The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays

  Slatkin, Laura. 2011. The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays. Hellenic Studies Series 16. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Part I. Chapter 1. The Helplessness of Thetis

In a key passage in Book 1 of the Iliad Achilles, in order to obtain from Zeus the favor that will determine the trajectory of the plot, invokes not Athena or Hera, those powerful, inveterate pro-Greeks, but his mother. The Iliad’s presentation of Thetis, as we recall, is of a subsidiary deity who is characterized by helplessness and by impotent grief. Her presentation of herself is as the epitome of sorrow and vulnerability in the face of her son’s mortality. Consider her lament to her Nereid sisters at 18.54–62.

ὤ μοι ἐγὼ δειλή, ὤ μοι δυσαριστοτόκεια,
ἥ τ᾽ ἐπεὶ ἂρ τέκον υἱὸν ἀμύμονά τε κρατερόν τε
ἔξοχον ἡρώων· ὁ δ᾽ ἀνέδραμεν ἔρνεϊ ἴσος·
τὸν μὲν ἐγὼ θρέψασα, φυτὸν ὣς γουνῷ ἀλωῆς,
νηυσὶν ἐπιπροέηκα κορωνίσιν Ἴλιον εἴσω
Τρωσὶ μαχησόμενον· τὸν δ᾽ οὐχ ὑποδέξομαι αὖτις
οἴκαδε νοστήσαντα δόμον Πηλήϊον εἴσω.
ὄφρα δέ μοι ζώει καὶ ὁρᾷ φάος ἠελίοιο
ἄχνυται, οὐδέ τί οἱ δύναμαι χραισμῆσαι ἰοῦσα.
Alas for my sorrow, alas for my wretched-best-childbearing,
since I bore a child faultless and powerful,
preeminent among heroes; and he grew like a young shoot,
I nourished him like a tree on an orchard’s slope,
I sent him forth with the curved ships to Ilion
to fight the Trojans. But never again shall I welcome him
returning home to the house of Peleus.
Still, while he lives and looks on the sunlight
he grieves, and I, going to him, am all unable to help him.

We can hardly fail to question, then, why a figure of evidently minor stature—whose appearances in the poem are few—serves such a crucial function {30|31} in its plot. Why, that is, does the poem assign to Thetis the awesome role of persuading Zeus to set in motion the events of the Iliad, to invert the inevitable course of the fall of Troy? Our initial answer to this might be, because Achilles is her son, and this poem is his story; but a methodologically more fruitful way of posing the question is, why has the Iliad taken as its hero the son of Thetis?

Let us begin by recalling the specific terms of Achilles’ appeal to his mother in Book 1. He asks Thetis to make his request of Zeus, reminding her of how she saved Zeus when the other Olympians wished to bind him:

ἀλλὰ σύ, εἰ δύνασαί γε, περίσχεο παιδὸς ἑῆος·
ἐλθοῦσ᾽ Οὔλυμπόνδε Δία λίσαι, εἴ ποτε δή τι
ἢ ἔπει ὤνησας κραδίην Διὸς ἠὲ καὶ ἔργῳ.
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 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·
τὸν καὶ ὑπέδεισαν μάκαρες θεοὶ οῦδ᾽ ἔτ᾽ ἔδησαν.
τῶν νῦν μιν μνήσασα παρέζεο καὶ λαβὲ γούνων,
αἴ κέν πως ἐθέλῃσιν ἐπὶ Τρώεσσιν ἀρῆξαι,
τοὺς δὲ κατὰ πρύμνας τε καὶ ἀμφ᾽ ἅλα ἔλσαι Ἀχαιοὺς
κτεινομένους, ἵνα πάντες ἐπαύρωνται βασιλῆος,
γνῷ δὲ καὶ Ἀτρεΐδης εὐρὺ κρείων Ἀγαμέμνων
ἣν ἄτην, ὅ τ᾽ ἄριστον Ἀχαιῶν οὐδὲν ἔτεισεν.


But you, if you are able to, protect your own son:
going to Olympos, pray to Zeus, if in fact you ever
aided the heart of Zeus by word or action.
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; {31|32}
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.
Reminding him of these things now sit beside him and take his knees,
in the hope that he may somehow be willing to help the Trojans
and the others—the Achaeans—to force against the ships’ sterns and around the sea
as they are slaughtered, so that they may all benefit from their king,
and so that the son of Atreus, wide-ruling Agamemnon, may realize
his disastrous folly, that he did not honor the best of the Achaeans.

Here we see the Iliad alluding to aspects of Thetis’s mythology that it does not elaborate and that do not overtly reflect the subject matter of heroic poetry. Why does it do so? The question is twofold: why does it allude to Thetis’s power, and why does its reference remain only an allusion? Why does it, moreover, present us with an apparent contradiction: if the mother of Achilles is so helpless, why was she able to rescue Zeus; and if she rescued Zeus, why is she now so helpless? Why does the Iliad remind us of Thetis’s efficacious power in another context while it presents her to us in an attitude of lamentation and grief without recourse?

In order to establish the proper framework for answering these questions, we begin our poetic archaeology. If we can set the Homeric use of Thetis into the perspective of her mythology, we may be led, as suggested earlier, to a deeper comprehension of Homeric poetics as well as to a richer appreciation of the specific themes associated with Achilles’ divine origin. Our best initial index of comparison with the Iliad’s Thetis is afforded by Thetis’s role in another epic treatment, the Cycle’s Aethiopis, where we are presented not only with Thetis and Achilles but with a strikingly similar relationship, namely that of the divine Dawn Eos and her son Memnon.

