Panel 7: the death of the queen
In the battle, Achilles will strike Penthesilea, drawing profuse blood from her chest. She collapses from her mount and considers surrender, as her eyes grow dim. Powerful Achilles strikes a second time and the queen falls into the dirt, her eyes making contact one last time as the son of Peleus is moved by her beauty.
The Amazon warriors rode screaming onto the battleground in flashing battle-gear, boar-tusk helmets, corselets of hardened linen, with bows and quivers and leather-bound heels urging nimble ponies to war. From their foaming mounts they moved unimpeded by chariot wheels, casting arrow after arrow, bone tips, harder than iron, piercing defenseless hoplites falling from all sides to Amazon accuracy. Clad in the rage of fight they close on the Argives, like beasts locked in a tangle of gory strife. Their bright metal battle-axes fashioned in Achaean foundries clanged together with clumsy lances and cut through stiffened corselets and wooden shields.
Here were people doing irrational things to others and to themselves. What started with the war cries and ringing of metal was now mayhem. But it was exciting as well for the Amazon warriors, with their war-hardened bodies urging them forward from within. Some have imagined women as fragile yet here we see men under attack standing helpless. You would never see a woman do that for she is always under assault, whether at home or on a battlefield. Women learn quickly that if they don’t fight back they die. There is no place for female compassion, no room for emotion.
What do Amazons think while at war? Pull the bowstring, reach for an arrow and pull again. “Kill them before they kill you!” There were so many bone-tipped arrows on that day. Then the Trojans flowed from the gates, each stabbing at flesh with fierce brass against brass. And the soil flowed crimson-red.
In the confusion, Penthesilea dismounted her pony to face alone the Syntagmatarches Molion. She stepped back, turning her body to his right side, threatening from above with her spear and appearing at first to leave her liver vulnerable. Molion aimed his sword directly at it from below but encountered two problems. It is more difficult to strike a body disposed sideways and in order to succeed he had to either stretch ahead or take a step. By exposing herself the Amazon invited a direct thrust with his sword. Molion should have protected himself with his shield, but her side seemed so tempting as he lunged.
Penthesilea shifted her centre of gravity to the leg that he moved. Making a swift turning move, her right arm blocked his sword arm and her chest was now next to his right shoulder, her weapon braced against his open belly His shield was on the left and his right arm stretched ahead in a vain attempt to strike as he was slain.
Next his lieutenant Persinous fell, and then Eilissus and Antitheus felt the iron spear. Remounting, the Queen slew Naubolos, the pride of Lernus, with her axe and bore down on Hippalmus, crushing his back with her horse-hoofs and then stalwart Elasippus succumbed to her rage.
Penthesilea looked up momentarily to see her sister Derinoe in what appeared to be a critical position. She had fallen and Laogonus attacked her with his spear from above, lunging with all of his strength. But Derinoe like a string turned her body. Placing her shield against the spear, she shifted her left leg ahead and at the same time stood, crushing his unprotected head and chest with her shield.
Ignoring her option to clip a vein inside of his thigh, she plunged her spear into the Achaean’s open belly. Dying, he slid along her shield by inertia and was thrown to her left. Derinoe quickly remounted her pony and without hesitation swung her deadly axe while her fierce handmaidens, sex disguised by shields and helmets, continued to push and force the Argives toward the dusty moat now stirring in retreat.
Menippus, who had sailed nine years earlier from Phylace, led by his lord Protesilaus to the war with Truwisa, was felled by young Klonie. Podarces, son of Iphiclus, angered to see his best beloved of all battle-comrades, Menippus, lie broken, responded by swiftly plunging his unswerving lance into Klonie, the maid fair as a goddess. He ruthlessly twisted and pulled and with a rush of dark blood her bowels gushed out to the ground where she fell.
Penthesilea, with a cry of rage, leapt at him, and with her axe, cut cleanly through his great blood-brimming veins. A crimson fountain spewed from his severed arm and with a groan Podarces turned in shock to see the face of the vengeful daughter of Ares. He sprang backward, his courage broken by pain, sorrow and dismay, to flee, followed by his men of Phylace. At the moat, he reeled aside but was helped down into the arms of a comrade.
Then noble Idomeneus, grandson of Minos and king of Crete, thrust out with his lance and plunged it into the right breast of Bremusa. Her heart stilled, she fell as a tall graceful-shafted pine would, heavily sighing through its boughs and then crashing to the earth. It was in such a way that the princess fell to her death, her tall and powerful body collapsing, her limbs void of life as her soul mingled with the sighing winds.
