...Panel 14: divine Themis
Teucer arrives to find his half brother despondent. Ajax, who regrets having vented his anger on the Greek herds, asks to be left alone. He commits suicide in the morning.
Ainia and Antianara return to Themiskyra without having met Cleite on the Hellespontos. At their welcome feast attended by Artemis and Apollo, they speak in sadness of the Amazons they left behind in Troy. Queen Otrere rises to justify the expedition to Troy and address rumours and demands for retribution. She then says a few words of eulogy before retiring to mourn her daughters in private.
The brother of Ajax, Teucer arrived to see the proud warrior exhausted and sitting by his ship. He addressed the dejected prince, “Son of Telamon, I rejoice when you are happy but whether you are touched by angry Zeus, or bear the vehement blame of fierce-tongued Greeks, I grieve and quake from fear as a fluttering dove chosen for sacrifice. The rumours tell of a mighty warrior under Lyssa’s spell slaughtering herds of Achaean sheep and burning fields. Odysseus whispers these stories into all men’s ears, winning easy belief. As the tale spreads it rouses joy among those who have been jealous of your brave heart and kinship with the great.“These low-born men now murmur against you, Ajax, and we strive to repel this accusing hate. Whenever they are away from our glance, they chatter and screech like birds in a flock but should you make an appearance, they would surely cower in silence. Your brothers cannot accept that Ajax so loved by Zeus would by his own design destroy animals as if they were a horde on chariots, but escape from heaven-sent Lyssa’s embrace would be impossible even for the son of Telamon. Still Apollo and Zeus do not avert these evil rumours and Athene sits strangely mute. We pray that you tell us that these stories are false, crafty slanders spread by powerful chiefs who wish a larger share of the plunder of Troy.”Ajax moved his head slowly upwards and whispered, “Athena”.Telamon spoke. “Then this is the work of the daughter of Zeus?”
“No,” replied Ajax, who resumed a listless face.
Frustrated, Teucer moved close to his brother and whispered, “Come, brother, leave your tent by the sea and your grief. Arise and kindle the flame of death on the insolence of your foes. Avenge these lies for the tales spread as a disease among the Achaeans as the grief in your heart wanes not.”
Ajax responded, “After Achilles’ murderous rampage and the struggles that followed, I managed to bring his body back to the shore. A strong draught brought sudden deep sleep where I dreamed that in frenzy I slaughtered animals, thinking they were Greek princes. I took a ram to my tent, thinking it to be Odysseus. I bound the animal and beat it savagely but then I woke to see butchered animals all over the field and I realised that I was still asleep. So you understand, dear Teucer, that this is a dream, for a brother could do no such thing unless he were in the embrace of Morpheus.” “Tell me then,” responded Teucer, “Was it Artemis who drove you to slaughter the herds of the Achaeans, in search of satisfaction for some unpaid-for insult? Or did Ares, the bronze-clad demon of battle, aggrieved by a hero who has scorned the might of his spear, seek revenge by this deception?”Ajax raised his voice and said, “Let me alone to sleep! Let me wake stronger when it is morning.”To these words Teucer withdrew, thinking it better to discuss such things the next day. It has been told that Ajax killed himself about dawn when no one was present. His blood drenched the earth from which crimson larkspur grows to this day.
After a long journey along the coast, north by Phrygian lands to Thrace and then east along the Hospitable Sea past where the Gimirri roam, the captains, Ainia and Antianara, finally arrived in Themiskyra with their company. They had not succeeded in meeting Cleite and had concluded that she had been lost to Poseidon’s angry temperament. Despite their lack of treasures and haggard countenances they were welcomed by Queen Otrere as returning conquerors and were given a feast that was attended even by Artemis and Apollo. There, they were told of the sisters who had accompanied Memnon and his army, some of whom had already returned overland with news of the death of Queen Penthesilea, the defeat of the Amazons and the flight of the Aethiopians.