In the Aethiopis Achilles avenged the killing of Nestor’s son Antilokhos, whose death at the hands of Memnon is referred to at Odyssey 4.187–88. Proclus’s summary of this section goes as follows:

So Memnon, the son of Eos, wearing armor made by Hephaistos, arrives to aid the Trojans; and Thetis prophesies to her son things about Memnon. In the encounter that takes place Antilokhos is killed by Memnon, whereupon Achilles kills Memnon. Then Eos, having asked Zeus for immortality for Memnon, bestows it on him.

Memnon, although functioning in a role like Hector’s, is a mirror image of the Iliadic Achilles. The association of these two heroes, not principally as adversaries but as parallel figures, is reflected in the poetry of Pindar, who more than once describes Memnon in terms appropriate to Achilles in the Iliad—singularly so, as they are the terms Achilles uses of himself—calling him Μέμνονος οὐκ ἀπονοστήσαντος (“Memnon who did not return home again”). [
3] Preeminent among his allies, bearing armor made by Hephaistos, Memnon is the child of a divine mother, Eos, and a mortal father, Tithonos. This last feature was apparently given emphasis by the narrative shape of the Aethiopis: the actual presence of the two goddesses Eos and Thetis on the field of battle, contrasting the {33|34} mortal vulnerability of the opponents with their equal heritage from the mother’s immortal line, may have generated the poem’s narrative tension. [4] What the Iliad treats as a unique and isolating phenomenon, the Aethiopis developed along alternative traditional lines, giving prominence to the theme of mortal-immortal duality by doubling its embodiment, in the two heroes Memnon and Achilles.

The Aethiopis, then, emphasized the hero’s divine heritage as a way of separating him from ordinary human existence and his access to communication with the gods as a way of resolving the conflict between heroic stature and mortal limitation. {35|36}

The virtual identity of the two mothers asserted by the tradition transmitted by the Aethiopis as well as by pictorial representations reinforces the uniqueness of Thetis in the Iliad, the incomparable singularity of her position, to which the poem explicitly calls attention at 18.429–34:

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.
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.

But if the Iliad treats Thetis’s position as unparalleled, then an examination of its treatment in the light of the sources of the Thetis-Eos equation can serve as an introduction to the Iliad’s process of interpreting and selectively shaping its mythology, preserving for us aspects of Thetis that elucidate her role in the Iliad even when Eos is not present to help evoke them.

In Greek epic, the themes attached to the goddess and her mortal lover are recapitulated, with much greater emphasis, in the relationship between the goddess and her son, the offspring of her union with her mortal lover. Eos and Memnon, as an instance of this, reinforce the Eos-Thetis parallel. But in the case of Eos, the pattern of whose relationship with Tithonos is repeated in part with Memnon—when she requests and obtains his immortality—the erotic aspect of her mythology dominates. Thetis’s erotic aspect, discernible (as we shall see) in the tradition followed by Pindar and Aeschylus, where both mortal and immortal partners woo her, is subordinated to her maternal aspect, as she appears in the Iliad.

In the Iliad, the collocation of Thetis’s activities with early morning may reflect the association with Eos and her time-related function, inherited from Indo-European tradition. At 18.136, Thetis tells Achilles that she will seek armor from Hephaistos for him at dawn: ἠῶθεν γὰρ νεῦμαι ἅμ᾽ ἠελίῳ ἀνιόντι (“for I shall return at dawn, with the sun’s rising”). [17] At 1.497, when Thetis {38|39} travels to Olympos to ask Zeus for the favor on behalf of Achilles, the adjective ἠερίη (êeriê) is used to describe her:

ἥ γ᾽ ἀνεδύσετο κῦμα θαλάσσης.
ἠερίη δ᾽ ἀνέβη μέγαν οὐρανὸν Οὔλυμπόν τε.


she rose from the sea’s wave
and early in the morning ascended to the great sky and Olympos.

Later, Hera rebukes Zeus for conferring with Thetis at the latter’s request, saying:

νῦν δ᾽ αἰνῶς δείδοικα κατὰ φρένα μή σε παρείπῃ
ἀργυρόπεζα Θέτις θυγάτηρ ἁλίοιο γέροντος·
ἠερίη γὰρ σοί γε παρέζετο καὶ λάβε γούνων.


But now I fear dreadfully that she won you over,
silver-footed Thetis, daughter of the old man of the sea,
for early in the morning she sat with you and clasped your knees.

Apart from being used of Thetis, ἠερίη occurs in the Iliad only once (3.7). Like Eos’s epithet ἠριγένεια (êrigeneia, “early-born”), it may be related to ἦρι (êri). [
18] The use of ἠερίη and Thetis’s early morning travels may evoke her ties to Êôs êrigeneia and the connection of their power with time, the defining fact of human life.

From the outset, the Iliad presents Achilles as possessing a powerful, personal sense of his own mortality. His first assertion of this is to Thetis, when he originally invokes her assistance at 1.352:

μῆτερ, ἐπεί μ᾽ ἔτεκές γε μινυνθάδιόν περ ἐόντα
Mother, since you did bear me to be short-lived.

