Penthesilea & her Amazon women warriors fought and died like men

King Priam desperately needed Queen Penthesilea and her Amazon women warriors to help Troy against the Greeks in the Trojan War. The Greek warrior Achilles had killed Troy’s preeminent warrior, Priam’s son Hector. The Greeks had been besieging the gates of Troy for two months. No Trojan force had even attempted to drive them away.

The Amazons were renowned as women warriors from a women-only society near the Black Sea. Many Amazon women never had intercourse with men. Some, however, spent the months of April to June having intercourse with men on an island adjacent to Amazonia. The Amazons kept subsequently birthed females babies in Amazonia. They turned over male babies to the men on the island. No men were allowed in Amazonia:

If any man set foot in their land,
he immediately would be completely torn apart.

{ S’en lor terre meteit les piez,
Sempres sereit toz detrenchiez. }

Amazon women were universally esteemed for being bold, courageous, and combative in arms.

Amazon women warrior leader Penthesilea

Penthesilea led a thousand Amazon women warriors to Troy’s side. King Priam and all the Trojans welcomed the Amazons joyfully. Penthesilea had fallen in love from afar with Priam’s son Hector. Hector was married to Andromache, but Penthesilea expected to have a sexual affair with him. When she heard that Achilles had killed Hector, she was enraged at the Greeks. She immediately sought to fight with them and make them pay for Hector’s death.

The Amazons, who were beautiful, armed themselves beautifully. Penthesilea had a brilliant white hauberk and a helmet that included precious, shining stones. Her horse was a swift, strong, Spanish bay steed. It was covered with silk cloth to which were attached a hundred tiny, clear-sounding golden bells. Her shield had a gold buckle bordered with rubies and emeralds. Her lance featured a beautiful, new pennant. Penthesilea’s golden-haired women warriors complemented her arms:

They were more than a thousand, not ten of whom
had failed to arm well their faces,
heads, arms, and sides.
Over their hauberks covered with double-layered saffron,
they let their lovely hair hang.
It was so shining and combed
that even pure gold would appear dark in comparison.
With bold, confident hearts
they rode straight toward the gates
upon their steeds with shields in hand.

{ Mil sont e plus, n’i a pas dis
Que bien n’aient armez les vis,
Les chiés, les braz e les costez.
Sor les haubers dobliers safrez
Ont lor beaus crins toz destreciez,
Si reluisanz e si peigniez
Qu’ors esmerez semblast oscurs.
O hardiz cuers e o seürs,
Chevauchent dreit vers les portaus,
Les escuz pris, sor les chevaus. }

How could any men resist these women?

With loud battle-cries, Penthesilea and her Amazon women warriors attacked the Greek men. Penthesilea knocked Menelaus onto the ground on his back. Not mounting him and finishing him off, she instead took his horse. She jousted against Diomedes and took away his shield. The Greek men soon appreciated that Penthesilea was vigorous, strong, and valiant:

Quickly she became an object of fear
as she charged the Greeks in the thickest fights.
She frequently forced them to shift positions
and abandon saddles and horses.
Her young women supported her effectively,
scattering men’s blood and brains all about
as they drove their foes back.
I can assure you that the dusty ground
was soaked with bright-red blood.

{ Redotee est en petit d’ore:
Es greignors presses lor cort sore;
Sovent lor fait muër estaus
E guerpir seles e chevaus.
Bien li aident ses puceles:
Sanc i espandent e cerveles,
Toz les conreiz font traire ariere,
Si vos di bien que la poudriere
Est del sanc vermeil destempree. }

Many Greek men were killed and others badly harmed. They were forced to abandon their siege of Troy and to return to their camp beside their ships. In subsequent battles the Greek suffered huge losses. The Amazons had driven the Greeks to the brink of defeat.

Then Achilles’s son Pirrus arrived on the Greek side. Pirrus bore his father’s arms and rode on a fine Spanish steed. He quickly proved himself to be a ferocious, deadly warrior. He taunted Penthesilea and her Amazons for being women. Penthesilea in turn boasted of her Amazons’ prowess and threatened Pirrus. Then they fought:

Seizing her shield, grasping her lance,
Penthesilea attacked in full gallop.
And Pirrus, son of Achilles,
seething in anger received her.
Straight through their shields
they struck one another with all the force
their charging horses could bring.
Their wooden shields split when pierced
and their strong mail coats came apart.
Their lances’ iron points clipped their sides,
leaving obvious wounds
as blood all hot and red
flowed down to their toes.
Into their sides two arms-length beyond the other side,
well-drenched in blood went
their silken pennants.

