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Mosaic of Thetis dipping baby Achilles in the Styx – Haleplibache Excavation, Amazon Villa, Sanliurfa Mosaic Museum (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

Mother and Child Reunion Of Thetis And Achilles

The Iliad can provide new insights on the role of motherhood among the ancient Greek gods, and by extension, amongst ancient mortal Greek women themselves. Very much like the lyrics of the famous Paul Simon song, Mother and Child Reunion (1972), Achilles calling out for his mother Thetis was only “a motion away” in The Iliad.  Yet, the backdrop to that “strange and mournful day,” begins with the goddess Thetis’ marriage to her mortal husband Peleus, and her devotion to her demi-god son Achilles.

Nereid half reclining on the back of a seahorse, fresco from Pompeii (CC0)

Nereid half reclining on the back of a seahorse, fresco from Pompeii (CC0)

Thetis the Runaway Bride

In Greek mythology, Thetis has multi persona. She is often portrayed as a sea nymph or water goddess, as well as one of the Nereids or a daughter of the sea god Nereus. Although she played a role as a sea goddess in the religious beliefs of Ancient Greece, it was her wedding to the human Greek hero Peleus, and the birth of their son Achilles that she is mostly associated with. In The Iliad, Homer alludes to her role as an enabler of the Olympian Zeus when three other Olympians, Athena, Hera, and Poseidon plotted to overthrow him. Later in The Iliad Achilles refers to Thetis saving Zeus by calling up the monster of a hundred arms, Briareus: “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, 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.” (Homer, Iliad 1.396–400)

Both Zeus and Poseidon expressed their love and interest in marrying Thetis. However, both were aware of the prophecy stating that Thetis’ future son would be more powerful than his father, something both gods preferred to avoid. Zeus himself was a son who had led a successful rebellion against his father. So, they arranged for Thetis to marry a mortal, Peleus, already a great Greek tragic hero.

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