That the adjective μινυνθάδιος (minunthadios, “short-lived”) is not just a neutral term for describing anyone mortal but is highly charged and refers pointedly to Achilles’ own imminent death is evident from its other occurrences in the poem. Elsewhere only Lykaon calls himself minunthadios (21.84), when he is about to die at Achilles’ hands. At 15.612, Hektor is said to be “about to be” minunthadios, which the subsequent lines make explicit: [
21] {40|41}

μινυνθάδιος γὰρ ἔμελλεν
ἔσσεσθ᾽· ἤδη γάρ οἱ ἐπόρνυε μόρσιμον ἦμαρ
Παλλὰς Ἀθηναίη ὑπὸ Πηλεΐδαο βίηφιν.


So Hektor was to be minunthadios;
for now Pallas Athena was already driving his death day
upon him, beneath the strength of the son of Peleus.

Thetis’s reply in Book 1 more than confirms the insight that ultimately, in Book 24, enables Achilles to place his brief existence in the context of others’ lives—but through which, initially, he is isolated as epic poetry isolates no other single hero. His role and his self-perception converge, whereby the plot of the Iliad is multiply determined. Thetis’s response at 1.416,

ἐπεί νύ τοι αἶσα μίνυνθά περ, οὔ τι μάλα δήν
since now your destiny is brief, of no length,

uniquely then speaks of an αἶσα (aisa, “destiny, allotment”) that is brief, as though Achilles’ aisa—his final goal, that which is destined for him in the end—were precisely identical with the process by which it is attained. Elsewhere, aisa is either the literal end of life (as at 24.428, 750) or it is the principle of destiny, the index of whether one’s actions are appropriate to one’s nature. A hero can act either kata or huper aisan—“according to” or “beyond, in contravention of” aisa—or he can have an evil aisa, but only Achilles has a brief aisa—a destiny that is nothing other than the span of his life. [

Equally remarkable is Thetis’s use of the compound ὠκύμορος (ôkumoros), as her lament continues:

νῦν δ᾽ ἅμα τ᾽ ὠκύμορος καὶ ὀϊζυρὸς περὶ πάντων


For now you are swift in fate and wretched beyond all men.

Like aisa, the word ôkumoros acquires a new meaning when used of Achilles. Its principal meaning appears at 15.441, where Ajax uses it of the arrows belonging to the archer Teucer: {41|42}

ποῦ νύ τοι ἰοὶ
ὠκύμοροι καὶ τόξον, ὅ τοι πόρε Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων;


Where now are your arrows
of quick death and the bow that Phoibos Apollo gave you?

Here the original meaning, “bringing swift death,” is evident. [
23] But elsewhere in the poem this adjective is applied only to Achilles and only by Thetis, who repeats it at 18.95, replying or prophesying in response to Achilles’ declaration to avenge Patroklos’s death:

ὠκύμορος δή μοι, τέκος, ἔσσεαι, οἷ᾽ ἀγορεύεις·
Then you will be swift in fate, my child, from what you say.

Later in Book 18, requesting the aid of Hephaistos, she says:

αἴ κ᾽ ἐθέλῃσθα
υἱεῖ ἐμῷ ὠκυμόρῳ δόμεν ἀσπίδα


if you are willing to give a shield to my son swift in fate.

Used of Achilles, the word describes not the agent but the victim of moros. In effect both functions are joined in Achilles, who participates in bringing about his own swift death. Because moros can mean destiny as well as death, ôkumoros characterizing Achilles could be said to mean “swiftly fated” and to denote the same idea expressed by aisa minuntha, namely, that for Achilles destiny is a synonym for life span.

Achilles, then, has special diction that distinguishes his experience as the limiting case of the experience of mortality. Its use by Thetis lays great stress on this; it is the essence of her appeal to Zeus:

τίμησόν μοι υἱόν, ὃς ὠκυμορώτατος ἄλλων


Honor my son who is swiftest in death of all mortals. {42|43}

The poem uses Thetis to view Achilles’ life from a cosmic perspective that enhances its stature as it throws into relief its brevity. Her close connection with Achilles’ recognition of his mortal condition—and with all the most human aspects of his nature—contrasts sharply with the role shared by Eos and Thetis in the Aethiopis, which emphasized their sons’ access to divinity. It shows as well how Achilles has been developed in the Iliad beyond the stage in which he and Memnon were correspondingly parallel and minimally differentiated from each other.

Achilles’ discovery of identity—of values, of morality—is inseparable from the apprehension of mortality; that discovery becomes necessary and has meaning only if immortality is precluded. The battle as a context for events to be celebrated in epic may well have originated as a setting for descriptions of extraordinary exploits involving physical prowess and designating a hierarchy of heroes. But where the life-and-death import of the action may in other epic treatments have been only a framework, in the Iliad it becomes the subject itself. The heroism of Achilles emerges not so much because his exploits distinguish him as because the battle serves as a setting in which every choice, every {43|44} action, becomes all-important—an arena where one’s life is most closely bound to the lives of others and where, for that reason, the definition of the self comes urgently into question. Prowess becomes peripheral to the crisis of the self relative to one’s own expectations and the lives of others.

To speak of the evolution of the Iliad, therefore, is to speak of the growth of the idea of the hero. The very story the poem tells embodies that evolution, describing the coming into being of the new hero. It tells the story of the making of its own subject matter. This is what Thetis’s request to Zeus in Iliad 1 signifies, in contrast to Eos’s in the Aethiopis. For in this sense, what Thetis asks Zeus to give Achilles is the opportunity to become the hero of the Iliad, to create the terms by which heroism will be redefined.