{ L’escu saisi, la lance prise,
Li cheuauche de plain eslais;
E Pirrus, li fiz Achillès,
De mout grant ire la receit.
Par mi les escuz bien a dreit
Se ferirent de tel air
Com li cheval porent venir;
Les ais fendirent e percierent
E les forz broignes desmaillierent.
Lez les costez passent les fers,
S’i sont aparissanz les mers,
Quar li sans toz chauz e vermeiz
Lor file desci qu’as orteiz.
De l’autre part dous granz cotees
Passerent bien ensanglantees
Les enseignes de drap de seie. }

That’s a description indistinguishable from other descriptions of two warrior men fighting. Moreover, the combat descriptions don’t strongly distinguish Penthesilea and Achilles. They fight similarly:

Before either one of them could move,
they had slashed each other’s shield
with their green blades of burnished steel
and cut the lacings of their helmets.
The knocked one another flat on their backs
or face down on the ground.

{ Anceis que nus d’eus dous se mueve,
Se sont il trenchié les escuz
O les verz branz d’acier moluz
E des heaumes rompu les laz,
Si qu’envers, a denz e toz plaz
S’entrabatirent el sablon. }

This anomalous, cross-gender violence was brutal and lethal:

Penthesilea inflicted much harm,
much destroying and much mutilating the Greeks
with the force of her company.
She too suffered many losses among her young women,
including some of the most valiant and most beautiful.
Much they hated one another, she and Pirrus,
so they frequently came together
in combat with each other, attacking each other
and frequently striking each other.
Frequently they challenged one another,
such on horseback and such on foot,
until they met for the last time.

{ Panthesilee mout les grieve:
Mout destruit Greus, mout les mahaigne
Par la force de sa compaigne;
Sovent repert de ses puceles,
Des mieuz vaillanz e des plus beles.
Mout se heent, ele e Pirrus:
Por ço lor est sovent en us
D’eus combatre, d’eus envaïr
E d’eus sovent entreferir.
Sovent se sont entressaié,
Tant a cheval e tant a pié,
Qu’ai dererain jor se troverent }

In their final encounter, Penthesilea thrust her silken pennant through Pirrus’s body. The resulting flow of blood impaired Pirrus’s vision and confused his brain. But he refused to lay down and die to please Penthesilea. With the spear stub still lodged in his body, Pirrus attacked her:

She had not laced on her helmet
which on her head was all cut to pieces.
When she saw him coming at her,
she planned to strike him first.
But Pirrus so exerted himself
that he gave her an extraordinary blow
right between her body and her shield.
It severed her arm from her torso,
totally cut it away from her side.
Bloody, pale, bruised,
and half dead, he seized hold of her.
With the forces in his company,
who were defending him against the Amazons
fighting on the Trojan side,
he knocked her off her charger.
Ruthless and violent, he leaped down on her.
He struck her with powerful and deadly blows
using his steel blade, blows that resounded clearly.
Over the green grass, which was fresh and new,
he scattered all her brains.
He then hacked off all her limbs.
That’s how he took vengeance on her.

{ El n’aveit pas l’eaume lacié,
El chief li ert tot detrenchié:
Quant el le vit vers sei venir,
Premiere le cuida ferir;
Mais Pirrus tant s’esvertua
Qu’un coup merveillos li geta
A dreit entrel cors e l’escu;
Sevré li a le braz del bu,
Tot le li trencha en travers.
Ensanglentez, pales e pers
E demi morz la ra saisie;
O l’esforz de sa compaignie,
Qui des danzeles le defendent
E qui o Troïens contendent,
L’a trebuchiee del destrier.
Sor li descent cruël e fier;
Granz cous morteus li meist e done
Del brant d’acier, qui cler resone;
Sor l’erbe vert, fresche e novele
Li espant tote la cervele;
Toz les membres li a trenchiez:
Ensi se rest de li vengiez. }

During the Trojan War, Achilles killed King Mennon and cut Mennon’s body into small pieces. Paris subsequently hacked Achilles’s and Antilogus’s bodies to pieces in a shameful ambush. Achilles’s son Pirrus cut Penthesilea’s body to pieces on the battlefield. The latter was more like the acts that happened in the normal violence against men of war.