Euandre and Thermodosa rushed through the murderous fray to avenge their sister but Merione the archer stood beside Idomeneus as a lion in the path. His spear pierced the heart of Euandre who fell, surprised at the banality of her death, and then he turned to Thermodosa at his right. Thrusting his seasoned sword under her toughened linen breastplate, he found a vulnerable spot between her hips. The brave sister fell back, pushed by his lightning stroke. She was only aware of warm blood draining from her belly as her sun faded to the soft darkness and silence of dusk.
Then the fiery son of Oileus plunged his ruthless spear between the throat and shoulder of Derinoe. She twisted in defence, grasping the bronze-tipped lance but he pulled it back fiercely, severing her fingers. Horrified, she fell from her pony; blood gushing forth and died alongside the wounded Argives.
The terrible Diomedes suddenly swooped on Derimakheia and Alkibie. With axe-like precision his sword sheared through the sinews of the neck, severing their heads one after the other. Together the Amazons fell like ceremonial calves, not by their beloved Thermodon River to be buried by sisters, but on the blood-seeded Trojan plain. But they were not the only ones keen to fight who fell that day.
Aeneas, son of Anchises, led from the gates the archers and chariots and all the brave Trojans who were driven to defend their city. And the women of the city, seeing the brave Amazons turn back the invader, wished to join their sisters in the noble defence of their homes but were moved by the dissuading words that Theano the priestess of Athene spoke. “From an early time the Amazon women have been trained in the arts of war. As children, when you were taught the weaving-wool and the distaff they were taught the use of bows, the axe and the lance. Their ancestors were the first humans to tame and ride horses. They have joyed in ruthless fight, in charging steeds. From the beginning they work like men and endure like men. The spirit of Ares thrills them and so they are like men in every way. Their labour-hardened frames give them strong hearts and they never faint their knees or tremble. It is said that Penthesilea, their queen, is indeed the daughter of Ares. And we must not forget that these women have also been our fiercest enemies. No one in this assembly should attempt to compare herself with such power and we should be thankful that she now fights with us. If she is indeed a woman rather than a goddess, then she is an answer to our prayers. These Amazons are fearless and expert warriors, on horseback or on foot, but here, on the battleground of Truwisa, they are being equalled by the Argives who have not yet greeted their reinforcements from the ships.”
Then the priestess of Athene warned the Trojan women that without knowledge of war craft, their wish to fight was truly a desire for death and therefore against the wishes of Athene on this day when the beating of many a heart, Trojan and Argive, was forever stilled.
While the battle and the fury roared around them, Penthesilea and her sisters Polemousa with Hippothoe and Antandre neither fainted nor failed. Like she-lions prowling along the long ridges of lone hills they stole down the ravines of battle and sprang with a lightning speed and thirst for the blood that sustained them. Joined on the flanks by dark-eyed Harmothoe and Antibrote, the women who come before men, now angered, leapt on the Danaans.
Backward they shrank to the rapid onslaught as the Amazons followed like a towering surge to dash the Greek ranks asunder. Triumphant-souled, Penthesilea, daughter of great-souled Ares the slayer of men hurled, “Dogs and fools! Happy now are young Klonie and brave Derinoe, for whose main concern was war, wombs empty, now lie on this bloody ground sacrificed for the art they so wished to practice. Derimakheia taught well her young daughter to honour Artemis before she fell to cunning Diomedes, and Euandre, Alkibie and Thermodosa fell not to common lance bearers but to noble Argive princes; they too will be well spoken of and emulated by their sisters by the river Thermodon. And my beloved Bremusa who fell before me here, as promised, in defence of Priamo’s city, is at peace at last, but listen well, for before this day for evil outrage is done, all of you will pay your lives. Not a man among you will deliver his life from my hands to return to his home, to gladden his parents’ eyes or to comfort his wife and children. Rabble! There will be no plunder for you to share! My greatest pleasure is to break you, to drive you before me, to take from you all the things that have been yours and to hear the terrible weeping of those who cherished you. You will die here, food for the vultures and wolves, for no one will come to claim your bodies or to deliver you from the shadows!”
Then Penthesilea called to the moat, “Where is this great son of Tydeus, the scion of Aeacus? Where is his might? Where is this Ajax, powerful son of Telamon? You call them the mightiest but they make fools of you. They dare not confront the queen in open battle but skulk near the ships with their women and pillage.”
“Then we shall go to them!” she cried, and as a tigress she leapt on the foe, crashing through the ranks of Argives, smiting from her pony and hurling keen darts, quiver and death-speeding bow close at hand. Amid the confusion and blood she deftly moved, freely choosing targets among the charging lines of fleet-footed men, friends and brothers of Hektor who never flinched from close death.
