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The Penthiliad: Part 1

(For those who aren't aware, I'm pretty keen on history, Ancient Greece especially. A few years back I had a cool idea for a story: what If Artemis and Athene/Athena/Whatever competed over a guy? They're eternal maidens in mythology, and never really pair up with anyone, so I thought it'd be fun to write my own myth about that. I'd even try writing it in the Homeric style, and pretend it was the last great epic poem, a last roar from the Age of Heroes.

The idea did not get far. It was one of those 'oh yeah this'll be really cool for a few days before I run out of steam and forget about it' ideas. Still, I've decided to publish a bit of it here. Maybe I'll even write more of it in the future, who knows. Anyway, hope whoever's reading this likes epithets!)

[1] O Muse, grant me sufficient prowess of song that I may lay bare the Tragedy of Penthilus, beloved of many, and his fated demise at the hands of his immortal pursuers, jealous as they were that his affections should stray to a lesser lover!

[2] Penthilus, Son of Oinops, equal of Hermes in argument and speech, was respected and loved by the people of Ephesus, and wanted for nothing. So famous were his talents that King Thestor, descendant of Ephos, Queen of the Amazons, would often send for him when matters of state were discussed, and he would always convince opponents of his sounder judgement. For his services, Penthilus asked for nothing; he had land which to toil, a friend in every village, and enough wine to share with all. Nevertheless, King Thestor was so grateful for his sound council that he had promised his eldest daughter - herself very beautiful and beloved of her people – in marriage to him, and Penthilus was content. He became a hunting companion to the loud-roaring King, and together with his bodyguards they would outpace boars and break mighty lions afore the sun had set on the first day. The King, whose unquestionable prowess was witnessed by all, oft gifted the pelts to his companions instead, and his selflessness was rewarded with fierce loyalty. Upon their return, Penthilus would sing of their great victories; of their daring pursuits and dangerous ambushes. O, the songs of Penthilus! So sweet and loud you would sing that even the wind would pause to listen, if only for a time.

[3] Upward to Olympus his voice carried, until it reached the ears of the immortals. In these moments, none strained harder to hear than Artemis, the light-bringer, who took up the habit of sitting on the hill outside the city in the guise of a hart, to ponder the speeches that rivalled Hermes, the giant killer’s. Penthilus paid tribute to her temple before his master’s hunt, and when the King and his companions would set out, she would run alongside, out of sight but close enough to hear the panting horses, and quietly guide them to their desired prey. For this, Artemis the light-bringer would be given solemn libations, and after the King was drunk on wine the grateful Penthilus would slip away to place his pelts in her shrine and prostrate himself three times before her image, whereupon she would renew her favour for him.

[4] Others had grown jealous of his love for the light-bringer, none more so than Pallas Athene, goddess of the flashing eyes. On day, after another hunt, Penthilus was praying for the favour of Artemis, the mistress of animals, when Athena approached the hart on the hilltop, and as it transformed she began to speak:

[5] ‘O Artemis, she who soothes, again you are absent from Olympus. Your halls are empty, the oil is unlit, and the table is bare. Yet here you sit, as on so many nights, watching with kindly eyes the pious Penthilus give thanks for a glorious hunt. Were his aim as sharp as his tongue, the priests would throw out his pelts, so little room there would be left! If only he gripped his sword as well as his audience, he would not need your sly assistance to succeed in stalking his prey.’

[6] ‘O Athene, those whose eyes flash brighter than all others, you speak true. Penthilus is indeed a lesser hunter. Yet all save I would be considered lesser in the company of Thestor, the loud-roaring King, the Slayer of Serpents! Was it not he who left his crown behind as he tracked the great sea wyrm, the menace of Ephesus, across the sea to Skyros? There he found it sleeping atop the skeletons of beasts and men, and there too were the mighty bones of Theseus, that great-hearted hero of Athens, whose final resting place the creature had soiled with filth and poison. Though its bite was torturous and his wounds great, finally he slew the beast in its cave on top of ancient carcasses, and made a trophy of its hide. Even now, if you looked to his bedchamber, you would see it still, coiled around the bedposts like speckled ivy. Not even he, sweet sister, is fit to run with I, the mistress of the hunt, and only the nymphs follow me to the wilder places now. But Penthilus faces different battles. Beasts are cold and unthinking; like Thestor, their mortality consumes them. Their heart beats fastest when flirting with death. But Penthilus is of nobler being. His battles are fought across tables and maps, with tall Ethiopians and red-haired Thracians, with Egyptian merchants and Roman warriors, where his wits are sharper than any sword. So whilst it is true that on the hunt with loud-roaring Thestor, his arrows hit the lion second, and the spear arrives too late to the boar, he is always grateful to the gods. The King does not begrudge the son of Oinops, and neither do I: his dedications are more valuable for it. But indeed, I make no secret that Penthilus is a lesser hunter.’ So spoke Artemis, the light-bringer.

