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The Concept of “Therapon” in Homer’s “Iliad”


Homer’s poem “Iliad” uses a concept of “therapon” which is not typical for any of other writers of those times and of modern times as well. The concept concerns the character whose actions are described in the lines “Three times he charged with the headlong speed of Ares, /Screaming his savage cry, three times he killed nine men” (Homer, Knox, and Fagles 438), which fill those who are familiar with the poem with pride for this person. These lines are about Patroclus who was killed by Hector in the Trojan War. Homer’s poem “The Iliad” strikes the reader not only with a large number of characters and depiction of events in a verisimilar manner, but by a number of concepts Homer makes use of. The concepts of courage, love, and friendship are inherent parts of the poem and can be traced throughout each of the twenty four books “The Iliad” is divided into. However, the concept of “therapon” deserves special attention. Some people tend to refer Patroclus to Achilles‘closest friends whereas others state that “therapon” is the concept which describes Achilles and Patroclus’ relationships in the best possible way. It is necessary to find out which meanings the word “therapon” has in “The Iliad”, to define why this word can be used when discussing Patroclus, and why namely Patroclus’ death is crucial for the poem in which a number of other people are also being killed during the war.

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What should be mentioned above all is that in Homer’s poems the concept of “therapon” means the close companion of the hero. In case with “The Iliad” the hero is Achilles and Patroclus is not only his closest companion but his squire, his henchman who is loyal and devoted to him. The fact that Patroclus was Achilles’ therapon, his squire, does not necessarily mean that he was of lower social status. He served Achilles which means that he, in fact, was subordinated to him but since Achilles was in constant need of Patroclus and to some extent depended on him, he cannot be regarded as his servant. Before setting off to Troy, Patroclus’ father instructed him to assist Achilles and to contribute to his success in the war because, though Achilles was much younger than Patroclus, he was of a noble descent and, in addition, much stronger physically. Decisive role here plays the fact that before being adopted to Achilles’ household, Patroclus killed a young man in his native country. Since slaying a person in the ancient Greece was a sign of fortitude, Achilles’ father considered Patroclus to be brave enough and worth being his son’s therapon. Therefore, the concept “therapon”, as related to Homer’s poem, means an assistant, a squire, and a close companion of the hero who is fighting in the war.

What else should be noted is that “therapon” means ritual substitution. Originally, all warriors who are described in “The Iliad” are therapons of Ares, or his ritual substitution. Ares is the god of war this is why all the warriors who participate in the war fight on the part of Ares, thus, substituting him. If a warrior died during the war, he was treated as a cult hero. Achilles is Ares’ therapon and he becomes identical to him at the moment of his death. Nevertheless, when it comes to relations between Achilles and Patroclus, the latter can be considered Achilles’ therapon, his substitution, for he fought and met his death instead of him. Becoming a cult hero was an integral part of Greek warriors’ life. It gave them honor without which the life lost its sense this is why when setting off to war the warriors ignored any warnings about keeping off the situations which threatened their lives. Courage, physical strength, and readiness to lose lives in the war were the features that constituted heroic values and contributed to deserving the honor. The warriors could win the highest honor only at war by losing their lives in a battle like Patroclus did. He took Achilles’ armour and substituted him at the battlefield: “Patroclus kept on sweeping in, hacking them down / making them pay the price for Argives slaughtered” (Homer, Knox, and Fagles 425). Thereby, Patroclus plays the role of an intermediate dying as Achilles’ therapon and by this substitution making Achilles die indirectly as Ares’ therapon.

And finally, it is necessary to justify the significance of Patroclus’s death for the poem “The Iliad”. First of all, his death is a sign of his loyalty to Achilles and his being a real therapon; moreover, by substituting Achilles at the battlefield Patroclus saved Achilles’ life. This adds to the explanation of the concept of “therapon” and lets the reader know why exactly Achilles valued Patroclus so much: “My dear comrade’s dead — Patroclus — the man I loved beyond all other comrades, loved as my own life” (Homer, Knox, and Fagles 470). However, the real importance of Patroclus’ death lies in his giving Achilles strength to continue fighting because the anger which his therapon’s death evoked in him, made Achilles seek revenge: “To arm – son of Peleus! Most terrifying man alive! / Defend Patroclus! It’s all for him, this merciless battle / pitched before the ships” (Homer, Knox, and Fagles 473). What’s more, it was Patroclus’ death that brought Achilles back to the war and made him slay the enemies even more severely than before; although he lost other comrades in the battles, their death did to affect him so much as the loss of a precious friend. And, finally, Patroclus’ death made Achilles realize his mortality and he ventured to kill Hector, though it was predicted that his own death would follow shortly after the Hector’s.


Taking into consideration everything discussed above, it can be concluded that the concept of “therapon” which can be observed in Homer’s poem “The Iliad” can be interpreted in different ways. Patroclus can be regarded as Achilles’ therapon since he was his squire and assisted him during the war. His primary task was counseling his lord in the battles and giving his life for him if it was needed. Another interpretation of the concept is “ritual substitution” which took place with Patroclus’ taking Achilles’ armour and meeting his death instead of his lord. This also indicated Achilles’ indirect death as a therapon of Ares for who all the warriors were a ritual substitution. And, eventually, the importance of Patroclus’ death for Homer’s audience lied in fulfilling his mission as Achilles’ therapon and giving Achilles strength to get back to fighting. The revenge, Achilles was seeking after Patroclus death, made Achilles slay Hector, even though the prophecy stated that Hector’s death was going to involve Achilles’ death as well.

Works Cited

Homer, Knox, B.M.W., Fagles, R. The Iliad. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.


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