The hot breath of Ares flowed from the breasts of Polemousa, Hippothoe and dangerous Antadre as Danaans with ashen spears fell as leaves in autumn. With sharpened bone-tipped arrows, swift Ainia, Hippothoe, the imperious mare, and Antibrote dispatched men, one after another and from the earth rose a blood-drenched moaning from corpse on corpse, mingled with the screaming neighing of chariot ponies now exhausted, pierced with arrows, or impaled on lances. Men, in the dust, lay gasping, while the Trojan steeds with chariots stormed in pursuit, all the time trampling the dying with the dead.
Penthesilea’s pony rushed into the fleeing mob; the war queen like a black cloud with the lightning of her axe and a sharp rain of darts cut fear into those who once doubted her wrath. A wounded Achaean cries, “O friends, from heaven an invincible goddess has come to fight the Argives with sanction of almighty Zeus who now remembers his strong-hearted Priamos, who may boast a lineage of immortal blood. For I have never seen a mortal woman so daring and clad in man’s arms. She must be Athene, or the mighty-souled Enyo or Eris the mother of discord. Look! She moves swiftly towards the ships to set them aflame. The same ships that brought us many years ago to the sorrows of intolerable war. Alas, we shall never see our homeland for the gods fight with her!”
The Trojans coming behind in chariots and lances cheered in exultation of their deliverance. Fools! They could not foresee ruin rushing upon them and their city or the destruction of the dark-eyed daughter of Ares, for she had displeased the gods with her arrogance, for at this point neither stormy-souled Ajax nor Achilles, waster of tower and town, had entered the fray but were lying by their ships, at rest with the sad memories of crushed comrades and echoing each other’s groaning.
As it was, the gods were holding back Achaea’s princes from the battle-tumult until the Trojans had had their measure of havoc and slain Greeks. While Penthesilea pursued with murderous intent their rifled ranks, the princes, now with politics more pressing than pride and war craft, had retreated to the encampment. Neoptolemus, Nestor, the son of Neleus, Diomedes, Menelaus, cunning Odysseus and King Idomeneus quietly withdrew to plan further treachery while Penthesilea waxed her valour more and more, pushing Argives one after the other into the moat. She aimed the unswerving lance and pierced the backs of those who fled and the breasts of those who charged to meet her. The shining spear point dripped with steaming blood. Her feet were swift when she dismounted and remounted and her spirit never failed, nor did she tire or lose strength for she was the child of Ares. She fought on, ignorant of impending doom, as Achilles and Ajax, by their camp, focused on their tasks.
The Amazon maiden’s wish to appease the Erinýes slew foe after foe. So she ranged, Ares’ child, on foot and horseback through reeling squadrons of Achaea’s sons. Penthesilea broke their ranks, yet still there were more, but they found no screen or hiding-place from imminent death. As bleating goats slain by the blood-stained jaws of a panther, they were scattered by her advance. In each man’s heart the lust of battle died and fear alone lived. This way and that they fled, panic-stricken, armour flung from their shoulders to the dust, or they lay grovelling in terror beneath their shields. Horses, unreined of charioteers, fled through the rout, trampling the frightened and wounded, raising the blood-soaked dust, and kicking about severed heads and limbs. The Amazons charged in triumphant rapture as Greeks fell with groan and scream of agony, their manhood withered in that terrible place where the great Danaan host lay, dashed to dust by Penthesilea’s spear.
Brief was the span of victory that the fierce maid in battle gained, for as vengeance stormed through the burning death-filled moat and toward the very ships that were to be set aflame at the hands of Trojans, it was then that Ajax, hearing from afar the panic of retreating Argives, spoke to Aeacus’ son, “Achilles, the air is full of cries and moans! The thunder of battle is rolling nearer. It is time to go forth before the Trojans light aflame ships and slaughter Argive men to the displeasure of mighty Zeus. We cannot shame the sacred blood of our forefathers, or battle-eager Hercules who sailed to Truwisa and brought down her walls when Laomedon was king at the height of glory. If we who are also mighty men allow the Trojans to prevail then the foulest reproach of the gods will fall upon us alone.”
As he spoke, the son of Peleus rose and listened as well to the roar of coming battle. He responded, “Then we must prepare to hunt quail.” He turned and donned girdle and knee armour, a golden helmet, plumed with horsehair, and sharpened sword and lance. Then both, agile Achilles shining naked and Ajax in splendid war gear, went to face the approach of the stormy rout. Their metal rang, but louder yet clashed the armour in their souls with a battle fury equal to Ares’ anger.
