All the Violet Tiaras: Queering the Greek Myths


‘Ancient Greek myth and culture has infiltrated the way in which we talk about queer literature in the twenty- first century, particularly online.’

404 Ink’s Inklings series of books goes from strength to strength, introducing readers to exciting new topics. This month they publish Jean Menzies’ exploration of queer identity in Greek myths in the 21st century. We hope you enjoy this extract.


All The Violent Tiaras: Queering the Greek Myths
By Jean Menzies
Published by 404 Ink


Ancient Greek myth and culture has infiltrated the way in which we talk about queer literature in the twenty- first century, particularly online. Sapphic has become one of, if not the, go to term to refer to art which features women who love women, whether they be lesbians, bi- sexual, pansexual, or some whether else on the m- spectrum. The term long predates the invention of social media but it’s particularly interesting to me that when looking for a way to signpost books featuring queer women, we have landed on an ancient name. Something similar is happening with the term Achillean, which is being used more and more to describe books featuring men who love men (for reference, #SapphicBooks and #AchilleanBooks have over 310 million and 3.6 million results on TikTok respectively, at the time of writing in 2023).  

Even when speaking to authors and book reviewers this came up, with Bea Fitzgerald (author of Girl, Goddess, Queen and book reviewer @chaosonlympus) noting Sapphic Greek mythology books recommendations are among the most common requests she received. But where do these terms come from? Achilles is a mythological figure probably most famous (in terms of queer relevancy) for his romantic relationship with another man named Patroclus, who we’ll discuss in more depth shortly, so let’s focus on Sappho for a moment. Sappho is not a figure of mythology, but a writer herself. In the foreword to Mary Barnard’s translation of Sappho’s work, Dudley Fitts succinctly summarises what we know about Sappho: she is a ‘lyricist’ and she is ‘greek’, ‘the rest is speculation’. She is one of very, very few ancient women writers we have any surviving texts from and included in those texts are love poems to both men and women. We don’t actually know Sappho’s sexuality but, given her unique role in history, over the centuries her name has become synonymous with women who love women. Note, when I say we don’t know Sappho’s sexuality, I’m not trying to be a killjoy and nor do I think that lack of knowledge invalidates the impact her legacy has had on the queer community and for queer women in particular. Personally, I think of her as a bi-con, but then I’m biased.  

This is a particularly interesting topic given the lack of explicitly ‘Sapphic’ women in classical mythology itself. In contrast with the expectation that sexual relationships would be formed between two men in ancient Greece (with the caveat that only heterosexual marriage was legal), relationships between two women were not condoned. Women’s sexuality was tightly controlled according to how it benefitted men, in what was an aggressively patriarchal society. Despite this, we know through a combination of common sense and the surviving poetry of Sappho herself, that queer women did exist. And, though they were pushed into the shadows, or completely ignored in their time, many queer relationships are now not only having a light shone on them by authors, those that did exist or that could have been, but are sitting at the forefront of literary culture. 


Madeline Miller’s bestselling novel The Song Achilles (2012) recounts the love story of the Greek heroes Achilles and Patroclus. According to ancient Greek mythology Achilles and Patroclus were both warriors who knew each other from childhood and fought on the side of the Achaeans (Greeks) during the Trojan War. When Achilles  perceives his general Agamemnon of dishonouring him, he refuses to continue fighting. Patroclus then dons Achilles’ armour and wears it into battle, which results in his death at the hands of the Trojan prince Hector. Upon learning of Patroclus’ fate Achilles is overwhelmed by grief and anger, returning to the fight to avenge him. Miller’s novel generally follows the ancient myth’s series of events; she begins the story during Achilles and Patro-clus childhood, charting the development of their rela-tionship, and subsequently the romantic aspect, over the years, before their infamous ending.  

At the time of writing, #TheSongOfAchilles, #TSOA and #SongOfAchilles have racked up more than 650 million views collectively on TikTok, with a plethora of related and misspelled hashtags receiving numbers in the hundreds of thousands. The same hashtags have been used no less than 194,000 times on Instagram, with thousands of written works under The Song of Achilles umbrella on Archive of Our Own, the fanfiction site. In 2021, nearly ten years after its original publication, The Song of Achilles was back on the New York Times bestseller list, thanks almost entirely to TikTok hype. As someone who has spent more than ten years of their life making bookish content online, first on YouTube and then pretty much everywhere else, I’ve always understood the power of online fandoms. TikTok has been something else. It has had an international influence on book sales that we’ve never seen before and whether you think ‘their’ taste is highbrow enough for you or not, that impact is kind of incredible – to this author and reader, at least. The fact that so many of the books reaching new heights feature positive queer representation therefore is even more exhilarating.  

But the question on everyone’s lips: were the ancient Achilles and Patroclus romantically involved? It depends who you ask. The nature of their relationship is a controversial one both in fandom and academic spaces. The earliest surviving version of their story comes to us via Homer’s epic poem the Iliad, set over the course of Achilles’ final days during the Trojan War. Here, there is nothing to explicitly indicate they are lovers. Achilles loves Patroclus as is clearly indicated by his grief over his death, and you could certainly read that as romantic love, many have. But, as others have pointed out, the text is far from conclusive and what might sound like a romantic expression of emotion to modern readers can’t be definitively read as such for a historical civilisation where social mores were not our own. A few hundred years later, by the classical period, there are writers who explicitly reference the romantic relationship between the two. Plato, for example, specifically refers to Patroclus as Achilles’ lover on a number of occasions in his Symposium, as well as specifying that Achilles chose death in part to be reunited with Patroclus in the underworld (179e-180b). So, who’s right? Well, I’ve never been convinced that one text is a more accurate version of a myth by virtue of its age – haven’t I been going on about the malleability of myth? There were clearly ancient Greek versions of Achilles and Patroclus relationship that were romantic, and there were ancient people who read their dynamic as lovers. Just as Miller has. 


All The Violent Tiaras: Queering the Greek Myths by Jean Menzies is published by 404 Ink, priced £7.50.

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