Part I. Chapter 3. The Wrath of Thetis

An inconsolable mother, unable to save her only child—Thetis is the paradigm for the image of bereavement conjured up with the fall of each young warrior for whom the poem reports that the moment of his death leaves his anguished parents forlorn. Shaped by allusion to her mythology, however—its resonance augmented, as we shall see, through various forms of reference—the Iliad’s rendering of Thetis makes hers a grief with a history; while in the poem’s unfolding action Thetis’s sorrow is conflated with that of Achilles: she laments not only for her son, but with him:
ὄφρα δέ μοι ζώει καὶ ὁρᾷ φάος ἠελίοιο
ἄχνυται, οὐδέ τί οἱ δύναμαι χραισμῆσαι ἰοῦσα.
ἀλλ εἶμ᾽, ὄφρα ἴδωμι φίλον τέκος, ἠδ᾽ ἐπακούσω
ὅττι μιν ἵκετο πένθος ἀπὸ πτολέμοιο μένοντα.
Still, while he lives and looks on the sunlight
he grieves, and I, going to him, am all unable to help him.
But I shall go, so that I may see my dear child, and may hear
what grief has come to him as he waits out the battle.
Grief is never static, never passive, in the Iliad. Often it is what motivates warriors to plunge into the thick of harrowing battle, renewing their murderous efforts. [1] For Achilles in particular, ἄχος (achos, “grief”) is a constant; and because it is linked to his wrath, his continuous grief involves shifting consequences for other people. [2] Achilles’ capacity, as G. Nagy has shown, to effect a transfert du mal through which his ἄχος is passed on to the Achaeans and finally to the Trojans engages the dynamic of his μῆνις (mênis, “wrath”): “the ἄχος of Achilles leads to the μῆνις of Achilles leads to the ἄχος of the Achaeans.” [3]
The Iliad marks the wrath of its hero with a special denotation. Achilles is the only mortal of whom the substantive μῆνις is used in Homer. In a study of the semantics of μῆνις, C. Watkins has demonstrated that “μῆνις is on a wholly different level from the other Homeric words for ‘wrath.’ The ominous, baneful character of μῆνις is plain. It is a dangerous notion, which one must fear; a sacral, ‘numinous’ (θεῶν) notion, to be sure, but one of which even the gods are concerned with ridding themselves.” Therefore “the association of divine wrath with a mortal by this very fact elevates that mortal outside the normal ambience of the human condition toward the sphere of the divine.” [4]
Μῆνις thus not only designates Achilles’ power—divine in scope—to exact vengeance by transforming events according to his will, but it specifically associates Achilles with Apollo and Zeus, the two gods whose μῆνις is, in the case of each, explicitly identified and isolated as propelling and controlling the events of the poem. [5] Significantly, in addition, Zeus, Apollo, and—uniquely among mortals—Achilles are able both to generate and to remove ἄχος.
When Apollo and Achilles are involved in removing ἄχος from the Achaeans, they are said to ward off λοιγός (loigos, “destruction”). Apollo is appealed to by Chryses to remove the λοιγός with which the god has afflicted the Greek army (1.456). Achilles is requested to λοιγὸν ἀμύνειν (“ward off destruction”) where, as in the case of Apollo, λοιγός denotes the plight into which he himself has cast the Achaeans: it is the term used at 16.32 and 21.134 to denote the Battle at the Ships. In fact, the successful capacity to λοιγὸν ἀμύνειν (or ἀμῦναι) within the framework of the Iliad is restricted to the two figures of μῆνις—Apollo and Achilles—who, like the third, Zeus, can both ward off devastation for the Greeks and bring it on them as well.