The Iliad explores the theme of mortality precisely by evoking and transforming an important traditional motif in such a way that the transformation expresses the premise of the poem. Placed in the context of the tradition the Iliad evokes—the equation of Thetis and Eos seeking immortality for their sons—Thetis’s appeals to Zeus and later to Hephaistos on behalf of Achilles’ vulnerability can be understood as significant examples of how the poem develops its major theme.

Certain elements in the constellation of motifs common to the divinities sharing the mythology of the Dawn goddess are preserved by the Iliad; others are significantly reworked. The motif of the goddess’s protection of the mortal hero she loves is a central traditional feature shared by the immortal mothers (and lovers) who inherit, or are assimilated to, the mythology of the Dawn goddess. [26] Its variations, apart from Eos and Thetis in the Aethiopis, include Kalypso in the Odyssey and Aphrodite in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite as well as in the Iliad. [27] This tradition is well known to the Iliad, where in two dramatic episodes Aphrodite acts to protect her favorites from imminent danger, snatching them away from battle at the crucial moment. In Book 3 she rescues Paris as he is about to be overpowered by Menelaos: {44|45}

τὸν δ᾽ ἐξήρπαξ᾽ Ἀφροδίτη
ῥεῖα μάλ᾽ ὥς τε θεός, ἐκάλυψε δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἠέρι πολλῇ,
κάδ δ᾽ εἶσ᾽ ἐν θαλάμῳ εὐώδεϊ κηώεντι. 


But Aphrodite snatched him up
easily as a god may, and enclosed him in a dense mist
and put him down in his fragrant bedchamber.

In Book 5 it is Aeneas whom she saves, from the onslaught of Diomedes:

ἀμφὶ δ᾽ ἑὸν φίλον υἱὸν ἐχεύατο πήχεε λευκώ,
πρόσθε δέ οἱ πέπλοιο φαεινοῦ πτύγμ’ ἐκάλυψεν,
ἕρκος ἔμεν βελέων, μή τις Δαναῶν ταχυπώλων
χαλκὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσι βαλὼν ἐκ θυμὸν ἕλοιτο.
Ἡ μὲν ἑὸν φίλον υἱὸν ὑπεξέφερεν πολέμοιο·


and around her dear son she threw her white arms,
and in front of him she wrapped a fold of her shining robe,
to be a shield against weapons, lest any of the Danaans with quick horses
should take his life from him, striking bronze into his chest.
So she bore her dear son away from the battle.

To snatch a hero from danger, to protect him from death, however, offers a paradox of which the Iliad and Odyssey are conscious: that preserving a hero from death means denying him a heroic life. [
28] Thus Kalypso, who compares her intention toward Odysseus with Eos’s abduction of Orion, [29] wants by sequestering Odysseus to offer him immortality; but this would inevitably mean the loss of his goal, the impossibility of completing the travels, the denial of his identity. From a perspective that is as intrinsic to the Odyssey as to the Iliad, it would mean the extinction of heroic subject matter, the negation of epic. Kalypso, “the concealer,” uses persuasive arguments in her attempt to hide Odysseus from mortality. Her ultimate failure measures {45|46} the hero’s commitment to his mortal existence—not, as she believes, the Olympian gods’ jealousy, but their participation in human values.

Aphrodite, on the other hand, is a successful concealer, shielding her favorites by hiding them, Paris in the cloud of mist and Aeneas in her flowing robe. [30] She enters the battle swiftly at the critical moment to save the life of her son, or, in the case of Paris, her protégé:

Καί νύ κεν ἔνθ᾽ ἀπόλοιτο ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν Αἰνείας,
εἰ μὴ ἄρ᾽ ὀξὺ νόησε Διὸς θυγάτηρ Ἀφροδίτη,
μήτηρ, ἥ μιν ὑπ᾽ Ἀγχίσῃ τέκε βουκολέοντι·


And now Aeneas lord of men would have perished there
if the daughter of Zeus, Aphrodite, had not quickly noticed him,
his mother, who bore him to Anchises the oxherd.

She is expressly credited with protecting Aeneas from death, just as earlier she contrives Paris’s escape from Menelaos at the fatal instant:

καί νύ κεν εἴρυσσέν τε καὶ ἄσπετον ἤρατο κῦδος,
εἰ μὴ ἄρ᾽ ὀξὺ νόησε Διὸς θυγάτηρ Ἀφροδίτη,
ἥ οἱ ῥῆξεν ἱμάντα βοὸς ἶφι κταμένοιο·


And now [Menelaos] would have dragged him off and won an indelible triumph,
if the daughter of Zeus, Aphrodite, had not quickly noticed him.
She broke for him the oxhide chinstrap.

