Part I. Chapter 2. The Power of Thetis

Τhe most startling silence in the voluble divine community of the Iliad is the absence of any reproach made to Thetis for her drastic intervention in the war. What accounts for Thetis’s compelling influence over Zeus and, equally puzzling, for her freedom from recrimination or retaliation by the other Olympians? From the standpoint of characterization, of course, for Zeus to accede to Thetis’s plea on behalf of Achilles means that the poet can both show Achilles worthy of human and divine timê and at the same time develop the figure of Hektor in order to render him as an adversary worthy of the invincible Achilles; but it soon becomes apparent that nowhere else in the course of the poem is there an instance of such far-reaching partisan activity on behalf of any of the other characters. Such efforts as any of the gods may make to assist either side inevitably meet with reprisals and vituperation from one or more of the divine supporters of the other party—as in the case, for example, of Hera and Ares at 5.755ff.
Zeus continually reiterates his refusal to brook any challenge to his promise to Thetis. All his threats against the other Olympians that assert his supremacy on Olympos occur in this context. [1] Indeed, attempts are made on the part of Hera, Athena, and Poseidon to contravene Zeus’s accord with Thetis by aiding the Greeks; and Athena voices her frustration at being unable to crush Hector:
νῦν δ᾽ ἐμὲ μὲν στυγέει, Θέτιδος δ᾽ ἐξήνυσε βουλάς,
ἥ οἱ γούνατ᾽ ἔκυσσε καὶ ἔλλαβε χειρὶ γενείου,
λισσομένη τιμῆσαι Ἀχιλλῆα πτολίπορθον.
(8.370–72)
But now [Zeus] is disgusted with me, and accomplishes the plans of Thetis,
who kissed his knees and took his chin in her hand,
begging him to give honor to Achilles the city-sacker.
Yet no complaint is made against Thetis herself; no mention is made of her less-than-Olympian status; no question is raised as to the appropriateness of her involvement in, as it were, the strategy of the war—in the way, for example, that Aphrodite’s participation on behalf of Aeneas calls for caustic humor at her expense. How is the poem’s audience to make sense of Thetis’s extraordinary authority? It claims a divine consent—and consensus—that is significantly tacit.
In the previous chapter, I drew attention to the motifs and attributes common to myths about immortal goddesses who have mortal lovers. As a rule, the goddess’s irresistible desire for her mortal partner is emphasized as the vital impetus for their union; [2] thus Kalypso memorably complains that the gods inevitably begrudge female divinities their mortal consorts, with perilous consequences for the latter. Thetis, by contrast, was not the ardent seducer of her mortal lover. Her mythology gives a wholly different cause for her uniting with Peleus, which the gods in no way begrudged. In Iliad 18 Thetis accounts for her uniquely grief-stricken condition:
Ἥφαιστ᾽, ἦ ἄρα δή τις, ὅσαι θεαί εἰσ᾽ ἐν Ὀλύμπῳ,
τοσσάδ᾽ ἐνὶ φρεσὶν ᾗσιν ἀνέσχετο κήδεα λυγρά,
ὅσσ᾽ ἐμοὶ ἐκ πασέων Κρονίδης Ζεὺς ἄλγε᾽ ἔδωκεν;
ἐκ μέν μ᾽ ἀλλάων ἁλιάων ἀνδρὶ δάμασσεν,
Αἰακίδῃ Πηλῆϊ, καὶ ἔτλην ἀνέρος εὐνὴν
πολλὰ μάλ᾽ οὐκ ἐθέλουσα.
(18.429–34)
Hephaistos, is there anyone, of all the goddesses on Olympos,
who has endured so many baneful sorrows in her heart,
as many as the griefs Zeus the son of Kronos has given me beyond all others?
Of all the daughters of the sea he forced on me a mortal man,
Aiakos’ son Peleus, and I endured the bed of a mortal man
utterly unwilling though I was.
Thetis did not choose Peleus, as Aphrodite chose Anchises; Peleus was chosen for her.
To what does the epic allude in these lines? What myth is its audience intended to recognize? Can the Iliad’s reference here to the Olympians’ endorsement—even enforcement—of Thetis’s marriage to Peleus clarify its representation of their reluctance to challenge her, as she preempts the course of the entire war? To give these lines their full weight—indeed, even to begin to interpret them—means addressing other digressions that interrupt the narrative surface of the poem.
In the Iliad Thetis has a present and, prospectively, a future defined by the mortal condition of her son; as such she is known in her dependent attitude of sorrowing and caring. But the Iliad recognizes that she has a past as well and in recalling it at crucial points suggests a source for her role that is far more important than may initially appear.
How does the Iliad reveal a character’s past? Typically, it does so through the character’s own reminiscences and reflections on his previous achievements or position. Instead, Hephaistos gives the only first-person account of Thetis’s previous activities, anterior to the time frame of the epic.
In Book 18, when Thetis arrives to request the new set of armor for Achilles, Hephaistos responds to the news of her presence with an account of how she saved him after Hera cast him out of Olympos:
ἦ ῥά νύ μοι δεινή τε καὶ αἰδοίη θεὸς ἔνδον,
ἥ μ᾽ ἐσάωσ᾽, ὅτε μ᾽ ἄλγος ἀφίκετο τῆλε πεσόντα
μητρὸς ἐμῆς ἰότητι κυνώπιδος, ἥ μ᾽ ἐθέλησε
κρύψαι χωλὸν ἐόντα· τότ᾽ ἂν πάθον ἄλγεα θυμῷ,
εἰ μή μ᾽ Εὐρυνόμη τε Θέτις θ᾽ ὑπεδέξατο κόλπῳ.