The single other possessor of the ability to λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι successfully is Thetis. We have examined the passage in Book 1 that identifies her as the rescuer of the divine regime; she alone was able to λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι for Zeus, to protect him from destruction. But if the power to λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι is bivalent—if the one who wields it can not only avert destruction but also bring it on—then the threat posed by Thetis, who could λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι on a cosmic level, is potentially the greatest of all; for Thetis’s ἄχος is supreme among the gods of the Iliad: the transfert du mal she might effect would be on an equal scale. Remembering that for Achilles ἄχος leads to μῆνις leads to the ἄχος of others, we may ask the question, why does the Iliad not predicate a μῆνις of Thetis? The answer, I think, is that it does—integrating into its own narrative by means of allusion and digression mythology that does not belong to the kleos of warriors.
If we consider the grief that Thetis endures because of the imminent loss of her son (whose prospective death she already mourns in her γόος [goos, “lament”] at 18.52–64), and her power to respond on a cosmic scale, we recognize elements that combine elsewhere in a context in which it is appropriate to show full-fledged divine μῆνις in action, namely in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. The hymn is precisely about the consequences of the μῆνις that ensues from Demeter’s grief over the loss of Korê.
Much as Thetis’s grief is evoked instantly when she hears Achilles’ lament for Patroklos in Book 18, prefiguring his own death,
σμερδαλέον δ᾽ ᾤμωξεν· ἄκουσε δὲ πότνια μήτηρ
ἡμένη ἐν βένθεσσιν ἁλὸς παρὰ πατρὶ γέροντι,
κώκυσέν τ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἔπειτα·
He cried out piercingly, and his regal mother heard him
as she sat in the depths of the sea beside her aged father,
and she cried in lament in turn,
so ἄχος seizes Demeter at the moment that she hears her daughter’s cry as she is abducted into the underworld by Hades:
ἤχησαν δ᾽ ὀρέων κορυφαὶ καὶ βένθεα πόντου
φωνῇ ὑπ᾽ ἀθανάτῃ, τῆς δ᾽ ἔκλυε πότνια μήτηρ.
ὀξὺ δέ μιν κραδίην ἄχος ἔλλαβεν…
(Hymn. Hom. Dem. 38–40)
The crests of the mountains and the depths of the sea echoed
with her immortal voice, and her regal mother heard her.
Instantly grief seized her heart…
What follows is Demeter’s wrath at the gods’ complicity in the irrevocable violation of Persephone, and through that wrath both Olympians and mortals are bound to suffer disastrously. Demeter isolates herself from the gods, prepares full-scale devastation, and finally brings the Olympians to their knees. Zeus is compelled to dissuade her, sending Iris with his appeal:
ἵκετο δὲ πτολίεθρον Ἐλευσῖνος θυοέσσης,
εὗρεν δ᾽ ἐν νηῷ Δημήτερα κυανόπεπλον,
καί μιν φωνήσασ᾽ ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα·
Δήμητερ καλέει σε πατὴρ Ζεὺς ἄφθιτα εἰδὼς
ἐλθέμεναι μετὰ φῦλα θεῶν αἰειγενετάων.
ἀλλ᾽ ἴθι, μηδ᾽ ἀτέλεστον ἐμὸν ἔπος ἐκ Διὸς ἔστω.
(Hymn. Hom. Dem. 318–23)
She arrived at the town of fragrant Eleusis
and found dark-robed Demeter in the temple
and addressed her, speaking winged words:
Demeter, Zeus the father, whose wisdom is unfailing, summons you
to come among the tribes of the immortal gods.
Come then, do not let my message from Zeus be unaccomplished.
But Demeter’s mênis is too great: she does not comply, and Hermes must be sent to Hades so that Demeter may see her daughter. Hermes reports:
Ἅιδη κυανοχαῖτα καταφθιμένοισιν ἀνάσσων
Ζεύς σε πατὴρ ἤνωγεν ἀγαυὴν Περσεφόνειαν
ἐξαγαγεῖν Ἐρέβευσφι μετὰ σφέας, ὄφρα ἑ μήτηρ
ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ἰδοῦσα χόλου καὶ μήνιος αἰνῆς
ἀθανάτοις παύσειεν·
(Hymn. Hom. Dem. 347–51)
Hades, dark-haired ruler of the perished,
Zeus the father bids you to bring illustrious Persephone
out of Erebos to be among the gods, so that her mother,
looking upon her, may cease from anger and dire wrath
against the immortals.
