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Penthesilea (1862), by Gabriel-Vital Dubray (1813-1892).
East façade of the Cour Carrée in the Louvre palace, Paris
In Greek mythology, Penthesilea (Greek: Πενθεσίλεια) or Penthesileia was an Amazonian queen, daughter of Ares and Otrera, and sister of Hippolyta, Antiope and Melanippe. Quintus Smyrnaeus explains more fully than pseudo-Apollodorus how Penthesilea came to be at Troy: Penthesilea had killed Hippolyta with a spear when they were hunting deer; this accident caused Penthesilea so much grief that she wished only to die, but, as a warrior and an Amazon, she had to do so honorably and in battle. She therefore was easily convinced to join in the Trojan War, fighting on the side of Troymarker's defenders.

Penthesilea in the Epic Cycle

Proclus, who summarized the lost epic, the Aethiopis of Arctinos of Miletus, of which only five lines survive in a quotation, gave the events of Penthesilea's life. The story of Penthesilea segues so smoothly from the Iliad in the Epic Cycle that one manuscript tradition of the Iliad ends

"Such were the funeral games of Hector. And now there came an Amazon, the great-hearted daughter of man-slaying Ares."

According to Diodorus Siculus

"Now they say that Penthesileia was the last of the Amazons to win distinction for bravery and that for the future the race diminished more and more and then lost all its strength; consequently in later times, whenever any writers recount their prowess, men consider the ancient stories about the Amazons to be fictitious tales." (Diodorus Siculus, ii. 46).

Alongside Penthesilea were twelve other Amazons, including Antibrote, Ainia, and Cleite. The rest were Alcibie, Antandre, Bremusa, Derimacheia, Derinoe, Harmothoe, Hippothoe, Polemusa, and Thermodosa.However, Cleite's ship was blown off course and she never reached Troy.

Death of Penthesilea

In the Pseudo-Apollodorus Epitome of the Bibliotheke she is said to have been killed by Achilles, "who fell in love with the Amazon after her death and slew Thersites for jeering at him". The common interpretation of this has been that Achilles was romantically enamored of Penthesilea (a view that appears to be supported by Pausanias, who noted that the throne of Zeus at Olympia bore Panaenus' painted image of the dying Penthesilea being supported by Achilles). Twelfth-century Byzantine scholar Eustathius of Thessalonica postulated a more brutal and literalist reading of the term loved, however, maintaining that Achilles actually committed an act of necrophilia on her corpse as a final insult to her.

The Greek Thersites jeered at Achilles's treatment of Penthesilea's body, whereupon Achilles killed him. "When the roughneck was at last killed by Achilles, for mocking the hero's lament over the death of the Amazon queen Penthesilea, a sacred feud was fought for Thersites' sake": Thersites' cousin Diomedes, enraged at Achilles' action, harnessed Penthesilea's corpse behind his chariot, dragged it and cast it into the Scamander, whence, however, it was retrieved and given decent burial, whether by Achilles or by the Trojans is not known from our fragmentary sources.

Another tradition

A different tradition, attested in a lost poem of Stesichorus makes Penthesilea the slayer of Hector, seen as a son of Apollo.

Theme of Penthesilea

The subject of Penthesilea was treated so regularly by a sixth-century BC Attic vase-painter, whose work bridged the "Severe style" and Classicism, that Adolf Furtwängler dubbed the anonymous master "The 'Penthesilea Painter". A considerable corpus for this innovative and prolific painter, who must have had a workshop of his own, was rapidly assembled in part by J.D. Beazley.

Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea

The treatment of Penthesilea that has received most critical attention since the early twentieth century, however, is the drama Penthesilea by Heinrich von Kleist, who cast its "precipitously violent tempo" in the form of twenty-four consecutive scenes, without formal breaks into acts. The Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck wrote a 90' one-act opera, Penthesilea (Dresden, 1927) based on Kleist's drama.


  1. Otrera is commonly invoked as the founder of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.
  2. Quintus Smyrnaeus, Posthomericai.18ff.
  3. Quintus Smyrnaeus on-line text.
  4. Julie Ruffell, "Brave women warriors of Greek myth: an Amazon roster" gives a long alphabetized list of Amazon names, but with no citations.
  5. Pseudo-Apollodorus Epitome of the Bibliotheke 5.1 (Sir James George Frazer's translation).
  6. Sextus Propertius, in Book III.11, poem XI, of his Elegies
  7. ""And, at the extremity of the painting, is Penthesilea breathing her last, and Achilles supporting her" (Pausanias, 10.31.1 and 5.11.2, noted by Graves 1960) This was the action that aroused Thersites' scorn.
  8. Eustathius on Homer, 1696. An act of necrophilia is not otherwise attested in any Greek epic, and this alleged act passed without notice by any commentator in Antiquity. Pseudo-Apollodorus Epitome v.1-2 does not mention this reading, and its editor Sir James George Frazer did not mention Eustathius' reading in his notes. For the death of Penthesilea, the medieval Rawlinson Excidium Troie was noted by Robert Graves, The Greek Myths section 164, London: Penguin, (1955) 1960; Baltimore: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-001026-2.
  9. Abraham Feldman, "The Apotheosis of Thersites" The Classical Journal 42.4 (January 1947, pp. 219-220) p 220.
  10. Graves 1960:section 164.
  11. Quoted by John Tzetzes, On Lycophron, 266, noted by Graves 1960, section 163q, note 21.
  12. Mary Hamilton Swindler, "The Penthesilea Master" American Journal of Archaeology 19.4 (October 1915), pp. 398-417. In the series Bilder Griechischen Vasen volume 10, edited by Hans Diepolder (1936) is devoted to the Penthesilea-Maler.
  13. John C. Blankenagel, The Dramas of Heinrich von Kleist: A Biographical and Critical Study (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press) 1931, p 145.


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