(18.394–98)
Truly then, an awesome and honored goddess is in my house,
who saved me when pain overcame me after I had fallen far
through the will of my bitch-faced mother, who wished
to hide me for being lame. Then I would have suffered much pain in my heart,
if Eurynome and Thetis had not rescued me to their bosoms. [3]
In Book 6 (130–37), there is another instance of Thetis preserving a god from disaster; it is, similarly, not related by her but in this case by Diomedes, who cites it as part of an example of how dangerous it is to fight with the gods. Diomedes describes how Lykourgos chased Dionysos with a cattle prod until Dionysos in terror leapt into the sea where he was sheltered by Thetis: [4]
οὐδὲ γὰρ οὐδὲ Δρύαντος υἱός, κρατερὸς Λυκόοργος,
δὴν ἦν, ὅς ῥα θεοῖσιν ἐπουρανίοισιν ἔριζεν·
ὅς ποτε μαινομένοιο Διωνύσοιο τιθήνας
σεῦε κατ᾽ ἠγάθεον Νυσήϊον· αἱ δ᾽ ἅμα πᾶσαι
θύσθλα χαμαὶ κατέχευαν ὑπ᾽ ἀνδροφόνοιο Λυκούργου
θεινόμεναι βουπλῆγι· Διώνυσος δὲ φοβηθεὶς
δύσεθ᾽ ἁλὸς κατὰ κῦμα, Θέτις δ᾽ ὑπεδέξατο κόλπῳ
δειδιότα·
(6.130–37)
No, for not even the son of Dryas, powerful Lykourgos,
lived long, who contended with the heavenly gods;
he who once drove the nurses of frenzied Dionysos
down the holy Nyseian mountain. And they all
scattered their wands to the ground, struck by man-slaughtering
Lykourgos, with a cattle prod; but Dionysos in panic
plunged under the sea’s wave, and Thetis took him, terrified,
to her bosom.
Together with the episode described by Hephaistos in Book 18, this account associates Thetis in a divine past—uninvolved with human events—with a level of divine invulnerability extraordinary by Olympian standards. Where within the framework of the Iliad the ultimate recourse is to Zeus for protection, [5] here the poem seems to point to an alternative structure of cosmic relations, one that was neither overthrown by the Olympian order (insofar as Thetis—unlike, say, the Titans—still functions) nor upheld by it (insofar as no challenge to the Olympian order remains), but whose relation to it was otherwise resolved.
We do not have far to look for explicit confirmation of this in the poem. Once again, it does not come from Thetis; she does not refer to her own power. Rather, it is made part of Achilles’ appeal to Zeus in Book 1, and it stands out in high relief because of the anomalous form of the plea. Why does Achilles convey his request to Zeus through his mother, rather than directly? Such a procedure is unknown elsewhere in the Iliad; and, after all, Achilles is capable of appealing to Zeus directly, as he does at length at 16.233ff. But at 1.396ff. he addresses Thetis:
πολλάκι γάρ σεο πατρὸς ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ἄκουσα
εὐχομένης ὅτ᾽ ἔφησθα κελαινεφέϊ Κρονίωνι
οἴη ἐν ἀθανάτοισιν ἀεικέα λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι,
ὁππότε μιν ξυνδῆσαι Ὀλύμπιοι ἤθελον ἄλλοι,
Ἥρη τ᾽ ἠδὲ Ποσειδάων καὶ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη·
ἀλλὰ σὺ τόν γ᾽ ἐλθοῦσα, θεά, ὑπελύσαο δεσμῶν,
ὦχ᾽ ἑκατόγχειρον καλέσασ᾽ ἐς μακρόν Ὄλυμπον,
ὃν Βριάρεων καλέουσι θεοί, ἄνδρες δέ τε πάντες
Αἰγαίων᾽—ὁ γὰρ αὖτε βίην οὗ πατρὸς ἀμείνων—
ὅς ῥα παρὰ Κρονίωνι καθέζετο κύδεϊ γαίων·
τὸν καὶ ὑπέδεισαν μάκαρες θεοὶ οὐδ᾽ ἔτ᾽ ἔδησαν.
(1.396–406)
For I have often heard you in my father’s halls
avowing it, when you declared that from Kronos’ son of the dark clouds
you alone among the immortals warded off unseemly destruction
at the time when the other Olympians wanted to bind him,
Hera and Poseidon and Pallas Athena;
but you went, goddess, and set him free from his bonds,
quickly summoning the hundred-handed one to high Olympos,
the one whom the gods call Briareos, but all men call
Aigaion—for he is greater in strength than his father—
who, rejoicing in his glory, sat beside the son of Kronos.
And the blessed gods feared him, and ceased binding Zeus.
A closer look at the context of this account helps to explain why Achilles enlists his mother as intermediary rather than addressing Zeus himself, as he does when he makes his prayer in Book 16. [6]
We become aware that Achilles’ appeal is remarkable in a number of important ways when we note that the passage is introduced at 1.352 with the following lines:
μῆτερ, ἐπεί μ᾽ ἔτεκές γε μινυνθάδιόν περ ἐόντα,
τιμήν πέρ μοι ὄφελλεν Ὀλύμπιος ἐγγυαλίξαι
Ζεὺς ὑψιβρεμέτης·
(1.352–54)
My mother, since you did bear me to be short-lived,
surely high-thundering Olympian Zeus ought to
grant me honor.
It has been established that the typical structure of prayers, as represented in archaic poetry, consists of an arrangement of distinct elements: the invocation of the god or goddess; the claim that the person praying is entitled to a favor on the basis of favors granted in the past or on the basis of a previous response that implies the existence of a contract between god and man based on past exchange of favors; and the specific request for a favor in return, including an implied or explicit statement of the relevance of the favor to the particular god’s sphere. This arrangement constitutes a formal communication of reciprocal obligations between god and man. [7]
Achilles’ prayer to his mother at 1.352ff. presents a variation on the formal restrictions governing prayers in Homeric poetry, as L. C. Muellner has shown. This is signaled by the substitution of δάκρυ χέων for εὐχόμενος, the participle that regularly accompanies the prayer of a man to a god (although not necessarily requests from one god to another). Muellner observes that
Achilles is depressed and helpless, his prayer is sub-standard, and his goddess mother makes an instantaneous epiphany. To express Achilles’ sadness with particular force, the poet has replaced ὣς ἔφατ’ εὐχόμενος with #ὣς φάτο δάκρυ χέων. The deletion of εὐχόμενος may be a covert statement that Achilles is less a man addressing a goddess than a god addressing a goddess, or, which is similar, a man addressing his mother who happens to be a goddess. [8]
Achilles’ prayer to Thetis, as Muellner points out, omits the specific request for a favor. Curiously, we may note, it also lacks the element of a claim of entitlement to a favor implied by the “existence of a contract between god and man based on past exchange of favors.” [9] All the requisite features, in fact, seem to be missing from Achilles’ address to his mother; but they are present in the passage in which Achilles instructs her on how to approach Zeus.
