The ancient Greeks have long been recognised as the great myth-makers of the ancient world; even today in our contemporary society we still refer to the myths of this fascinating culture as moral examples. They have given their names for scientific terminology and their myths have inspired all types of artists – sculptures, painters, poets, writers and actors.
One of the most famous epic poems from the ancient world is Homer’s Iliad. In it, he tells of the great war between the Greeks and the Trojans. On the side of side of the Greeks is the famous heroes Achilles, whose legend has stayed with us since the Iliad was first composed. His mother, like with most heroes, was a goddess. Her name was Thetis.
Thetis, according to Homer and Hesiod, was the daughter of Nereus (‘the old man of the sea’) and Doris, an Oceanid, which made Thetis a goddess of the sea. She was the leader of the 50 Nereids and, like many of the other sea gods, she possessed the power to change shape and the gift of prophecy.
According to mythology, she was originally pursued by both Zeus and Poseidon who wanted to marry her. However, a prophecy was uttered that any son born to Thetis would be far greater than that of his father and both gods halted in their chase of her. It was decided that Thetis would be given to the mortal king Peleus as his wife.
After their marriage, it is said that she gave birth to seven children, the youngest being Achilles. However, she was dissatisfied with their mortality and so she took her youngest son down to the Underworld. Here she held him by his ankle and dipped his body into the river Styx in order to make him immortal. However, since his ankle was not covered by the waters, it was the only place that he could be killed. After this, Thetis appears to have left Peleus and returned to the sea, although she continued to help Achilles as long as she could during his short but glorious life.
The Iliad’s presentation of Thetis is of a subsidiary deity who is characterized by helplessness and by impotent grief and her presentation of herself is as the epitome of sorrow and vulnerability in the face of her son’s mortality. In the Iliad, 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, so it could be suggested that Thetis was a much older goddess.
Slatkin, Laura M. (1986) The Wrath of Thetis, Transactions of the American Philological Association, The John Hopkins University Press.