Pyrrha at War among the Achaeans
We have been told the story,
time and again, of bronze-hued Achilles,
mightiest of warriors, king of kings,
bravest of the brave and most skilled of all
those who sought to sack the citidel of Troy
and how his ire, rage and grief defined
both the war and the legend echoing
in chambers and sung among strummed chords
binding his fate to legend.
But we know, from Statius, that Achilles
had been coated head-to-toe in the cold
black waters of the Styx, which meant death
to all but those touched by Life Eternal,
and so no blade could harm the warrior,
and only a poisoned point could slay him,
piercing the heel his mother held
as she baptized her semi-divine son in death.
And yet, he is wounded time and again
on Troy’s battlefield, and needs armor
forged of the Gods to be protected from his foes.
This, then, is mystery.
We know as well, still from Statius, though
divorced as he was from events by centuries
that Achilles was concealed on the Island
of Skyros, by mortal father Peleus and Divine
Thetis, whose womb was so blessed
even Zeus dared not fill it lest the child
strike him down as he had Chronos aeons before.
There they dressed the warrior as woman,
disguised among the maids of court, and
it is said he captured, claimed and conquered
at least one woman among them, whence was born
Neoptolemus, who we are not speaking of today.
When the Achaeans arrived to find and bring
Achilles to war, they had to discern which maid
was no maid at all, but battle-hardened man
thirsting for battle. So they put out perfume,
pot, fabric and finery, along with one spear —
the brainstorm of wise Odysseus, whose canniness
was legend. When they saw one red haired woman
drawn to spear instead of silk, they seized upon
the so-called maid, declared that she was clearly
the Son of Thetis, Half-Divine Achilles, praised
for war and strength, whose deeds were sung
even then by those who sang.
And so perhaps the woman, who had been called
Pyrrha, bowed her head, confessed her identity
armed herself in the armor of the Gods
and went to Troy, and then only her death.
So clever, that Odysseus. Because after all,
why would it be possible that in his time
on Skyros, Achilles might have learned
to appreciate perfume or soft clothes,
to go with soft words and deeds, and not
the angry clash of death and bronze?
How could that possibly be?
And of course, what woman would ever
show the slightest inclination in the spear?
Well, beyond the Amazons, but they hardly
counted, half-breasted as they were.
And speak not to me of Atalanta.
She was no princess, after all, but a beast
with breasts, raised by animals to be swift
and not adore the world of man. These were
silly things to ponder. After all, Odysseus was
wise and learned, and blessed of Pallas Athene
who was the wisest and most skilled
of all the warriors, equal to the fire of Ares.
Oh, she didn’t count either — nor Artemis.
They were Gods. Didn’t count.
The plan was foolproof.
Though what if… just what if…
Achilles was no fool?
What if Pyrrha, daughter of Lycomedes,
King of Skyros, had never felt the allure
of sitting and sewing and hoping for a man
to find her sweet enough to take to wife
and have a life of children and if she
were lucky some kind of palace intrigue
where the men would be manly
like all men should be? What if, despite
all cleverness on the part of Ithacan Kings,
Pyrrha found silk dull and perfume smelly
and was drawn instead to the bronze blade
of the spear she had learned to use
when the disguised Achilles agreed to teach
his ‘sister’ the arts of war — they swore
to never speak of it to anyone. Instead
Pyrrha called her ‘sister’ Deidamea, teaching
the maidenly arts Pyrrha had been allowed
in exchange for feint and parry and strike so!
What if the King, Lycomedes, who had no sons
watched the pair grow close, then closer,
then drop a son between them — a grandson
quarter-divine. What if he had sworn an oath
to Thetis, she who commanded hundred-armed
monsters at her whims, to protect her son
from Achaeans seeking glory on a battlefield,
and so when his daughter bowed her head and said
“yes, ‘tis I, Achilles, the one of whom you seek and speak”
he said nothing, but instead placed his hand
on the shoulder of Deidamea, who opened her demure
mouth to speak, but closed it at a look
from red-haired Pyrrha. What could he say or do?
It is said Deidamea begged Achilles to stay with her
and their son and their life. This despite the claim
the maid had been taken by force, of course,
this is a manly myth of course, of course.
But instead, the red haired warrior took to the ships
and rode the waves to far off Troy, to glory, to renown,
to pain and death and immortality in song.
Achilles, on Troy’s fields, was unequalled in battle,
having been given armor from the Gods themselves
(though once again, why should it matter if no blade
could harm the Son of Thetis? Why indeed?)