The conventional form in which one god asks a favor of another does not include the reminder of a past favor or the promise of a future one on either part. [10] Conventionally, however, a god or goddess who makes a request of another god on behalf of a hero will recall the hero’s past services to the god, as Apollo does for the sake of the dead Hektor at 24.33–34 or as Athena does on behalf of Odysseus at Odyssey 1.60–62. [11] But here, for Achilles’ ritual or other services to Zeus, is substituted the reminder of Thetis’s earlier championing of Zeus. Instead of asking for a favor based on Achilles’ past, she is to ask on the basis of her own. It can be no trivial service that is recalled in exchange for reversing the course of the war, with drastic results that Zeus can anticipate; Thetis need say no more than
Ζεῦ πάτερ, εἴ ποτε δή σε μετ᾽ ἀθανάτοισιν ὄνησα
ἢ ἔπει ἢ ἔργῳ, τόδε μοι κρήηνον ἐέλδωρ·
(1.503–4)
Father Zeus, if I ever before helped you among the
immortals, in word or action, grant me this favor.
Achilles, however, specifies wherein Thetis’s claim to favor lies:
πολλάκι γάρ σεο πατρὸς ἐνὶ µεγάροισιν ἄκουσα
εὐχοµένης, ὅτ᾽ ἔφησθα κελαινεφέϊ Κρονίωνι
οἴη ἐν ἀθανάτοισιν ἀεικέα λοιγὸν ἀµῦναι
(1.396–98)
For I have often heard you in my father’s halls
avowing it, when you declared that from Kronos’ son of the dark clouds
you alone among the immortals warded off unseemly destruction.
Thetis, the rescuer of Hephaistos and Dionysos, was first and foremost the rescuer of Zeus.
The most general, but most telling, statement of Thetis’s power is expressed by the formula λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι—“ward off destruction.” [12] The ability to λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι (or ἀμύνειν) within the Iliad is shared exclusively by Achilles, Apollo, and Zeus. Although others are put in a position to do so and make the attempt, only these three have the power to “ward off destruction,” to be efficacious in restoring order to the world of the poem. Thetis alone, however, is credited with having had such power in the divine realm, for she alone was able to ward off destruction from Zeus. She herself unbound Zeus, summoning the hundred-handed Briareos as a kind of guarantor or reminder of her power:
ἀλλὰ σὺ τόν γ᾽ ἐλθοῦσα, θεά, ὑπελύσαο δεσμῶν,
ὦχ᾽ ἑκατόγχειρον καλέσασ᾽ ἐς μακρὸν Ὄλυμπον,
ὃν Βριάρεων καλέουσι θεοί, ἄνδρες δέ τε πάντες
Αἰγαίων᾽—ὁ γὰρ αὖτε βίην οὗ πατρὸς ἀμείνων—
ὅς ῥα παρὰ Κρονίωνι καθέζετο κύδεϊ γαίων·
(1.401–5)
but you went, goddess, and set him free from his bonds,
quickly summoning the hundred-handed one to high Olympos,
the one whom the gods call Briareos, but all men call
Aigaion—for he is greater in strength than his father—
who, rejoicing in his glory, sat beside the son of Kronos.
That Thetis saves Zeus from being bound deserves special attention; for the motif of binding on Olympos, together with the reference to Briareos, specifically evokes the succession myth and the divine genealogy on which it is founded.
The motif of binding is central to the account of the succession myth in the Theogony, recurring as one of the primary ways to assert divine sovereignty over a potential or actual challenger. Ouranos attempts to ensure his power over Briareos and his other children by binding them; ultimately they are freed by Zeus, [13] who in turn wants their allegiance in his own bid for hegemony. Their willingness to cooperate is based on their gratitude for being unbound:
“κέκλυτέ μευ Γαίης τε καὶ Οὐρανοῦ ἀγλαὰ τέκνα,
ὄφρ᾽ εἴπω τά με θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσι κελεύει.
ἤδη γὰρ μάλα δηρὸν ἐναντίοι ἀλλήλοισι
νίκης καὶ κάρτευς πέρι μαρνάμεθ᾽ ἤματα πάντα,
Τιτῆνές τε θεοὶ καὶ ὅσοι Κρόνου ἐκγενόμεσθα.
ὑμεῖς δὲ μεγάλην τε βίην καὶ χεῖρας ἀάπτους
φαίνετε Τιτήνεσσιν ἐναντίον ἐν δαῒ λυγρῇ,
μνησάμενοι φιλότητος ἐνηέος, ὅσσα παθόντες
ἐς φάος ἂψ ἀφίκεσθε δυσηλεγέος ὑπὸ δεσμοῦ
ἡμετέρας διὰ βουλὰς ὑπὸ ζόφου ἠερόεντος.”
ὥς φάτο· τὸν δ᾽ αἶψ᾽ αὖτις ἀμείβετο Κόττος ἀμύμων·
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“σῇσι δ᾽ ἐπιφροσύνῃσιν ὑπὸ ζόφου ἠερόεντος
ἄψορρον ἐξαῦτις ἀμειλίκτων ὑπὸ δεσμῶν
ἠλύθομεν…”
(Hes. Theog. 644–54; 658–60)
“Listen to me, radiant children of Gaia and Ouranos,
so that I may say what the spirit in my breast bids.
For a very long time have the Titan gods and all those born of
Kronos struggled with each other every day for victory and power.
But show your great strength and irresistible hands
against the Titans in painful battle, bearing in mind
our kindly friendship, and all the sufferings you returned from
into the light, back from wretched bondage
beneath the misty darkness, on account of our counsels.”
Thus he spoke. And illustrious Kottos replied in turn:
“…Through your shrewdness, from beneath the misty darkness
we have come back again from our relentless bonds.”
With the aid of Briareos and his brothers, the Olympians, once they have managed to overpower Kronos and the other Titans, bind them and cast them beneath the earth. [14]
Binding is the ultimate penalty in the divine realm, where by definition there is no death. It serves not to deprive an opponent of existence, but to render him impotent. [15] Once bound, a god cannot escape his bondage by himself, no matter how great his strength. In this sense it is not finally an expression of physical strength (although violence certainly enters into the Titanomachy), but of what has been called “terrible sovereignty.” [16]
The attempt to bind Zeus recounted at 1.396ff. thus constitutes a mutinous effort at supplanting him and imposing a new divine regime—on the pattern of his own overthrow of Kronos and the Titans. Thetis’s act in rescuing Zeus is therefore nothing less than supreme: an act that restores the cosmic equilibrium. Once having loosed the bonds, she summons Briareos, not to perform, but simply to sit beside Zeus as a reminder of Zeus’s final mastery in the succession myth struggle. Briareos and his brothers, in Hesiod (as later in Apollodorus), are never instigators, but agents; Thetis’s power to summon the hekatoncheir (“hundred-handed one”) here—beyond what the insurgent gods are capable of—recalls Zeus’s own successful use of Briareos and his brothers. Not even a single one of Briareos’s hands needs to be laid on the mutinous gods here: they are overwhelmed by the assertion of sovereignty implied by the presence of Briareos, rather than overpowered by him. In this sense, one can see Briareos’s narrative function as a mirror of his dramatic function: he is a reminder. The binding element in itself is a sufficient allusion to the succession myth, so that Briareos is included as a multiplication of the motif.