Among a number of striking correspondences between Demeter and Thetis, there is an especially telling parallel in the κάλυμμα κυάνεον (kalumma kuaneon, “black cloak”) Demeter puts on as she rushes out in search of Kore, which is subsequently reflected in her epithet κυανόπεπλος (kuanopeplos, “dark-garbed”). κυανόπεπλος is used to describe Demeter four times in the course of the hymn, within a space of only slightly over one hundred lines, characterizing her at the height of her ominous wrath, in the course of the gods’ efforts to appease her. [6] The final instance of the epithet occurs after the joyful reunion of Demeter and Korê, but before Zeus has appeased Demeter’s wrath, promising her timai and the return of her daughter for two-thirds of the year. Once Demeter has agreed to renounce her wrath, the epithet is not used again.
Demeter’s dark aspect originates with the onset of her ἄχος:
ἤχησαν δ᾽ ὀρέων κορυφαὶ καὶ βένθεα πόντου
φωνῇ ὑπ᾽ ἀθανάτῃ, τῆς δ᾽ ἔκλυε πότνια μήτηρ.
ὀξὺ δέ μιν κραδίην ἄχος ἔλλαβεν, ἀμφὶ δὲ χαίταις
ἀμβροσίαις κρήδεμνα δαΐζετο χερσὶ φίλῃσι,
κυάνεον δὲ κάλυμμα κατ᾽ ἀμφοτέρων βάλετ᾽ ὤμων,
σεύατο δ᾽ ὥς τ᾽ οἰωνὸς ἐπὶ τραφερήν τε καὶ ὑγρὴν
(Hymn. Hom. Dem. 38–44)
The crests of the mountains and the depths of the sea echoed
with her immortal voice, and her regal mother heard her.
Instantly grief seized her heart, and she ripped
the covering on her fragrant hair with her own hands,
and around both shoulders she threw a black cloak,
and sped like a bird over land and sea,
This gesture of Demeter covering herself with a dark shawl has been shown to signify her transformation from a passive state of grief to an active state of anger. [7] In contrast to the image of the black cloud that surrounds a dying warrior or a mourner, here the goddess’s deliberate assumption of the dark garment betokens her dire spirit of retaliation, the realization of her immanent wrath.
In this connection, the cult of Demeter Melaina at Phigalia in Arcadia deserves attention. Pausanias reports (8.42) that the Phigalians, by their own account, have given Demeter the epiklêsis Melaina because of her black clothing, which she put on for two reasons: first, out of anger at Poseidon for his intercourse with her, and second, out of grief over the abduction of Persephone. Two reasons—but her anger is the first. The Phigalians further explain that Zeus, having learned about Demeter’s appearance (σχήματος … ὡς εἶχε) and her clothing (ἐσθῆτα ἐνεδέδυτο ποίαν), sent the Moirai to persuade the goddess to put aside her anger (first) and to abate her grief (second). Moreover, in their worship of Demeter Melaina the Phigalians are said—by way of introduction to their cult—to agree with the Thelpusian account of Demeter’s rape by Poseidon. This account, which the Phigalia passage begins by referring to, Pausanias records at 8.25.4–5 in order to explain why the goddess is worshiped by the Thelpusians as Demeter Erinus. After Poseidon forced himself on her as she was searching for her daughter, Demeter was enraged at what had happened and was therefore given the epiklêsis Erinus because of her wrath (τοῦ μηνίματος μὲν ἕνεκα Ἐρινύς, 8.25.6). Demeter Melaina and Demeter Erinus are congruent references to the same story: the black-garbed goddess is a metonym of the wrathful, avenging goddess.
