Iliad: Book 23 | The Funeral Games for Patroclus

Dcn. Harrison Garlick and Adam Minihan discuss Book 23 of the Iliad: The Funeral Games.

Check out this section of our guide to the Iliad!

Sleeping, Achilles? You’ve forgotten me, my friend. You never neglected me in life, only now in death. Bury me, quickly—let me pass the Gates of Hades

Patroclus (23.81)


100.    What happened in book twenty-three?

Now back at the Achaean camp, Achilles leads his Myrmidons in mourning around the body of Patroclus (23.13). That night, as Achilles lay by the shoreline, the ghost of Patroclus appears to him (23.76). Patroclus states: “Sleeping Achilles? You’ve forgotten me, my friend… bury me, quickly—let me pass the gates of Hades” (23.81). For as Patroclus further explains, he is not permitted to cross the river Styx until he has received his funeral rites (23.86).[1] Finally, Patroclus requests that his bones and the bones of Achilles be placed in a single urn and buried together (23.100). The next morning, Achilles has a pyre built for Patroclus (23.188). Achilles slaughters sheep, cattle, stallions, and two of Patroclus’ dogs and places them all on the pyre with Patroclus (23.190). He then slaughters a dozen young Trojans, as sacrifices to lay alongside Patroclus on his pyre (23.200). The pyre is lit and, after praying to two of the gods of the winds, it burns well (23.221). Meanwhile, Homer tells us that Apollo and Aphrodite are protecting the body of Hector from harm and decay (23.212).

Achilles tends to the pyre all night until “sleep overwhelms him” (23.265). Achilles awakes and tells the Achaeans to gather the bones of Patroclus and place them into a golden urn; then, the urn will be placed in a small barrow until Achilles dies, then a large barrow will be built for the two of them (23.281). Achilles then announces there will be “funeral games” (23.298), which will consist of a chariot race, boxing, wrestling, a footrace, a duel in battle gear, shot put, archery, and spear throwing. The culture of competition demonstrated in these funeral games would eventually give rise to the Olympics.[2]


101.    Who won the funeral games?

The winners of the chariot race were in order: Diomedes, Antilochus, Menelaus, Meriones, and Eumelus (23.572). Eumelus received a consolation prize from Achilles (23.621). Menelaus accuses Antilochus of a foul, Antilochus concedes to him; yet Menelaus’ anger relents, and the Spartan king gives the second prize, the mare, back to Antilochus (23.680). Achilles gives the original fifth place prize to Nestor as a reminder of Patroclus (23.689). Epeus defeats Euryalus in a boxing match (23.769). Giant Ajax and Odysseus wrestle to a stalemate (23.818). Odysseus, with the help of Athena, wins the footrace (23.864). In the duel in battle gear, Giant Ajax goes against Diomedes, but the friends of Giant Ajax call for it to stop (23.913). Achilles then awards a sword to Diomedes as the winner (23.915). In shot put, Polypoetes takes the prize (23.939). Meriones, with the blessing of Apollo, defeats Teucer in archery (23.977). Lastly, Agamemnon wins the spear throwing contest by default due to his station as the high king (23.989).


102.    What else should we observe in book twenty-three? 

The apparition of Patroclus reveals the religious understanding that a body denied its funeral rites condemns the soul to wander in the afterlife unable to cross the river Styx (23.81). It further illuminates the spiritual cruelty Achilles inflicts upon the Trojans in the river Xanthus in book twenty-two and his present cruelty to Hector. We also see an Achilles who is now deferential to Agamemnon and his role as high king (23.179, 986). The rage of Achilles—and arguably his inhuman arc toward deification—culminates in human sacrifice (23.199). It also recalls the story of Agamemnon and his daughter. It is almost comical how the gods must also interfere with the funeral games (23.432, 859, 965), but, on the other hand, piety is rewarded even in the small things. Iron again makes an appearance in the Iliad this time as a prize (23.917).

[1] Fagles, 632.

[2] Fagles, 57.


Join us!

Leave a Comment