(in this web):
story of Peleus and Thetis was a favorite in classical times. In art and poetry
outside of Homer, there are many representations of their strange courtship,
famous wedding, and later dispute over the infant Achilles.
are accounts of the relationship between mortality and immortality, or the
quest for permanence and stability in a world of seemingly ceaseless destruction
classical Greek image of aggressive Peleus and resisting Thetis while she shifts her
shapes, shown above,
with the much older Egyptian image of passive and contemplative Geb (male earth) and
stable Nut (star-clad
shown right. The snake bites Peleus' heel while Geb relaxes and sinks into
sexual symbolism can be very different in Christianity and other
religions where the immortal principle is the male father-god in the sky and the mortal
principle is represented by the human female mother on earth. Yet Christian
religious art often remembers the old symbolism of the mother-goddess. A famous example is
Michelangelo's Pieta in Saint
Peter's, with Mary mourning her dead son. Michelangelo's statue is based on
classical imagery of Thetis grieving for the slain Achilles.
The history of literature is filled with stories of human-divine intermarriage or parenting.
They express the human longing
for everlasting life, the boundary between magic and nature, and the paradox of
the creative creature.
The Peleus and Thetis story from
The Library 3.13.5
Peleus married Thetis, daughter of Nereus. Both Zeus and Poseidon had
been rivals for her love, but when it was prophesied that the son born to Thetis
would be mightier than his father, they lost interest in courting her... Chiron
had advised Peleus that he could win Thetis only by seizing her and holding her
tightly in spite of her shape-shifting. So Peleus watched his chance and carried
her off, and though she turned now into fire, now into water, and now into a
beast, he did not let her go until finally she resumed her former shape. Then he
married her on Mount Pelion, and there the gods celebrated the marriage with
feasting and songs. At the wedding Chiron gave Peleus an ashen spear, and Poseidon gave him
the immortal horses, Balius and Xanthus.
Soon Thetis had a baby by Peleus, and she wanted to make it immortal. Unknown
to Peleus, she would lay the infant in the fire at night in order to destroy the
mortal element which the child inherited from its father, and by day she would
anoint it with ambrosia. One night Peleus discovered Thetis beside the child
writhing on the fire, and he cried out against her. Prevented from accomplishing her
purpose, Thetis left her infant son and returned to live with the Nereids in the
According to classical legend, Peleus had
accompanied the Argonauts on their famous quest for the Golden Fleece. On that
voyage in the Argo he first saw Thetis and the Nereids. It was the original
sighting of mermaids at sea.
Invocation to the heroes
from Catullus 64.1-30
adventurous Argives longed
For the golden fleece of distant Colchis,
Pines grown long ago on Mount Pelion
Swam, as they say, as far as the Aeetean.
Across the deep salt seas and
The heroes swept with oars carved of fir-wood,
While their tightly bound sheets caught even
The lightest of breezes sent from heaven.
As men strained churning waves with their oars
Argo's beaked bow broke the wind-racked spaces
Of ocean, while the sea spumed its whitecaps
Surging from the deep, parting under keel.
It was there in those froth-capped billows, where
Sea-born Nereids marveled at their looks,
That mortals first beheld those ocean-nymphs
Upthrust from the waves, bare to the breast.
Then it was, stories say, that Peleus
Burned with love for Thetis, and she herself
Did not spurn to marry him, though mortal,
Nor did Father Nereus withhold her hand.
Far happier then were the times for men,
Fondly yearned for now! You heroes, so bred
Of gods in those silver days, favor me
As I call you now with my magic song.
The place where
Peleus discovered his sea-bride was believed to be the southeastern headland
famous in classical times as a land of witchcraft. The whole coast was sacred to
and the other Nereids. They protected the area for centuries. When the Persians attacked Greece during the Persian
War (490-479 BC), the Persian fleet was wrecked on the
headland; to appease the local goddess, the Persians
sacrificed to Thetis
on the spot (see Herodotus 7.191).
The Muses sang at the wedding of
according to the poet Pindar (3.89.159). The Roman poet Catullus
describes the Fates singing at the wedding, and he recorded their "magic song,"
only the first part of which I have translated above (see end note below on this
wedding of Peleus and Thetis became a
favorite subject of painters and mythographers after Homer's time. In a common latter-day version of this story,
most of the gods and goddesses attended the wedding, but Discord was not
welcomed. Being Discord, she crashed the party anyway, and created a stir when she presented a golden apple to the assembly, with
the nasty legend etched on it, "for the fairest."
Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all claimed the prize
apple. They agreed to settle their dispute through a beauty contest to be judged
by a young Trojan shepherd, Paris. Each of them offered Paris a bribe: Hera offered power, Athena offered wisdom, and Aphrodite
offered sex. A simple country swain, Paris of course chose sex, and Aphrodite
rewarded him with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, afterwards Helen
The story of Discord's golden apple,
whether Homer knew it or not, works in a typically Homeric way in its use of the gods to explain
human affairs. The story explains the origin of the Trojan War (and the
alignment of the goddesses in the war) in terms of the
origin of its hero, Achilles. On a less-Homeric moral level, the judgment
of Paris is also a story about choices, their inherent limitations and unfortunate consequences.
