Panel 8: the beauty of the queen

The Argives see Penthesilea, in her death, as a goddess. As the gods debate whether Achilles deserves punishment for his act of violence against women, the beauty of the fallen queen brings silence to the battlefield.

The Argives thronged around Penthesilea, for when bared of her armour, the linen-draped body in the dust appeared as Artemis, the immortal child of Zeus, not dead but asleep. The warriors gazed, and could not imagine that Achilles would have slain such a maid but instead had taken her as his bride. They could see now, in all her vulnerability, that she was flawless and divinely fair. They marvelled that she was indeed a daughter of the gods and this death would bring vengeance on all that were present on this field.

It was then that Ares , filled with grief and rage, came down from Olympus as a thunderbolt. The sky darkened and Mount Ida quaked as he arrived, golden armour-clad, with his heart aflame. As soon as he heard it, Zeus himself from far Olympus sent lightning and Ares, recognizing the stormy threat of the mighty-thundering father, was forced to yield to the high-throned ruler. But his desire to avenge the death of his daughter caused many a wild thought to surge through his being. He was split between the respect he felt for his daughter and a wish to stain immortal hands with the blood of Achilles. He was tempered by the displeasure of Kronos’ powerful son and by the memory of how many a child of Zeus himself had died in war.

Then arrived Artemis, the lady of arrows, to tend to a fallen sister, but hearing the tumult between her father and the war god, she withdrew in the form of a tree to survey the battlefield. Her heart grieved for the chaste Penthesilea and wished to inflict displeasure on the son of Peleus for this outrage.

Thoughts of immortality had created for Achilles an illusion of another within. This was a dark entity that desired to sustain itself, seek pleasure and avoid injury as zealously as his physical reality. It autonomously strived for an enduring sense of being and so revenge was the only appropriate response to any perceived threat to its existence. But this private self, unlike the physical Achilles, was dependent on others for its identity. The fragility within forced Achilles to be in conflict with his world to the extent that he felt the need to dominate or obliterate, if only to exist. These destructive rages were harboured and nurtured until they transformed him into an avenger and source of the most fanatical human violence. When justified, revenge can be construed as a sacred obligation, but righteous anger is vainglorious, as it is merely a reaction to intolerable feelings of powerlessness and humiliation.

There came a point in time when violence was the only defence avenging Achilles had to ward off the annihilation of his sense of being. The only thing that remained for him was to persist in the unremitting denunciation of injustice. He had assumed a perversely heroic refusal to compromise against all odds lest he might surrender to the reality of a mortal self, an admission that he now found intolerable.

Is heartless Achilles an aberration or does he stand as a symbol of violence against all women? How often will it be heard that, “The son of Peleus was living proof of an indignation against Hera”? But these tragedies prove a possibility but not the certainty that Achilles hated women. He clearly mocked the maid, but did her death fall into a pattern of revenge or was it that Penthesilea stood in a long line of worthy opponents? Did Achilles’ rampage reflect the acts of abuse committed by men fearful that a woman will assert greater independence? This may have been so, except that Achilles did not go to Troy to kill women. He went there to kill those who were his equals. That she happened to be a woman might have made it intolerable but to imply that he saw the warrior queen’s behaviour as an insult to her feminine body was not obvious.

Violence is committed from a position of dominance, as in the case of the Trojans and Argives, or from a position of virtual powerlessness, as perhaps in the case of the Amazons. Kings and princes focus on the horrors of violence when they seek support for their decisions because it diverts attention away from social inequalities and allows for less discomforting explanations for social and cultural strains. The focus of the world on Troy and her battlefield allowed the powerful on both sides of the Hellespontos to remain unquestioned in their motives and in full possession of their privileges and abuses.

Vainglorious, Achilles naïvely gloried in his beauty and knowledge of the contrivances of war. He had always known that he was unique and that he could never be accepted into the intimate circles of power. He consequently found little of interest in politics but nevertheless spent time feeling resentful or ruminating on past humiliations from that circle of influence. Such thoughts further fuelled his fantasies of revenge.

This was a string of incompatible elements, juxtaposed one against another, side-by side, near and far, widely dispersed. A warrior queen is dead but does the responsibility fall exclusively on Achilles? It is easy to imagine the son of Peleus as a murderer who tortured, maimed and humiliated his victims, but in so many ways Achilles was not such a man. There was a crime, but not because Amazons died, or were obvious victims, but because on all sides people experienced injustice. This battlefield had become a sacred place, the understanding of which was reserved for those who had been here and to the exclusion of outsiders.

