Greek Hero

Penthesilea

Penthesilea was the last of the great Amazon queens. During the tenth year of the Trojan War, she fought bravely alongside the Trojans before falling to the Greek hero Achilles.

Top Questions

  • Who were Penthesilea’s parents?

    Penthesilea was the daughter of Ares, the Greek god of war, and the Amazon Otrera.

  • How did Penthesilea die?

    Penthesilea was killed in battle by Achilles during the Trojan War.

  • Did Achilles love Penthesilea?

    After Achilles had killed Penthesilea and stripped her of her armor, he was stunned by her beauty and fell in love with her.

Overview

Penthesilea, daughter of Ares and Otrera, was an Amazon queen who fought and died in the Trojan War. After Hector, the leader of the Trojan army, was killed in the final year of the war, Penthesilea arrived with a small but highly skilled troop of Amazon warriors to help the doomed city against the Greeks. Penthesilea slew many Greeks before being killed in turn by Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors at Troy. But when Achilles stripped Penthesilea of her armor and beheld her beauty, he fell in love with the fallen queen.

Etymology

Penthesilea’s name no doubt derives from the Greek root penth-, encountered in the verb pentheō (“to grieve, sorrow”) and the noun penthos (“grief, sorrow”). Penthesilea, then, can be translated as “She who brings grief”—an appropriate name considering the pain she caused to both her enemies and her allies.

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    PenthesileaΠενθεσίλεια
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [pen-the-si-LAY-uh]/pɛnˌθɛ sɪˈleɪə/

Attributes and Iconography

Like all Amazons, Penthesilea was a skilled warrior. But she was also extraordinarily beautiful—so beautiful that just one glimpse of her dead body caused the hardened hero Achilles to fall in love with her. Quintus of Smyrna gives a detailed description of the stunning Penthesilea in his Posthomerica:

in her face glowed beauty glorious and terrible. Her smile was ravishing: beneath her brows, her love-enkindling eyes shone like to stars, and with the crimson rose of shamefastness bright were her cheeks, and mantled over them unearthly grace with battle-prowess clad.[1]

In ancient art, Penthesilea was represented as a young woman wearing exotic armor, like other Amazon warriors. Her death at the hands of Achilles was a popular subject of painters from the middle of the sixth century BCE.[2]

Family

Penthesilea was the daughter of Ares, the Greek god of war, and the Amazon Otrera.[3] Her sisters included other famous Amazons of Greek myth, including Hippolyta, Antiope, Melanippe, and Orithyia.

In some traditions, Penthesilea had a son named Caustrus (the father is not named), who in turn became the father of Semiramis, the famous mythical queen of Babylon.[4]

Family Tree

Mythology

Troy and Achilles

During the tenth and final year of the Trojan War, Penthesilea arrived in Troy with a small but fierce band of warriors to defend the city. The war had been instigated when the Trojan prince Paris carried off Helen, the beautiful wife of the Greek king Menelaus. To get Helen back, Menelaus and the other Greek kings gathered a massive army and attacked Troy. The Trojans put up a valiant defense, bringing in allies from all over Asia Minor. Penthesilea was one of the last allies of the doomed city.

According to some authors, Penthesilea came to Troy after accidentally killing her sister Hippolyta. While they were hunting together, Penthesilea’s spear missed its mark and struck Hippolyta instead. A grieving Penthesilea went to Troy to be purified of her blood-guilt by Priam, the king. Afterwards, she and her warriors thanked Priam by helping him fight the Greeks.[5]

For a time—just a single day in most accounts—Penthesilea dominated the battlefield and killed many Greeks. But she was finally slain by Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors at Troy.

Arturo Michelena, Penthesilea, 1891

Penthesilea by Arturo Michelena (1891). Instituto Autonomo Circulo Militar de las Fuerzas Armadas, Caracas, Venezuela.

Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain

When Achilles stripped Penthesilea of her armor (it was common practice in antiquity to take the armor of a defeated opponent as a trophy), he was struck by her beauty. Quintus of Smyrna vividly represents the sight:

In her armour there upon the earth she lay, and seemed the Child of Zeus, the tireless Huntress Artemis sleeping, what time her feet forwearied are with following lions with her flying shafts over the hills far-stretching. 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.[6]

When the Greeks saw Achilles grieving for Penthesilea, most pitied him. But one Greek warrior—Thersites, known as the ugliest of the Greeks—taunted Achilles for falling in love with his fallen enemy. According to some accounts, Thersites accused Achilles of necrophilia or even gouged out the dead Penthesilea’s eyes.[7] In a burst of rage, Achilles struck Thersites and killed him where he stood.

Achilles and Penthesilea-Exekias

Amphora depicting Achilles and Penthesilea. Attributed to Exekias (530–525 BCE). British Museum, London, UK.

aaron wolpertCC BY 2.0

Some traditions state that Achilles then honored Penthesilea with a funeral near Troy or gave her body to the Trojans for burial.[8] But according to another version, the murder of Thersites enraged Diomedes, a relative of Thersites and another Greek hero fighting at Troy, who threw Penthesilea’s body into a river in revenge.[9]

Other Versions

Though in the common tradition Penthesilea fought on the side of the Trojans and died at Achilles’ hand, there were other versions of her myth.

In one strange variant, Penthesilea actually killed Achilles when she met him in battle. But Achilles’ mother Thetis, who was a sea goddess, brought Achilles back to life so that he could kill Penthesilea. Afterwards, Achilles returned to the Underworld.[10]

In another variant, Penthesilea only came to Troy’s aid after Achilles had been defeated. Instead of falling to Achilles, then, this version of Penthesilea fell to his son Neoptolemus.[11]

Pop Culture

Perhaps the most famous modern treatment of the myth of Penthesilea is the 1808 drama Penthesilea by Heinrich von Kleist. This work—in which Penthesilea kills Achilles, rather than the other way around—continues to be performed and adapted today.

Another literary rendition of the myth can be found in Robert Graves’ poem “Penthesilea.” Graves offers a disturbing interpretation of the myth, in which

Prince Achilles

… for love of that fierce white naked corpse,

Necrophily on her committed

In the public view.[12]

This tableau is a reference to the variant (also attested in antiquity) in which Achilles had sex with Penthesilea’s corpse, or was at least accused of doing so (see above).

Penthesilea has also played an important role in various modern novels based on the myth of the Trojan War, including Christa Wolf’s Cassandra (1983) and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Firebrand (1987). 

More recently, Penthesilea appeared in the 2018 BBC television miniseries Troy: Fall of a City.

Finally, the asteroid 271 Penthesilea, discovered in 1887, was named after the mythical Amazon queen.

References

Notes

  1. Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 56–61, trans. A. S. Way.

  2. See Anneliese Kossatz-Deissmann, “Achilleus,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 1 (Zurich: Artemis, 1981), 161–71; Pierre Devambez and Aliki Kauffmann-Samaras, “Amazones,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 1 (Zurich: Artemis, 1981), 597–601; Ernst Berger, “Penthesileia,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 7 (Zurich: Artemis, 1994), 296–305.

  3. Aethiopis (fragments); Apollodorus, Epitome 5.1; Hyginus, Fabulae 112.

  4. Etymologicum Magnum, s.v. “Kaustros.”

  5. Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 2.46.5; Apollodorus, Epitome 5.1; Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 1.22ff. A slightly different account of Penthesilea’s arrival in Troy is given in Dictys of Crete, Journal of the Trojan War 4.2ff; in this version, Penthesilea actually brings a huge Amazon force.

  6. Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 1.663–74, trans. A. S. Way.

  7. Lycophron, Alexandra 997; Eustathius on Homer’s Iliad 2.220; John Tzetzes on Lycophron’s Alexandra 997; scholia on Sophocles’ Philoctetes 445; etc.

  8. Tryphiodorus, Taking of Troy 37; Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 1.782ff; John Tzetzes on Lycophron’s Alexandra 997.