Linked to this cosmic act on the part of Thetis is the phrase ὁ γὰρ αὖτε βίην οὗ πατρὸς ἀμείνων (“for he is greater in strength than his father”)—a reference about which it has rightly been said that “much remains obscure.” [17] Yet some light may be shed on this “obscure” phrase if we remind ourselves that the reference to the son who is greater than his father is significant for Thetis in a crucial dimension of her mythology.
The background of the fateful marriage alluded to in Iliad 18 is given in fuller form in Pindar’s Isthmian 8, where Thetis’s story is the ode’s central myth. [18] Isthmian 8 recounts that Zeus and Poseidon were rivals for the hand of Thetis, each wishing to be her husband, for love possessed them. But the gods decided not to bring about either marriage, once they had heard from Themis that Thetis was destined to bear a son who would be greater than his father. [19] Therefore, Themis counseled, let Thetis marry a mortal instead and see her son die in war. This divine prize should be given to Aiakos’s son Peleus, the most reverent of men. The sons of Kronos agreed with Themis, and Zeus himself assented to the marriage of Thetis.
ταῦτα καὶ μακάρων ἐμέμναντ᾽ ἀγοραί,
Ζεὺς ὅτ᾽ ἀμφὶ Θέτιος ἀγλαός τ᾽ ἔρισαν Ποσειδὰν γάμῳ,
ἄλοχον εὐειδέα θέλων ἑκάτερος
ἑὰν ἔμμεν· ἔρως γὰρ ἔχεν.
ἀλλ᾽ οὔ σφιν ἄμβροτοι τέλεσαν εὐνὰν θεῶν πραπίδες,
ἐπεὶ θεσφάτων ἐπάκουσαν· εἶπεν
εὔβουλος ἐν μέσοισι Θέμις,
οὕνεκεν πεπρωμένον ἦν, φέρτερον πατέρος ἄνακτα γόνον τεκεῖν
ποντίαν θεόν, ὃς κεραυνοῦ τε κρέσσον ἄλλο βέλος
διώξει χερὶ τριόδοντός τ᾽ ἀμαιμακέτου, Δί τε μισγομέναν ἢ Διὸς παρ᾽ ἀδελφεοῖσιν. “ἀλλὰ τὰ μὲν
παύσατε· βροτέων δὲ λεχέων τυχοῖσα
υἱὸν εἰσιδέτω θανόντ᾽ ἐν πολέμῳ,
χεῖρας Ἄρεΐ τ᾽ ἐναλίγκιον στεροπαῖσί τ᾽ ἀκμὰν ποδῶν.”
(Isthm. 8.29–38)
This the assembly of the Blessed Ones remembered,
When Zeus and glorious Poseidon
Strove to marry Thetis,
Each wishing that she
Should be his beautiful bride.
Love held them in his grip.
But the Gods’ undying wisdom
Would not let the marriage be,
When they gave ear to the oracles. In their midst
Wise-counselling Themis said
That it was fated for the sea-goddess
To bear for son a prince
Stronger than his father,
Who shall wield in his hand a different weapon
More powerful than the thunderbolt
Or the monstrous trident,
If she wed Zeus or among the brothers of Zeus.
“Put an end to this. Let her have a mortal wedlock
And see dead in war her son
With hands like the hands of Ares
And feet like the lightning-flashes.” [20]
Isthmian 8 thus reveals Thetis as a figure of cosmic capacity, whose existence promises profound consequences for the gods. Not only does she generate strife between Zeus and Poseidon because of their love for her, but her potential for bearing a son greater than his father threatens the entire divine order. The rivalry she arouses between Zeus and Poseidon because of their love for her is unprecedented, but her greatest power does not lie there. Themis advises Zeus and Poseidon against marriage with Thetis, not in terms suggesting that their competition over her would be dangerous, but rather that marriage between Thetis and any of the Olympians (Διὸς παρ᾽ ἀδελφεοῖσιν, “among the brothers of Zeus”) would be disastrous in itself. If the issue were simply that of ending a conflict between the brothers, that presumably could be resolved by assigning Thetis to either of them. Once married to either of them, Thetis would be settled and beyond the other’s reach; the possibility of her subsequently—δίς (“a second time”)—causing a similar rivalry would be unlikely. But Themis fears another “banishment,” the effects of a petalismos. [21]
Themis, the guardian of social order, is apparently trying not simply to avert a quarrel prompted by sexual jealousy between the brothers (a quarrel that would always be reparable), but a catastrophic neikos on the scale of previous intergenerational succession struggles. [22] This is what Thetis has the power to engender.
Thetis’s overwhelming potential as Isthmian 8 reveals it lies at the heart of Aeschylus’(?) Prometheus Bound. In the tragedy, Gaia (there identified with Themis) has made known to her son Prometheus the secret of Zeus’s future overthrow: that Thetis, whom Zeus plans to “marry,” is destined to bear a child who will be mightier than his father. [23] It is this threat at which Prometheus hints, with increasing explicitness, throughout the tragedy, his private knowledge of which he asserts as the guarantee of his ability to stalemate Zeus. [24] Although we cannot be sure precisely how possession of this knowledge may have served Prometheus in the trilogy as a whole, we can say that the plot and dramatic tension of (at least) Prometheus Bound are organized around the Titan’s knowing that Thetis is the answer to the only question that matters to Zeus. [25] The secret of Thetis is represented in Prometheus Bound as indispensable to Zeus’s survival: his rule, his future, are hostage to her fatal power.
While the danger to Zeus posed by the attempt of Hera, Athena, and Poseidon (1.396ff.), therefore, was averted by Thetis, she herself presented the greatest challenge of all to his supremacy, according to the myth as recovered in Pindar and Aeschylus. [26] The phrase ὁ γὰρ αὖτε βίην οὗ πατρὸς ἀμείνων at Iliad 1.404 describes Achilles within that tradition and recalls his association with the theme of ongoing genealogy and generational strife.