Ainia and Antianara spoke of how the queen’s escort of fourteen Amazons accompanied her to Apollo’s temple where they were met by armed Greeks. The Amazons prevailed on the battleground until they fell to the supernatural might of Achaean princes. Wild-haired Bremusa, as nearly perfect a captain as one could wish for, should have been invincible under normal circumstances. Of equal skill and rank she met Idomeneus on that sad plain and died there dreaming of a daughter. Enterprising Klonie who cultivated the pleasure gardens of Themiskyra fell suddenly to Podarces’ rage. Then they witnessed Achilles taunt and disparage Amazons as he led the slaughter. Polemousa who played the aulos and sang the songs of Aura, the virgin who brings cool morning air, fell to his rage. Antandre who will be remembered as always surrounded by devoted sisters met his bloodied lance, with eyes wide open, in the warrior’s role that she had so carefully practiced. Fierce Antibrote was quickly slain together with her dear companion Hippothoe. The two had been planning to teach Antibrote’s daughter to ride on their return. Achilles’ appetite for female blood and revenge for all that the nereid had done to him was not diminished, not even after his spear had silenced the heart of our queen.
Antianara then said, “In a pause of the clamour came the goddess disguised in mourning clothes. As an old woman she instructed Ainia to leave Truwisa and return to her children but Ainia argued hotly that our work was not finished and she would not abandon sisters. Only then was I allowed to recognise the light of Artemis. The goddess then urged us to abandon the dead on the plain and travel north in search of Cleite. As we retreated we passed by the body of dark haired Harmothoe, who enjoyed hunting and riding. She so longed to swim that even the winds and cold waters could not stop her. We saw Derimakheia, who sleeps forever with a doll meant for her daughter still tucked behind her breastplate. By the queen lay Derinoe, our gentle athlete, so skilful and agile on the battlefield yet she always preferred swimming and diving to sword training and archery. Lifeless lay Euandre who had been a most obedient student and an even more patient teacher. In tears we rode by Alkibie who had hoped to bring a handsome trophy to Themiskyra. Our hearts were torn to see the broken body of Thermodosa who had been as happy spending hours sewing and weaving as she had been braiding leather or carefully layering strips of linen for armour.”To these words spoke Queen Otrere, her hair tightly wrapped in the dark cloths of mourning, “These events certainly and surely have upset us deeply. We are few and our finest are no longer here to celebrate with Artemis and Apollo. These maidens were Amazon warriors, intelligent, creative, ambitious and in control of their lives and that was removed from them with impunity. It is now clear that they were executed. They died not as equals but because they were women. There were no lessons to learn or prizes to honour in Truwisa and for that reason our stifled rage and despair wells up in us and spills over in tears, oratory and boiling words. In this moment of mourning we permit ourselves to express our rage and defiance of a constant stream of blows and wounds inflicted on us simply because we are women. We all have been touched by this tragedy in many ways and so we begin to look for explanations and demand vindication.
Ares, still embittered by the death of his dearest daughter, wanders through our cities stirring emotions and whispering rumours. It has been said that Truwisa was an unfortunate decision of the council. Some demand an inquest to assign blame. That may be wise, but if there is responsibility it must be shared with the gods for the war god surely endorsed the expedition and history will record forevermore that Amazons fought his war at Truwisa.
As to the question of responsibility, I will first address my personal losses. It was a clearly witnessed accident that caused my daughter Hyppolyte to fall on that fatal spear in the confusion of a hunt, yet Penthesilea alone assumed the burden of guilt. Perhaps the tragedy was indeed guided by Eris' jealous design or Ares' insatiable desire for satisfaction, but it left my daughter cursed by the Erinýes. She matured and excelled as our warrior queen but still she insisted on atonement at the Temple of Apollo. She brought her request for a pilgrimage, not only to me, but to the council as well. In Themiskyra, life is to be valued above all else. Because life is so precious, we are not permitted to do anything that may hasten death, and for these reasons we have been careful to wisely choose our battles.
