A New Regard for the Word ‘Husband’

Ted and I in May 2021. Photo by Becky Gibson Portwood

Early in Madeline Miller’s gorgeous 2012 novel, The Song of Achilles, the young Greek warrior and title character refers to his lover Patroclus as his husband.

“My husband has come for me,” he bravely says to King Lycomedes, in whose palace Achilles has been hidden by his mother to avoid being killed in the Trojan War. “And now I may leave your court.”

It’s a joyful reunion, for Achilles’ mother, the goddess Thetis, has been trying to hide Achilles from Patroclus, too. She wants Achilles to father a child with Lycomedes’ daughter, Deidameia, in whom Achilles has no interest.

A modern take on an old story

Because I mention the legend of Achilles and Patroclus in my forthcoming memoir, I picked up Miller’s book this week. I’m glad I did.

Miller boldly drops the centuries-old reticence about what was really going on between Achilles and his “companion” Patroclus—no holds barred. Their relationship becomes a sexual one when they are teenagers, at which time they also pledge undying love to each other. For me, Miller fills in the details that I thought—hoped!—were hiding between the lines when I first read the Iliad in high school Latin class in 1967.

Sure, the book subtly refers to other historically chaste companions. “If you have to go, you know I will go with you,” Achilles says to Patroclus at one point, echoing Ruth’s words to Naomi in the Bible: “ … wither thou goest, I will go.” But Miller leaves no doubt that these two young men are more than devoted buddies. (I am sure Song of Achilles is on someone’s banned book list today.)

A forward-thinking author

Even with her daring retelling of the story, Miller’s use of the word husband surprised me. It made me curious about what Greek word Achilles might have used to describe what Patroclus meant to him. Turns out there isn’t a Greek word for husband—not specifically, at least. Like German, the Greek language uses the same word for man as for husband, for woman as for wife. So it’s clear Miller is taking poetic license here.

That’s okay by me. Because at this point in her story, Achilles and Patroclus are more than friends, more than lovers, more than companions. They have pledged their lives to one another, which is what we do in America these days when two men marry, when two men become, in our language, husband and husband.

Of course, gay marriage didn’t become legal in the U.S. until 2015, three years after Miller’s novel was published, so her book is especially forward-looking, and maybe a tad political. Shortly after its release, Time magazine described it as “a subtle swipe at today’s ongoing debate over gay marriage. Talk about updating the classics.”

Freeing a word from its shackles

In the English language, the word husband comes from the Old Norse hūsbōndi, where hūs meant house and bōndi meant a man who has land and stock, a definition that also connoted “master of the house.” In Miller’s story, Achilles and Patroclus don’t share a house the first time Achilles refers to Patroclus as his husband, but it’s clear they are home to one another. The house they share is in their hearts.

So husband is a perfect fit. And in her use of it, Miller does her part to release a word from the cultural limits we placed on it, especially when the Defense of Marriage Act came along in 1996, defining marriage as something only a man and woman could enter into. Good for her. Isn’t crashing through outmoded ways of thinking one of the reasons we pick up a good book?

Another reason to be grateful

For me, Miller’s book is a reminder, too—a reminder to be grateful for that wonderful moment on October 19, 2013, when Ted Brothers and I were publicly pronounced “husband and husband” at our church in the north Georgia mountains.

After 36 years as lovers, companions and partners, after 36 years of never having quite the right word to describe what we mean to one another, it was a joy to claim the word husband as our own.

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