Death of Penthesilea

Death of Penthesilea

Previously Balladeer’s Blog examined Cypria, the neglected Greek epic myth that dealt with the events leading up to the Trojan War all the way up to Achilles leading the Greek forces in establishing a beachhead at Troy. The Trojan forces were then forced to retreat inside the walls of Troy itself, leaving the outside settlements to be sacked by the Greek forces. This led right into the whole Briseis/Chryseis conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon that opened up The Iliad.

The events of The Iliad are well-known enough that I will skip over a recap of that epic and move on to the very next neglected epic in the cycle: Aethiopis.

AETHIOPIS – This work is often attributed to Arctinus, by some accounts in 776 BCE to coincide with the very first ancient Olympic games. Other sources place it as late as the 740’s BCE. Very little of Aethiopis itself survives, so most of what is known about it comes from Proclus and other – often contradictory – references in ancient writings. The tale begins soon after the death of Hector which marked the end of The Iliad.

Just as the fighting is set to resume following the break in honor of Hector’s funeral the Amazons arrive on the scene to support their allies the Trojans. Needless to say they are very effective in combat and cause the Greek forces besieging Troy a lot of trouble. The Amazons are led by their new Queen Penthesilea, who succeeded to the throne after accidentally killing her more famous sister Hippolyta in a hunting accident. Penthesilea is so grief-stricken from causing her sister’s death that she wants to die, but as Amazon royalty she cannot simply commit suicide but must die gloriously in battle.

In some accounts Penthesilea brought twelve squadrons of Amazons with her, each led by prominent Amazons like Thermodosa, Derinoe and others. Other accounts claim just the twelve leaders of the squadrons accompanied her on her suicidal alliance with the outnumbered and surrounded Trojans. After killing countless Greek soldiers Queen Penthesilea came face to face with Achilles, the greatest Greek hero of the war. Achilles slays Penthesilea in combat but when he pulls off the dead woman’s helmet he sees how beautiful she was and “falls in love” with her.

Thersites, the ugly, bow-legged Greek warrior with a misshapen head, behaves as spitefully as usual and tears out the eyes from Penthesilea’s corpse. Infuriated, Achilles kills Thersites, angering Thersites’ kinsmen and causing another period of discord among the Greek forces. Thersites’ cousin Diomedes further mutilates Penthesilea’s corpse prompting Achilles to retrieve it and give the Queen a proper funeral ceremony. Achilles sulks like at the beginning of The Iliad and the little diva runs off to the island of Lesbos, where Odysseus catches up with him and ritually purifies him of the murder of Thersites.

The Trojans meanwhile luck into another ally when King Memnon of Ethiopia arrives with an army of 10,000 men to aid the forces of Troy. Memnon was the son of the mortal singer/poet Tithonus and Eos, the Titan who was goddess of the dawn. At Eos’ urging Tithonus bribed their son Memnon into going to the aid of his uncle King Priam of Troy through the gift of a golden grapevine. Memnon was considered Troy’s best hope against Achilles because he wore an indestructible suit of armor forged by the god Hephaestus. It was hoped this might make him the equal of Achilles, whose body (except, as everyone knows, for his heel) was invulnerable to harm after his childhood immersion in the river Styx.

King Priam welcomed King Memnon with a huge banquet at which the heroics of the Ethiopian ruler were recounted for all to hear. Eventually King Memnon killed Antiochus in combat after Antiochus slew Memnon’s dear friend Aesop. In return Antiochus’ father, wise old Nestor, challenged Memnon to a duel to avenge his son. Memnon refused to fight Nestor because of his advanced age so Nestor fled to the Greek ships and begged Achilles to fight Memnon in his stead. Achilles and Memnon agreed to fight each other.

Zeus, the ruler of the gods on Mount Olympus, forbade any of the deities from helping either Achilles or Memnon in the battle to ensure an absolutely fair fight. Zeus also enlarged the two combatants to the size of giants so that the assembled Greek, Trojan and Ethiopian armies would all be able to witness the grand battle.

In the resulting “Kaiju in ancient times” clash of gigantic heroes Achilles eventually pierced Memnon’s heart by thrusting his lance through his foe’s exposed armpit. Memnon died, causing his army to flee back to Ethiopia except for a few loyal retainers who stayed with their king in order to perform funeral rites. The enormous flow of blood draining from the giant body of Memnon was collected by the gods to prevent it from drowning the assembled armies in a flood.

Once a year the gods permit Memnon’s blood to cause a river (in some sources the Nile) to run red with this blood in memory of the heroic King. Much speculation exists about parallels with the Jewish and Christian myth about Moses causing the Nile to turn to blood and about parallels with the Syrian myth about Adonis, whose blood also caused a river to run red once a year. (I always throw in the Vietnamese river god whose domain periodically ran red with his blood) Zeus’ aunt Eos was so upset over her son Memnon’s death that Zeus dried her tears by granting Memnon an eternal place beside the gods in the afterlife.

Meanwhile both Achilles and Memnon’s bodies have reverted to normal size and the Greek warrior leads the army against the Trojans to take advantage of their abandonment by the Ethiopians. In his battle-rage (think of Cuchalainn in Celtic myths) Achilles fails to notice he has outdistanced the rest of the advancing Greek army and has penetrated inside the gates of Troy itself.

Paris, whose abduction of Helen of Troy caused the whole conflict in the first place, shoots an arrow at Achilles. The arrow is guided by the god Apollo who causes it to strike the only spot on Achilles’ body that is open to harm – the heel by which his mother Thetis held him as an infant when she dunked him in the River Styx to make him invincible. (Think of the leaf that clung to Siegfried’s back in Norse myths and thus prevented his bath in the dragon’s blood from making Siegfried’s entire body invincible)

Achilles, an apparent hemophiliac, bled to death from the wound, causing the Greek forces to fall back in a panic at the sight of their dead hero. Odysseus and Ajax (aka Aias) were the only exceptions and the two retrieved Achilles’ corpse to prevent it from being defiled by the Trojans. (As with many events in the epic Cypria, many people mistakenly think Achilles’ death is covered in The Iliad)

After the funeral ceremony for Achilles his mother, the Nereid Thetis, recovered his body and took it to White Island (modern-day Snake Island) in the Black Sea. It was there that Achilles lived on after his death in a mythical paradise. Many parallels are drawn with King Arthur’s alleged transport to the elysiac island of Avalon after his death. To this day an Achilles cult is centered around Snake Island, mostly by off-islanders, since the island’s permanent population is barely over a hundred.



© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.    


Filed under Mythology



  2. Pingback: CYPRIA: THE ANCIENT GREEK EPIC MYTH | Balladeer's Blog

  3. I always thought Achilles died in the Iliad, too!

  4. Very cool look at these! I thought the Iliad told the whole story of the Trojan War but I was wrong.

  5. Gamer Dude

    The giant fighting shit wud make an awesome game.

  6. Incredible to see how the story we all know was spread out over so many different epics.

  7. Pingback: NEGLECTED MYTHICAL EPICS | Balladeer's Blog

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  16. E Stombaugh

    Two enormous giant men fighting it out! Awesome!

  17. Raye

    I love these ancient epics. You need more pictures though.

  18. Lissa

    They really left out a lot of ideas in that movie Troy.

    • I agree. When Game of Thrones was big I was surprised somebody didn’t try a long cable series on the Trojan War. They wouldn’t even have to pay an author like George RR Martin.

  19. Jefferson

    It would cost a fortune to do this as a movie!

  20. That is a lot of blood!

  21. Joannie

    I really like your old epics. : D.

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