There is only one other dark κάλυμμα in Homeric epic, and it belongs to Thetis. She wraps herself in it when in Book 24 Iris announces Zeus’s request that she come to Olympos. Here the context is again, as in the Hymn to Demeter, one of achos. Thetis replies to Iris:
ἔχω δ᾽ ἄχε᾽ ἄκριτα θυμῷ.
I have endless grief in my heart.
Because of her achos Thetis all but refuses to join the other gods. Unlike Demeter in the hymn, she does respond to the summons; and yet the dark cloak she then puts on expresses—as with Demeter—the active principle that her grief presupposes:
Ὣς ἄρα φωνήσασα κάλυμμ᾽ ἕλε δῖα θεάων
κυάνεον, τοῦ δ᾽ οὔ τι μελάντερον ἐπλετο ἐσθος.
βῆ δ᾽ ἰέναι, πρόσθεν δὲ ποδήνεμος ὠκέα Ἶρις
So she spoke and, radiant among goddesses, she took up
her dark cloak, and there is no blacker garment than this.
She set out, and before her swift wind-stepping Iris
led the way.
The very request from Zeus acknowledges that Thetis and Achilles together have, like Demeter, brought Olympos to submission. Thetis’s potential for retaliation is signaled explicitly: Zeus says, as she takes her place next to him:
ἤλυθες Οὔλυμπόνδε, θεὰ Θέτι, κηδομένη περ,
πένθος ἄλαστον ἔχουσα μετὰ φρεσίν· οἶδα καὶ αὐτός·
You have come to Olympos, divine Thetis, although sorrowing
with a grief beyond forgetting in your heart. And I myself know it.
Ἄλαστον (alaston), derived from λανθάνομαι (lanthanomai), means “unforgettable.” The semantics of ἀλάστωρ (alastôr) in tragedy, however, as well as the morphological parallel with ἄφθιτον (aphthiton), indicate that ἄλαστον can also mean “unforgetting.” [8] In this sense the πένθος of Thetis has the same ominous character as that of her son, whose final πένθος over the death of Patroklos drives him to his devastating vengeance.
The image of the goddess taking up her κάλυμμα κυάνεον may be seen, I suggest, as alluding to the implicit threat of μῆνις. [9] That Thetis wears a dark cloak than which “there is no blacker garment” accords with her having a cosmic potential for revenge—bivalent as we have seen λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι to be—that is greater than any other.
Why then does the Iliad not refer overtly to the wrath of Thetis? Thetis, as observed earlier, never refers to her own power, in contexts where we would expect it, but to her grief. That grief, however, is twofold. When she accounts for it most fully, to Hephaistos in Book 18, she separates its two aspects:
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. ὁ μὲν δὴ γήραϊ λυγρῷ
κεῖται ἐνὶ μεγάροις ἀρημένος, ἄλλα δέ μοι νῦν·
υἱὸν ἐπεὶ μοι δῶκε γενέσθαι τε τραφέμεν τε,
ἔξοχον ἡρώων· ὁ δ᾽ ἀνέδραμεν ἔρνεϊ ἶσος·
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. And that one lies in
his halls, shattered by baneful old age. But now for me there are other sorrows:
since he gave me a son to bear and to raise,
preeminent among heroes, and he grew like a young shoot.
The primary cause of her suffering was being forced by Zeus, the son of Kronos, to submit against her will to marriage to a mortal. Thus the Iliad returns us to the crucial feature of Thetis’s mythology, her role in the succession myth. She was forced to marry a mortal because her potential for bearing a son greater than his father meant that marriage to Zeus or Poseidon would begin the entire world order over again.
