Ladies of Legend: Hippolyta and Penthesileia

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://tansyrr.com/tansywp/penthesilea/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippolyta A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penthesilea, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otrera

Trigger warnings: references to incest, rape, necrophilia

This post may be slightly influenced by the existence of the Wonder Woman movie, which contains comic book Amazons backflipping off shields and whacking people with axes. It is not faithful to Greek mythology, obviously, nor is it intended to be, but it’s nonetheless a delight to see my ladies of legend on the big screen. Especially when they are setting things on fire.

The Amazons were a race of warrior women, believed to be a real civilisation in ancient times. They originally lived beside the Amazon River, led by their matriarch Lysippe, but Aphrodite took against Lysippe’s son Tanais for favouring war over love. Spitefully, Aphrodite caused him to become obsessed with his own mother. Tanais threw himself in the river, and Lysippe led her family away into the mountains, where they founded the city of Themiscyra.

The set-up of Amazonian society was strictly divided by gender. The Amazons were said to abandon their sons at birth, only keeping the girls. When men were tolerated, they were confined to the domestic sphere and to ensure their obedience, the legs of boys were broken while they were very young. The women fought and ruled. 

The Amazons were supposedly the first to use cavalry in battle. Lysippe and her daughters founded an empire and later Amazonian queens – including Marpesia, Lampado and Hippo – continued that tradition by conquering their way across Asia Minor. At one point they seized the city of Troy, though they were in the end unable to hold it.

They worshipped Ares, the god of war, and the hunting goddess Artemis. They carried bows and half-moon shields, and performed shield dances in Artemis’ honour. It was said that they cut off their right breasts to improve their skill at archery, which I feel only makes sense if your baseline assumption is that archers shouldn’t have breasts at all.

One of the most famous Amazon queens was Hippolyta. She was the daughter of Ares and Otrera, who was daughter of the east wind and a queen of the Amazons herself. It was, in fact, a family of queens – Hippolyta’s sisters Antiope and Melanippe ruled with her over the three principal cities of their land, and her other sister Penthesilea became her successor after Hippolyta’s death.

As a symbol of her authority, Hippolyta wore a golden, jewel-encrusted girdle, a gift from Ares himself. One day the Princess Admete, daughter of King Eurystheus, decided she would quite like to own that magical girdle, and as her father just so happened to have the hero Heracles in his service at the time, the odds of her getting her wish were quite high. Heracles was undertaking labours as a penance for killing his family. The labours usually involved killing other people. Nobody has ever claimed the Pantheon are consistent in their morality. Heracles brought a band of warriors into Amazonian territory to either convince or force Hippolyta to give up her treasure.

At first, it seemed Hippolyta might give up the girdle of her own free will, after she took a fancy to Hercules’ muscle-bound body. So the goddess Hera, who compelled Heracles to start his twelve labours and work for King Eurystheus in the first place, decided to stir up some trouble. She disguised herself as an Amazon and spread a rumour that Heracles and his warriors had really come to kidnap Hippolyta. The queen’s warriors attacked.

In one version, Heracles gave up his pretence at diplomacy, killed Hippolyta and seized the girdle. In another, Melanippe was the sister held captive by Heracles, and the girdle was a ransom Hippolyta paid to get her back. In a third, Hippolyta fought Heracles, and died rather than surrender.

Theseus of Athens (killer of the Minotaur, future king, reliably a cad towards women) was present in Heracles’ company of warriors. Among the plethora of alternate stories is one in which Theseus declared a passionate love for Hippolyta and took her away with him to Athens. They had a son together, Hippolytus. When Theseus decided, inevitably, to put Hippolyta aside and marry Ariadne’s sister Phaedra instead, the outraged Amazons descended upon the wedding party. During the confusion, Penthesileia delivered Hippolyta an accidental killing blow. There is also an account in which Heracles and Theseus are not involved at all; Hippolyta was hunting deer with Penthesileia when the gods sent a capricious wind, and Penthesileia’s spear struck her sister instead.

One thing is certain: Hippolyta died, and Penthesileia inherited her crown.

Penthesileia was a great archer (the trick to it being that she cut off both her breasts). She was also credited with inventing the battle-axe. The fact that Hippolyta’s death was an accident did not stop the Furies from pursuing her killer, so Penthesleia took refuge in the city of Troy. During the war with the Greeks, she fought to defend the city. So formidable a warrior was she that even Achilles fell back when she took to the field.

In the end, he was the one who killed her. Just to make the whole thing unbearably creepy, he fell in love with her the moment he stabbed her, and in one version, had sex with her corpse. A Greek warrior called Thersites then gouged out her eyes, and Achilles responded to the desecration by punching him so hard he died. Thersites’ cousin took revenge on Achilles by throwing Penthesleia’s body in a river.

She was buried eventually – in one account, by Achilles, in another, by the grateful Trojans. Achilles made sacrifices to Apollo, Artemis and Leto in penance for Penthesleia’s death.

As with so many women of myth and legend, Hippolyta and Penthesleia’s stories have sad endings. But myths, you know, have a special immortality: with every different version that is told, they live again. And so the Amazons are reborn, battle-axes and all.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!