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Thetis and Achilles In The Iliad

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The epic poem “Iliad” which was composed by the Greek writer, Homer, depicts the intimate mother-son relationship between Thetis and Achilles.  In Greek mythology, Thetis was a beautiful, silver-footed sea nymph and was one of the fifty Nereids, who were the daughters of Nereus – the “ancient one of the seas” – and Doris.  Thetis’ mother, Doris, was a granddaughter of Tethys, a Titan, and Ocean, who, in turn, was the Lord of the river Ocean – the great river encircling the earth. (Edith Hamilton; 1942, Mythology)

Achilles was the son of Thetis and Peleus, king of the Myrmidons.  It has been written that Zeus received a prophecy that Thetis’ son would become greater than his father.  Therefore, in order to ensure a mortal father for her eventual offspring, Zeus and Poseidon made arrangements for Thetis’ marriage to a man, Peleus, son of Aeacus.  (Wikipedia)  It took some pursuing for Peleus to finally win Thetis as his bride and they were finally wedded.  Shortly after, they had their baby, Achilles.  For all the war-filled events covered by Iliad, the classic story had room to include Achilles’ mother, Thetis, her protective streak toward her son, her role in his life and in a way, his role in hers.

The Iliad begins after the Greeks have reached Troy, with Achilles as the chief warrior of the Greek army.  Achilles was leading the Myrmidons, and his troop formed part of the Greek fleet.  Achilles was a great fighter and the Greeks knew their chances for winning against the Trojans were great if they had Achilles with them during the daily battles.  But Achilles could have been not at all part of the Greek army that sailed to Troy to destroy the Trojans and win the war.  During the time when Agamemnon, as the Greek chieftain, summoned the kings of the different lands and territories in Greece, Odyssey and Achilles were first missing.

Odyssey did not want to be part of the war against Troy and would have wanted to just stay in his kingdom and be with his queen and young son.  On the other hand, Achilles was kept back by his mother.  In the book “Mythology”, author Hamilton related that Thetis knew that if Achilles went to Troy he was fated to die there.  She sent him to the court of Lycomedes, the king who had treacherously killed Theseus, and made him wear women’s clothes and hide among the maidens.  (Edith Hamilton; 1942, Mythology)  She arranged all this to prevent her son from joining the Greeks in that war against the Trojans.

The sea nymph’s move to ask Lycomedes to take her son in as one of the ladies in his court served to show the extent she was willing to go to just to keep her son from joining the Trojan War.  Letting her son hide and pretend to be a lady in another king’s court was not something that a proud sea nymph with powers of her own would be happy to do, and yet Thetis resorted to doing it to protect Achilles from the dangers of war – especially of that Trojan War which she knew was going to cause the death of her son.

Meanwhile, the same deeds of hiding and pretending to be a lady in another king’s court were not easy things for Achilles to do.  Achilles was groomed to be a great fighter, so battles and wars to be won were things that he wanted to be involved in.  It was not easy to hear of and to watch his fellow kings lead their respective troops to march for war while he had to go somewhere to act as a woman.

Achilles was a proud man.  It was seen in the way he refused to fight with the Greeks for days just because the chieftain Agamemnon took his lady companion from him and claimed her as his own.  It was seen in the merciless way he refused to grant Hector’s last request that his body be returned to the Trojan king, his father, should he die in their fight.  In Iliad lines 325 to 334, his exact answer to Hector’s plea went as follows:  “Hector, don’t talk to me of our agreements.  That’s idiotic, like a faithful promise between men and lions.  Wolves and lambs don’t share a common heart – they always sense a mutual hatred for each other.  In just that way, it’s not possible for us, for you and me, to be friends, or, indeed, for there to be sworn oaths between us, till one or other of us falls, glutting Ares, warrior with the bull’s hide shield, on blood.”

Achilles had plenty of reasons to be a proud man.  He was raised as the son of a sea nymph and a king, he was waited on by people all his life, and he was trained to be a king himself.  He was a formidable enemy in the battlefield, and this was yet another reason for him to be a proud man.  And yet, for all his being a proud king, Achilles was an obedient son who tried to follow all that his mother wanted him to do – though he, at times, tried in vain.

He initially obeyed his mother when she did not want him to be part of the Greek army and told him to go to another king’s court and spend some days there pretending to be a woman.  But Achilles ended up disobeying his mother when Odysseus was able to see through his pretense and found him in the king’s court.  With an imploring and encouraging talk about Achilles joining them and helping his fellow Greeks win the war against the Trojans, Odysseus convinced Achilles to drop the masquerade, to stop hiding and to instead fill his place in the Greek army as their rightful war leader.

Thetis was undoubtedly a displeased and heart-broken mother when she learned that Achilles still ended up joining the Greek army.  But she had to get over it and remain a loving and protective mother to her son.  Sure enough, other parts of Iliad were about exchanges between mother and son.  With Achilles at war, Thetis was a supportive mother who always sought to be in her son’s side.  She was a sea nymph and a goddess, but even she could not stop what fates had in store for her son.  She tried to stop Achilles from going to war knowing that he was not going to come home to her safe if he did.  But when he still ended up being right there in the place of war, her love for her son she showed in ways she could.