Here once more there is a striking parallel with the Hymn to Demeter, which stresses Demeter’s anger not so much against Hades as against Zeus, who ordained the rape of Persephone by his brother. The poem is explicit on this point. Helios identifies Zeus as exclusively aitios (“responsible”) in the abduction of Persephone (75–79), upon hearing which Demeter is said to feel a “more terrible” ἄχος and to withdraw from the company of the gods out of rage at Zeus:
τὴν δ᾽ ἄχος αἰνότερον καὶ κύντερον ἵκετο θυμόν.
χωσαμένη δ᾽ ἤπειτα κελαινεφέϊ Κρονίωνι
νοσφισθεῖσα θεῶν ἀγορὴν καὶ μακρὸν Ὄλυμπον
ᾤχετ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀνθρώπων πόλιας καὶ πίονα ἔργα
εἶδος ἀμαλδύνουσα πολὺν χρόνον·
(Hymn. Hom. Dem. 90–94)
And grief more terrible and savage entered her heart.
Thereupon in anger at the son of Kronos of the black clouds,
shunning the assembly of the gods and high Olympos
she went to the cities and fertile fields of men,
long disfiguring her appearance.
In the context of her wrathful isolation from the gods, as noted above, elaborate mention is made of her black garment. [10]
The implicit wrath of Thetis has an analogous source. Given that the tripartite division of the universe is shared by the three brothers, Zeus and Poseidon on the one hand, Hades on the other, we see that these two myths share in the first place a preoccupation with the imposition and preservation of the existing hierarchy of divine power. Both the Hymn to Demeter and Pindar’s Isthmian 8, in its treatment of Thetis’s mythology, are equipped by the nature of their genres to emphasize this concern. Their other common element, namely grief over the confrontation with mortality, is what heroic epic uniquely elaborates.
The Iliad is about the condition of being human and about heroic endeavor as its most encompassing expression. The Iliad insists at every opportunity on the irreducible fact of human mortality, and in order to do so it reworks traditional motifs, such as the protection motif, as described in Chapter 1. The values it asserts, its definition of heroism, emerge in the human, not the divine, sphere.
For this reason it is more useful to ask not why the Iliad omits specific mention of a mênis of Thetis, but why it gives us so much evidence for one; and why at crucial points in the narrative it reminds its audience, by allusion, of the theogonic mythology of Thetis as cosmic force. Questions of this kind may be said to motivate an inquiry like the present one, whose goal is to reinforce our awareness of how and for what purposes Homeric epic integrates diverse mythological material into its narrative, and how such material serves a coherent thematic imperative.
Thetis provides an intriguing example of the convergence of these dynamic processes, in that the way in which her mythology is resonant but subordinated corresponds to the Homeric insight that it literally underlies or forms the substratum of the heroism of Achilles. The intrinsic relation of parent to child, in which the parent’s story becomes the child’s story, is not banal here, but has special significance. The reality of Thetis’s generative power has as its issue the fact of Achilles’ mortality. In this sense Isthmian 8 describes where the Iliad should begin.
It has been argued by Watkins that whereas the Iliad demands the resolution of a wrath (whose religious stature is established by its very diction) in its initial thematic statement, the formula that would express such a resolution is rigorously suppressed. Suffice it here to quote his conclusion:
We have shown on the one hand the equivalence of μῆνις and χόλος in the mouth of the one who says “I,” and the equivalence of μῆνις and μηνιθμός, for which the latter is the tabu substitute precisely in μηνιθμὸν καταπαυσέμεν 16 62. We have shown on the other hand that μῆνις in the sense of “anger, wrath” is an echo, a phonetic icon of the forbidden word μῆνις. Everything then would indicate that the dramatic resolution of the Iliad as a whole, whose theme “wrath” is announced from its very first word, is expressed by a formula “put an end to one’s wrath,” whose real verbal expression παύειν + μῆνιν never surfaces. It is a formula whose workings take place always beyond our view, a formula hidden behind the vocabulary tabu, a particular condition on the plane of the parole, of the message, of the one who is speaking and the one who is addressed. [11]
Similarly, what informs the human stature of Achilles is Thetis’s cosmic, theogonic power—her role in the succession myth; and although the Iliad never reverts to it explicitly, it returns us to it repeatedly. If Themis had not intervened, Thetis would have borne to Zeus or Poseidon the son greater than his father, and the entire chain of succession in heaven would have continued: Achilles would have been not the greatest of the heroes, but the ruler of the universe. The price of Zeus’s hegemony is Achilles’ death. This is the definitive instance of the potency of myths in Homeric epic that exert their influence on the subject matter of the poems yet do not “surface” (using Watkins’s term), because of the constraints of the genre. Nevertheless, the poem reveals them, through evocative diction, oblique reference, even conspicuous omission.