Thetis, like Kalypso and Aphrodite, is associated by the Iliad with impenetrable clouds and with veils and with concealment. But the Iliad does not pursue the parallelism of this aspect of their mythology. Thetis never spirits Achilles away from danger, and she never tempts him with immortality. On the contrary, it is she who states the human limits of his choice. Repeatedly, the absoluteness of the Iliad’s rejection of the idea of immortality emerges from its treatment, in relation to Achilles, of this protection motif, which figures so importantly in the immortal goddess-mortal lover or son stories and which has a preeminent place in Thetis’s mythology. {46|47}

In the Iliad, the implement of protection made by Hephaistos at Thetis’s request is the shield, which only Achilles can endure to look at when Thetis brings it to him. But it precisely does not fulfill for Achilles, as it did for Memnon, the promise of ultimate divine preservation through the agency of his mother. [33] The Iliad’s rejection of this outcome for Achilles, and hence for its conception of heroism, is expressly stated. Thetis prefaces her request of Hephaistos with a summary of the Iliad up to that juncture; the Iliad {47|48} recapitulates itself here from Thetis’s viewpoint, so that it represents itself as a mother’s narrative about her son:

κούρην ἣν ἄρα οἱ γέρας ἔξελον υἷες Ἀχαιῶν,
τὴν ἂψ ἐκ χειρῶν ἕλετο κρείων ἀγαμέμνων.
ἤτοι ὁ τῆς ἀχέων φρένας ἔφθιεν· αὐτὰρ Ἀχαιοὺς
Τρῶες ἐπὶ πρύμνῃσιν ἐείλεον, οὐδὲ θύραζε
εἴων ἐξιέναι· τὸν δὲ λίσσοντο γέροντες
Ἀργείων, καὶ πολλὰ περικλυτὰ δῶρ᾽ ὀνόμαζον.
ἔνθ᾽ αὐτὸς μὲν ἔπειτ᾽ ἠναίνετο λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι,
αὐτὰρ ὁ Πάτροκλον περὶ μὲν τὰ ἃ τεύχεα ἕσσε,
πέμπε δέ μιν πόλεμόνδε, πολὺν δ᾽ ἅμα λαὸν ὄπασσε.
πᾶν δ᾽ ἦμαρ μάρναντο περὶ Σκαιῇσι πύλῃσι·
καί νύ κεν αὐτῆμαρ πόλιν ἔπραθον, εἰ μὴ Ἀπόλλων
πολλὰ κακὰ ῥέξαντα Μενοιτίου ἄλκιμον υἱὸν
ἔκταν᾽ ἐνὶ προμάχοισι καὶ Ἕκτορι κῦδος ἔδωκε.


The girl whom the sons of the Achaeans picked out for him as a prize,
the ruler Agamemnon took back from his hands.
Grieving for her he was wearing away his heart; but
the Trojans hemmed in the Achaeans by the ships’ sterns
and were not allowing them to go beyond; and the Achaean elders
beseeched him, and named many splendid gifts.
He himself then refused to ward off destruction,
but he dressed Patroklos in his armor
and sent him into battle, and supplied many people with him.
All day they fought around the Skaian gates,
and on that same day would have sacked the city, if Apollo had not
killed the powerful son of Menoitios when he had caused much harm,
in the front ranks, and given the victory to Hektor.

The Olympian reply, however compassionate, reconfirms the inevitability of Achilles’ imminent death; divine collaboration on his behalf may honor him and enhance his stature, but it cannot save him and does not propose to. Hephaistos replies: {48|49}

θάρσει· μή τοι ταῦτα μετὰ φρεσὶ σῇσι μελόντων.
αἲ γάρ μιν θανάτοιο δυσηχέος ὧδε δυναίμην
νόσφιν ἀποκρύψαι, ὅτε μιν μόρος αἰνὸς ἱκάνοι,
ὥς οἱ τεύχεα καλὰ παρέσσεται, οἷά τις αὖτε
ἀνθρώπων πολέων θαυμάσσεται, ὅς κεν ἴδηται.


Take heart; do not let these things distress your thoughts.
If only I were able to hide him away
from grievous death, when dire fate overtakes him,
as surely as there will be beautiful armor for him, such as
anyone among many mortal men will marvel at, whoever sees it.

Through Thetis the Iliad evokes this constellation of traditional elements—the divine armor, the protection motif—in order to violate conventional expectations of their potency, and it does so for the sake of the primacy of the theme of mortality, as Thetis’s lament to the Nereids at 18.54–64 explicitly and deliberately reminds us:

ὤ μοι ἐγὼ δειλή, ὤ μοι δυσαριστοτόκεια,
ἥ τ᾽ ἐπεὶ ἂρ τέκον υἱὸν ἀμύμονά τε κρατερόν τε
ἔξοχον ἡρώων· ὁ δ᾽ ἀνέδραμεν ἔρνεϊ ἶσος·
τὸν μὲν ἐγὼ θρέψασα, φυτὸν ὣς γουνῷ ἀλωῆς,
νηυσὶν ἐπιπροέηκα κορωνίσιν Ἴλιον εἴσω
Τρωσὶ μαχησόμενον· τὸν δ᾽ οὐχ ὑποδέξομαι αὖτις
οἴκαδε νοστήσαντα δόμον Πηλήϊον εἴσω.
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.
Alas for my sorrow, alas for my wretched-best-childbearing,
since I bore a child faultless and powerful,
preeminent among heroes; and he grew like a young shoot,
I nourished him like a tree on an orchard’s slope,
I sent him forth with the curved ships to Ilion
to fight the Trojans. But never again shall I welcome him
returning home to the house of Peleus.
Still, while he lives and looks on the sunlight
he grieves, and I, going to him, am all unable to help him. {49|50}
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.

The semidivine hero is inextricably associated with nonhuman perfection and scope, but instead of conceiving of him as elevated by this into the realm of divinity, the Iliad’s vision is of an exacting mortal aspect that exerts its leveling effect on the immortal affiliations and expectations of the hero. These retain their authenticity, but no longer their overriding authority as guarantors of immortal stature.