The Iliad, then, gives us a seemingly inconsistent picture. How are we to reconcile Thetis’s cosmic capacity, as alluded to in the Iliad’s digressions and as known to Isthmian 8, Prometheus Bound, and Apollodorus (and the traditions they follow), with what seems, for the most part, to be her limited status in the Iliad? Our initial impression of her there is that she is a divinity of at best secondary importance, whose position is inferior to that of the major deities in the poem. Her expressed grief and reiterated helplessness in the face of her sons suffering make her seem vulnerable in a way that other goddesses are not. In comparison to Thetis’s anguish, an episode like the wounding of Aphrodite in Book 5 (334ff.) is a parodic one, which serves to illustrate that the Olympians are beyond anything more than the most transient pain. There is nothing anywhere in the Iliad’s immortal realm comparable to the sorrowful isolation of Thetis.
Her inferiority to the Olympian hierarchy is spelled out in Book 20. When Aeneas is reluctant to meet Achilles in battle, Apollo (in the guise of Lykaon) reassures him that he is entitled to challenge Achilles because his mother, Aphrodite, “outranks” Thetis:
ἥρως, ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε καὶ σὺ θεοῖς αἰειγενέτῃσιν
εὔχεο· καὶ δὲ σέ φασι Διὸς κούρης Ἀφροδίτης
ἐκγεγάμεν, κεῖνος δὲ χερείονος ἐκ θεοῦ ἐστιν.
(20.104–6)
Hero, come now and pray, you also, to the gods who live forever;
they say you were born from Aphrodite, the daughter of Zeus,
while he is the son of a lesser goddess.
It is this reminder with which Aeneas then responds to Achilles’ taunts. He matches the account of Achilles’ demonstrated superiority, Achilles’ pursuit and near-capture of him, and his own flight, simply with the claim of his own genealogy, at 20.206–9. [27]
If we want to square the inferior place in the ranks to which the speeches of Apollo and Aeneas appear to relegate Thetis with the rest of her history as we have seen it, we may consider the suggestion in Erwin Rohde’s Psyche (although Rohde does not address himself to this particular problem) that an explanation for such disparity is to be found in the prevailing influence of pan-Hellenism, through which the Homeric view of the gods was shaped. The impetus of this unifying perspective, of which the Homeric poems themselves are a monumental and influential example, is evident in the Homeric poems’
conception…and consistent execution of the picture of a single and unified world of gods, confined to a select company of sharply characterized heavenly beings, grouped together in certain well-recognized ways and dwelling together in a single place of residence above the earth. If we listened to Homer alone we should suppose that the innumerable local cults of Greece, with their gods closely bound to the soil, hardly existed. Homer ignores them almost entirely. His gods are pan-Hellenic, Olympian. [28]
While the deities whose cult-worship was most widespread throughout the city-states are elevated to the superior status of Olympians, those divinities with a more restricted range of influence are treated as lesser in importance and authority, however significant they may have been in local belief. In this way local traditions remain intact but are de-emphasized, while the resulting generalized pan-Hellenic conception is acceptable throughout the city-states. The assembly of the gods before the theomachy in which they all compete makes explicit the subsidiary position of the locally powerful “gods of the countryside.” As Rohde points out,
even the river-gods and Nymphs who are usually confined to their own homes are called to the agora of all the gods in Olympos, Υ 4ff. These deities who remain fixed in the locality of their worship are weaker than the Olympians just because they are not elevated to the ideal summit of Olympos. Kalypso resignedly admits this, ε 169f.…They have sunk to the second rank of deities. [29]
Thus the Homeric poems, subordinating realities of religious practice to pan-Hellenic goals, systematically demote such potent figures as the Nymphs—who, as a group, in the Theogony occupy a lofty position appropriate to their tremendous stature and antiquity, being the daughters of Gaia and consanguineous siblings of the Erinyes and the Giants. [30] Hesiod also recognizes the Nereids as occupying an elevated position in the divine scheme, and we know of their importance in popular religion from a variety of other sources. [31]
Prestige is denied them by Homeric epic, which either assigns these non-Olympian deities inconsequential roles in the narrative or demonstrates their subordinate status through a decisive confrontation with the Olympians. Such is the case of Kalypso in Odyssey 5. In the Iliad, a highly dramatic example is the battle between Hephaistos and Skamandros (Kalypso’s brother in the Theogony), in which Skamandros is forced, improbably, to capitulate to the Olympian’s superior might (21. 342ff.). At the same time, the poem acknowledges the river god’s intrinsic stature by calling him θε?ς μ?γας (21.248), a title otherwise reserved for Olympian gods.
It may be the case that Thetis’s stature in a local context is a factor in the Iliad’s reticence or indirectness of reference with respect to her power and prestige. Pausanias (3.14.4–6) tells us that she was worshiped with great reverence in cult in Laconia; this may be reflected in local poetic traditions, if Alcman’s poem (frag. 5 Page) featuring her is a clue. [32]
Thetis in the Iliad, however, is neither merely ineffectual, like Kalypso, nor insignificant, like Leukothea; the epic shows her to us as at once weak and powerful: subsidiary, helpless, but able to accomplish what the greatest of the heroes cannot and what the greatest of the gods cannot. [33] The poem’s explicitly and emphatically contradictory presentation of her leads to an explanation that addresses the interpretive process inherent in the Iliad’s treatment of the mythology it builds on, rendered more readily accessible to us through comparative evidence. The central element in the structure of Thetis’s mythology, common to its representations in both Isthmian 8 and Prometheus Bound, is the covertness of her power; it is a secret weapon, a concealed promise, a hidden agenda requiring discovery, revelation. It is precisely this covert, latent aspect of Thetis’s potential in cosmic relations to which the Iliad draws attention as well, both exploiting and reinforcing it as allusion.
The Iliad’s acknowledgment of Thetis’s cosmic power, known to these traditions, locates it in a past to which she herself does not refer. [34] Her grief is her preeminent attribute in the poem. Her references to herself, as mentioned above, are uniquely to her sorrow over her son. In contexts where we might expect reminders of her former potency—like that in Achilles’ speech in Book 1—she claims for herself only suffering beyond that of all other Olympians. What lies tacitly behind the surpassing grief of Thetis, linking her past and her present in the Iliad, remains privileged knowledge, signaled by allusive references that are oblique, but sufficient. As we shall see in the following chapter, the Iliad makes her very grief a signifier of her former power, now suppressed or redefined. At the same time, by focusing on her sorrow as preeminent—while her power remains an allusion, displaced at the level of narrative—the poem locates its subject matter decisively in the human realm.

