Achilles and Penthesliea: An LGBTQ Vase?

Ever since learning about what makes an object LGBTQ I’ve been thinking about the identities of some of my favourite objects at the British Museum. Being a Classicist by training, my thoughts naturally drifted towards the Greece and Roman collections. It’s a part of the collection that should have a multitude of LGBTQ objects (they don’t call it Greek Love for nothing, and the ‘L’ in LGBTQ comes from a Greek Island).

I’ve already had a think about one homosexual scene in the museum, but sometimes the LGBTQ connections can be a bit more hidden.

This is my favourite object in the museum. Well, it consistently makes the list of favourites, so you could say this is consistently one of my favourite objects.  Those of you who like looking at museum catalogue entries, here you go.

Achilles slaying Penthesilea by Exekias
Achilles slaying Penthesilea by Exekias

We can see the warrior Achilles slaying the Amazon Penthesilea. Achilles is the hero of Homer’s epic poem, the Illiad, which tells part of the story of the Trojan War. The love Achilles shows for his companion, Patroclus, is often interpreted as gay. They certainly are *very* close. Achilles’ sexuality is somewhat fluid, but aren’t we all on a spectrum? He’s sometimes a G, sometimes a B, sometimes a bit more straight.

Penthesilea, with her Amazon ancestry, could potentially have lesbian connotations, although she’s arguably more homosocial than homosexual.

Certainly both characters have queer connections and a fluid approach to gender norms. I’m particularly fond of the story of Achilles being disguised as a maiden to avoid the call to arms, only for his fondness for a spear to out him.

This story, however, goes that the pair fell in love as Achilles thrust his mighty spear into her throat.

Symbolism and metaphor abounds here.

One of the things I appreciate most about the artwork on Greek pottery is that, usually, our characters are labelled. If you look closely, you can see the inscriptions of Achilles’ and Penthesilea’s names artfully arranged by their pictures.

Όνητορίδης καλός: Ónitorídis is beautiful
Όνητορίδης καλός: Ónitorídis is beautiful

If you look even more closely, you’ll see a maker’s mark, Έχσηκίας έπτοίησε, “I was made by Exekias” You can also see this Όνητορίδης καλός’ or to render that in a latin script: Ónitorídis is beautiful. This inscription can be seen on the reverse of the vase too, so it’s safe to assume that Exekias wanted us to see the message.

As we’re dealing with καλός rather than καλή, we know that Ónitorídis  is a male youth, a beautiful boy.

Now, one could argue that maybe Exekias has been commissioned to make this vase for someone whose lover was named Ónitorídis . To me, that falls into that traditonal way of thinking; that the maker is always straight. To me, it’s much more fun to think that Exekias was toiling away in his workshop, making something beautiful for his lover.

If the latter is the case, we almost have the complete LGBTQ  spectrum being represented in one object. Which, frankly, would be absolutely remarkable.


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