Great Ladies of History is a Patreon-sponsored essay series for tansyrr.com! One of the rewards at the $10 tier (Great Ladies Patron!) and at the $20 tier (Deluxe Super Special Queen-Emperor of Glorious Patronage) gives you the magical ability to choose any woman of history, fiction or art (yes, superhero comics count) for me to write about.
You can check out this and many other exciting Patreon rewards at my sponsorship page.
D. Franklin requested one of two amazing Ancient Greek ladies, and my policy in life is when in doubt, pick the Amazon. (the other option was Hypatia, but I don’t feel guilty about not picking her, because there’s a fabulous post about her here at The Original Black Woman).
The Amazons are a staple of Greek mythology – women warriors who are often held up these days as symbols of strength and feminism. In the ancient world, however, they were generally framed as monstrous, unnatural figures serving as the antagonists (or the objects) of male quests. It’s no coincidence that when the Amazons turn up in a story, it’s almost always at the point of being conquered, or killed – they are treated in art as equivalent to centaurs or other monstrous foes for the Greeks to battle against.
Most of the discussion around the Amazons in the ancient texts concerns their male-free culture, which sparked various theories as to how they acquired babies: by visiting a friendly tribe regularly to conceive, only to murder/hand back any boys born; or by enslaving the men conquered in battle. The rumour that they actually cut off a breast in order to free themselves for easier archery (because dying of infection, so convenient in the military) has been largely debunked, as it is not supported by the artistic depictions.
Those of the ancient world certainly believed Amazons had once existed, but even the oldest accounts we have describe them as a long-lost race, whose traditions were maintained by some cultures (Herododus claimed the Scythians were descended from Amazons, which is why they let their wives ride horses).
It’s more fun to believe they really existed, so let’s go with that.
Hippolyta, the most famous and iconic Amazon, is known for her appearance in the Twelve Labours of Hercules, a suite of mythological tales about how the hero earned redemption for killing his own family while under the malign influence of the goddess Hera. With Hippolyta, Hercules’ challenge was to take her girdle, which represented her power as queen of the Amazons – he did so by “seducing her” (which in Greek mythology can almost always be read as an act of dubious consent).
Hippolyta is also at least a bit famous because a) Shakespeare put her in a play and b) she is the mother of Wonder Woman.
Penthesilea is one of the named sisters of Hippolyta (along with Antiope), who were believed to be the daughters of Ares, God of War, with his consort Otrera. Unlike her sisters, Penthesilea belongs to the Trojan Cycle of myths, which automatically makes her my favourite (true fact: all myths become more awesome if connected to the Trojan War). Pliny credited her with the invention of the battle-axe, which is a pretty awesome legacy.
Having accidentally killed her sister Hippolyta in a hunting accident thanks to a stray breeze sent to you from the gods (the moral of the story is always that gods are terrible to humans) she sought absolution among the besieged Trojans after the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles, and turned up with a whole team of fierce Amazon warriors to help the war effort.
Penthesilea misses out on an appearance in the Iliad, thanks to unfortunate timing, but does appear in several of the unofficial sequels, by poets other than Homer. Sadly we know that she appeared in the Aethiopis, a now-lost epic which filled in the gap between the Iliad and the Little Iliad, but the epic itself has not survived to the present day.
The Aethiopis has Penthesilea and her Amazons arriving as Hector’s funeral (the last event of the Iliad) ends, and describes her glorious battle against the Greeks, which concludes when Achilles finally defeats and kills her. At the moment of her death, Achilles sees her face and either a) falls madly deeply in love with her (ugh) or b) feels really really guilty at what he has done. Either way, he weeps over her corpse, and the warrior Thersites makes fun of him for having feelings. Obviously Thersites has not been paying attention, because Achilles is basically a big squishy stress ball of feelings, that is the point of Achilles.
We do have the Post-Homerica, by Quintus Smyrnaeus, also known as Kointos Smyrnaios, who was writing around 4 CE. Yes, that’s more than a thousand years after the actual Trojan War. Yes, honestly, that doesn’t make him the peer of Homer any more than Gail Simone is. The good news is that his poem covers the ground of the Aetheopis and the Little Iliad – the bad news is that because it’s not as famous as the Iliad, it hasn’t had as many translations and, well, the only one I could find was from 1913, so it’s super flowery.