The swift-footed Achilles who arrived on the battleground bore a sadness that had grown since Thetis, over fire, peeled his skins of mortality. Isolated as a child, he became solitary and despaired his exclusion from the games of other youths. His melancholy turned to anger when his father left him on Pelion’s heights to shield him from learning the ways of the wicked. There, broad-shouldered Chiron taught wisdom and fed him the innards of lions and boars along with milk and honey.
Achilles was ever the object of divine discord nor did his fire extinguish with the loss of Troilus and the treachery of Agamemnon. The fire within grew with the outrage and emptiness that he felt when his promised Briseis left the camp and when Patroclus was lost on these plains. These were all multiplied within his spirit as proof that the gods had provided no quiet place for the son of Peleus.
The ambrosia-anointed infant, crying as he was bathed in the dark waters, had twisted and embroidered aspects of his life to become the embodiment of Ares. Striking suddenly like a leopard stripped of heart and morals, his every action stemmed from years of deliberation. He most often killed indiscriminately in public in the daytime, but he was as dangerous in intimate quarters at night. He came prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons with no escape planned. He was a collector of injustice who nurtured a wounded spirit and retreated into an inner life of violence and revenge. Achilles came to the field, a screaming terror, naked but armed in pursuit of his agenda of retribution to an uncaring, rejecting world. He seemed to welcome death, perceiving it as fame and immortality.
Such was the power that Achilles possessed that it maddened Athene who, with Atrytone, shaker of the shields, urged him forward against haughty Paris. As the two warriors pressed on, the Argives joyed at what seemed to be Aloeus’ giant sons. They marched as lions and the fleeing Greeks turned and regrouped to stem the tide of war. Onward they pressed to crush the triumphant foes and slay with their resistless spears. As they marched, bloody corpses fell heap on heap. Fed with flesh, the destroyers slew on, spreading wide havoc through the hosts of Truwisa.
First Deiochus fell wounded and then gallant Hyllus fell, slain by Ajax. Then died Eurynomus, lover of war, Alcathous and goodly Enyeus. Then Peleus’ son burst on the Amazon war maids, impaling young Antandre and Polemousa on his blooded lance and then with sword rending the womb of Antibrote, blood a darkened red flowing from the stunned princess. Fierce-souled Hippothoe raised her axe but was cut down by Ajax when momentarily distracted by suddenly audacious Argives lancing her pony. Then dark-eyed Harmothoe with shining brown hair, who would never know a man’s softness, succumbs too soon to the cold precision of Achilles’ determination. With blood flowing from her lips she falls forever muted as the arms of the dark night greet her.
The Argive phalanx grows stronger as it moves like a growing storm surge over the broken Trojans. Achilles with Telamon’s mighty-hearted son presses on through the reeling ranks. Battalions once dense crumbled as weakly and as suddenly as grass trampled underfoot. When battle-eager Penthesilea felt the change of wind approach through the scourging storm of war, she moved toward the Achaean heroes, a grim leopard in a deadly pursuit, while they like silent hunters, armour clad, put trust in their long spears and waited for the lightning leap. And so Achilles and Ajax, with spears held ready, waited for Penthesilea.
Two, then three, arrows flew straight from Penthesilea’s ivory bow to the heavy beating heart of Aeacus’ son, but he like a cat playing with its prey deftly moved his shield to glance the deadly darts. Then she threw a long-shafted lance. It flew straight but its tip shattered into slivered fragments as if it hit a rock face when it struck the fire-god’s bronze of Ajax. Then the warrior-maid swung her battle-axe and with fierce words cried, “The first lance found metal but I will strike flesh. You may vaunt that you are the mightiest of the Danaans but if mortals you will certainly die! You wish to learn what comes from the breasts of Amazons. It is blood mixed with war for I am the child of Ares and no man can defeat me!” She screamed scornful laughter and hurled the Grecian-wrought battle-axe. But now she was mocked in utter scorn as the axe glanced off the bronze of Ajax. The Fates had ordered that all the fury of the earth could not draw the blood of the son of Telamon. But Ajax had already chosen to rush the Trojan chariots, leaving the queen to Peleus’ son, because in his heart he knew that despite all of her prowess, she would be to Achilles as a dove is to a hawk.
The hero must hold fast to his hatred of anything such as growth, beauty, or humanity, which might be an advance over his bleak, static interior landscape. He must hold to the notion that the gods have done him grievous wrong. He is owed reparation for this damage. He has a right to be an exception, to disregard morals by which others hold themselves back. He may do wrong himself, since wrong has been done to him. It is Achilles’ feeling of being an exception to the rules, of being entitled to harm others and break laws, that fuels his obliterative state of mind.