Footnotes

[ back ] 1. These raise repeatedly the specter of the Titanomachy, e.g., 8.477ff.
[ back ] 2. So in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (56–57), the goddess is overwhelmed with passion for Anchises.
[ back ] 3. That Eurynome, who otherwise does not figure in Homeric epic, is named here as a participant in the rescue of Hephaistos may be explained by the particular context of Hephaistos’s conversation with Charis. Elsewhere in Homer, Hephaistos is the husband of Aphrodite; but here Charis is his wife, as in the Theogony (945–46), where he is married to one of the Charites (there specifically Aglaia; Homer uses simply the generic Charis). And at Theogony 905ff., Hesiod identifies the Charites as the daughters of Eurynome. The inclusion of Hesiodic Eurynome, therefore, is owed to the presence of her Hesiodic child. Moreover, the mention of Eurynome here and perhaps even the presence of Charis are motivated by what emerges, as I hope to show below, as the theogonic context of references to Thetis’s power. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo (319ff.) gives a similar account of Thetis’s rescue of Hephaistos, including her Nereid sisters but singling out Thetis as his benefactor.
[ back ] 4. For a discussion of the antiquity of this episode and the poet’s assumption of his audience’s familiarity with it see G. Aurelio Privitera, Dionisio in Omero e nella poesia greca arcaica (Rome, 1970), 57ff.
[ back ] 5. As at 21.505ff., where Artemis retreats to Zeus when attacked and struck by Hera.
[ back ] 6. Lines 399–406 of Book 1 have troubled critics since antiquity: Zenodotus athetised the passage, evidently sharing the worry expressed in the scholia about the seemingly improbable alliance of rebellious gods, and preferring to read Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων for Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη. The attempt to overthrow Zeus provided an opportunity for a variety of allegorical readings from different vantage points, including the meteorological; see schol. bT ad 399ff. and the discussion in F. Buffière, Les mythes d’Homère et la pensée grecque (Paris, 1956), 173–79. Buffière writes, “Si bien que l’allégorie a dû venir de bonne heure au secours de ce texte scabreux, qui offensait doublement la divinité: car les dieux révoltés péchaient à la fois contre les lois de l’ordre et la paix des cieux, et contre les devoirs de l’entente familiale” (174). Thetis’s power, however, was never in doubt; she was allegorized as the force ordering the universe: τὴν θέσιν καὶ φύσιν τοῦ παντός. Some modern interpreters, less concerned about the particular combinazione of deities or the impropriety of their behavior, but more perplexed about the apparent absence of other references to the episode of the attempted binding, have identified this passage as an instance of Homeric “ad hoc invention”; see, for example, M. Willcock, “Mythological Paradeigma in the Iliad,” CQ 58, n.s. 14 (1964): 141–54, and “Ad Hoc Invention in the Iliad,” HSCP 81 (1977): 41–53. For an answer to “demonstrations” of “invention” on the poet’s part, illustrating “the extent to which paradeigmata include inherited material” (Willcock, “Mythological Paradeigma,” 147), see the convincing examination of this passage in Lang, “Reverberation and Mythology,” in Approaches to Homer, eds. Rubino and Shelmerdine; also the discussion of inherited material about divine conflict in A. Heubeck, “Mythologische Vorstellungen des Alten Orients im archaischen Griechentum,” Gymnasium 62 (1955): 508–25, on this passage, 519ff.
[ back ] 7. I am paraphrasing here from the detailed discussion of the formal structure of Homeric prayers in Muellner, Meaning of Homeric ΕΥΧΟΜΑΙ, 27–28. See as well H. Meyer, “Hymnische Stilelemente in der frühgriechischen Dichtung” (Diss., Cologne, 1933), esp. 9–16; E. Norden, Agnostos Theos (Leipzig, 1913), 143–76; M. Lang, “Reason and Purpose in Homeric Prayers,” CW 68 (1975): 309–14.
[ back ] 8. Muellner, Meaning of Homeric ΕΥΧΟΜΑΙ, 23.
[ back ] 9. Ibid., 28.
[ back ] 10. E.g., Hera to Aphrodite at 14.190ff.; Hera to Hephaistos at 21.328ff.
[ back ] 11. σχέτλιοί ἐστε, θεοί, δηλήμονες· οὔ νύ ποθ’ ὑμῖν
Ἕκτωρ μηρί’ ἔκηε βοῶν αἰγῶν τε τελείων;
(Il. 24.33–34)
You are relentless, you gods, and destructive: did Hektor
never burn the thighs of oxen and choice goats for you?
οὔ νύ τ’ Ὀδυσσεὺς
Ἀργείων παρὰ νηυσὶ χαρίζετο ἱερὰ ῥέζων
Τροίῃ ἐν εὐρείῃ; τί νύ οἱ τόσον ὠδύσαο, Ζεῦ;
(Od. 1.60–62)
Did Odysseus not
please you, making sacrifices by the Achaeans’ ships
in wide Troy? Why are you so angry at him, Zeus?
[ back ] 12. For a detailed discussion of the thematics of this formula, see Nagy, Best of the Achaeans, 74–78.
[ back ] 13. Hes. Theog. 501–2. References are to M. L. West, ed., Hesiod: Theogony (Oxford, 1966).
[ back ] 14. Hes. Theog. 658ff.
[ back ] 15. References to binding of gods in the Iliad include the account of the binding of Ares by Otos and Ephialtes at 5.385–91, of Hera by Zeus at 15.19–20, and Zeus’s threat to the other gods at 13.17ff.
[ back ] 16. On the metaphysical nature of binding, see M. Eliade, Images and Symbols, trans. P. Mairet (New York, 1969), chap. 3, “The ‘God Who Binds’ and the Symbolism of Knots,” 92–124. On binding (and unbinding) as an expression and instrument of sovereignty, see the discussion, with thorough exposition of the comparative evidence, in G. Dumézil, Ouranos-Varuna: Étude de mythologie comparée indo-européenne (Paris, 1934), and Mitra-Varuna, 2d ed. (Paris, 1948), 71–85 (in English, trans. D. Coltman [New York, 1988], 95–111).