It is in this sense that we can understand what appears to be a revision of the prayer formula by Achilles through Thetis to Zeus in Book 1. The typical arrangement of prayers as represented in archaic poetry, we remember, consists of 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, and the specific request for a favor in return—based on the premise that this constitutes a formal communication of reciprocal obligations between god and hero. [12]
In directing his request for a favor from Zeus to Thetis, Achilles has translated his reminder of a past favor granted into her past aid to Zeus. But he prefaces his request, and invokes his mother, by saying:
μῆτερ, ἐπεὶ μ᾽ ἔτεκές γε μινυνθάδιόν περ ἐόντα
τιμήν πέρ μοι ὄφελλεν Ὀλύμπιος ἐγγυαλίξαι
Ζεὺς ὑψιβρεμέτης.
Mother, since you did bear me to be short-lived,
surely high-thundering Olympian Zeus ought to
grant me honor.
In other words, Achilles’ favor to Zeus consists in his being minunthadios, whereby Zeus’s sovereignty is guaranteed.
To reiterate, the Iliad reminds us of Thetis’s mythology, through allusions to her power and through emphasis on the reciprocity of achos that she and Achilles share—his Iliadic and hers meta-Iliadic—in order to assert the meaning of human life in relation to the entire cosmic structure: in order to show that cosmic equilibrium is bought at the cost of human mortality. The alternative would mean perpetual evolution, perpetual violent succession, perpetual disorder.
The tradition of Thetis’s power, the eventual issue of which is in the figure of Achilles, both enhances his stature and is subsumed in it. It thus represents the ultimate example of thematic integration. Heroic epic is concerned with the erga andrôn rather than the erga theôn. Thus with Achilles the mortal hero, the wrath of Thetis—potent in another framework—becomes absorbed in the actual wrath of her son. Achilles’ invocation, in Book 1, of Thetis’s cosmic power that once rescued Zeus must also invoke the power that once threatened to supplant Zeus; and once again, as in Isthmian 8, its corollary is the death of Achilles in battle.
That Thetis’s power to persuade Zeus to favor Achilles has a source that the poem sees as located in an anterior (or extra-Iliadic) tradition is expressed not only in Achilles’ speech in Book 1, but in a telling passage in Book 15. The result of Thetis’s persuading Zeus to favor Achilles is the Trojans’ success in bringing fire to the Achaean ships. In Book 15, at the final stage of the Trojans’ advantage from the favor granted to Achilles before the death of Patroklos commits him to reenter the fighting, the situation is described as follows:
Τρῶες δὲ λείουσιν ἐοικότες ὠμοφάγοισι
νηυσὶν ἐπεσσεύοντο, Διὸς δὲ τέλειον ἐφετμάς,
ὅ σφισιν αἰὲν ἔγειρε μένος μέγα, θέλγε δὲ θυμὸν
Ἀργείων καὶ κῦδος ἀπαίνυτο, τοὺς δ᾽ ὀρόθυνεν.
Ἕκτορι γάρ οἱ θυμὸς ἐβούλετο κῦδος ὀρέξαι
Πριαμίδῃ, ἵνα νηυσὶ κορωνίσι θεσπιδαὲς πῦρ
ἐμβάλοι ἀκάματον, Θέτιδος δ᾽ ἐξαίσιον ἀρὴν
πᾶσαν ἐπικρήνειε.