There is thus an additional dimension to the poem’s evocation and adaptation of the aspects of Thetis’s mythology and attendant motifs discussed above. The “violation of expectations,” which is so effective on a formal level, provides the material of Achilles’ own experience, as the poem represents it. In the Iliad’s characterization, Achilles lives the violation of expectations, of the assumption of what it means to be the goddess’s son: to be beyond compromise. Achilles’ expectations, which this assumption underlies—of the inevitable success of Thetis’s intervention with Zeus, of the unambiguous privilege of being τετιμῆσθαι Διὸς αἴσῃ (9.608), of the possibility of taking Troy with Patroklos alone—come to be understood as illusions, and the course of the Iliad describes their transformation. The poem uses Thetis to underscore our recognition of this, as she replies to Achilles’ lament for Patroklos in Book 18 with an echo of their initial exchange in Book 1:

τέκνον τί κλαίεις; τί δέ σε φρένας ἵκετο πένθος;
ἐξαύδα, μὴ κεῦθε· τὰ μὲν δή τοι τετέλεσται
ἐκ Διός, ὡς ἄρα δὴ πρίν γ᾽ εὔχεο χεῖρας ἀνασχών


Child, why are you crying? What grief has come to your heart?
Speak it, do not conceal it. Indeed, these things have been accomplished for you
by Zeus, just as you prayed for earlier, lifting up your hands

To which Achilles responds:

μῆτερ ἐμή, τὰ μὲν ἄρ μοι Ὀλύμπιος ἐξετέλεσσεν·
ἀλλὰ τί μοι τῶν ἦδος, ἐπεὶ φίλος ὤλεθ᾽ ἑταῖρος


My mother, these things the Olympian brought to fulfillment;
but what good is there in them for me, since my dear companion is dead {50|51}

The dislocation of which Achilles speaks here—and which constitutes his portion of suffering and of moral challenge—corresponds to the larger experience of the poem itself, in which individuals are compelled to revise drastically their formulations of their values and actions. Not only are the heroic code and the rationale of the war called into question, but central characters are repeatedly displayed in those moments of crisis that come to be recognized as typically Iliadic: the crisis of identity undermined by adamant revision of the expected and the familiar, a revision that assaults old roles and dissolves the continuity of the future. Helen on the walls of Troy or Hektor before them, Andromache preparing the bath, Patroklos storming the city: these figures are stamped with the poem’s overriding theme. Achilles is preeminent among them, and his relation to this theme is both the most profound and the most fully documented of the poem. In its action the Iliad objectifies this preoccupation with inexorable events as a test of value, but the structure of the epic is studded with inner mirrors of this thematic concern. We read this larger question in every strategic violation of a “set” motif, as in the displaced outcome of the apparently traditional episode of the divine armoring. [
34] The character of the particular altered expectation gives us its meaning, as the Iliad’s themes enforce it; the device of dislocation itself gives that meaning strength. Finally, the accumulation of characteristic incidents—sharing this revisionary quality of form and of theme—gradually establishes a distinctive tone that is yet another manifestation of the pervasive and unifying power of the determining themes. But the Iliad draws on tradition in order to assert as well as to alter convention, initiating its audience into an epic world at once familiar and unprecedented.


[ back ] 1. See Proclus’s summary in Allen, Homeri opera, vol. 5, 106. For a discussion of the range of its contents, see Severyns, Cycle épique, 313–27; also G. L. Huxley, Greek Epic Poetry: From Eumelos to Panyassis (London, 1969), 144–49. On the structure and style of the Cycle, see Kullmann, Quellen der Ilias, 204ff., esp. 212–14.

[ back ] 2. See Allen, Homeri Opera, vol. 5, 106.

[ back ] 3. Nem. 6.50. See also Ol. 2.83 and Nem. 3.63. References are to the Oxford edition of Pindar by C. M. Bowra (1947; reprint, 1961).

[ back ] 4. To precisely what effect the Aethiopis used this traditional parallelism is of course a matter for speculation; in any case, as the iconographic evidence indicates (see note 6 below), the poem very likely transmitted this inherited confrontation without special innovation. W. Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), 121, observes, “When Achilles fights with Memnon, the two divine mothers, Thetis and Eos, rush to the scene—this was probably the subject of a pre-Iliad epic song.”

[ back ] 5. Pausanias (3.18.12) reports that their confrontation in single combat was depicted on the decorated throne in the sanctuary at Amyklae in Laconia. See the discussion in A. Schneider, Der troische Sagenkreis in der ältesten griechischen Kunst (Leipzig, 1886), 143ff; also Pestalozzi, Achilleis als Quelle der Ilias, 11.

[ back ] 6. In his important study The Iliad in Early Greek Art (Copenhagen, 1967), K. Friis Johansen, referring to “a well-known type of picture that was very popular in early Greek art, a conventional monomachy framed by two standing female figures,” points out that “there can be no doubt that this type was originally invented for the fight between Achilles and Memnon in the presence of their mothers Thetis and Eos” (200–201). According to Pausanias (5.19.2), the scene was also represented on the relief-decorated chest of Kypselos at Olympia: the two heroes duel, each with his mother at his side. M. E. Clark and W. D. E. Coulson discuss the iconography of the Aethiopis and its adaptations in painting, as well as the poem’s relation to the Iliad, in “Memnon and Sarpedon,” MH 35 (1978): 65–73. See also K. Schefold, Myth and Legend in Early Greek Art (London, 1966), 45, together with plate 10 (Athens National Museum 3961.911).