[7] Pallas Athene began again: ‘O far-shooting Artemis, hear me now! This mortal could be so much more if given proper tutelage! Have I not gifted virtue and strength to a great many mortals, many of whom would have perished unspeakable deaths without my supreme assistance, or whom would have returned as a foolish child does to its home, with bruised pride and a bloodied nose, for the father to turn them away until their honour is reclaimed? So you too have a champion, of sorts, yet you watch from a distance, remaining out of sight, but close enough to hear the panting horses, and quietly guide them to their desired prey. When mortals are smiled upon by the Gorgon-crested Athene, they prostrate themselves at my feet and thank me thricely. I watch over them for a time, guiding them openly, freeing them from deceitful powers, though their enemies are no strangers to my spurious machinations. But you, light-bringer, have done nothing for this devoted servant. You renew your favour when asked and grant no more than a few modest requests. I am saddened that you do not dedicate him to a greater purpose, for his fate is more malleable than most. Even Zeus, the guardian of the Fates, has stated this! The Thunderer has confided in me that Penthilus will be given a great task, one which will bring ruin to a great many peoples, one which his house will not endure. His gift of speech will fail him, and his tongue will be cut out before he dies at the hands of those he trusted most. His body will be denied a proper burial and torn apart by wolves, and his shade will wander eternally aside the river Styx, from whence he will watch all those he failed pass by to an untimely afterlife. Surely, daughter of Leto, you cannot desire this for your favourite? Only a god may move a mortal’s destiny. I do not desire this Fate for pitiable Penthilus. Attending a king does not befit his character. If you will not patronise him, I will guide him instead, as I have so many others, on his path, and bind his will to mine. I will be his guide, and reveal myself before the end, that he becomes intimate with awe and fear, whereupon he will finally surrender himself to my service. Penthilus will forget the Far-Shooter, in the end. You squander his potential by denying him greatness!’

[8] Artemis, the Queen of Beasts, said in reply to Pallas Athene: ‘Look! See Selene drive her chariot across the sky! The ground is bathed in moonbeams, and the midnight creatures run about us. Owls watch the fields for vermin, and mice scramble for precious grain. The guards are changing their posts in the city. See the helmets gleam in the lamplight? The soldiers in the tower complain of ruined bread. The captain hides a yawn. The world is asleep, yet they remain vigilant for the protection of others. Penthilus, as with any mortal, is blind to our godly machinations, and sleeps whilst we watch over the world. I do not wish to see my favourite ruined, for he is a pious and noble man. His offerings are always heaped high, so I have given him all the gifts he requested. I watch over his progress, and quietly guide him when needed. To fix a mortal to our will is a perilous path to take. How many of your champions drank sorrow with glory in one foul draught? For how many was the price of your patronage too high? Was Theseus grateful to Gorgon-crested Athene when, panicked after being roused from sleep, he neglected his sails to the ruin of Aegeus? Did Bellerophon, slayer of the Chimera, thank Pallas for the gift of Pegasus as he fell from Olympus, to be blinded by thorns and denied the haunts of men? Would Penthilus, too, be amongst those in Erebus indebted to the support of Athene, goddess of the flashing eyes? No, sister, I will not doom him to my service in this way. I am pleased enough that his sacrifices are heaped highest at my temple, and his visits are more frequent than any invocations he may make to you! Clearly, he has already decided to shun your sponsorship, though you may not yet realise it. I will not stand in your way, for to oppose you would be foolish. But know that he will see through your specious reasoning; he is the equal of Hermes in argument and speech. Penthilus is not so easy to influence.’

[9] Thus spoke Artemis, She who Soothes. Pallas Athene, contriver of plans and devices, returned to Olympus to find the fleet-footed giant-killer, that she could begin plotting her strategies to avoid certain ruin of the pitiful Penthilus.

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