Pirrus killing Penthesilea

Penthesilea and her Amazon women warriors had killed ten thousand Greek men. Because of the great harm she had inflicted on them, some of the Greeks wanted to deny her a burial. Pirrus argued for allowing her to have a fitting burial. Diomedes, however, argued that her body should be given to dogs to be devoured or thrown into a river. Diomedes’s view prevailed. The Greeks threw Penthesilea’s corpse into the Scamander River. That’s what Achilles had done with the corpse of Priam’s son Lycaon after killing him despite his supplication. The normal violence against men of war is often brutally amoral. Penthesilea experienced in the Trojan War what many men experience in war.

throwing Penthesilea's dead body into the River Scamander

Many Amazon women warriors died fighting in the Trojan War, but many fewer than the number of men who died. According to Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s twelfth-century Romance of Troy {Roman de Troie}, from the 1000 Amazon women warriors who went to Troy, 563 were killed in the war. King Philemis, whose realm of Paphlagonia was near Amazonia, was devoted to the Amazon Queen Penthesilea:

Neither in life nor in death
would he ever agree to be separated from her.

{ Ne por vivre ne por morir,
Ne la voudra ja ainz guerpir. }

According to Benoît, from the 2000 Paphlagonian men warriors who Philemis brought to Troy, 1090 were killed in the war. According to Benoît’s source Dares Phrygius, overall 1,542,000 men died fighting in the Trojan War. Under Philemis’s devotion to Penthesilea, the Paphlagonians lost nearly twice as many men as the Amazons did women. The over-all number of men warriors killed in the Trojan War is like a rain of blood compared to the drops of women warriors killed. Men’s lives should matter.

Gender equality in conscription and fighting in wars isn’t impossible. Ancient and medieval literature recognized that women can be ferocious fighters. Women have significant combat advantages relative to men. While men warriors killed the great women warriors Maximou, Camilla, and Penthesilea (quite easily, according to some authors), women nonetheless are fully capable of fighting and dying like men. Pervasive anti-men gender bigotry is destroying men’s will to fight for their societies. That could prompt a country like the U.S. to resort to the ultimate feminine weapon: nuclear bombs. Repealing sexist Selective Service and promoting gender equality in fighting and dying in wars is a more humane alternative.

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Notes:

The above account of Penthesilea and her Amazon women warriors is from Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s influential Romance of Troy {Roman de Troie}. Benoît wrote that work about 1165. The quotations present Old French text from Constans (1904) and English text (modified slightly) from Burgess & Kelly (2017). The quotations are vv. 23345-6 (If any man set foot…), 23465-74 (They were more than a thousand…), 23639-47 (Quickly she became an object of fear…), 24120-35 (Seizing her shield…), 24230-5 (Before either one of them could move…), 24272-83 (Penthesilea inflicted much harm…), 24305-26 (She had not laced on her helmet…), 25287-8 (Neither in life nor in death…).

On Achilles killing King Mennon and cutting Mennon’s body to pieces, Roman de Troie, vv. 21577-625. On Paris hacking Achilles’s and Antilogus’s bodies to pieces, Roman de Troie, vv. 22271-316.

Penthesilea, whom Benoît calls “the Queen of Femenie {la reine de Femenie},” apparently had been the lover of King Celidis, a Greek king. Roman de Troie, vv. 8831, 24430. She also loved Priam’s son Hector. That’s impressive for an Amazon.

Almost all the Amazon women warriors wore “Pavian helmets {heaumes Paviëis}.” Roman de Troie, v. 23988. The context emphasizes the Amazons’ lavish accouterments, which is consistent with Pavia being a wealthy, commercial twelfth-century Italian city. Medieval Pavia was renowned for its beautiful women readily accessible for sex with men. That’s ironic, however, because the Amazons who came to Troy were virgins. Roman de Troie, vv. 24095-6.