Each time that King Priamos sent messengers requesting our support in the defence of Truwisa we had to decline, for that war was not of our world, however, the warrior queen provided us with another reason, that of survival. We live in two worlds, one that was made for men and another, not sung of often enough, for women. The man's world belongs to the shaker of skies and all those who share that high domain. The woman's world is that of the earth, of the trees and of our homes and daughters. Our world is jealously guarded by the eternal youth of Artemis. Each month the goddess reminds us that we create the world and that angers the sky gods and those who make sacrifice to them.
The war against our ways began long before Truwisa. King Agamemnon has always coveted the countries of the Hospitable Sea. If the defence of Truwisa failed, the Achaean ships would follow and we would be conquered either by sword or fondly overcome by Greek goods and charm. Our father Ares has, thus far in our history, provided the means to assure our independence but with the Bosporus open, we would be overwhelmed by numbers and limited by our sex. We cannot prevail in the world of men. The council, listening to Penthesilea's arguments, made their decision, not for war but rather in support of the queen's quest for purification and to that purpose alone did we agree to provide her with an escort.
Later in my private chambers, I tried to persuade a daughter to remain in Themiskyra but she pleaded that she wished to bring home a prize from Truwisa according to the old custom, so that she might have daughters and I, grandchildren. In the world, women are dependent on husbands for food, shelter and defence but we share a different history. You have all been told that story. When raiders arrived in our lands and killed our men, we were taken as possessions and raped. But the ancient Queen Hyppolyte, contrary to the wishes of the gods and with the guidance of Artemis, fashioned a means to break the cycle and establish a way to forevermore defend ourselves.
Queen Penthesilea chose Truwisa despite the efforts of the council to dissuade her, because all the suitors were on that field. Penthesilea was intent on battle with the greatest warrior in the world because Ares and Artemis and even the thunder god had made her his equal. The only way an Amazon may have a man on an equal basis, as a woman, is to take him prisoner, subdue him and then free him to choose to remain. Achilles had to be made her prisoner and this had to be of his free will, for a lover taken by force will cut your throat as you sleep.
Achilles imagined that because our maidens could take their lives into their own hands, they were haughty and pompous and it was for this perception that they died. The gods have said that this was the work of Lyssa and that it had nothing to do with warcraft or male honour. The oracle has said that the Erinyes inhabited Achilles's mind and that the unnatural fed his strength until Hera, the daughter of Kronos, tired of the violence. That may be so, but it is not unrelated to what is going on around us. Anger occurs in any place and in every place but when it becomes prejudice and hate, it delights Ares for then we march to battle. We fight to defend our way of life and we inflict casualties on opponents and sometimes we die but we also give men spoils and pleasures and send them home wealthy because Amazons do not share the goals of revenge, spoils or conquest that men so cherish. Our paramount objective even in war has always been maternity.
Many have asked why the dead have not been returned to Themiskyra by the Trojans, that they not sleep in a foreign country unattended. This is a valid question for I too am a mother who has lost a daughter. This has been explained thus: that even though the battle raged, the war god assured Queen Penthesilea a proper funeral in the custom of that land. Her body was tended to by the Trojan women, Hecuba, Helen, Cassandra, Medusa, Polyxena, Laodice, Medesicaste and Andromache. King Priamos built a great pyre for the queen's body, for in that country and on that ground she had been made a daughter of the house of Troy. Although these are not the ways of our culture, the protector Artemis and her brother laid a wreath of laurel on the queen's body and kept vigil as she passed from the dream of life to the wakefulness of the truest self. Then when her bones had cooled, they were anointed and laid with honour in the great funeral mound of King Laomedon. Her Amazon sisters, all equal to men, were gathered as best they could and buried not in a common grave but close to the queen with perfumed oil and flowers as is our custom, so that they too might sleep in peace. Both Trojans and Greeks mourned the Amazons who had died on that plain.
