Have you heard of the woman who almost turned the tide of the Trojan war against the Greeks? Take a seat and let me share her tale with you.
Her name was Penthesileia (Greek: Πενθεσίλεια), a woeful name meaning the ‘grief of/for/by her people’. It’s formed from the two Greek words – penthos meaning grief or mourning, and laos, the people. Her mortal enemy, Achilles, carries a name with a similar meaning: akhos ‘pain, grief’ and laos ‘the people’.
We know very little about Penthesileia, which is probably why most people haven’t heard of her. She does not make it into the Iliad, which ends just after the funeral of the great Trojan hero, Hector. The next step in the story which we term the Trojan Epic Cycle would be the arrival of Penthiselia and her band of Amazon warriors.
We know that her story was told in a book called the Aethiopis (The Ethiopians) which detailed the stories of the Amazon Queen and the Ethiopian King, Memmnon, both allies of the city of Troy. The Aethiopis was attributed to Arctinus of Miletus and written down in the 8th century BCE, but unfortunately the book was later lost, our only records of the story today are in references to it in other works. About five hundred years later the story is retold in The Fall of Troy (aka Posthomerica) written by Quintus of Smyrna and this book serves as our most solid source about Penthesileia.
In The Fall of Troy, Quintus tells us that Penthesileia was from Thermadon. I may be incorrect, but I think this is referring to what is now called the Terme River in Turkey. “Then from Thermodon, from broad-sweeping streams, came, clothed upon with beauty of goddesses, Penthesileia came…” (Quintus 1, 22). Her father was Ares, God of War, while her mother went by the name of Otrera. She also had three sisters: Hippolyta, Antiope and Melanippe. It was because of Hippolyta that Penthesileia found herself at Troy.
During a hunt, Penthesileia had mistaken her sister for a deer and killed her with a thrown spear and imposed a sort of self-exile on herself because of the accident. This exile after a manslaughter or murder was not at all unusual in the ancient world. Many ancient heroes, including Oedipus and Herakles, found themselves in other lands to do service to some other leader in order to cleanse themselves of the miasma (pollution) of their crimes. Even Patroclus, Achilles’ childhood friend and adult companion, was brought to Achilles’ father Peleus as a child because he had killed another child over a game.
Penthesileia arrives at Troy with twelve of her fellow Amazons and is warmly welcomed by Priam, King of the Trojans. The next morning she rises and dresses herself for battle in a very traditional armoring-up scene:
“Then did she array her shoulders in those wondrous-fashioned arms given her of Ares. First she laid beneath her silver-gleaming knees the greaves fashioned of gold, close-clipping the strong limbs. Her rainbow-radiant corslet clasped she then about her, and around her shoulders slung, with glory in her heart, the massy brand whose shining length was in a scabbard sheathed of ivory and silver. Next, her shield unearthly splendid, caught she up, whose rim swelled like the young moon’s arching chariot-rail . . . So did it shine unutterably fair. Then on her head she settled the bright helmet overstreamed with a wild mane of golden-glistering hairs. So stood she, lapped about with flaming mail, in semblance like the lightning . . . Then in hot haste forth of her bower to pass caught she two javelins in the hand that grasped her shield-band; but her strong right hand laid hold on a huge halberd, sharp of either blade, which terrible Eris gave to Ares’ child to be her Titan weapon in the strife that raveneth souls of men.” (Quintus 1, 173)
A closer look at her arms and armour proves quite interesting. Her shield is described with a rim curved like the young (new) moon’s arch. This may be a reference to the peltas shield. This shield differed from the large round or oval shields that ancient Greeks were using at the time and came in the form of a crescent usually formed with woven willow and covered in hide. It may even have been edged or gilded with bronze or other precious metals. A shield such as this would have been light and mobile enough to carry while riding, and if the Amazons were famous for one thing it was their horsemanship skills.
The weapon she is said to carry (beyond her two javelins) is translated here as a halberd, but the Greek itself refers to the weapon as an ‘ox-killing axe’. This more than likely refers to a labrys, a large double-sided axe that was commonly found as a motif and ceremonial object in the Minoan culture of Crete. It is, in fact, where we get the word a labyrinth from — the place of the labrys, the place of the double-axes. Ovid also mentions in his Metamorphoses that “Thermodontiaca malles cecidisse bipenni” (…you would have preferred being cut down by the Thermodontiaca’s (Penthesilea) two-edges.) (Ovid 12. 611).
After getting dressed Penthesileia mounts up onto her steed and sets off with her twelve companions to battle the Greeks on the field. The Amazons do not just fight well, they terrorize the Greek army:
“In each man’s heart all lust of battle died, and fear alone lived. This way, that way fled the panic-stricken: some to earth had flung the armour from their shoulders; some in dust grovelled in terror beneath their shields: the steeds fled through the rout unreined of charioteers. In rapture of triumph charged the Amazons, with groan and scream of agony died the Greeks. Withered their manhood was in that sore strait; brief was the span of all whom that fierce maid mid the grim jaws of battle overtook…” (Quintus 1, 643)
At the point where the Amazons have almost completely routed the Greeks and will shortly set their ships on fire, Achilles returns from Patroclus’ grave and takes to the field. The two heroes duel in most epic fashion with Achilles finally managing to kill the Amazon queen with a spear that goes through both herself and her horse. They come crashing to the ground and Achilles crouches to remove her helmet at which point he is struck with a deep sadness and longing:
“She was made a wonder of beauty even in her death by Aphrodite glorious-crowned, the Bride of the strong War-god, to the end that he, the son of noble Peleus, might be pierced with the sharp arrow of repentant love. The warriors gazed, and in their hearts they prayed that fair and sweet like her their wives might seem, laid on the bed of love, when home they won. Yea, and Achilles’ very heart was wrung with love’s remorse to have slain a thing so sweet, who might have borne her home, his queenly bride, to chariot-glorious Phthia; for she was flawless, a very daughter of the Gods, divinely tall, and most divinely fair.” (Quintus 1, 891)
There is a good deal of scholarship on the relationship between Achilles and Penthesileia, and their natures as two halves, mirror images of each other. As I said near the beginning of the article, even their names share similar meanings. Perhaps what Achilles falls in love with is the mirror image of himself, a female reflection that matches up to everything he thinks that he is. Someone who could finally challenge him both in battle and in beauty.
But is Penthesileia merely a reflection? A foil for us to better understand the grand hero of the war? I think not. I think the Amazon Queen stands as a heroine in her own right, and after her death she is so respected by the Greeks that they give back not only her corpse, but the corpses of all the Amazons to the Trojans. She, like Hector, has a hero’s funeral and is buried in a tomb alongside other male heroes with even greater honours. Maybe then, finally, she could rest in peace along with her sister.
- Quintus Smyrnaeus. The Fall of Troy. Translated by Way. A. S. Loeb Classical Library Volume 19. London: William Heinemann, 1913.
- Mayor, Adrienne. The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World. Princeton University Press. 2014.
- Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by More, Brookes. Boston, Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922.
- Theoi.com. Penthesileia. (https://www.theoi.com/Heroine/AmazonPenthesileia.html)