Both Penthesilea and Pirrus rode “Spanish horses {chevals d’Espaignes}.” Roman de Troie, vv. 23886 (Pirrus), 23440 (Penthesilea). Spanish horses were highly prized in medieval Europe. Leet (2016) pp. 143-4. These horses’ allure probably came from Spain’s connection to Arabian and Berber horses of the Islamic world. Benoît explicitly refers to Amazon warriors as having Arabian horses: “good Arabian horses {bons chevals arrabieis}.” Roman de Troie, v. 23383.

For the casualty counts, Roman de Troie, vv. 25769-70 (Paphlagonian casualties), 25784-6 (Amazon casualties). Total men killed is from Dares Phrygius, History of the Fall of Troy {De excidio Trojae historia} 44. These casualty counts shouldn’t be taken literally. They provide insight in the relative magnitudes of men’s and women’s deaths fighting in the Trojan War.

War has long been institutionally structured as violence against men. The persons who have fought and died in war throughout history have been overwhelmingly men. Elite men’s life expectancy in medieval England was about nine years less than elite women’s life expectancy. Medieval men’s lifespan shortfall was largely due to violence against men. Harwood (2020) focuses on medieval women in war:

If we wish to understand the operation of medieval power structures of war as a whole, then we need to look at women.

Id. p. 1. To understand why men are overwhelmingly gender-burdened with responsibility for fighting and dying in war, we need to recognize truthfully women’s discursive power.

Penthesilea and the Amazon women warriors fought and died like men. Apparently straining to be academically fashionable, Leet made the Amazons into cyborg others, and she characterized men, in accordance with academic convention, as responding with “anger and anxiety”:

This Amazon cyborg body provokes both anger and anxiety that manifest themselves in the violent treatment of Panteselee in her final moments. Pyrrhus not only destroys the unions of her body with armor, weapons, and horse, he also mutilates her corpse. His response to what he perceives as an audacious and transgressive woman is to cleave her arm from her body, drag her from her horse, smash her skull, and dismember her while her troops watch in horror.

Leet (2016) p. 192. In this line of thinking, men by being gender-burdened with fighting and dying in wars abuse women and horses. Moreover, a woman’s relationship with her horse transgresses patriarchy:

The link between women and horses — both of whom occupy a central role in literary representations of chivalry — is reinforced by their shared legacy of abuse by men who see them as tools for their own advancement. Moreover, while many female literary characters are controlled by men, a woman with equestrian acumen can exceed the limitations others might attempt to place on her. The relationship a female equestrian has with her horse becomes the key to her recourse against patriarchal domination.

Id., from online abstract.

[images] (1) Penthesilea depicted as one of the Nine Female Worthies. Painted between 1435-1440. From Petit armorial équestre de la Toison d’or, folio 248, Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Manuscrits occidentaux, Clairambault 1312. Via BnF, Banque d’images, also available from Wikimedia Commons. (2) Pirrus killing Penthesilea. Painted in the third quarter of the 15th century. Ancient History up to Caesar {Histoire ancienne jusqu’ à César}, folio 162r, Bodleian Library MS. Douce 353. (3) Greeks throwing Penthesilea’s dead body into the Scamander River. Painted about 1330. Roman de Troie, view 261 (page numbered 126), BnF MS. Français 60. For analysis of BnF MS. Français 60, Keller (2017).

References:

Burgess, Glyn S., and Douglas Kelly. 2017. The Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Mauré: a translation. Gallica, 41. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. Review by Sylvia Federico and by Cristian Bratu.

Constans, Léopold, ed. 1904-12. Le roman de Troie, par Benoît de Sainte-Maure, publié d’après tous les manuscrits connus. Société des Aanciens Textes Français. Paris: F. Didot. Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Harwood, Sophie. 2020. Medieval Women and War: Female Roles in the Old French Tradition. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Keller, Natalie. 2017. The Reinvented Romance: A Study of Manuscript BnF French 60. Honors Thesis, Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, University of Mississippi.

Leet, Elizabeth. 2016. “Communicating with Horses: Women as Equestrians in 12th – through 14th – century Old French, Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature.” Ph.D. Thesis, University of Virginia.

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