[ back ] 7. On the iconography of this subject, see RE 23.2 (1959), 1442, s.v. “Psychostasie” (E. Wust); G. E. Lung, “Memnon: Archäologische Studien zur Aethiopis” (Diss., Bonn, 1912), 14–19; and the discussion in Johansen, Iliad in Early Greek Art, 261. The weighing of the fates of Memnon and Achilles is not specifically mentioned by Proclus in his summary, although it provided the subject for Aeschylus’ lost play Psychostasia, as we learn from schol. A ad 8.70 and Eust. 8. 73.699.31, among others. For views in support of its existence in the Aethiopis, see Clark and Coulson, “Memnon and Sarpedon”; B. C. Dietrich, “The Judgment of Zeus,” RhM 107 (1964): 97–125, esp. 112–14; Severyns, Cycle épique, 318–19.

[ back ] 8. Schoeck, Ilias und Aethiopis, 38–48, contributes the interesting observation that the Iliad makes reference to a prophecy from Thetis precisely at those junctures where the question of Achilles’ return to battle arises, e.g., 11.790ff.; 16.36–50. He argues that the Iliad in this way adverts to a “Memnonis” prototype, in which Thetis’s prophecy was the specific cause of Achilles’ absence from battle; that is, Achilles absented himself from battle at his mother’s request.

[ back ] 9. See Allen, Homeri opera, vol. 5, 106.

[ back ] 10. The use of the White Island motif, like that of Elysion at Odyssey 4.563, is an acknowledgment of the religious and social phenomenon of the hero-cult, which is generally excluded from direct reference in epic. E. Rohde, Psyche: Seelencult und Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen, vol. 2, 4th ed. (Freiburg, 1898; Tübingen, 1907), 371, calls Leuke a “Sonderelysion” for Achilles. Rohde offers a discussion of the thematic equivalence of Leuke, Elysion, and the Isles of the Blessed on pp. 365–78. On Elysion as a cult concept, see W. Burkert, “Elysion,” Glotta 39 (1961): 208–13; and Th. Hadzisteliou Price, “Hero-Cult and Homer,” Historia 22 (1973): 133–34. On the traditional poetic diction of “snatching,” or abducting, used (at least by Proclus) to describe Thetis’s action here, see note 28 below.

[ back ] 11. E. Howald examines doubling as a feature of the evolution and transmission of myth in Der Mythos als Dichtung (Zurich, 1937); on doublets in the Cycle in particular, see Howald’s Der Dichter der Ilias (Erlenbach-Zurich, 1946), 125.

[ back ] 12. On the etymology of Attic Ἔως (= Ionic Ἠώς), see P. Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque (Paris, 1968), 394–95.

[ back ] 13. The evidence for the Indo-European origins of Aphrodite, Eos, and Us?as is presented in D. D. Boedeker, Aphrodite’s Entry into Greek Epic (Leiden, 1974), whose subject is Greek epic’s integration of Aphrodite’s inherited features, through diction and theme, into its development of her character and role. See also the observations in P. Friedrich, The Meaning of Aphrodite (Chicago, 1978), who holds that “the Proto-Indo-European goddess of dawn was one of several main sources for the Greek Aphrodite” (31).

[ back ] 14. Boedeker, Aphrodite’s Entry, 67, notes: “The tradition of the mortal lover of the Dawn-goddess is an old one; in Greek epic it is surely the most obvious aspect of Eos’ mythology. Comparative evidence from the Ṛg-Veda indicates that this feature of solar mythology dates back to common Indo-European, although in Greek myth it may have been amplified beyond its original importance.” See also C. P. Segal, “The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite: A Structuralist Approach,” CW 67 (1974): 205–12.

[ back ] 15. On the similarly ambivalent nature of the Indic Dawn Uṣas, see A. K. Coomaraswamy, “The Darker Side of Dawn,” Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 94.1 (1935): 1–18, esp. 4–6.

[ back ] 16. See Boedeker, Aphrodite’s Entry, 69.

[ back ] 17. This association is recalled by Apollonius (Argon. 4.841).

[ back ] 18. See the discussion in Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique, 407. Chantraine observes that the usage of ἠερίη reflects alternative etymologies, both of which are susceptible to this morphology: aer and awer. These would yield separate meanings, either “early in the morning” or “mistlike.” Both are appropriate to Thetis. She does much of her traveling at dawn, but she also rises from the sea ἠῦτ’ ὀμίχλη (“like a mist”) at 1.359. In its epic usage in association with Thetis, ἠερίη has the resonance of both meanings, not as ambiguous but as surcharged with meaning: its association with her conflates the two possibilities. Schoeck, Ilias und Aethiopis, 41, comments, “Schon im Altertum war es strittig, ob ἠερίη hier [1.497] ‘in der Morgenfrühe’ oder ‘wie Luft’ heisse. Es ist denkbar, daß Homer selber mit den zwei Bedeutungen spielt.” On the connection of these motifs with Okeanos, see Boedeker, Aphrodite’s Entry, 69ff.

[ back ] 19. On the relationship between the words ἥρως (“hero”) and ὥρα (“season, seasonality”), see W. Pötscher, “Hera und Heros,” RhM 104 (1961): 302–55; on the association of the hero and ὥρα as a fundamental theme in Greek myth, see Sinos, Meaning of Philos, 13–26.