  9. Dictys of Crete, Journal of the Trojan War 4.3.

  10. Photius, Library 190 = Epitome of Ptolemy Hephaestion’s New History.

  11. Dares of Phrygia, History of the Fall of Troy 36.

  12. Robert Graves, “Penthesilea,” in Selected Poems, ed. Michael Longley (London: Faber & Faber, 2013).

Primary Sources

Greek

  • Aethiopis: Though this epic (seventh or sixth century BCE) survives only in fragments, it would have been the earliest literary source for the myth of Penthesilea.

  • Lycophron: The Alexandra (third century BCE) tells of how Penthesilea’s slave Clete went in search of her master after she did not return from Troy, eventually ending up in Italy.

  • Diodorus of Sicily: There are references to Penthesilea in Book 4 of the Library of History (first century BCE).

  • Pausanias: There are a few references to the myth of Penthesilea in the Description of Greece (second century CE).

  • Apollodorus: The myth of Penthesilea is summarized in the Epitome (first century BCE or first few centuries CE).

  • Quintus of Smyrna: A detailed account of Achilles’ battle with Penthesilea can be found in Book 1 of the Posthomerica (fourth century CE).

  • Photius: The Library (ninth century CE) provides an “Epitome” (i.e., a summary) of the universal history of Pompeius Trogus (written in the second century BCE). In this work, Achilles is initially killed by Penthesilea and then brought back to life so that he can kill her.

Roman

  • Virgil: Penthesilea and her doomed battle with Achilles is mentioned in the beginning of the Aeneid (19 BCE).

  • Hyginus: There are references to Penthesilea in the Fabulae, a mythological handbook of the first or second century CE.

  • Justin: Penthesilea appears in Justin’s second-century CE “Epitome” of Pompeius Trogus’ universal history (second century BCE).

  • Dictys of Crete: The myth of Penthesilea is told in Book 4 of the Journal of the Trojan War, a prose work of the fourth century CE claiming to be a first-hand account of the Trojan War.

  • Dares the Phrygian: In the History of the Fall of Troy (sixth century CE), Penthesilea is killed by Neoptolemus rather than Achilles.

Secondary Sources

  • Berger, Ernst. “Penthesileia.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 7, 296–305. Zurich: Artemis, 1994.

  • Block, Josine H. The Early Amazons: Modern and Ancient Perspectives on a Persistent Myth. Leiden: Brill, 1995.

  • Devambez, Pierre and Aliki Kauffmann-Samaras. “Amazones.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 1, 586–653. Zurich: Artemis, 1981.

  • DuBois, Page. Centaurs and Amazons: Women and the Pre-History of the Great Chain of Being. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

  • Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

  • Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955.

  • Harder, Ruth Elisabeth. “Penthesilea.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e913180.

  • Kerényi, Károly. The Heroes of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974.

  • Man, John. Searching for the Amazons: The Real Warrior Women of the Ancient World. New York: Pegasus Books, 2018.

  • March, Jenny. “Penthesilea.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 1104. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

  • Mayor, Adrienne. The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

  • Ridgway, Brunilde Sismondo. “A Story of Five Amazons.” American Journal of Archaeology 78 (1974): 1–17. https://doi.org/10.2307/503751

  • Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen, 1929.

  • Smith, William. “Penthesileia.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed August 26, 2021. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DP%3Aentry+group%3D13%3Aentry%3Dpenthesileia-bio-1.

  • Theoi Project. “Penthesileia.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Heroine/AmazonPenthesileia.html.

  • Tyrrell, William Blake. Amazons: A Study in Athenian Mythmaking. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

  • Von Rothmer, Dietrich. Amazons in Greek Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957.

  • Wilde, Lyn Webster. A Brief History of the Amazons: Women Warriors in Myth and History. London: Robinson, 2017.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Penthesilea.” Mythopedia, November 29, 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/penthesilea.

Kapach, Avi. “Penthesilea.” Mythopedia, 29 Nov. 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/penthesilea. Accessed on 29 Nov. 2022.

Kapach, A. (2022, November 29). Penthesilea. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/penthesilea

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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