Over the months and years following these deaths, many would write about this horrendous occurrence, trying to make sense of it. From the perspective of the Amazons it would be an easy theme to pursue. Over time, the warrior maidens’ deaths would be generalized to include the wider phenomenon of violence against all women. There is no denial that these were women that were killed, and that Achilles hated what they represented but would he have done the same things shed of his armour in his bed? Should all men be expected to be held responsible for the deeds of Achilles? Is it proper to suggest from these events that all men have within them the capacity to kill their loved ones, and that they might?

Then Artemis, in deference to Zeus, put down her weapon, and saw the face of Achilles, the leader of men, change as if he had been struck by Eros’ dart of lamentation and she realised that even the chaos of this landscape was not sufficient suffering to satisfy the Erinýes, for now the Maniae had dropped a veil of mist on all those gathered around the fallen Amazon queen.

death of the queen

The pure and distinct beauty that stopped for a moment the battle was inherent to the queen, real in the sense of having essence and symmetry prior to and apart from any interpretation or reflection on the nature of beauty. The perfection of the daughter of Ares was laid up in the heavens from where all beautiful things partake in or imitate the essence of beauty. But there was more to Penthesilea than the notion of a universal form capturing the essence of beauty imitated through her radiance. The beauty of Penthesilea was a rarefied and special form connected with truth and knowledge. She was but an instance of that which is beautiful in itself, and although she may have possessed features that served as a kind of example of beauty as defined by the gods, she motivated all who were around her to direct their passion beyond her beauty toward the pursuit of truth itself.

In Themiskyra, the city by the river, there were moral and political implications of what was taken to be beautiful and these consequences were real for women affected by them. There were many who might have shared similar “sympathies” for or agreed about what was beautiful based on what was useful, pleasing or pleasurable to them. Hellene women saw beauty in chastity while their men saw it in talents and treasure. But when beauty is dependent on usefulness or virtue then the poor, the old, the barren and unchaste must be ugly. Such notions of beauty merely reflect entrenched and discriminatory attitudes of the powerful. Their ideas become influential components of culture and contribute to the shape and perpetuation of feminine roles.

Nowhere was this more evident than with the Hellene women themselves who remained entirely at the disposition of their husbands. This battlefield was a bloody celebration of the beauty of Helen, daughter of King Tyndareus, and for many years, it continued as in a dream. But as dreams evolve, the interaction between imaginary and real is more prevalent with demarcations becoming increasingly ambiguous. It becomes difficult to distinguish a true dialogue from a false, a human from a god or an authentic voice from an impostor. On this battlefield of Troy, individuals adopted whatever role they wished to communicate with others who possessed the same capacity of invention. And so when the Amazon women arrived, mercenaries, their identity, gender and physical appearance was misleading and irrelevant within the extreme subjectivity of a dream world.

The invisible demarcating line, or even range, separating beautiful from non-beautiful is unknown, even though we feel like it exists. The Amazon mothers taught that for the Danaans, the disinterested viewer defining beauty was a man in the higher position of assuming power over the object of beauty. When women are passive objects, their chief purpose must be to be posed for the enjoyment of the viewer. A man’s “pleasure in looking” signifies the perspective of social dominance and man’s authority. Perception and pleasure become themselves biased and in ways that have consequences for those who are objects of a male perspective.

But women are not creatures cast in diverse mould from men. Women have been given the same energy of life that stirs in men. Their eyes are the same as men’s eyes, women’s limbs the same as men’s; throughout women are fashioned alike. Women look on one common light and breathe one common air. They are nourished with the same food, so why should the gods have offered women less than men? Femaleness does not automatically produce femininity any more than maleness produces masculinity. The ancient queens taught the Amazons to separate sexuality, the ability to bear children and birthdates from an understanding of beauty.

Moderation characterized the Amazon. Apart from characterizing womanhood, temperance also determined whether a woman had mastery over herself. To be a master of oneself was necessary before one could exercise dominion over others. If a woman was not aware of her body, she could not be a strong and true woman. Moreover, she could not be an effective mother to her children, or a good, active partner with her sisters.

We can see here that the “aesthetics of existence” was an ethics that was not egotistic or narcissistic; for, after governing oneself well, it then sought to govern others well. It had, and should have had, a political dimension. It should not have remained within the confines of oneself but should have gone out and reached out to others. Governing oneself well eventually enabled one to govern others well; exercising moderation with one’s use of pleasures, mastering oneself – all this typified a life that was lived aesthetically and morally. If one chose to live such an existence, one willed to live a beautiful life. To have lived a beautiful life was to have lived well.

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