Why Achilles is not immortal
Thetis stories after Homer's day also explain why Achilles is mortal,
even though his parentage is mixed. The stories illustrate how heroic poetry can
grow through new additions, as one story suggests others.
In one version of
the story, after the birth of Achilles Thetis tries to immortalize the
baby, but her god-making rites are disturbed by Peleus. A brief account of the story
is told by Apollonius of Rhodes in his Agonautica (Voyage of the Argo), a Hellenistic poem
that imitates Homer's style:
Sharp pain pierced Peleus, for never
again had he seen Thetis, since first she left her bridal chamber and bed in
anger, because of her son Achilles, then a babe. In the night she used to burn away the
child's mortal flesh with the flame of fire; then by day she would anoint his tender body with ambrosia, so that he
would become immortal and she would prevent loathsome old age from corrupting him. But
one night Peleus found out. He leapt up from
his bed when he saw his dear son gasping in the flame, and at the sight he
uttered a terrible cry--fool that he was. Thetis heard him, and catching up the
child threw him screaming to the ground, and she like a breath of wind
passed swiftly from the hall as a dream and leapt into the sea, exceeding angry,
and thereafter returned never again. (Argonautica iv. 869)
non-Homeric stories tell of Thetis' attempt to immortalize the infant
Achilles by dipping him in the river Styx (the river surrounding the
underworld). Since she holds him by the foot as she dips him, she fails to
heel. Accordingly Achilles' body is immortal--except for his Achilles' heel or Achilles' tendon.
According to legend Achilles is killed at Troy by an arrow in the heel. The
archer is none other than Paris, directed by
stories of Thetis' inability to immortalize her son are stories about the
limitation of magic by nature. They grow out of Homer's presentation of Thetis
as the grieving mother, always lamenting her son's fate. They offer no consolation that Achilles wins a hero's everlasting fame or glory
Return to the sea
represents Thetis living with her old father Nereus
and her sister sea-nymphs in the depths of the sea (Iliad i, 375; xiv,
83; xviii, 35), while her mortal husband drags out a miserable and
solitary old age back on the Greek mainland (Iliad xviii 434). Through her brief brush with mortality
the goddess possesses a tragic sense of
loss and grief that other gods and goddesses generally lack, prolific father
The search for
permanence brings us back to Peleus' courtship of Thetis, his attempt to hold
her, and her continuous shape-shifting. The story belongs with popular folktales of the marriage of a man to a mermaid or other
creature. These storybook marriages are happy but very short, typically ending with the return of the
beautiful spouse to her native place in the sea. The image reflects life emerging out
of the formlessness of primordial chaos and soon returning to it again.
and journal topics
The golden fleece. The story of the Argonauts and the
quest for the Golden Fleece
is told by Apollonius of Rhodes in Argonautica, a Hellenistic work
written at Alexandria about 250 BC in imitation of Homer's style. Homer was
aware of the Argonaut expedition by the Hellenic heroes in the generation before
the Trojan War, but we can't tell whether Apollonius' version is faithful to any
prior versions of the story. There's an on-line translation of Argonautica
at MIT's site: http://classics.mit.edu/Apollonius/argon.html
Roman poet Catullus' "magic song"
of the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis presents the Fates (the Moirai) as
elderly weavers spinning the story of Achilles and the Trojan War at the
otherwise joyous marriage ceremony. For Catullus (writing in the first century
BC), the Fates have replaced the Muses as visionaries of the future. The
insertion of tragic prophecies in the festive wedding ceremony is another
example of the limitation of magic by nature.
premiere classical poet in the subject-area of life's endless shape-shifting is
Ovid, who assembled all of the Hellenic mythological stories (and others) in his
epic poem, The
Metamorphoses, composed about 1 AD. Ovid's rewrite of Peleus and Thetis
occurs in book 11.
The birth of philosophy. The
earliest of the Hellenic philosophers, Thales, theorized that the universe was
made of water as its essential, underlying element. As you can appreciate now,
the concept was poetic, although Thales rationalized the expression. Water as an
image of flux, or the ever-changing appearance-level of life, remained a
favorite image of the philosophers before Socrates. One of the famous paradoxes
of Heraclitus is that you cannot put your foot into the same river more than
The flood. A
Biblical parallel comes in the introduction to the story of Noah's
male gods and female humans produce heroes, "mighty men which were of old,
men of renown." In the Biblical outcome, however, things dissolve back into
water not because of their nature but because of human wickedness. As Noah and
his family are spared from the Flood, the Biblical implication is that life on
earth can be maintained through the magic of proper behavior:
1: And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,
2: That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.
3: And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.
4: There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
5: And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
6: And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.
7: And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.
The judgment of Paris. Could Paris have made a better choice?
for Powers of Literature
(with Lesson numbers):
Odysseus' voyage 1
Mission to Achilles
Death of Patroklos
Burial of Hektor
Return of Odysseus
City of Dreams
the Homeric king
Socrates gets busted
Socrates on trial
Socrates in jail
Socrates in heaven
Paul does Christ
gospel without text
The Knight of the Cart
Sire Lance's genes
18. Virgil, Aeneid
Aeneas & Dido