Marvelled the Argives, far across the plain seeing the hosts of Troy charge down on them, and midst them Penthesileia, Ares’ child. These seemed like ravening beasts that mid the hills bring grimly slaughter to the fleecy flocks; and she, as a rushing blast of flame she seemed that maddeneth through the copses summer-scorched, when the wind drives it on; and in this wise spake one to other in their mustering host: “Who shall this be who thus can rouse to war the Trojans, now that Hector hath been slain — these who, we said, would never more find heart to stand against us? Lo now, suddenly forth are they rushing, madly afire for fight! Sure, in their midst some great one kindleth them to battle’s toil! Thou verily wouldst say this were a God, of such great deeds he dreams! Go to, with aweless courage let us arm our own breasts: let us summon up our might in battle-fury. We shall lack not help of Gods this day to close in fight with Troy.”
Actually what am I even complaining about, this is amazing, you should read the whole thing. She has verses and verses about how badass she is.
It’s sad that Penthesilea is mostly known for her death, but on the bright side, an epic death was the sort of thing that kept you in the hearts and minds of the Ancient Greeks for, well, centuries. Penthesilea’s fighting prowess and death was super popular with ancient artists as well as poets, which kept her very much in the public memory. Indeed, there was one prolific 5th Century Attic vase painter who has been dubbed ‘the Penthesilea Painter’ thanks to a particularly excellent bowl; he is considered a master of his field and era.
Her legend as a fierce warrior woman continued through various literary traditions – in the Aeneid, Virgil uses the glorious word bellatrix (female warrior) to describe Penthesilea (though she isn’t named) as well as the Latin heroine Camilla of the Volsci, explicitly comparing the two (incidentally, HELLO, expect a Camilla short story from me sometime soon). And who could forget the moment in Lois McMaster Bujold’s SF novel Shards of Honour when Cordelia Naismith is described as Aral Vorkosigan’s “Betan Penthesilea”?
PhD in Classics aside, many of my own historical headcanons come from favourite novels, because that’s how I first fell in love with the ancient world, before academia got its paws on me.
My introduction to Penthesilea was in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s epic novel The Firebrand, which retells the myths of the Trojan War from the point of view of Kassandra, presenting a subversive matriarchal slant on history. Much like Bradley’s more famous novel The Mists of Avalon did for the Arthurian myths, The Firebrand totally hacked my brain and forever affected my interpretation of these stories.
In this version of the story, Queen Hecuba of Troy was the sister of Penthesilea and thus had strong connections to one of the last Amazon tribes – at one point in the story, Kassandra is sent to stay with her aunt and learns the ways of the Amazon warriors, which deeply affects her way of looking at the world when she returns to royal life. Penthesilea and her tribe come to aid the Trojans because of that family connection, and she dies that same glorious single battle in defence of the Trojans – though there is no romanticisation about Achilles and his reponse to her death.
In the same novel, Andromache (wife of Hector) is framed as the daughter of Penthesilea who was raised an Amazon but was better suited to city/palace life, which explains why her name means ‘fights like a man’ despite her notable lack of fight scenes in the Iliad.
For a slightly more cheerful (only slightly, and sometimes downright gritty) take on Amazon mythology, can I suggest a Xena Amazon-athon? Xena built up its own Amazon mythology based on female warriors, suspicion of outsiders, masks and other elements of tribal costume, and an expertise in tree-based guerilla warfare. Danielle Cormack’s Ephiny, Alison Bruce’s Melosa, Melinda Clarke’s Velasca and of course Renee O’Connor’s Gabrielle are particularly epic Amazons from the series. Episodes featuring the Amazons include Hooves and Harlots, The Quest, A Necessary Evil, Maternal Instincts, Adventures in the Sin Trade, Endgame and Last of the Centaurs.
But when the Dawn, the rosy-ankled, leapt up from her bed, then, clad in mighty strength of spirit, suddenly from her couch uprose Penthesileia. Then did she array her shoulders in those wondrous-fashioned arms given her of the War-god. 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 when high o’er Ocean’s fathomless-flowing stream she rises, with the space half filled with light betwixt her bowing horns. 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, which the might, the never-wearied might of Zeus, to earth hurleth, what time he showeth forth to men fury of thunderous-roaring rain, or swoop resistless of his shouting host of winds. 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.
Blonde hair aside, doesn’t that totally sound like he’s describing the Xena opening credits?
Also recommended if you’re in an Amazon frame of mind – this amazing Tumblr post about how to dress your Amazonian warrior, and why the Wonder Woman movie should totally feature stripey pants.
OTHER GREAT LADIES OF FICTION AND HISTORY
River Song: in the Hero Seat
Mary Vindicated: The Life & Politics of Mary Wollstonecraft