Peleus and Thetis

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Peleus captures Thetis, the shape-changer, from a classical painting. One of Thetis' snakes bites Peleus' heel.

The 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.

The stories are accounts of the relationship between mortality and immortality, or the quest for permanence and stability in a world of seemingly ceaseless destruction and change.

Geb (earth) and Nut (sky) from early Epyptian mythology.Compare the 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 female sky) shown right. The snake bites Peleus' heel while Geb relaxes and sinks into rest.

The 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.

Outline sketch of the Pieta. 

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 Apollodorus,
The Library
3.13.5

[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.

[6] 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 sea...


The mermaid

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
(trans. Gutchess)

When the 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 their shallows
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 of Thessaly, famous in classical times as a land of witchcraft. The whole coast was sacred to Thetis 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 Peleus and Thetis, 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 page).


The wedding

The 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 of Troy.

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.

The judgment of Paris, Peter Paul Rubens, 1638 AD.


Why Achilles is not immortal

Peleus and 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)

Classical painting of Ajax with the slain body of Achilles.Still later 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 submerge his 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 archer/death-god, Apollo.

The non-Homeric 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 through art.


Return to the sea

The Iliad 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 Zeus excepted.

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 slippery marine 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.


Additional related readings
 and journal topics

1. 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

2. Catullus. The 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.

3. Ovid. The 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.

4. 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 once. 

5. The flood. A Biblical parallel comes in the introduction to the story of Noah's Flood, after 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:

Genesis vi

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.

6. The judgment of Paris. Could Paris have made a better choice?

Return to Lesson 4

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Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net 
Copyright  2001

 

READINGS for Powers of Literature
(with Lesson numbers):

1. Genesis 1
Creation Story

1. Genesis 11
Babel Story

2. Odyssey 8
Odysseus' voyage 1

3. Iliad 1-2
Achilles' anger

4. Iliad 9
Mission to Achilles

4. Peleus & Thetis
ancient sources

5. Iliad 15 ff
Death of Patroklos

6. Iliad 20 ff
Burial of Hektor

7. Odyssey 13-18
Return of Odysseus

8. Odyssey 20-24
City of Dreams

9. Life of Alexander
the Homeric king

10. Origins of writing
ancient sources

11. Plato, Euthyphro
Socrates gets busted

12. Plato, Apology
Socrates on trial

13. Plato, Crito
Socrates in jail

14. Plato, Phaedo
Socrates in heaven

15. Luke, Acts
Paul does Christ

16. Saint Francis
gospel without text

17. Chretien, The Knight of the Cart
Sire Lance's genes

18. Virgil, Aeneid
Aeneas & Dido