But the Trojans like ravening lions
charged at the ships, and were fulfilling the bidding of Zeus
who continually roused great strength in them, and beguiled the spirit of the Argives
and denied them victory, but urged on the others.
For Zeus’s intention was to give victory to Hektor,
Priam’s son, so that he might hurl on the curved ships
blazing, unwearying fire, and accomplish entirely
the extraordinary prayer of Thetis.
Significantly, Thetis’s prayer is qualified by the Iliadic hapax ἐξαίσιον (exaision). It has been shown that the phrases ὑπὲρ μοῖραν (huper moiran) and κατὰ μοῖραν (kata moiran), and by extension the equivalent phrases ὑπὲρ αἶσαν (huper aisan) and κατὰ αἶσαν (kata aisan), are used in Homeric epic self-referentially, to signify adherence to or contravention of the compositions own traditions. [13] We may therefore observe that the exercise of Thetis’s power, with its massive consequences for inverting the course of the Trojan War, is ἐξαίσιον—neither according to nor opposed to Iliadic tradition, but outside it and requiring integration into it.
The Hymn to Demeter demands a sacral resolution in terms appropriate to Demeter’s wrath. Heroic epic demands a human one, and the Iliad presents it in Book 24. Thetis must accept the mortal condition of Achilles, of which, as Isthmian 8 explains, she is the cause. This acceptance means the defusing of μῆνις, leaving only ἄχος. It is thus comprehensible thematically that Thetis should be the agent of Achilles’ returning the body of Hektor, of his acceptance not only of his own mortality but of the universality of the conditions of human existence as he expounds them to Priam in Book 24.
As such, Thetis is the instrument of Achilles’ renunciation of μῆνις in the poem. In a sense the submerged formula παύειν + μῆνιν is enacted twice—not only on the human and divine levels, but twice in time: in the “long-time” eternality of the succession myth and in the time span of the Iliadic plot. The intersection is the life span of Achilles. With this perspective we can come to apprehend the Iliad’s concern with the individual’s experience of his mortal limitations and the existential choices they demand, and equally its concern with their metaphysical consequences in relation to the entire cosmic structure.


[ back ] 1. See Fenik, Typical Battle Scenes; “Les amis mortels,” this volume, pp120-138.
[ back ] 2. See Nagy, Best of the Achaeans, 60–83, esp. 82.
[ back ] 3. Ibid., 80.
[ back ] 4. C. Watkins, “On ΜΗΝΙΣ,” Indo-European Studies 3 (1977): 694–95 and 690, respectively.
[ back ] 5. Zeus’s mênis is referred to at 5.34, 13.624, and 15.122. On the mênis of Apollo, see 1.75, 5.444, 16.711.
[ back ] 6. The epithet occurs at 319, 360, 373, and 442. κυανόπεπλος is glossed by a fuller description of the goddess at 181–83, when she has separated herself from the gods specifically out of wrath:
ἡ δ’ ἄρ’ ὄπισθε φίλον τετιημένη ἦτορ
στεῖχε κατὰ κρῆθεν κεκαλυμμένη, ἀμφὶ δὲ πέπλος
κυάνεος ῥαδινοῖσι θεᾶς ἐλελίζετο ποσσίν.
Disturbed in her dear heart, she walked behind,
with her head veiled, and her dark cloak
waved around the lithe feet of the goddess.
