set eyes upon them. When old enough to travel the world as a man, he went forth to enjoy nature. But avoiding civilisation didn’t always avoid catching the eyes of admirers.


He was spotted in the woods by a naiad called Salmacis, another kind of nymph like the mother of Achilles Thetis, only a freshwater version. Salmacis was instantly infatuated with the beautiful god when she managed to spot him near her territory, and while Hermathroditus wasn’t interested Greek myth includes a worrying amount of stories about people who don’t understand the meaning of the word “no”, although they do eventually manage to rebuff the naiad and try to move on.


Eventually Hermathroditus thinks he’s alone and takes the opportunity to bathe in the woods, but unfortunately picks Salmacis’s pool to do this. Unable to resist them while naked, she grabs the god and refuses to let go even as the scuffle starts to drown the poor victim of unwanted attention. Salmacis cannot stand to be spurned, and cries out to the gods for help because she never wants to be parted from Hermathroditus for as long as they shall live. Someone, or something, with a twisted sense of humour responds to grant this wish.


Only one person gets up and leaves this pool. A perfect fusion of the masculine and the feminine, on every level. There’s been a LOT of artwork about this topic across the years if you really need a diagram, but sufficed to say there’s a reason Hermathroditus became the mythic icon used to describe a person who had aspects of both sexes. We’re expressly NOT talking about gender expression here, this was the story Ancient Greece told to help understand the existence of those who are neither of the most common forms of sex.


The term “hermaphrodite” now is a pretty loaded one. The preferred broad umbrella term is intersex, although the old term has some specificity in the field of biology still. Moving away from the term “hermaphrodite” is part of a move away from a pervasive culture of surgical correction of intersex babies, it had been worryingly common place to just ask the parents which parts they want chopping off to supposedly “fix” an intersex child. It’s hugely important to understand that the XX/XY binary that gets taught to very young children isn’t the final say in the field of biology, life is complicated. Human life is the most complicated of all, and worth celebrating for it!


SECTION BREAK


I did have a fourth subject planned, but it seems as though trying to write about Homer’s epics carries some form of literary curse. In the attempt to describe, to even dare to summarise, anything in the Iliad or the Odyssey your word count shall explode! I’ll have to remember to come back to the story next year as part of a Pride episode that’s a bit less localised to Ancient Greece, but this is a region with quite a lot of content for topics across all of the LGBTQ+ spectrum.


We managed quite a robust Pride episode, tackling a neat range of topics while also keeping in plenty of legendary carnage. Whatever the topic, we are always her to edu-tain! Learning can be fun, especially when there’s a nice bloody war included.


For Pride, the one message I would like to send out is that people are people. They have always been people. Everything that seems “new” because it was hidden has always been there, we’re just now able to fully discuss and explore all of this thanks to being in the Information Age. Taking the time to break down cultural autopilot and celebrate those at the fringes in society is a good thing, bringing together everyone to celebrate their differences is a great thing!


LukeLore is a Ghost Story Guys production.

If you do want to contact me there’s the show’s dedicated email lukeloregsg@gmail.com, and the general show email ghoststoryguys@gmail.com. Both myself and the main show are really easy to find on Facebook and Twitter if you want to make day to day contact, as well as a very active Instagram account a lot of the community gets involved with.

If you want to support the show directly check out our Patreon at Patreon.com/ghoststoryguys. We do have LukeLore merchandise available at the Ghost Story Guys online store, feel very free to show off any you get online! We have an ongoing push to promote LukeLore more, and the dedicated Facebook group for the show is now live if you want to come join us over there.

As ever though, the absolute best thing anyone can do to support the show is to give it a listen. Share this around if you think you may know someone who may be interested, leave a review if you get the chance to help signal boost me, and most of all I simply hope you enjoy what I’m doing here.

Goodbye for now.


コメント


bottom of page