Now I speak to those who are hot to organize an expedition of revenge. To this I must speak of practical things. Memnon's Aethiopians have been seen returning to the east in haste, with wounded and without chariots or wagons. There is news that the temple of Apollo is in ruins. The Olympians have abandoned their war and mortals and have returned to the mountain leaving the smoke-filled battleground to Eris and Enyo. The goddess wishes to return to her forest and even Apollo advises caution as he can no longer intervene. Returning Amazons talk of men from both sides as common thieves, rapists and murderers in a confusion that was once called Truwisa. I ask therefore, if we actually had enough battle-hard maidens to avenge our wounds, which we do not, where should we send them? Against whom should we retaliate? It would be irresponsible to entertain such a venture.
We will first mourn, then we will work hard for change. Our mourning is profound. We will need lamplight vigils, solemn bells and silence. We will need the stopping of time, the ceremony and heightened words that will unlock feelings and make us remember. It will take an effort of will to bring to mind the blows and the ugliness that lie just beneath the surface of so many around us. We must make the effort, because even as we speak, hands are raised against children who will grow up to take vengeance on those who have never harmed them. We must mourn all women killed by male violence. I speak not only of those lost in battle, but also of women slain because they were female.
Now I will speak of the daughters of Themis. The material shell within which we dwell a lifetime is to be honoured for it is formed from the ashes of the Titans mixed with divine flesh and granted the breath of life. At times the body may seem a hindrance and a burden. The truth is that birth, sickness, aging and death are suffering. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering. Association with the unpleasant is suffering and dissociation with the pleasant is suffering. Not to be satisfied is suffering; in brief, life is suffering and so all living things die. It is difficult to understand why this must happen and so the best we can do is to accept death. When our sisters are taken suddenly, it may be the hardest kind of death because it happens so quickly. There is no time to get accustomed to the idea of losing those we love. Reconciling our grief will not happen quickly for it is a process that requires patience and tolerance.
The body is a temporary possession and life is the struggle to sprout wings to escape that prison. Each of us is born with the countenance of a creator that our eyes will never see. That is why, in life, we are permitted only reflections of ourselves. We see our image reflected in water but also mirrored in our sisters, our families, our companions as well as throughout the natural world, in our labours or in the things that we create. This is the lesson of the immateriality of life, yet there is always a part of the person that survives death. The truest self exists prior to the body into which it is born. It shares the life of the invisible world for the truest self is not born, nor does it ever die, nor can it be destroyed after having been brought into being. It is of the unborn, the permanent, the eternal, the ancient and is not slain when the body is slain.
The truest self, having in this dream enjoyed the pleasures of sense, gone hither and thither, experienced good and evil, goes back to the state of waking from where it began. As we pass from dream to wakefulness, so do we pass from one life to the next. We originated in clay, were fashioned and shaped with water and took a breath of life from our mothers, but all will return to one place, for we are of the dust, and will be dust again. There is, however, more to our life than simply passing through a dream. The truest selves that have been wise and that have lived in respect of the mortal existence that they have shared, will shine bright as the sky above and the best of those will forever shine like the stars from whence they came.
With these words the queen retired from the feast to return to mourning her five children. Ainia was content to be reunited with her mother and daughters, but she felt angry for having abandoned the bodies of her sisters to the soil of a foreign country. She pined to have either brought them back with her or to have been buried with them. Plagued for the rest of her days by the cries of the Erinýes but tired of warfare, she was determined to never again lift a weapon in anger. She offered sacrifice to Hera and Artemis at the beech tree and dedicated herself to the preservation of Amazon traditions.
Young Antianara grew wise and powerful. She became a warrior queen and fought several victorious campaigns until the passing of Otrere, after which she was crowned Hyppolyte, queen of all the Amazons.
This was the life of Penthesilea and her Amazon sisters. Anyone looking at this can say, here was her birth, that was adolescence and that was the struggle of wishing for things and that was the vengeance and finally the story ends with mourning, a thing that fades to black.
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