[ back ] 7. Full argumentation is given by D. Petegorsky in “Demeter and the Black Robe of Grief” (unpublished paper), who clarifies the distinction between the dying warrior being covered by a dark cloud, expressed by such phrases as νεφέλη δέ μιν ἀμφεκάλυψε / κυανέη (Il. 20.417–18) and μέλαν νέφος ἀμφεκάλυψεν (16.350), and Demeter’s assertive action in cloaking herself with her black garment. Petegorsky compares Simonides (frag. 121 Diehl) on the death of the heroes who perished at Thermopylae:
ἄσβεστον κλέος οἵδε φίλῃ περὶ πατρίδι θέντες
κυάνεον θανάτου ἀμφεβάλοντο νέφος·
οὐδὲ τεθνᾶσι θανόντες, ἐπεὶ σφ’ ἀρετὴ καθύπερθεν
κυδαίνουσ’ ἀνάγει δώματος ἐξ Ἀΐδεω.
To quote from Petegorsky’s analysis, “what is crucial in the poem is the change from a situation in which the cloud of death, as a force beyond their control, consumes the warriors, to one in which they have appropriated death by turning it into a willful act—they are not passively slain, rather they choose actively to die. The grammar reflects this change. The familiar dark covering phrase is transformed from one in which the dark agent is the subject of the verb of covering and the person who is to die is the object, into one in which the heroes have become the subjects and the cloud the object of the verb ἀμφιβάλλομαι. This is especially interesting in that the verb which is used of Demeter putting on the dark shawl is βάλλομαι, and it is said that she puts it on both (ἀμφοτέρων) shoulders” (23). As the hymn proceeds to show, Demeter is not passively overcome with grief; she is grief-stricken indeed, but actively enraged as well.
[ back ] 8. Among other examples from tragedy, see Aesch. Ag. 1500–1504. In Comparative Studies of Greek and Indic Meter (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), 256–61, G. Nagy discusses the traditional complementarity of the themes of κλέος and πένθος and the morphology of their epithets. See as well the analysis in Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique, 54; also the discussion of line 911 in volume 3 of Wilamowitz’s edition of Euripides’ Herakles (1895; reprint, Bad Homburg, 1959), 202.
[ back ] 9. Nagler, Spontaneity and Tradition, 27–63, has demonstrated the symbolic signification of clothing and gestures related to it in his discussion of Homeric krēdemnon. See also S. Lowenstam, The Death of Patroklos: A Study in Typology, Beiträge zur klassischen Philologie 133 (Königstein, 1981), on the symbolic force of gesture in the Iliad.
[ back ] 10. See Hom. Hymn. Dem. 181–83, quoted in note 6. It is perhaps worth adding that in Homer the formula τετιημένος ἦτορ (“disturbed at heart”) when it is used to describe the gods always means “angry.” When Hera and Athena sit apart from Zeus and refuse to speak to him for preventing them from assisting the Achaeans, they are said to be φίλον τετιημέναι ἦτορ (Il. 8.437); and when Hephaistos discovers the adultery of Aphrodite and Ares, he is described as follows:
βῆ δ’ ἴμεναι πρὸς δῶμα, φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ·
ἔστη δ’ ἐν προθύροισι, χόλος δέ μιν ἄγριος ᾕρει.
(Od. 8.303–4)
He set out for his house, disturbed in his dear heart;
and he stood in the doorway, and savage anger seized him.
For a psychoanalytic perspective on the hymn’s representation of Demeter’s resistance to the patriarchal order, see M. Arthur, “Politics and Pomegranates: An Interpretation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” Arethusa 10.1 (Spring 1977): 7–47.
[ back ] 11. Watkins, “On ΜΗΝΙΣ,” 703–4.
[ back ] 12. See Muellner, Meaning of Homeric ΕΥΧΟΜΑΙ, 27–28.
[ back ] 13. Nagy, Best of the Achaeans, 40: “Within the conventions of epic composition, an incident that is untraditional would be ὑπὲρ μοῖραν ‘beyond destiny.’ For example, it would violate tradition to let Achilles kill Aeneas in Iliad XX, although the immediate situation in the narrative seems to make it inevitable; accordingly, Poseidon intervenes and saves Aeneas, telling him that his death at this point would be ‘beyond destiny’ (ὑπὲρ μοῖραν: XX 336).”