The daughter of Orithia, Penthesilea was the ruler, along with her sister Hippolyte, of Amazonia, the Bronze Age Amazon nation in an area of the Black Sea. A fierce warrior, Penthesilea’s name means “compelling men to mourn.” During Orithia’s reign, repeated attacks from Greek war parties eroded the borders of their once widespread empire. The nation of Amazonia itself, however, lived in peace; its women warriors were regarded as the most highly skilled soldiers among all the armies of the world. Even the piratical adventurers of myth, the Argonauts, dropped their plans to invade Amazonia when they saw how peaceful and self-sufficient the country was.
Penthesilea was the greatest Amazon of all times. At first, her excellence with weaponry was primarily for the purpose of hunting. When her sister died falling on Penthesilea’s spear during a hunt, Penthesilea chose to channel her grief and rage into battle. At the request of Queen Hecuba, she liberated the city of Troy, under siege by the Greeks for years. The link between Troy and Amazonia predates Homer and Euripides by centuries and many scholars believe that Homer adapted his famous story from the Egyptian poetess Phantasia and reoriented it toward the patriarchal tastes of his Greek audience.
Essentially, Penthesilea’s Achilles heel was her desire to lead the attack on Troy, the last Goddess worshiping city-state in the Mediterranean Asia Minor. The legends vary, but consensus among historians is that Achilles took one look at the powerful and pulchritudinous Penthesilea and fell deeply in love. They battled ruthlessly one-on-one, and the Amazon queen proved to be the only soldier Achilles had ever encountered who was his equal. One version depicts the great Penthesilea taking Achilles and dozens of Greeks’ lives in the battlefield surrounding Troy, only to be confounded when the God Zeus brought Achilles back to life. In this version, she died but Achilles’ grief was so severe that he killed several of his allies who had mutilated her corpse (in one version he rapes her corpse in a wanton necrophilic lust). Other tellings of the tales have Penthesilea brutally killing the Greek and falling in love with him as his dying eyes lock with hers, then setting upon his corpse and devouring him, in a final act of savage love.
Only sections of the ancient poem Aethiopis that describe Penthesilea and the liberation of Troy managed to survive from antiquity. They include a suffragistic speech made by the amazing amazon herself: “Not in strength are we inferior to men; the same our eyes, our limbs the same; one common light we see, one air we breathe; no different is the food we eat. What then denied to us hath heaven on man bestowed? O let us hasten to the glorious war!”