n Greek mythology, silver-footed Thetis (ancient Greek Θέτις) is a sea nymph, one of the fifty Nereids, daughters of “the ancient one of the seas,” Thetis was the daughter of Nereus, and Doris (Hesiod, Theogony),and a granddaughter of Tethys.



[edit] Thetis as goddess

While most extant material about Thetis concerns her role as mother of Achilles, and while she is largely a creature of poetic fancy rather than cult worship in the historical period, with one exception (see Thetis in Laconia below), a few fragmentary hints and references suggest an older layer of the tradition, in which the sea-goddess Thetis played a far more central role in the religious practices and imagination of certain Greeks.

The pre-modern etymology of her name, from tithemi (τίθημι), “to set up, establish”, suggests the perception among Classical Greeks of an early political role. Walter Burkert[1] considers her name a transformed doublet of Tethys.

In Iliad I, Achilles recalls to his mother her role in defending, and thus legitimizing, the reign of Zeus against an incipient rebellion by three Olympians, each of whom has pre-Olympian roots:

“You alone of all the gods saved Zeus the Darkener of the Skies from an inglorious fate, when some of the other Olympians—Hera, Poseidon, and Pallas Athene—had plotted to throw him into chains. . You, goddess, went and saved him from that indignity. You quickly summoned to high Olympus the monster of the hundred arms whom the gods call Briareus, but mankind Aegaeon[2], a giant more powerful even than his father. He squatted by the Son of Cronos with such a show of force that the blessed gods slunk off in terror, leaving Zeus free” (E.V. Rieu translation).

Quintus of Smyrna, recalling this passage, does write that Thetis once released Zeus from chains;[3] but there is no other reference to this rebellion among the Olympians, and some readers, like M.M. Willcock,[4] have understood the episode as an ad hoc invention of Homer’s to support Achilles’ request that his mother intervene with Zeus. Laura Slatkin explores the apparent contradiction, in that the immediate presentation of Thetis in the Iliad is as a helpless minor goddess overcome by grief and lamenting to her Nereid sisters, and links the goddess’s present and past through her grief.[5] She draws comparisons with Thetis’ role in another work of the epic Cycle concerning Troy, the lost Aethiopis,[6] which presents a strikingly similar relationship— that of the divine Dawn, Eos, with her slain son Memnon; she supplements the parallels with images from the repertory of archaic vase-painters, where Eros and Thetis flank the symmetrical opposed heroes.[7]

Thetis does not need to appeal to Zeus for immortality for her son, but snatches him away to the White Island Leuke in the Black Sea, an alternate Elysium[8] where he has transcended death, and where an Achilles cult lingered into historic times.

[edit] Thetis and the other gods

Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheke asserts that Thetis was once courted by both Zeus and Poseidon — she was given to the mortal Peleus only because of the prophecy by Themis[9] or Prometheus or Calchas that her son would become a man greater than his father. Thus she is revealed as a figure of cosmic capacity, capable of unsettling the divine order (Slatkin 1986:12).

When Hephaestus was thrown from Olympus, whether cast out by Hera for his lameness or evicted by Zeus for taking Hera’s side, the Nereids Eurynome and Thetis caught him and cared for him on the volcanic isle of Lemnos, while he labored for them as a smith, “working there in the hollow of the cave, and the stream of Okeanos around us went on forever with its foam and its murmur” (Iliad 18.369).

Thetis is not successful in her role protecting and nurturing a hero (the theme of kourotrophos), but her role in succouring the gods is emphatically repeated by Homer, in three Iliad episodes: as well as her rescue of Zeus (1.396ff) and Hephaestus (18.369), Diomedes recalls that when Dionysus was expelled by Lycurgus with the Olympians’ aid, he took refuge in the Erythraean Sea with Thetis in a bed of seaweed (6.123ff). These accounts associate Thetis with “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, here the poem seems to point to an alternative structure of cosmic relations.”[10]

Thetis and attendants bring the armor to Achilles: an Attic black-figure hydria, ca. 575–550 BCE

Thetis and attendants bring the armor to Achilles: an Attic black-figure hydria, ca. 575–550 BCE

[edit] The marriage of Peleus and the Trojan War

Main article: Judgement of Paris

An essential subordinate motif in the image of Thetis, one that links her with the dawn Titan Eos and with Aphrodite, is her liaison with a mortal lover: Thetis is the mother of Achilles by Peleus, king of the Myrmidons. Zeus had received a prophecy that Thetis’s son would become greater than his father, the familiar mytheme of the Succession Prophecy.[11] Therefore, in order to ensure a mortal father for her eventual offspring, Zeus and his brother Poseidon made arrangements for her marriage to a man, Peleus, son of Aeacus, but she refused him. Chiron, the wise centaur, who would later be tutor to Peleus’ son Achilles, advised Peleus to find the sea nymph when she was asleep and bind her tightly to keep her from escaping by changing form. She did shift shapes, becoming flame and then a raging lion (compare the sea-god Proteus). But Peleus held fast. She then consented to marry him.