His loyalties, however, were always firm — one could
say arrogant, having bonded so closely with
Patrocles, Prince of Opus, that each would seek
to avenge the other’s honor — in life and death
alike. When Patrocles died, Achilles desecrated
the very corpse of Patrocles’s killer, the noble
Hector, who struck home only because
Patrocles had refused to break off pursuit.
Only the ghost of his beloved Patrocles
could convince Achilles to allow the Trojans
to honor their fallen son in death.
Achilles shorn himself of his long red hair,
so full and thick, and let it burn on the pyre.
Later the least of Troy’s son’s killed
the mighty Achilles, shot from behind
with poison, through the heel. Whatever
were the odds?
On the field of battle, after the pyre,
Achilles — now shorn — was a plague
on Troy, and even slew the Warrior
Woman Penthesilea. It was said
Achilles was distracted as they fought,
but then redoubled his intensity
striking the warrior queen down
with the ferocity he had slain Hector.
His men claimed Achilles was distracted
by Penthesilea’s beauty, and perhaps he was.
Some said she had been a joke,
slain with one blow,
because what woman could fight with men?
Others called her the daughter
of fiery Ares himself, who struck down
her enemies flanked by twelve of her Amazon kin.
Achilles then killed one of his own allies,
Thersites, known as the least of Achaeans,
who mocked Penthesilea in death.
Diomedes desecrated Penthesilea’s corpse,
but Achilles retrieved it and gave it
the burial of a hero denied for so long
to Hector, and forever to Thersites.
How strange, don’t you think?
Stranger still was the account by Stesichorus
that said Penthesilea had killed Hector,
not Achilles at all. But how could that be?
They were allies, and why would any poet claim
a mighty female warrior had met Hector,
greatest of all Troy’s son’s and warriors,
in fair combat and defeated him?
How could that confusion have arisen?
The original conflict had been caused when
a war-prize name of Briseis had been given
to Achilles — beautiful, long haired,
blue eyed and terrified, but Patrocles
convinced the girl that she would be safe —
it is said he kissed her, and calmed her,
and promised her Achilles would one day
marry her, and she grew comforted.
But Agamemnon, King of Kings, had incurred
a curse when he despoiled the daughter
of a priest of Apollo in his greed. His need
to return his prize and make amends
drove the man to demand, and tear
Briseis away from Achilles and Patrocles,
breaking the promise made to keep
her safe and honored. And so Achilles
turned his back on the Achaeans,
content to let them die until Patrocles
took his place and lost his life.
Achilles went so far as to call Briseis
his wife — an odd claim for a prize
of war. But then, Achilles may have had
reason to sympathize with the woman
who had been a princess and lost her family
and found herself a slave. Perhaps
the bold warrior had a reason to care
about those around her
not allowed to be what they were.
When Patrocles fell, Briseis wept,
like a lover might.
When Achilles died by ignoble hands,
Briseis insisted on making all preparations
for the warrior’s cremation herself.
This we know from Ovid. She called
Achilles Master, Husband and Brother —
an odd appilation for a conquerer
or even a lover. None stripped the clothes
from Achilles, still bald and not red haired
but Briseis, who garbed him for the pyre,
burned him, and mixed his bones with those
of Patrocles, so one could not say
where one ended and the next began.
It’s thought she was then given to a soldier,
just like his armor had been.
It had been said that Deidamia, raising
the son (or sons) of Achilles —
who was once called Pyrrha —
was broken hearted when the word
came back to Scyros of the death
of her warrior lover and intended spouse.
Said son had grown in the absence
of one parent, and was trained well
in the arts of violence and destruction,
though who trained him none can say.
He went to Troy seeking vengence
and found it, fighting with a strength
and brutality that rivaled or even
exceeded that of the legendary Achilles.
He must have been inspired by the Gods
or had an exceptional teacher.
Neoptolemus killed Priam King of Troy, slew
the children of the King, demanded
the youngest daughter of Troy
be sacrificed to the Gods, captured
and enslaved Prince Helenus, and took Andromache,
the widow of Hector, as his concubine.
Upon the return of this force, Helenus was
not made a slave but a King, with two wives —
Andromache, and Deidamia herself — and
kingdoms of his own, far from the lands
where so many had died at Achaean
or Trojan hands.
Andromache bore Helenus the son Cestrinus.
Deidamia bore no children to the King.
Instead she lived her days in comfort,
practicing art and music, poetry and thought,
sewing and singing and following the arts
that women and women only were allowed
in the land of Scyros. And if she mourned
Achilles, she did so quietly.
It was said yet elsewhere that Achilles’s
mother Thetis had given him a choice of fate:
A short life, with his name remembered forever,
or a long life, with a name remembered by few.
Of course he chose the former.