There was that time during the Trojan war when Achilles drew back and decided to stop fighting beside a chieftain, Agamemnon.  Because of a petty fight over a girl, Achilles refused to lead his people in the daily battles that took place just outside Troy’s mighty walls.  Achilles was a proud man begrudged of a toy he happened to fancy for a time.  The lines in Iliad give a detailed account of this scene.  Lines 386 to 403 run as follows:  “Achilles then, in tears, withdrew from his companions, sat by the shore, staring at the wide gray seas.  Stretching out his hands, he cried aloud, praying repeatedly to Thetis, his beloved mother.

‘Mother, since you gave me life – if only for a while – Olympian Zeus, high thunderer, should give me due honour.   But he doesn’t grant me even slight respect.  For wide-ruling Agamemnon, Atreus’ son, has shamed me, has taken away my prize, appropriated it for his own use’  As he said this, he wept.  His noble mother heard him from deep within the sea, where she sat by her old father.  Quickly she rose up, moving above gray waters, like an ocean list, and settled down before him, as he wept.  She stroked him, then said: ‘My child, why these tears?  What sorrows weigh down your heart?  Tell me, so we’ll both know.  Don’t hide from me what’s on your mind.’”

When this happened, Thetis did not side with the Greeks.  As a doting mother, her focus was just her son and how he was feeling – she did not care at all for the Greek army as a whole and for how the war will turn out for the Greeks.  All she cared for was that her son’s pride was hurt and that she would do something about it.  True enough, Thetis approached no less than Zeus, the ruler of the gods himself, and implored him to let the Trojans win the war.  The fact that Zeus consented and agreed to intervene would have seen to it that such turnout was going to take place.  But he was successfully – albeit just for a while – distracted by his wife Hera, who was siding with the Greeks.

Indeed, Thetis was a loving mother who used all her resources – powers and influence as a goddess – for the sake of her son, Achilles.  There was a close bond between mother and son, and Iliad has accounts of scenes and incidents that support this fact.  While talking to her mother, Achilles recalled her role in defending the reign of Zeus against a rebellion by three Olympians.

In Iliad lines 440 to 452,  Achilles said to Thetis, “For often I have heard you boast in father’s house that you alone of all the deathless gods saved Zeus of the dark clouds from disgraceful ruin, when other Olympians came to tie him up, Hera, Pallas Athena, and Poseidon.  But you, goddess, came and set him free, by quickly calling up to high Olympus that hundred-handed monster god called Briareos, and men all name Aigaion, a creature whose strength was greater than his father’s.  He sat down beside the son of Cronos, exulting in his glory.  The sacred gods, afraid, stopped tying up Zeus.”

That small part of the exchange showed that Thetis, as a goddess, held a special place in Olympus, the abode of the gods.  She wielded power and influence, and she knew it.  Achilles knew it, too.  Power and awareness of having it form a potent combination.  Here was a mother and a son who knew they could do anything and get what they wanted – anything except if it is against the fates.

In Iliad, Achilles had a beloved friend, Patroclus, who fought with him as part of the Greek army.  Patroclus, while fighting as Achilles by wearing his armor, was killed by Hector. Author Hamilton, in her book “Mythology”, wrote of these incidents in detail.  Patroclus was fallen and Hector claimed his armor as his prize. When Achilles learned of the death of his friend,  grief took hold of him and he set forth to avenge Patroclus’ violent death at the hands of the Trojan prince.  He blamed himself for letting his hatred for Agamemnon keep him from fighting with the Greeks.  At that time, down in the sea caves, his mother, Thetis,  knew his sorrow and came up to try to comfort him.  Such was the connection in mind and heart between Thetis and Achilles.

The book further relates that Achilles next vowed to make Hector pay for what he did.  Then Thetis, weeping, bade him to remember that he himself was fated to die straightway after Hector.  But Achilles would not be stopped.  Thetis did not attempt to hold him back.  “Only wait until morning,” she said, “and you will not go unarmed to battle.  I will bring you arms fashioned by the divine armorer, the god Hephaestus himself.”  Marvelous arms they were when Thetis brought them, worthy of their maker, such as no man on earth had ever borne.  (Edith Hamilton; 1942, Mythology)

Again, Thetis was her usual self:  a doting mother who wanted only the best for her son.  She was a goddess who could not have the one thing she wanted most – the happiness and well-being of her son.  She knew Achilles was fated to die, and even gods cannot change destiny.  Thus, in helpless submission, she was there for her son all throughout the Trojan war and until his death.  She found happiness in being Achilles’ mother, and she had to be there for his for as long as he needed him.

Achilles was mortal.  He was a great hero, but he was just a man.  As such, he was bound to die when his time came.  Meanwhile, Thetis was a sea nymph and a goddess.  As such, she is immortal and will live through the ages, through many lifetimes of man.  And yet, as mother and son, one being immortal and the other, mortal, they had a binding relationship that poems and books and songs were written for.  Theirs is a story that up to our times is appreciated and loved by many.

WORKS CITED:          

Hamilton, E.; Mythology.  New York:  Warner Books, Inc, 1942.

Wikipedia, the web-based, free encyclopedia. Florida:  Wikimedia Foundation, 2003.

The Iliad by Homer, as translated by Ian Johnston.  Richer Resources Publication, 2006.

Classics Technology Center of AbleOne  Education Network.  AbleMedia, 1998.

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