[ back ] 17. G. S. Kirk, The Iliad: A Commentary (Cambridge, 1985), 95, ad 1.403–4. See pp. 93–95 for observations on 1.396–406. It has proved difficult even to construe 403–4; in what way does the phrase ὁ γὰρ αὖτε βίην οὗ πατρὸς ἀμείνων explain either of the hekatoncheir’s names? See the analysis by J. T. Hooker, “ΑΙΓΑΙΩΝ in Achilles’ Plea to Thetis,” JHS 100 (1980): 188–89, who does not consider the episode to be an invention of the poet, but rather “a fragment of a poetical tradition represented elsewhere in the Iliad” (188 n.4, with references). On the other hand, perhaps the phrase is not an etymological gloss, but rather explains the participial phrase in 402—that is, it does not give a reason for why Briareos is so named, but why Thetis summoned him.
[ back ] 18. Other references to the marriage are found in Pythian 3, as well as in several odes written, like Isthmian 8, for Aeginetan victors: Nem. 3, Nem. 4, Nem. 5.
[ back ] 19. C. M. Bowra, Pindar (Oxford, 1964), 88–89, observes that Isthmian 8 “is concerned with the consequences of what will happen if Thetis marries either Zeus or Poseidon. If she does, says Themis, it is πεπρωμένον that her son will be stronger than either. Here everything turns on the meaning of πεπρωμένον. It is clear that it is not a decision of the gods on Olympus, but something which is bound to happen unless they take avoiding action.… What Pindar means is that, the gods being what they are, such a union will inevitably bring forth a being stronger than they. The gods have their own nature, and this is a consequence of it.”
[ back ] 20. Translation from C. M. Bowra, trans., The Odes of Pindar (Harmondsworth, England, 1969), 52–53.
[ back ] 21. On the diction of banishment in the succession myth, see Hes. Theog. 491, 820. On the interpretation of Isthmian 8.92, see the scholion as given in A. B. Drachmann, ed., Scholia vetera in Pindari carmina (Leipzig, 1927), 275.
[ back ] 22. On the role of Themis, compare A. Köhnken, “Gods and Descendants of Aiakos in Pindar’s Eighth Isthmian Ode,” BICS 22 (1975): 33 n.19. Apollodorus (3.13.5) says that one version attributes to Themis and another to Prometheus the revelation of the secret that Thetis will bear a son greater than his father: τὸν ἐκ ταύτης γεννηθέντα οὐρανοῦ δυναστεύσειν. We may recall the rivalry between Hephaistos and Ares, as related in Odyssey 8, and the rapprochement of Hera and Aphrodite at Iliad 14.190ff. as examples of the reparability of quarrels arising from sexual jealousy. On the potential neikos:
Ζεὺς … ἀμφὶ Θέτιος ἀγλαός τ’ ἔρισαν Ποσειδὰν γάμῳ,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
μηδὲ Νηρέος θυγάτηρ νεικέων πέ-
ταλα δὶς ἐγγυαλιζέτω
ἄμμιν.
(Isthm. 8.30, 47–48)
Zeus and shining Poseidon were rivals over the marriage
of Thetis
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Let the daughter of Nereus not bring the petals of strife twice into
our hands.
Note Themis’s role in the Cypria, where eris also plays a crucial part. See Nagy, Best of the Achaeans, 253–75 and 309–16, on the overlapping semantics of eris and neikos and their implications for archaic Greek poetry.
[ back ] 23. R. Reitzenstein, “Die Hochzeit des Peleus und der Thetis,” Hermes 35 (1900): 73–105, argues that Pindar and Aeschylus depend on the same early source, while Apollodorus makes use of a different, though essentially compatible, “Hauptquelle” for the story of Thetis; see esp. pp. 74–75 and 74 n. 1. See as well the discussions in U. von Wilamowitz–Moellendorf, Aischylos Interpretationen (Berlin, 1914), 132ff.; F. Stoessl, Die Trilogie des Aischylos: Formgesetze und Wege der Rekonstruktion (Baden bei Wien, 1937), 146; and F Solmsen, Hesiod and Aeschylus (Ithaca, N.Y., 1949), 128ff., all of which argue for a common poetic source for Aeschylus’s and Pindar’s treatment of the dangerous marriage with Thetis. Solmsen (following Wilamowitz) points out that the reference to Poseidon at PV 922ff. is gratuitous in terms of the plot of the tragedy (Prometheus has nothing against Poseidon) but serves to evoke the tradition about Thetis and the brothers’ courtship of her more fully. See also RE 19.1 (1937), 271–308, s.v. “Peleus” (A. Lesky); Lesky comments, “Es unterliegt keinem Bedenken, das Drama auf dieselbe Dichtung zurückzuführen wie Pind. Isthm. 8 und die besondere Rolle des Prometheus aus der Erfindung des Dichters zu erklären” (col. 296). D. J. Conacher, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound: A Literary Commentary (Toronto, 1980), 15, notes, “The myth of Zeus’ pursuit, in competition with his brother Poseidon, of the sea-nymph Thetis, was, of course, traditional, but its connection with the Prometheus myth appears to have been an Aeschylean adaptation.”
[ back ] 24. Aesch. PV 167ff., 515ff., 755ff., 907ff.
[ back ] 25. Whether Prometheus Bound was part of a trilogy, and if so, what the trilogic sequence and plots of the other plays were, remains a matter for speculation. For a summary of views on the problem, see Stoessl, Die Trilogie des Aischylos, 114–56, esp. 122–24. For a discussion and reconstruction of the trilogy from the fragments (placing P. Purphoros first), see the appendix in M. Griffith, ed., Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound (Cambridge, 1983), 281–305. When and how did Prometheus divulge the secret of the dangerous marriage with Thetis? The scholion ad PV 167 indicates that Prometheus alerted Zeus as he was in full pursuit of Thetis in the Caucasus. According to Philodemus, De pietate (p. 41.4–15 Gomperz), Aeschylus made the revelation of Thetis’s secret by Prometheus responsible for the latter’s liberation (and for Thetis’s marriage to a mortal); similarly, Hyginus (Fab. 64), who likewise explains that disclosure as the reason for Thetis’s marriage to Peleus—although by this account the freeing of Prometheus followed only years (millennia?) later. Griffith, Prometheus Bound, 301, suggests that “the order of events (killing of eagle, revelation of secret, release of P.) is not certain but if [the scholion at 167 and a passage in Servius on Vergil Ecl. 6.42 about the killing of the eagle] are based on Luomenos, Thetis may have arrived, in flight from Zeus (like Io in Desmotês…), thus provoking the still-bound Prometheus to divulge the secret before it is too late; whereupon Zeus gave orders for him to be released.… Or else Zeus’ pursuit of Thetis may have been merely narrated (e.g., by Heracles or Gê).” The safety both of Prometheus and of Zeus, then, depends on Thetis.
