Achilles and Penthesileia

Published June 9, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Though I have steadfastly been ignoring my pledge to myself to get Ilios re-written this summer, I have been thinking about some of the problem spots, despite that I haven’t actually been working on any of it.  And because I’ve been reading about Amazons lately, that means I’ve been thinking about the brief meeting between Achilles and Penthesileia.

As I said elsewhere, if I was writing something long and involved, I’d have them get to know each other off the field of battle, so he’d have a reason to regret killing her.  (A reason apart from being the shallowest man in ancient Greece, that is.)  But Ilios is not that kind of novel.  Besides, I ended up having Penthesileia and Memnon fall in love, so there’s no room for her to have a burgeoning romance with Achilles.  So the only meeting between her and Achilles is on the battlefield, and ends with her dying at his hands.  Well, that’s where her part of it ends, anyway.

So there are different traditions about exactly what happened, though most of them exist only as fragments, late versions, or artistic representations.  The version in Quintus Smyrnaeus has Achilles mock her for daring to fight when she’s a woman, and then turn around and fall in love with her (in death) on seeing how beautiful she was.  Utterly shallow and reprehensible, and since that turned out to be the chapter Achilles was narrating, I couldn’t go with that version!  I wouldn’t have anyway, for that matter; I’d have wanted to punch him right through the computer screen as I was writing.

I figured that if they’re wearing accurate Late Bronze Age gear, then they can both see each others’ full faces, so he knows all along that she’s attractive.  But in writing the initial version I decided to have him think she was a pretty boy instead of a beautiful woman, so he was already developing a slightly different type of sexual desire towards her even before he struck her down, and then when he learned–as she was dying–that she was a woman, the enormity of his mistake and concurrent misfortune overwhelmed him.  (Though obviously his misfortune is nothing compared to hers, but he’s not a very reliable narrator.)

While I still like my version better than Quintus’, I’ve been thinking lately that it robs the encounter of its proper magnitude as one of the defining Greek/Amazon encounters.  But I’m not quite sure how I should restructure it to give it back its proper attributes without reducing it to hateful sexism.

I guess my options are:

  1. He could initially mock her, until he sees her fight, and then acknowledge her as a worthy foe, and become charmed by her skill and beauty as they’re fighting, either retaining my original “he went for a death blow by instinct” version or moving to a “she was so good that there was no disarming her and she could only be defeated by a mortal wound” style ending.
  2. On seeing his opponent is a non-Trojan woman, he could offer to let her go, since his feud is with the city that robbed him of Patroclos, not with her people, only to have her initiate combat, because she promised King Priam that she would avenge Hector, and from there it would continue in the “charmed during the fight” vein.  (Actually, come to think of it, that exchange is already there, only he thinks she’s a non-Trojan boy…)
  3. Since I, unlike Quintus, had the Amazons (and, for that matter, the Ethiopians as well) participating in more than one battle before dying, I could have him go into the fight knowing he’s going to go up against female fighters, and trying to tell himself not to go easy on them just because they’re girls; their queen already killed Machaon, after all.  But despite being raised on all the tales of the beautiful Amazon queens fought/wooed/kidnapped by Heracles and Theseus, he’s not really expecting them to be attractive, so he’s taken aback by her beauty.

I feel like there are probably even more options than that, but…no, I know there are, but most of them stray too drastically from the original source material.  (Though there are some wildly different versions, of course, including ones where they’d met before Troy, and ones where she didn’t die, or at least didn’t die until after having his child.)

Anyway, any thoughts about which one sounds best?  (Though I think I might be leaning towards number three, myself…)

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