Thetis and Zeus, Ingres:

Thetis and Zeus, Ingres: “She sank to the ground beside him, put her left arm round his knees, raised her right hand to touch his chin, and so made her petition to the Royal Son of Cronos” (Iliad, I

The wedding of Thetis and Peleus was celebrated on Mount Pelion and attended by all the deities: there the gods celebrated the marriage with feasting. Apollo played the lyre, and the Muses sang, Pindar claimed. At the wedding Chiron gave Peleus an ashen spear, and Poseidon gave him the immortal horses, Balius and Xanthus. However, Eris, the goddess of discord, had not been invited. In spite, she threw a golden apple into the midst of the goddesses that was to be awarded only “to the fairest.” (The award was effected by the Judgement of Paris and eventually occasioned the Trojan War).

Thetis worked her magic on the baby Achilles by night, burning away his mortality in the hall fire and anointing the child with ambrosia during the day, Apollonius tells. When Peleus caught her searing the baby, he let out a cry.

“Thetis heard him, and catching up the child threw him screaming to the ground, and she like a breath of wind passed swiftly from the hall as a dream and leapt into the sea, exceeding angry, and thereafter returned never again.” (A similar myth of immortalizing a child in fire is connected to Demeter; compare the myth of Meleager.)

Because she had been interrupted by Peleus, Thetis had made her son physically invulnerable, save his heel, which she was about to burn away when her husband stopped her.

In a variant of the myth, Thetis tried to make Achilles invulnerable by dipping him in the waters of the Styx (the river of Hades). However, the heel by which she held him was not protected by the Styx’s waters. In the story of Achilles in the Trojan War in the Iliad, Homer does not mention this weakness of Achilles’ heel.

Peleus gave the boy to Chiron to raise.

Prophecy said that the son of Thetis would have either a long but dull life or a glorious but brief life. When the Trojan War broke out, Thetis was anxious and concealed Achilles at the court of Lycomedes, disguised as a girl. When Odysseus found that one of the girls at court was not a girl, but actually Achilles, he dressed as a merchant, and set up a table of vanity items and jewellery and called to the group. Only Achilles picked up the golden sword that lay to one side, and Odysseus quickly revealed him to be the warrior. Seeing that she could no longer prevent her son from realizing his destiny, Thetis then had Hephaestus make a shield and armor.

When Achilles was killed by Paris [1], Thetis came from the sea with the Nereids to mourn him, and she collected his ashes in a golden urn and raised a monument to his memory and instituted commemorative festivals.

[edit] Thetis in Laconia

The one noted exception to the general observation that Thetis was not venerated by cult was in conservative Laconia, where Pausanias was informed that there had been priestesses of Thetis in legendary times, when cult that was centered on an archaic wooden cult image (a xoanon) preceded the building of the oldest temple; by the intervention of a highly-placed woman, her cult had been refounded with a temple; in the second century CE she was still being worshipped with utmost reverence.[12]

In one fragmentary hymn[13] by the seventh century Spartan poet Alcman, Thetis appears as a demiurge, beginning her creation with poros (πόρος) “path, track” and tekmor (τέκμωρ) “marker, end-post”. Third was skotos (σκότος) “darkness”, and then the sun and moon. A close connection has been argued between Thetis and Metis, another shape-shifting sea-power beloved by Zeus with a son greater than his father.[14] This cosmogony is interesting not only because it takes up Near Eastern astronomical and theological speculation, but also because its first principles are the building-blocks of a race-track, reflecting the athletic preoccupations of Spartan society and education.

Herodotus[15] noted that the Persians sacrificed to “Thetis” at Cape Sepias. By the process of interpretatio graeca, Herodotus identifies as the familiar Hellenic “Thetis” a sea-goddess who was being propitiated by the Persians.


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