[ back ] 26. It is necessary to proceed with the greatest caution when reading Pindar (or any later author) as evidence for traditions latent in Homeric poetry. Two considerations support the validity of doing so here. First, Pindar has been shown to preserve highly archaic material reaching back even to an Indo-European provenance, as illustrated in Benveniste’s discussion of Pythian 3 in “La doctrine médicale,” 5–12. Second, as C. Greengard, The Structure of Pindar’s Epinician Odes (Amsterdam, 1980), 35, has demonstrated, Isthmian 8 “draws… heavily on the themes and movements of the Iliad tragedy.” Greengard’s comprehensive analysis concludes that “the diction itself of 1.8 is more than usually allusive to that of the Iliad” (36 n. 27). It seems reasonable to suppose that Pindar in Isthmian 8 draws on mythology present in the Iliad in some form, and recoverable from it—even if deeply embedded and only allusively evident to us. See the discussion in Lesky’s article on Peleus in RE 19.1 (1937), 271–308.
[ back ] 27. For a thorough refutation of the view that this episode (and Aeneas’s role in Book 20) must have been motivated by the patronage of a historical clan of Aeneidai, as well as an interpretation that reads it in particular relation to the confrontation between Achilles and Hektor in Book 22, that is, as integral to its context, see P. M. Smith, “Aeneidai as Patrons of Iliad XX and the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite,” HSCP 85 (1981): 17–58, esp. (on this speech) 50.
[ back ] 28. Rohde, Psyche, vol. 1, trans. W. B. Hillis (New York, 1925), 25; see also especially 94.
[ back ] 29. Ibid., 50.
[ back ] 30. See M. L. West’s discussion of the Nymphs in his edition of the Theogony, pp. 154 n.7, 161 n.25, 199 n. 130, 221 n.187.
[ back ] 31. E.g., Hdt. 7.191; Paus. 2.1.8 and 3.26.7. A related group are the daughters of Tethys and Okeanos, who, however, number three thousand and are not all named. See West, Theogony, 260 n.337, on the kourotrophos function of the Nymphs. Hesiod stresses their local nature by saying of their equally numerous brothers, the rivers:
τόσσοι δ’ αὖθ’ ἕτεροι ποταμοὶ καναχηδὰ ρέοντες
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
τῶν ὄνομ’ ἀργαλέον πάντων βροτὸν ἀνδρα ἐνισπεῖν,
οἱ δὲ ἕκαστοι ἴσασιν, ὅσοι περιναιετάουσι.
(Theog. 367, 369–70)
So many other noisily flowing rivers are there…
It is difficult for a mortal man to say all their names
But the men who live near them know them.
[ back ] 32. Edited by E. Lobel in POxy. 24 (London, 1957), no. 2390, frag. 2; published as Alcman frag. 5 in D. L. Page, ed., Poetae Melici Graecae (Oxford, 1962); more recently as frag. 81 in C. Calame, ed., Alcman (Rome, 1983). Known to us only through a tantalizing commentary, Alcman’s poem has been assumed by modern scholars to be an early cosmogony and has been interpreted as such, following the reading of its ancient commentator, according to whom the poem envisaged a sequence of creation in which at first only undifferentiated matter existed; then Thetis, the genesis pantōn, appeared and generated Poros, “the way,” and Tekmōr, “the sign.” Darkness existed as a third feature, later followed by day, moon, and stars. With Thetis the creatrix as demiurge, this cosmogonic process involved not so much the bringing into being of matter as the discrimination of objects, the ordering of space, the illumination of darkness with light: an intellectual rather than a physical creation. In the commentator’s reading, Alcman presented Thetis as the primal, divine creative force—the generative principle of the universe. This aspect of Alcman’s poem has been discussed by M. Detienne and J.-P. Vernant, who argue for a close connection between Thetis and Mêtis. See Detienne and Vernant’s Les ruses de l’intelligence: La Métis des grecs (Paris, 1974), 127–64, which develops a number of ideas first presented in Vernant’s “Thétis et le poème cosmogonique d’Alcman,” in Hommages à Marie Delcourt, Collection Latomus 114 (Brussels, 1970), 219–33. In various versions of their mythology, Thetis and Mêtis have associations with bonds and binding; both are sea powers; both shape-shifters; both loved by Zeus; both destined to bear a son greater than his father. Some scholars, like M. L. West, have seen the name of Thetis as defining her role in Alcman’s poem; see West’s “Three Presocratic Cosmologies,” CQ 57 (1963): 154–57; “Alcman and Pythagoras,” CQ 61 (1967): 1–7; and Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (Oxford, 1971), 206–8. Detienne and Vernant, Métis des grecs, suggest that it is the power of metamorphosis as an attribute that disposes these goddesses of the sea to a crucial cosmological role: they “contain” the potential shapes of everything created and creatable. More recently, G. Most, “Alcman’s ‘Cosmogonic’ Fragment (Fr. 5 Page, 81 Calame),” CQ 37, no. 1 (1987): 1–19, has argued that although the extant commentary is cosmogonic, Alcman’s poem was not. According to Most, Alcman’s poem was a partheneion, whose mythic section contained—appropriately for its genre—an account of Thetis’s metamorphoses when Peleus attempted to ravish her; it was her transformations that were allegorized by the ancient commentator as a cosmogony. If, as Most suggests, the partheneion context required some erotic narrative element—such as the “erotic rivalry” between the Tyndarids and the Hippocoontids in the fragmentary opening lines of the Louvre Partheneion—then it seems to me conceivable that Alcman may have used the framework of the Thetis-Peleus story as Isthmian 8 gives it to us: including not only the episode of the metamorphoses but the background rivalry of Zeus and Poseidon that necessitated assigning Thetis to a mortal mate.
[ back ] 33. In Book 24, Zeus must appeal to Thetis for the release of Hector’s body by Achilles, admitting that the gods are powerless to rescue the corpse without her intervention.
[ back ] 34. It is important to stress that we cannot assume a single common bearing on Thetis’s mythology in Pindar, Alcman, Aeschylus, and Apollodorus (or, for example, Herodotus, who records at 6.1.191 that the Persians sacrificed to Thetis at Cape Sepias); but at the same time we may usefully draw attention to these authors’ identification of Thetis as invested with vast cosmic power—an identification that dearly stems from elsewhere than the Iliad’s overt presentation of her. Thetis’s silence on the subject of her own power is all the more striking in view of Achilles’ description at 1.396–97 of her boasting about it.