His pain and rage cannot be contained so he embarks on a course of self-destruction that transfers his pain to others. He is a collector of injustice, grasping onto every perceived insult and amassing evidence that he has been grossly mistreated. To sustain this desire for revenge his enemies deserve to be the targets of a merciless, incendiary rage. They must be worthy of their fate and so he sees his victims as barely worthy of consideration as human beings. His goal is not to kill, for that would entail honour on these noble maidens, but rather to destroy their capacity to enjoy their prized status as Amazons.
Penthesilea then groaned in anger that her shafts had been in vain as in scoffing speech the son of Peleus spoke, “Savage young maid, why have you come here to fight with us, the sons of Kronos? Even the great Hektor fell to my spear like lamb sacrificed for fair weather. But you and your sisters, all girls, are utterly mad to threaten us this day! We are not the disorderly crowd that you have played with so far. Your last hour is marked here on my lance and, little girl, you should not look to Ares to save you here on a real battle ground against real men, for you have a genuine debt to pay for your mayhem, and doom in the point of my lance awaits you!”
The queen looked around the battlefield and thought of Helen, whose beauty must be weary of battle, and Penthesilea dreamed nostalgic of her childhood naked in the forest and of Helen’s youth when she too ran free with the youths of Sparta.
And so maliciously quick-witted Penthesilea, after wreaking much death and havoc among the Achaeans, found herself face to face with Achilles, who was once much less than her, now towering over her. Stripped of all but her bow, she looked at the son of Peleus attired as a youth, in his nakedness appearing vulnerable, except for the deadly weapons that he still embraced in his hands. As she thought of these things, she felt the screaming of the Erinýes fade away to silence. Her head now silent and clear, she had only a moment to choose between her lance and the quiver but as she reached for an arrow, the long spear warrior-slaying, wrought by wise Chiron, pierced the battle-eager maid above her right breast. Red blood leapt forth, as a fountain, and all at once stole the strength of Penthesilea’s limbs.
Half fleeing, half falling, she looked up at Achilles, brandishing her axe ineffectually in her nerveless hand. A mist of darkness veiled her eyes, and anguish thrilled her soul. Yet even so, still she drew difficult breath and dimly still could see. Penthesilea, daughter of Otrere, even now wished to drag herself from the swift steed’s back. Confusedly she thought, “Shall I draw my sword, and in desperation block Achilles’ fiery onrush, or dismount and kneel unto this godlike man, and promise great heaps of ransom and gold to pacify the victor’s thirst for blood. Would this soothe the murderous might of the son of Peleus and speed my return to beautiful Themiskyra by the river and spare my youth to see my home again? O, I long to live!” So surged the wild thoughts in her as she cried, “Son of Peleus, why do you slay me!”
But Achilles did not hear this, because anger focused his attention, making it difficult to think about other things. Rage fed on itself until it was all that remained. It gave him strength, a sense of control and coherence, and sheltered him from logic or reasonable consideration of adverse consequences. Achilles did not thirst for the blood of the queen in particular, but revenge for all that had befallen him. Even now Peleus’ son thrust again his spear into the heart of the Amazon. Then she fell into the arms of death; in grace and beauty, for nothing could have dishonoured her fair form, but their eyes met on that fatal blow that impaled the daughter of Otrere.
Now when the Trojans saw the war queen struck down in battle, a shiver of panic ran through their lines. They turned to run towards the walls of the city as the whole army sensed the strengthening of the Greek lines. As chariots retreated to Troy, men wept for the child of Ares, on whom they had placed their last hope. They grieved for friends lost to the battle and they now feared that the city of Ilos and Laomedon would finally succumb to the Argive assault.
Then they heard the scornful laugh of the son of Peleus as he vaunted, “You lie now in the dust, wretched outcast, carrion for dogs and ravens. You foolish maid! Who convinced you to confront me? Did you imagine that you would return triumphant to your home with the gifts and promises of Priamos? This is not a war to be won by women, and now you forfeit your life! The immortals could not have inspired you to confront the mightiest of Danaan heroes but rather it must have been the darkness-shrouded Fates and feminine folly that urged you to leave maiden’s work!”
Achilles turned over the dying maid and pulled away the ivory helmet to see her face. There, in dust and blood lay Penthesilea, like the breaking of the dawn, beneath dainty-pencilled eyebrows, shattered in strength and out-gasping a last breath, in all her loveliness still lovely in death. Just at this critical moment Achilles fell to his knees beside the courageous Amazon, seeing her the first time in all her beauty, and perversely feeling remorse for having slain a thing so sweet. For now Penthesilea looked like an immortal, and in death seemed to sleep. This is why his cold heart twisted sickeningly and contemplated this maiden who was a wonder even in death.
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