[ back ] 20. Just as the Odyssey is concerned with many variations on the theme of return to home and self—including the “homecomings” of Penelope, Agamemnon, Menelaos, Nestor, and Odysseus’s companions—yet focuses on the nostos of Odysseus, so the Iliad presents numerous individual histories to illustrate the encompassing view expressed at 6.146–49:οἵη περ φύλλων γενεή, τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν. [ back ] φύλλα τὰ μέν τ’ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ’ ὕλη [ back ] τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ’ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη· [ back ] ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἡ μὲν φύει ἡ δ’ ἀπολήγει. [ back ] As is the generation of leaves, so is that of men. [ back ] The wind showers the leaves to the ground, [ back ] but the budding wood blossoms, and the season of Spring arrives. [ back ] So one generation of men flourishes and the other fades away.

[ back ] 21. Hektor and Lykaon are the two characters to whom Achilles expresses the necessity of recognizing and accepting death; as he himself has done it, so they must do it as well. The adjective is used otherwise only of two Trojan warriors, Simoeisios and Hippothoos, at the precise point at which each meets his death (4.478 = 17.302).

[ back ] 22. See page 84.

[ back ] 23. This meaning is confirmed by the Odyssey’s use of the adjective at 22.75, where it is used of the arrows aimed against the suitors by Odysseus.

[ back ] 24. At 17.446ff. Zeus pities the horses of Peleus because, although immortal, they are yoked to the lives of men who, being mortal, are especially given over to suffering (ὀϊζυρώτεροι). But it is Achilles who has been called ὠκύμορος καὶ ὀϊζυρὸς περὶ πάντων, at 1.417; so that what mortals are by nature, Achilles is most.

[ back ] 25. As expressed, for instance, in the famous speech of Sarpedon to Glaukos at 12.309–28. On this subject, see the penetrating discussion of Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition, 181–220; see as well the insights in S. L. Schein, The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer’s Iliad (Berkeley, 1984), 67–84.

[ back ] 26. Sinos, Meaning of Philos, has shown in detail that the kourotrophos or nurturing function of the goddess, revealed in the diction of vegetal growth, as, for example, at Iliad 18.437–38, is apparent in the relationship in cult between the kourotrophos goddess and the kouros. The protection motif is a correlate of this function in myth. See also R. Merkelbach, “ΚΟΡΟΣ,” ZPE 8 (1971): 80; and P. Vidal-Naquet, “Le chasseur noir et l’origine de l’éphébie athénienne,” Économies-sociétés-civilisations 23 (1968): 947–49.

[ back ] 27. On the related attributes of these goddesses, see Boedeker, Aphrodite’s Entry, 64–84. Apart from the Dawn goddess hypostases, Demeter in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter appears in the role of kourotrophos to Demophon; see the commentary ad 231–55 (esp. 237ff. with remarks on Achilles and Thetis) in N. J. Richardson, ed., The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (Oxford, 1974; reprint, 1979), 231ff.

[ back ] 28. For an analysis of the structure and diction of similar episodes of abduction and “preservation,” especially the ambivalence inherent in such episodes’ use of the particular terminology of snatching, kidnapping, and concealing, see Nagy, Greek Mythology and Poetics, 223–62, esp. 242–57. This same terminology (as transmitted by Proclus, at any rate) is used to designate Thetis’s action in the Aethiopis in snatching Achilles from the pyre (N.B. the use of anarpasasa), after which she “preserves” him on the White Island.

[ back ] 29. Od. 5.121–24.

[ back ] 30. It is perhaps significant, however, that while both Aphrodite’s beneficiaries do escape destruction and survive the Iliad, their individual heroism, from an epic standpoint, has been permanently compromised.

[ back ] 31. As we shall see below (p55), Thetis is similarly owed a favor by Dionysos, whom she is said to have rescued as she did Hephaistos. Strikingly, his antidōron equally does nothing other than attest to Achilles’ mortality: it is the golden urn in which Achilles’ bones will lie with those of Patroklos.

[ back ] 32. See Griffin, “Epic Cycle and Uniqueness of Homer,” 39–53, esp. 42–43 on immortality as a feature of the Cycle poems.

[ back ] 33. Much has been written on the importance of a hero’s armor as an emblem of his warrior identity; see Ph. J. Kakridis, “Achilleus Rüstung,” Hermes 89 (1961): 288–97, esp. 292–93; on the shield in particular see W. Leaf, ed., The Iliad, vol. 1, 2d ed. (London, 1902), 470. In The Arms of Achilles and Homeric Compositional Technique (Leiden, 1975), R. Shannon makes these connections: “Peleus’ spear links Achilles with his mortal ancestry; his new armor links him with his immortal parent and, through her, with Hephaistos, its forger, and his attribute, fire” (31).

[ back ] 34. See the analysis of J. I. Armstrong, “The Arming Motif in the Iliad,” AJP 79 (1958): 337–54.

[ back ] 35. M. Lang, “Reverberation and Mythology in the Iliad,” [ back ] , ed. C. A. Rubino and C. W. Shelmerdine (Austin, 1983), 153–54, suggests that “hurlings out of heaven and rescues by Thetis seem to have been popular motifs,” noting that Thetis “made a specialty of rescue (witness her deliverance of Zeus in 1.396ff., and her rescue of Dionysus in 6.130ff.).”