Variations to Polyxena’s Story

Polyxena is known to us primarily through her death; very little has been written about her life.   She is sacrificed by the Greeks to the Sea-God Poseidon to assure their smooth sailing home -the Trojan counterpart to the Greek Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, who was sacrificed for good winds to Troy.  Polyxena is mentioned in the dialogue of The Trojan Women and is a character in Hecuba , dramas by Euripides presented in the late 5th Century BCE, where her death is demanded by the ghost of Achilles after the fall of Troy.  The Latin writers, Vergil in The Aeneid, and Ovid in Metamorphosis similarly give this as the cause of her death, as does Seneca in his Troades.  Euripides may be the earliest account of her; in Hecuba, Polyxena tells her mother of her preference of death to living a slave, an idea eagerly embraced by the Romans centuries later.  Once it was decided that her sacrifice served both purposes, classical writers strove to invent stories how she and Achilles came to know each other.  Here is where variations occur.

One version has Polyxena at a fountain with her brother, Troilus, where he was watering his horse, when Achilles comes upon them, pursues Troilus and kills him; she manages to escape but not before arousing his passions and leaving her imprint in his mind, so that he (or rather, his ghost) asks for her in a dream to his son, Neoptolemus, after Troy falls.

Another version is that Polyxena accompanied Priam and Andromache (Hector’s wife) when he met with Achilles to retrieve the body of his slain son.  Achilles remained unmoved by the pleas of Priam and Andromache, but was swayed to relent his hard stand by Polyxena when she offered to remain with him as a slave.  This account has Achilles smitten by her and proposing to betray the Greek cause if Polyxena was his; agreements  are made for their union, and Achilles is ambushed and slain by Paris when he comes to finalize the arrangement.   

A twist to this version has Polyxena betraying Achilles, pretending to love him and getting him to reveal his vulnerable spot, his heel, to her; when he comes to finalize their wedding plans, he is ambushed by Paris and Deiphobus, Polyxena’s brothers, and slain. Hyginus, in his Fabulae supports this view.   Connected to this story is a rendition that she commits suicide in remorse over what she had done. 

Latin writers, like their Greek counterparts, focused their attention on Polyxena’s death, but they seemed to have a greater interest depicting her with patriotic zeal in opposing the Greeks, giving her uncommon courage in facing death (displaying a defiance towards the Greeks that the Romans probably secretly took delight in since they claimed their ancestry to Aeneas of Troy).  In their works, which are actually quite moving, Polyxena demonstrates a clear preference of death to slavery, and literally dares her executioners to proceed, while she remains calm and unafraid right up to very end.       

The Polyxena of my novel is more of a real person, fearing her impending death, and struggling to work up the courage to face it.  She and Achilles very much loved each other, and he does reveal the vulnerability of his heel to her, but it is through treachery that her brothers learn of it, allowing them to ambush and slay him.   You will have to read my book on how that happens.

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2 Responses to “Variations to Polyxena’s Story”

  1. cassie Says:

    Thank you for writing this
    I really wanted to find more out about polyxena because she is my character in a play im doing and i hadnt even heard of her
    Thanks again

    • hallenger Says:

      You’re welcome, Cassie. I was helped in great measure by the dearth of information we have on Polyxena; it gave me considerable leeway on how to portray her.

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